36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction Paperback – Feb 1 2011
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“Dazzling, and sparked by frequent flashes of nonchalant brilliance.”—The New York Times
“Brainy, compassionate, divinely witty.”—The Washington Post
“[A] literary miracle.”—Maureen Corrigan, “Fresh Air,” NPR
“Rebecca Goldstein is a rare find among contemporary novelists: she has intellectual muscle as well as a tender emotional reach.” —Ian McEwan
“Deeply moving and a joy to read.” —Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
“Captivating, original, and at times riotously funny.” —Commentary
“Compelling, heady . . . and laced with a deliciously dark wit.” —Boston Globe
“Thoughtful, witty, and—I cannot stress enough—really entertaining.” —Christian Science Monitor
"Goldstein can make Spinoza sing and Gödel comprehensible, and in her cerebral fiction she dances across disciplines with delight….36 Arguments radiates all the humor and erudition we've come to expect from Goldstein, and despite the novel's attention to the oldest questions, it has arrived at exactly the right moment. ... One of the funniest [academic satires] ever written. ...Goldstein doesn't want to shake your faith or confirm it, but she'll make you a believer in the power of fiction."—The Washington Post
"When Rebecca Goldstein, the American philosopher-novelist who looks like Rapunzel but thinks like Wittgenstein, was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Award (commonly known as the “genius award”) in 1996, she was praised for her ability to “dramatise the concerns of philosophy without sacrificing the demands of imaginative storytelling”. That is putting her achievements lightly. Her most recent book, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, is a vast….which is nonetheless possessed of a steely intellectual coherence that is frighteningly impressive to behold."—The Times (London)
“36 Arguments for the Existence of God affirms Ms. Goldstein’s rare ability to explore the quotidian and the cosmological with equal ease. ...The novel’s bracing intellectual energy never flags. ... It affirms Ms. Goldstein’s position as a satirist and a seeker of real moral questions at a time when silly ones prevail."— The New York Times
“Hilariously irreverent. . . . The draw of transcendental longings, Seltzer discovers, is not to be found in logical proofs but in the accumulated wonder of all that can be encountered in this life: love, family, the sheer privilege of being alive.” —Financial Times (London)
“400 pages of smarts….[36 Arguments] lays out a great range of witticisms, echoes and allusions.” —London Review of Books
"Like an answer to a fevered prayer. ... Part academic farce, part metaphysical romance, all novel of ideas, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God may not settle the question of whether God exists but it does affirm the phenomenon of literary miracles."—Maureen Corrigan, “Fresh Air,” NPR
“A looping tale [with] affectionate irony about academic life, culture wars, and relationships in turn-of-the-millennium America….[With] the same engaging cocktail of philosophy, roman a clef fun, and scholarly soap opera that marked her earlier books….She shows off all her considerable smarts. . . . Playful, humane.” —The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
"The best Jewish woman writing in America today....Her latest, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God is flat out the most gratifying novel—woman's, Jewish, American, whatever—this reviewer has read in many a long reading season. 36 triumphs in a whole bunch of literary subgenres….[It is] a novel whose manifold delights can only be hinted at in a review. 36 Arguments for the Existence of God is brimming with richly realized characters, brimming with ideas, brimming with life."—The Jerusalem Report
“[Goldstein] has taken on some of the deepest, philosophical questions of human existence and shaped them into a page-turner at once funny and heartbreaking and challenging and—yes—proves that there’s no such thing as ‘too smart’ to write a terrifically engaging novel.” —Moment Magazine
"When a writer is as clever as Goldstein, it does not seem fair that she should also write with charm, humour, and emotional acuity. But that is the package on offer in this ingenious and heartwarming novel. ... A delightful novel, which could be one of the literary hits of the year."—The Mail on Sunday (London)
“A remarkable novel—as entertaining as it is illuminating—savagely funny in its characterizations, brilliant in its contemplation of the self and the sublime. This is a timely and timeless book, and definitive proof of Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s protean intellect and engaging talent.”—Jess Walter, author of The Zero
"An enjoyable feast of ideas that also serves as a very funny satire on the politics of campus life."—Times Literary Supplement (London)
"Thoughtful, witty, and—I cannot stress enough—really entertaining, 36 Arguments is part campus comedy, part romantic farce, part philosophical treatise. It is also, without question, the smartest kid in class…. Not since The Tao of Pooh has philosophy been so much fun."—Christian Science Monitor
"Rebecca Newberger Goldstein does it all. She has written a hilarious novel about people’s existential agonies, a page-turner about the intellectual mysteries that obsess them. The characters in 36 Arguments For the Existence of God explore the great moral issues of our day in a novel that is deeply moving and a joy to read."—Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything is Illuminated
"A tour de force showcasing Goldstein’s intent intellect and vast knowledge."—The Daily Beast
"Goldstein’s glorious novel celebrates the perils, pitfalls and profound joys of a life of the mind and spirit."—Jewish Chronicle (London)
“Goldstein is a brilliant exponent of her subject, and she has crafted a story that is caustically irreverent, yet provocative and informative without being completely didactic. And….by the end, 36 Arguments is also deeply touching.”—Boston Globe
"Satire with a soul."—Chronicle of Higher Education
“Triumphant….With wicked comic genius, the book masterfully manipulates philosophers and their principles, kabbalistic literature and its acolytes, and a whole series of paradoxical ideas that live, breathe, and take on lives of their own.” —The Jewish Week
“[36 Arguments] prove[s] that you can be both smart and funny, that Albert Einstein and Albert Brooks have a lot more in common than their first names. . . . The payoff is sublime.” —Chicago Tribune
“In elegant and often hysterical prose. . . . [Goldstein] leaves us with a way to think about what having a soul might actually mean.” —The American Prospect
“A charming story, deftly told, crackling with intelligence.” —Huffington Post
“Highly entertaining. . . . Clever and witty. . . . [With] delightful characters. . . . 36 Arguments for the Existence of God will give you lots to laugh about as well as lots to think about.” —Psychology Today
"Impressively succeeds in combining esoteric philosophical argument and laugh-out-loud humour. ... The cleverest and most entertaining novel I have read for a long time."—Robert Colbeck, Yorkshire Evening Post
"Goldstein is, as always, a lovely and thoughtful writer. Her respect and understanding for her characters might well earn her the epithet 'philosophical novelist with a soul’."— New Scientist
"[A] greatly entertaining novel."—Daily Mail (London)
"A high-energy caper in which religion, relativism, passion, and primitivism meet in the brainy collisions and collusions of a best-selling scholar, ex-lovers, rabbis, cosmologists, and one tiny math prodigy."—Elle, "Trust Us: This Month's Quick Picks,"
“A hilarious novel that will add fuel to the debate that Richard Dawkins has made a million-pound industry. Rebecca Goldstein has penned a great story that will steal some of Dawkins’ action….An intellectual delight.” –The Bookseller (UK)
“This novel brims with ideas about the nature of religion and how humans interact with it….It’s refreshing to read a novel so bursting with intellectual rigor.” –The Big Issue
“A bonbon for both intellect and funny bone, 36 Arguments is a delicious entertainment.” —Montreal Gazette
“Fascinating. . . . Funny. . . . Effervescent and knowing. . . . A lovely dream.” —Jane Smiley, Los Angeles Times
About the Author
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein received her doctorate in philosophy from Princeton University. Her award-winning books include the novels The Mind-Body Problem, Properties of Light, and Mazel, and nonfiction studies of Kurt Gödel and Baruch Spinoza. She has received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and Guggenheim and Radcliffe fellowships, and she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2005. She lives in Massachusetts.See all Product Description
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Top Customer Reviews
The basic story is one of a man who has published a best-seller promoting atheism. The novel itself clearly takes that side of the arguments for God and at times becomes more of a philosophical argument than just a novel. It's a good argument, but be prepared that the book is not (in spite of the subtitle) entirely a work of fiction. The literary device of presenting a debate between the protagonist (Cass Seltzer) and another professor who argues that God does exist is one of the ways in which Rebecca Goldstein smuggles in her non-fiction.
In addition to the debate about God, one of the sub-plots concerns Seltzer's good and bad luck and judgment in his romantic life. This also provides humour and perhaps some good advice for us men when it comes to making choices of partners, at least if we're heterosexual. I rather guess it will provide another good laugh for female readers at the expense of idiotic males.
Since there is a lot of insider humour, you may not like the book unless you have some acquaintance with academic life.
If you're interested in philosophy, buy the hardcover now; it's high priority reading. If not, maybe you should wait for the paperback; it will still be enjoyable as it makes fun of philosophers, not just for them, and the same can be said of academics in general.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
1. Goldstein can be very funny. There is splendid scene when the great professor Jonas Elijah Klapper (think Harold Bloom) makes a state visit to the Valdener Rebbe, head of a Hasidic sect headquartered in a building described as "A Costco that had found God." In the ensuing dialogue, the professor tries hard to impress with obscure references to early Jewish mystics, while the Rebbe merely wants to discuss how best to secure federal matching funds. Nevertheless Klapper treats this as deep rabbinical wisdom expressed in parables, silencing a doubter with the words: "You are the sort who, should she witness the Messiah walking on water, would be impressed that his socks had not shrunk."
2. The chief character, Cass Selzer, is the least pretentious of the lot and really very likeable. A psychologist, he has recently published VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS ILLUSION, vaulting him to the New York Times bestseller list and a Time Magazine feature as "The atheist with a soul." The 36 Arguments of the book's title form the appendix to Selzer's book, reprinted as a 50-page appendix to the novel. Each argument is laid out in clear syllogistic form only to be dismissed by equally clear analysis of its flaws. But for the most part, Cass leaves the logical legerdemain to the appendix. As a character in the story, he speaks normal conversational English, and is really quite sympathetic as he moves from hero-worship to rejection of the monstrous Klapper, and tries to find a life partner among a sequence of dauntingly brilliant women.
3. The book does indeed have a soul. The visit to the Valdener Rebbe (a distant relative of Cass) is more than a comic tour-de-force. Cass also meets the Rebbe's son, Azarya, clearly a mathematical genius and as lovable for his personality as amazing in his desire for knowledge. At the age of only six, he explains discoveries in number theory that he has made by himself, describing the various classes of primes as orders of angels as real to him as Cherubim and Seraphim. Uniquely, he unites religion and science, not as opposites, but in a single world view. There is a great set-piece (pages 214-222) which is an ecstatic description of a "shabbes tish" or ceremonial meal, which draws me further into the spirit of Hasidic life than anything I have read before, including Chaim Potok's THE CHOSEN. Towards the end of the book, Cass argues against the existence of God in a public debate at Harvard. But the last chapter is not left to the arguments of philosophers but to another celebration at the Valdener shul, a glowing scene that somehow makes the entire debate almost irrelevant.
Cass Seltzer's moving discussion of moral progress and the View from Nowhere almost persuades me. But in this pleasure-dome of the Golden Rule, I still hear "ancestral voices prophesying war." Beethoven wrote to someone: "I don't want to know anything about your system of ethics. Strength is the morality of the man who stands out from the rest, and it is mine." Could those terrifying words overwhelm Cass? Should he have debated Beethoven rather than the trendy neoconservative Findley?
Also, I am "almost persuaded" about the potential depth and vitality of a "third culture." As the humanities become increasingly absorbed into the necessary world of science, can they retain their traditional richness and vitality? This novel and other work of Goldstein encourage this hope.
As an atheist--a New Atheist, even--I went in to this work of fiction with the highest of hopes. After battering my head against pages of vapid, indulgent narrative, practically unbroken by anything like dialog, plot, or characterization, I gave up. How, you ask, can I judge a book that I did not finish? That is my judgment--it is unreadable (again, except for the excellent appendix).
I feel like a traitor writing this, but if you to want to read a book set in similar environs, centering on a similar topic, try John Updike's "Roger's Version." With its vivid characters, lush descriptions and lively dialog, it is a far more interesting and entertaining read (even though I profoundly disagree with Updike's theistic leanings).
And if you want to read great atheist writers, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan are among our finest contemporary novelists, and both are outspoken atheists. But their fiction does not often address atheist themes directly (nor should it--propaganda makes shoddy art).
What I await is a work of popular fiction with atheist themes that sparks and moves. So far the closest thing I know of to a contemporary example is Philip Pullman's fantasy trilogy "His Dark Materials." Surely now that the best-seller lists have been conquered by atheist nonfiction writers, atheistic fiction page-turners cannot be far behind?
I give Ms. Newberger Goldstein a great deal of credit for the work she put into this novel, for the courage it took to write it, and for her obvious intelligence and ability. But what ultimately results, for an average reader like me, are sentences so pregnant with apparent meaning that each must be tediously midwived. Without attractive characters to invite me in, a compelling plot to push me ahead, or intriguing dialog to pull me along, I just can't be bothered.
Propelled to both fame and fortune by the publication of his book The Varieties of Religious Illusion, the life story of protagonist Cass Seltzer powers this scintillating, if erratic, exploration of the human experience of transcendence.
The book makes some intellectual demands on its reader. If 36 Arguments was a college course instead of a book (and in many ways it more than equals a college course), the catalogue would read: "Student must either be, or aspire to be, a polymath. Student must either own an Oxford Dictionary, or have a vocabulary extensive enough such that the student thinks the use of the word `erudite' is mundane. Student must have the intellectual flexibility to embrace concepts such as `an atheist with a soul'."
The major theme: Goldstein never doubts that humans are widely capable of falling/rising into a state of ecstatic transcendence. What she explores is whether such transcendence is any proof of contact with the divine, rather than a mental state, a mental state that anything from drugs/alcohol, to hypoglycemia, to hypoxia, to marked mental excitation, can induce. In an eerie and powerful presentation of her argument Goldstein writes a scene in which a 6 year old Hasidic prodigy named Azarya delivers a sermon to the assembled Hasidim of his community. Azarya refers to numbers as "maloychim" (angels), and goes on to prove that the number of "prime angels" (prime numbers) is infinite. Azarya proclaims this proof to the Hasidim, who writhe in religious ecstasy as they revel in a sense of infinite numbers of "angels" coming down from heaven. Cass Seltzer, the non-believer guest who is also present during this event, reacts this way "The room is reeling for Cass with Azarya's angels, beating their furious wings of diaphanous flames" and in parallel with the religious ecstasy of the Hasidim, Cass finds "his face was as wet with tears as any in the room, his trance as deep and ecstatic as that of any Hasid leaping into dance". The Hasidim are convinced that the source of their ecstasy is the experience of the divine, while non-believer Cass would be more likely to describe his experience as being rooted in "the fraught silence of billions of agitated neurons soundlessly firing", firing in those parts of the brain that also light up when we hear beautiful music, watch a thundering waterfall, or hold a newborn child for the first time.
The vocabulary in 36 Arguments is rich, including words such as metonymous, cantillated, quadronymous, epicerastic, decanal, and pareidolia. Goldstein's use of word the pareidolia is not accidental, it is near the center of one of her themes: humans form patterns where they do not exist, be they in the clouds above us, the vagaries of the stock market, or the events of daily life. Goldstein, and I suspect her husband Stephen Pinker as well, would make a strong argument that we are hard-wired to do pattern recognition, an evolutionary trait strongly associated with the ability to adapt to the environment that we live in. It's an excellent trait, when it keeps us from going out into a blizzard or going down a dark alley. It might not be so useful when overuse of pattern recognition leads us to see the face of Jesus in water-stained wallpaper or the cheese patty on our burger, or digitus Dei in a tornado or tsunami.
Will this book change the minds of any believers? Maybe a few. But consider the line "They had tried to capture under the net of analytic reason those fleeting shadows cast by unseen winged things darting through the thick foliage of religious sensibility." My guess is that no hunter, no matter how powerful her/his intellectual weaponry, will bring down all those "winged things". What is a bit different here is Goldstein's use of Azyra to whisper to the heart, rather than simply use a cannonade of logic.
Goldstein herself is probably the "atheist with a soul" often referred to in the book. Though Goldstein appears to be firmly committed to the neuronal basis of the phenomenon of consciousness, she loses none of her appreciation for the beauty of music, words, or poetry, captured strikingly in a passage in which the protagonist sees his sleeping lover: "He saw the fragility within the fanger, the willed boldness and gumption of this brave and wonderful girl. He saw the dappledness of her. Glory be to God for dappled things, he silently quoted his second favorite poet."
Weaknesses? Jonas Klapper, a major character in young Cass's life, has a descent into intellectual incomprehensibility that is done in far more detail than needed, inducing the feeling that one has when wading through Umberto Ecco's book Foucoult's Pendulum. Characters are occasionally straw men/women, such as the man that Cass goes up against in a formal debate about the existence of God. The climactic debate itself is a bit stodgy, lacking the crackle and fire of much of the rest of the book.
What is the conclusion to this artful, patchy, engaging tale that throws off incandescent, if occasionally spluttering, showers of brilliant sparks? Goldstein invites the reader to acknowledge that the human brain is not evolved, not fit in its primate design, to understand everything, and we must accept "the brutality of the incomprehensibility that assaults us from all sides." What then, ought one do? Goldstein: "And so we try, as best we can, to do justice to the tremendousness of our improbable existence. And so we live, as best we can, for ourselves, or who will live for us? And we live, as best we can for others, otherwise, what are we?" Rabbi Hillel does receive proper attribution for this passage.
The book does indeed include an Appendix in which 36 arguments for the existence of God are presented, and then disputed. Great stuff to peruse, be you a believer or not, and a fitting place to park Goldstein's cerebral SUV at the end of its cross-country romp.
Now, in 2010, the fictional psychologist of religion Cass Seltzer has catalogued 36+ proofs and their refutations--the larger list attributable to the overtime efforts of creationists to flog their intelligently designed dead horse. Professor Seltzer's book catches the wave of the "neo-atheist" best-sellers and catapults him from the suburbs of Frankfurter (read Brandeis) University to the Valhalla of Harvard.
Rebecca Goldstein (on whom I've had a slight crush since reading the perfect Betraying Spinoza, even though there's no way I could win her away from rock star cognitivist Steve Pinker) has crafted a novel that explores a few days in Cass Seltzer's life, in which he exults over his academic good fortune and nearly forgets to prepare for the climactic debate with a glitzy theist. (Naturally, this being a contemporary novel, the contemporary narrative digresses into three or four long past narratives, converging on the present.) This "debate"--something like the big sport event at the end of so many movies, with a touch of the "Grand Inquisitor" thrown in--goes to Seltzer. He proves not only that there is no God but, more important, that atheists are just as capable, even more capable, of ethical sensibility and just action as theists.
The debate is not quite the very end, however. Ultimately, the novel resolves its longest subplot involving the intellectually gifted son of a Hassidic Rebbe who is lured away from the reservation to study at MIT. In this it is an odd echo of one of the best novels of recent years, Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union.
36 Arguments is a well-made novel by an engaging philosopher/novelist. She has done what many writers try unsuccessfully to do: embody philosophical stances into characters, without reducing the text to dull speechifying. Zoe Heller also does this well in her recent novel, The Believers. Although Goldstein's prose occasionally lapses into Dan Brown territory ("furrowed brow," "book-lined office"), the dialogue is always crisp and funny.
And the satire is hilarious. I expect that nearly every person, institution, and place with a fictitious name can be mapped onto a real entity. I love Persnippity New Jersey and the ridicule of Commentary and the neocons. (Too bad The Forward assigned a neocon to review this book.) Everyone can recognize the oversized burlesque of Harold Bloom (The Perversity of Persuasion, indeed!) I wish I were enough in the know to recognize the whole Waltham-Cambridge-New York ensemble. (Is Cass Seltzer Steve Pinker, writer of popular best sellers on arcane subjects?)
And then there's the Appendix, Cass's schematic for the 36 arguments. Although the charm of this book is to show that the non-existence of God (what Scriven called the presumption of atheism) is largely irrelevant to living a good life, the Appendix is nevertheless a superior bit of philosophical pedagogy, and should be required reading for every professor and undergraduate, in every department. And the Internet being what it is, the Appendix will inevitably become universally available. Some day it may even be denounced in religiously-oriented schools, by people who entirely misread her book, much as Spinoza was denounced in the Orthodox school Ms. Goldstein attended as a child. Wouldn't that be delicious!