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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Philosophy of God

36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction by Rebecca Goldstein (Pantheon) After Cass Seltzer’s book becomes a surprise best seller, he’s dubbed “the atheist with a soul” and becomes a celebrity. He wins over the stunning Lucinda Mandelbaum, “the goddess of game theory,” and loses himself in a spiritually expansive infatuation. A former girlfriend appears: an anthropologist who invites him to join in her quest for immortality through biochemistry. And he is haunted by reminders of the two people who ignited his passion to understand religion: his mentor and professor—a renowned literary scholar with a suspicious obsession with messianism—and an angelic six-year-old mathematical genius who is heir to the leadership of a Hasidic sect. Each encounter reinforces Cass’s theory that the religious impulse spills over into life at large.

MacArthur fellow Goldstein, philosopher and writer, continues her many-faceted inquiry into the nature of genius and the intersection between religion and science, returning to fiction (Properties of Light, 2000) and ramping up her gifts for radiant humor and the transmutation of metaphysics, mathematics, and Jewish mysticism into narrative gold. Cass Seltzer, whose field is the psychology of religion, and who is madly in love with Lucinda Mandelbaum, the "Goddess of Game Theory," has written the surprise best-seller The Variety of Religious Illusion, achieving fame as "the atheist with a soul." But when his old flame, the fearless and irreverent anthropologist Roz, reappears, he is hurtled back to the past, launching a scintillating romp of academic ambition and spiritual conundrums with a cast of whirling brainiacs. There’s Cass’ edgy ex-wife, the French poet Pascale; Cass’ idol, the ludicrous Jonas Elijah Klapper; and a mathematical prodigy, the son of the rebbe in the Hudson Valley Hasidic settlement where Cass’ mother was raised. Goldstein is entrancing and unfailingly affectionate toward her brilliant yet bumbling seekers in this elegant yet uproarious novel about the darkness of isolation and the light of learning, the beauty of numbers and the chaos of emotions, the "longing for spiritual purity" and love in all its wildness."
36 Arguments for the Existence of God plunges into the great debate of our day: the clash between faith and reason. World events are being shaped by fervent believers at home and abroad, while a new atheism is asserting itself in the public sphere. On purely intellectual grounds the skeptics would seem to have everything on their side. Yet people refuse to accept their seemingly irrefutable arguments and continue to embrace faith in God as their source of meaning, purpose, and comfort.
Through the enchantment of fiction, award-winning novelist and MacArthur Fellow Rebecca Newberger Goldstein shows that the tension between religion and doubt cannot be understood through rational argument alone. It also must be explored from the point of view of individual people caught in the raptures and torments of religious experience in all their variety.
Using her gifts in fiction and philosophy, Goldstein has produced a true crossover novel, complete with a nail-biting debate (“Resolved: God Exists”) and a stand-alone appendix with the thirty-six arguments (and responses) that propelled Seltzer to stardom.

Excerpt: The Argument from the Improbable Self

Something shifted, something so immense you could call it the world.

Call it the world.

The world shifted, catching lots of smart people off guard, churning up issues you had thought had settled forever beneath the earth’s crust. The more sophisticated you are, the more annotated your mental life, the more taken aback you’re likely to feel, seeing what the world’s lurch has brought to light, thrusting up beliefs and desires you had assumed belonged to an earlier stage of human development.

What is this stuff, you ask one another, and how can it still be kicking around, given how much we already know? It looks like the kind of relics that archeologists dig up and dust off, speculating about the beliefs that once had animated them, to the best that they can be reconstructed, gone as they are now, those thrashings of proto-rationality and mythico-magical hypothesizing, and nearly forgotten.

Now it’s all gone unforgotten, and minds that have better things to think about have to divert precious neuronal resources to figuring out how to knock some sense back into the species. It’s a tiresome proposition, having to take up the work of the Enlightenment all over again, but it’s happened on your watch. You ought to have sent up a balloon now and then to get a read on the prevailing cognitive conditions, the Thinks watching out for the Think-Nots. Now you’ve gone and let the stockpiling of fallacies reach dangerous levels, and the massed weapons of illogic are threatening the survivability of the globe.

None of this is particularly good for the world, but it has been good for Cass Seltzer. That’s what he’s thinking at this moment, gazing down at the frozen river and regarding the improbable swerve his life has lately taken. He’s thinking his life has gotten better because the world has gone bonkers. He’s thinking zealots proliferate and Seltzer prospers.

It’s 4 a.m., and Cass Seltzer is standing on Weeks Bridge, the graceful arc that spans the Charles River near Harvard University, staring down at the river below, which is in the rigor mortis of late February in New England. The whole vista is deserted beyond vacancy, deserted in the way of being inhospitable to human life. There’s not a car passing on Memorial Drive, and the elegant river dorms are darkened to silent hulks, the most hyperkinetic of undergraduates sedated to purring girls and boys.

It’s not like Cass Seltzer to be out in the middle of an icy night, lost in thought while losing sensation in his extremities. Excitement had gotten the better of him. He had lain in his bed for hours, mind racing, until he gave up and crawled out from under the luxe comforter that his girlfriend, Lucinda Mandelbaum, had brought with her when she moved in with him at the end of June. This comforter has pockets for the hands and feet and a softness that’s the result of impregnation with aloe vera. As a man, Cass had been skeptical, but he’s become a begrudging believer in Lucinda’s comforter, and in her Tempur-Pedic pillow, too, suffused with the fragrance of her coconut shampoo, making it all the more remarkable that he’d forsake his bed for this no-man’s stretch of frigid night.

Rummaging in the front closet for some extra protection, he had pulled out, with a smile he couldn’t have interpreted for himself, a long-forgotten item, the tricolor scarf that his ex-wife, Pascale, had learned to knit for him during the four months when she was recovering from aphasia, four months that had produced, among other shockers, an excessively long French flag of a wool scarf, which he wound seven and a half times around his neck before heading out into the dark to deal with the rush in his head.

Lucinda’s away tonight, away for the entire bleak week to come. Cass is missing Lucinda in his bones, missing her in the marrow that’s presently crystallizing into ice. She’s in warmer climes, at a conference in Santa Barbara on “Non-Nash Equilibria in Zero-Sum Games.” Among these equilibria is one that’s called the Mandelbaum Equilibrium, and it’s Cass’s ambition to have the Mandelbaum Equilibrium mastered by the time he picks her up from the airport Friday night.

Technically, Lucinda’s a psychologist, like Cass, only not like Cass at all. Her work is so mathematical that almost no one would suspect it has anything to do with mental life. Cass, on the other hand, is about as far away on the continuum as you can get and still be in the same field. He’s so far away that he is knee-deep in the swampy humanities. Until recently, Cass had felt almost apologetic explaining that his interest is in the whole wide range of religious experience—a bloated category on anyone’s account, but especially on Cass’s, who sees religious frames of mind lurking everywhere, masking themselves in the most secular of settings, in politics and scholarship and art and even in personal relationships.

For close to two decades, Cass Seltzer has all but owned the psychology of religion, but only because nobody else wanted it, not anyone with the smarts to do academic research in psychology and the ambition to follow through. It had been impossible to get grants, and the prestigious journals would return his manuscripts without sending them out for peer review. The undergraduates crowded his courses, but that counted, if anything, as a strike against him in his department. The graduate students stayed away in droves. The sexy psychological research was all in neural-network modeling and cognitive neuroscience. The mind is a neural computer, and the folks with the algorithms ruled.

But now things had happened—fundamental and fundamentalist things—and religion as a phenomenon is on everybody’s mind. And among all the changes that religion’s new towering profile has wrought in the world, which are mostly alarming if not downright terrifying, is the transformation in the life of one Cass Seltzer.

First had come the book, which he had entitled The Varieties of Religious Illusion, a nod to both William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience and to Sigmund Freud’s The Future of an Illusion. The book had brought Cass an indecent amount of attention. Time magazine, in a cover story on the so-called new atheists, had singled him out as the only one among them who seems to have any idea of what it feels like to be a believer—“to write of religious illusions from the standpoint of the regretfully disillusioned”—and had ended by dubbing him “the atheist with a soul.” When the magazine came out, Cass’s literary agent, Sy Auerbach, called to congratulate him. “Now that you’re famous, even I might have to take you seriously.”

Next had come the girl, although that designation hardly does justice to the situation, not when the situation stands for the likes of Lucinda Mandelbaum, known in her world as “the Goddess of Game Theory.” Lucinda is, pure and simple, a wondrous creature, with adoration her due and Cass’s avocation.

And now, only today, as if his cup weren’t already gushing over, had come a letter from Harvard, laying out its intention of luring him away from Frankfurter University, located in nearby Weedham, Massachusetts, about twelve miles downriver from where Cass is standing right now. Cass has spent the last two decades at Frankfurter, having first arrived to study under the legendary Jonas Elijah Klapper, the larger-than-life figure who had been Cass’s mentor and Cass’s tormentor.

After all that has happened to Cass over the course of this past year, he’s surprised at the degree of awed elation he feels at the letter bearing the insignia of Veritas. But he’s an academic, his sense of success and failure ultimately determined by the academy’s utilities (to use the language of Lucinda’s science), and Harvard counts as the maximum utility. Cass has the letter on him right now, zippered into an inside pocket of his parka, insulating him against the cold.

It will be a treat to tell Lucinda about Harvard’s offer. He can see the celebratory clinking of flutes, her head thrown back in that way she has, exposing the tender vulnerability of her throat, and that’s why he’s decided to wait out the week until she comes home to tell her. There’s no one in all the world in a better position than she to appreciate what this offer means to Cass, and no one who will exult more for him. Lucinda herself has known such dazzling success, from the very beginning of her career, and she has taught him never to make apologies for ambition. Ambition doesn’t have to be small and self-regarding. It can be a way of glorying in existence, of sharing oneself with the world and its offerings, of stretching oneself just as wide to the full spread of its possibilities as one can go. That’s how Lucinda goes about her life.

It’s 1 a.m. now for Lucinda. She’s taken the little amber bottle of Ambien with her—he’d checked their medicine cabinet round about 2 a.m.—so she’s down for seven and a half hours. She’ll be sleeping in T-shirt and shorts, her muscled legs—Lucinda competes in triathlons—probably already having fought their way clear of the bedclothes. Lucinda begins each night neatly tucked within her comforter, carefully placing her cold feet in the pockets, but no sooner is she asleep then the long struggle for freedom begins, and her legs are nightly manumitted.

Arguing about Gods by Graham Robert Oppy (Cambridge University Press)  examines contemporary arguments for and against the existence of God. He shows that none of these arguments is powerful enough to change the minds of reasonable participants in debates on the question of the existence of God. His conclusion is supported by detailed analyses of the contemporary arguments, as well as by the development of a theory about the purpose of arguments, and the criteria that should be used in judging whether or not arguments are successful. Oppy discusses the work of a wide array of philosophers, including Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, Kant, Hume, and, more recently, Plantinga, Dembski, White, Dawkins, Bergman, Gale, and Pruss.

Graham Oppy is Associate Dean of Research in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University. He is the author of Ontological Arguments and Belief in God and Philosophical Perspectives on Infinity. He is an Associate Editor of the Australasian Journal of Philosophy, and he serves on the editorial hoards of Philo, Philosopher's Compass, Religious Studies, and Sophia.

excerpt: As its title suggests, this book is about arguments about gods. More exactly, it is a book about arguments about orthodoxly conceived monotheistic gods. In particular, it focuses on the kinds of arguments that contemporary Christian philosophers of religion typically give when they give arguments on behalf of the claim that the orthodoxly conceived monotheistic god in which they happen to believe exists.

In this book, I take it for granted that there is nothing incoherent —doxastically impossible — in the idea that our universe was created ex nihilo by an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good being. I propose to consider this question further in a companion volume that is currently incomplete; however, I do not propose there to defend the view that there is something incoherent — doxastically impossible — in the idea that our universe was created ex nihilo by an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good being.

The main thesis that I wish to defend in the present book is that there are no successful arguments about the existence of orthodoxly conceived monotheistic gods — that is, no arguments that ought to persuade those who have reasonable views about the existence of orthodoxly conceived monotheistic gods to change their minds. Since I also contend that there is a very wide range of reasonable views about the existence of orthodoxly conceived monotheistic gods that it is possible for reasonable people to maintain, I take it that the main thesis that I wish to defend is denied by many contemporary philosophers. If the argument of my book is successful, then at least some of those philosophers will be led to change their minds about some things.

The division of the material in the book is, in some ways, quite conventional: there is a chapter on ontological arguments, a chapter on cosmological arguments, a chapter on teleological arguments, a chapter on Pascal's wager, a chapter on arguments from evil, and a chapter on other arguments. Book-ending these chapters, there is an introductory discussion of relevant issues and a concluding discussion that revisits some of the matters raised in the introductory discussion. However, there is not much material in this book that can be found in other books that cover more or less the same territory.

In chapter 1, after some brief remarks about taxonomies of arguments about orthodoxly conceived monotheistic gods, there are three related topics that are discussed. The first of these topics concerns the nature of arguments and argumentation, and the connections that obtain between successful argumentation and reasonable believing. In this section, I sketch my views about rationality and rational belief revision, arguments, rational argumentation amongst rational agents, and the bearing of our departures from perfect rationality on each of the aforementioned topics. The second topic taken up in the first chapter concerns the tenability of agnosticism. Here, I argue that there is no reason at all to suppose that there cannot be reasonable agnostics, that is, reasonable people who suspend judgment on the question of whether there are orthodoxly conceived monotheistic gods. The third topic taken up in the first chapter concerns the bearing of the construction of cases for the existence of unorthodoxly conceived monotheistic gods — for example, perfectly evil monotheistic gods — on the reasonableness of belief in orthodoxly conceived monotheistic gods. Here, I try to defend the view that, while non-theists can reasonably judge that the case for a given unorthodoxly conceived monotheistic god is no less strong than the case for any orthodoxly conceived monotheistic god, theists can reasonably judge that this is not so.

In chapter 2, the discussion of ontological arguments takes for granted the material that is contained in my earlier book on this topic: Oppy (1995c). In the first section of this chapter, I criticise the 'general objection to ontological arguments' that I presented in my earlier book; I no longer believe that this 'general objection' has any teeth. In the second section of this chapter, I discuss a category of ontological arguments — mereological ontological arguments — that received almost no attention in Oppy (1995c). In the third section of this chapter, I provide a slightly more extensive discussion of Gödel's ontological argument than is to be found in Oppy (1995c). In particular, I defend the claim that there is an application of Gaunilo's famous 'lost island' criticism of St. Anselm's ontological argument that can be applied to one version of Göders ontological argument. Finally, in the fourth section of this chapter, I provide a careful examination of the arguments of Chambers (2000) , and respond to some criticisms of Oppy (1995c) that are made in that work.

The discussion of cosmological arguments that occurs in chapter 3 has several parts. First, I have included some discussion of historically important cosmological arguments in the work of Aquinas, Descartes, and Leibniz. Next, I turn my attention to contemporary defences of cosmological arguments in the work of Bob Meyer, Robert Koons, Richard Gale and Alex Pruss, and William Lane Craig. Finally, I consider the novel atheological cosmological argument that is defended by Quentin Smith. Since there are many cosmological arguments that are not considered in this discussion, it is important that I note here that I consider these to be the best arguments of this kind that have been advanced thus far. Given that none of these arguments is successful, there is very good reason to think that no cosmological argument that has been advanced hitherto is successful.

In chapter 4, I begin with a reconsideration of Paley's argument for design. I argue that this argument has been misunderstood by almost everyone who has commented on it in the past fifty years. Moreover, I claim that, when the argument is properly understood, it is readily seen to be deficient. Finally — and importantly — I claim that there is no reason to suppose that Michael Behe's recent revival of Paley's argument avoids the criticisms that are sufficient to sink Paley's argument. After a fairly careful discussion of Behe's work, I move on to consider the recent enthusiasm for 'cosmic fine-tuning' arguments for design. Following Manson (2003), I distinguish several different variants of this type of argument, and then argue that none of the variants that I consider is successful. Again, it is important that I note here that I take it that I have examined the best arguments of this kind that have thus far been propounded. Finally, I turn to a discussion of Hume's famous critique of arguments for design in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. I'm a big fan of Hume's Dialogues; so it should come as no surprise that I defend the claim that it is a mistake to suppose that the various arguments for intelligent design can be shown to be unsuccessful without any appeal to the kinds of philosophical considerations that make an appearance in Hume's Dialogues.

Chapter 5 is a brief discussion of Pascal's wager argument. I think that it is pretty obvious that this argument has nothing going for it; nonetheless, it is not hard to find contemporary philosophers who disagree. I list a dozen or so considerations, each of which seems to me to be sufficient to establish that Pascal's wager argument is unsuccessful or, at any rate, to establish that there are large classes of non-theists who are quite properly unmoved by the argument.

In chapter 6, I turn my attention to arguments from evil. As I note at the outset, I am quite happy to allow that there are no successful arguments from evil. However, there are many contemporary philosophers of religion who are prepared to take some arguments for the existence of orthodoxly conceived monotheistic gods seriously while offhandedly dismissing arguments from evil. I claim that this is a mistake. There is perhaps more to be learned from a reconsideration of Mackie's 'logical' argument from evil than there is to be learned from a close examination of cosmological arguments — or so I am prepared to contend. At the very least, 'logical' arguments from evil are in no worse shape than any of the positive arguments that can be advanced on behalf of the existence of orthodoxly conceived monotheistic gods. Moreover, it is equally a mistake to suppose that currently popular `sceptical theist' critiques of evidential arguments from evil establish that there is something wrong with the rationality of those who make the kinds of judgments that are required for endorsement of the premises of those arguments. I am happy enough to grant that those judgments are not rationally required; but I deny that sceptical theists have shown that those judgments are rationally impermissible. Finally, I think that it is a mistake to suppose that one can get a satisfactory response to arguments from evil merely by appealing to the claim that there is a paradisiacal afterlife that at least some of us will enjoy. If you are serious about 'defending' the claim that there is no inconsistency amongst the various propositions that make up the traditional 'problem of evil', then you cannot hope to mount this 'defence' by appealing to other controversial propositions that you happen to accept.

The arguments that are discussed in chapter 7 are quite diverse. I consider arguments from authority, that is, arguments from consensus, historical tradition, expert testimony, and scripture; arguments from religious experience, focussing in particular on the argument of Swinburne (1979); arguments from morality, that is, arguments from objective values, virtue, happiness, scripture, justice, the costs of irreligion, heavenly reward, conscience, convergence, and practical reason; arguments from miracles; arguments from consciousness, focussing again on Swinburne (1979); and arguments from puzzling phenomena, that is, arguments from providence, efficacy of prayer, mathematical knowledge, the nature of Jesus, unbelief, mystery, information, and beauty. In this section, some of the arguments that are considered are not even prima facie plausible; however, almost all of them have at least some contemporary defenders.

Finally, in chapter 8, there is a brief discussion of the contrasting views of Clifford and James on the ethics of belief. I defend the view that, while both Clifford and James are strictly speaking mistaken in the claims that they advance, there is something in the ballpark of Clifford's famous Principle that ought to be accepted: it is, indeed, irrational, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything that is not appropriately proportioned to the reasons and evidence that are possessed by that one. But this version of Clifford's Principle has no interesting consequences for the discussion of arguments about the existence of orthodoxly conceived monotheistic gods; rather, it coheres nicely with the claim that there are no successful arguments about the existence of orthodoxly conceived monotheistic gods.

As I make clear at various places in the text, I view the argument of this book as a work in progress. I am very firmly of the belief that there are no supernatural entities of any kind; a fortiori, I am very firmly of the belief that there are no orthodoxly conceived monotheistic gods. I am also pretty firmly of the belief that, even by quite strict standards, those who believe in the existence of orthodoxly conceived monotheistic gods need not thereby manifest some kind of failure of rationality. If I cannot find a satisfactory way to put these two beliefs together, then it will certainly be the latter that falls by the wayside; but I see no reason for thinking that it is not possible consistently — and, indeed, reasonably — to hang on to both beliefs.