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Breaking the rules

Rebecca Goldstein on Spinoza, mattering maps, and orthodox Jewish atheists

Rebecca Goldstein

Rebecca Goldstein

“I will do things in fiction which apparently, if I knew anything, I would know better.” So says Rebecca Goldstein, whose latest novel contains a genre-bending appendix with 36 arguments for the existence of God, complete with rebuttals, and whose books contain “pages and pages where people talk about ideas”. As a creative writing student once told her at a reading, teachers insist writers must start with action but hers start completely inside a character’s head. “I didn’t know you were allowed to do that,” said the student. “I didn’t know you were allowed to do it either,” was Goldstein’s reply. But here’s the thing: it works.

“I guess when I started the first novel, I didn’t even know I was breaking these rules,” Goldstein told me when we met up during her recent visit to the UK to promote 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction. So if she has her characters “just sitting over dinner talking about the mortality of the soul, to me, yeah, of course that’s a perfectly natural thing. What else would people talk about over dinner?”

Goldstein’s idiosyncrasies as a novelist make perfect sense once you realise that she was first a philosopher. Although it’s a little too neat, you could say that it was a fascination with objectivity which led her into philosophy, a fascination with subjectivity that led her out of it into fiction, and the combination of fascinations that gives the unique character to both halves of her career.

The story is much more complicated than that, of course, and like all life narratives, contains more than its fair share of accident. Her discovery of philosophy, for instance, was far from inevitable.

“I had an orthodox Jewish upbringing,” she says of her childhood in White Plains, New York. “We were more on the fundamentalist side, I would say, and we were also quite poor, so we didn’t own any books. So every Friday we would go and get my reading material for the Sabbath, because all I could do all Sabbath was read. At some point I got Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy. I was probably about 12 years old, and it was my first experience of intellectual ecstasy. When I read the chapter on Plato, I got sort of carried away. I didn’t quite know what I was reading, but I remember this phrase ‘beyond the phantasmic warrior’, whatever the hell that was, and there was this ideal world of eternal forms, somewhat mathematical. I was a kid who was very obsessed with mathematics, and I was excited beyond belief.”

More reading followed, including Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy, which she loved. But why were her orthodox parents allowing her to read the writings of this notorious atheist? “They didn’t really know enough to be worried,” says Goldstein, although they also had more admirable motives too. “They never felt that ideas in themselves were dangerous things, they were really quite liberal in that way. They did let me read whatever I wanted, as long as it wasn’t racy, sexy books. Intellectual things were not threatening to them.”

It took many years before her mother changed her mind. “In fact when my own daughter was going off to university, my mother offered her a substantial bribe not to major in philosophy, saying ‘look what it did to your mother.’ But then both my daughters majored in philosophy. So after a while my mother did catch on that it was somehow hostile to the spirit of religion.”

While Goldstein was still a teenager, however, her parents even allowed her to take an introductory philosophy summer course at Columbia. When she went to university, however, she didn’t major in the subject. Why not?

“I had also in my forages through the public library taken out a book – and this was also a huge influence – Our Friend the Atom, which also just blew my little mind: outside this world was something so very different that somehow the physicists were able to describe it. The whole notion of getting outside experience– objectivity, I guess – was the thing that was pulling me and very exciting to me. So it was a toss-up. How could I get at it? Was it through science or through philosophy? It seemed to me the most direct route was probably physics.”

Goldstein admits that one consideration was that philosophy did not seem to be “an appropriate thing to study”, not quite a proper academic subject. But when she started studying quantum mechanics at Columbia, philosophical issues started cropping up. She went to her professor asking “all sorts of questions about how this actually ties up with the world as it is,” but he said physicists weren’t so interested in such things, and suggested she should go off and talk to some philosophers. “And I went and I spoke to Sidney Morgenbesser at Columbia and that was it. Then I knew: it’s philosophy of science.”

With Plato, physics, and philosophy of science, the same idea had grabbed her: “Objectivity. It was just the most exciting idea, that somehow, through reason, or through a combination of reason, observation and mathematics, one could get to an out there that was totally unlike the in here. I just loved that. What could be more exciting? I still think it is.”

However, the rigorous philosophy of that time and place left little or no room for any consideration of existential questions. “I had my first class analytic training and I would sneer at any question about what it all means,” says Goldstein. “When I was dealing with the mind-body problem, one wasn’t even allowed to mention the word ‘consciousness’.”

There came a point, however, when Goldstein started to get interested in the kinds of questions she was “sort of trained out of asking”.

“When I was a very young assistant professor of philosophy and I had my first child, I also lost my father, and I realised that I was quite at a loss in knowing how to deal with those sorts of questions. I was this young hot-shot philosopher, and I was 26, and I thought none of this taught me how to raise a kid or grieve for a parent and in some sense I’ve been trained out of even thinking these are meaningful questions. That set me for some reason writing a novel; that’s how I wrote The Mind-Body Problem.

“There was something I wanted to figure out, which was: what good is philosophy? What good is the life of the mind? I couldn’t do that philosophically because my training would just come down like a cage. I couldn’t form questions that I thought were in some sense strictly meaningless. I needed to put it into a different context, and I just knew how to do it in fiction because I had read so many novels. It just came to me very naturally.

“I think I surprised, dismayed and maybe disappointed people when I wrote that first novel – here’s a woman doing technical stuff, so few of them are doing it, and look what she goes and does, she writes a novel! And it’s taken me a long time to get over my own internalisation of the dismissal of literature.”

She had always loved literature. For instance, in 1977, she went to Israel after finishing her doctoral dissertation, “Reduction, Realism and the Mind”, written under Thomas Nagel at Princeton. “English language books were enormously expensive, so it really was a choice between eating and reading novels, and I chose reading novels. It was like a physical hunger. So there is something in me which just loves them.” But although she loved fiction, she “didn’t take it seriously.” Her reinvention as a novelist thus surprised even herself, and it’s something she still feels a need to justify. “You know, Plato is my first love and he banished the poets from his utopia. He would have hated the modern novel, all that floundering around and subjectivity, so I’m always trying to answer Plato.”

This might seem odd, because Goldstein is very clear and eloquent about the value of literature, what it can do that philosophy can’t, and which novelists’ skills can be valuable for the philosopher. For instance, she says, “A really good philosophical problem is one, I feel, that although you have your biases, you have your intuitions, you ought to be able to entertain it from several points of view, otherwise I don’t think you’ve got a good grasp of the philosophical situation. So I do think that there’s something there to be learned from the skills of the novelist.”

She also loves “being in the grip of points of view that aren’t my own.” She remembers for instance when she was writing her first novel, which was told from the first-person point of view of someone whose “attitudes, her way of being in the world, were so different from mine.” One day Goldstein was taking the subway to work in New York, and she saw an incident involving a homeless man. “First I reacted, and then I heard her reacting. She’s much funnier than I am; she had a very amusing thing to say about it all. No wonder Plato banished the artists. What a weird situation that is.”

This isn’t just a curious experience; it also “leads to me to things I would never think of on my own.” It was while inhabiting the point of view of that character, for instance, that Goldstein came up with the idea of the “mattering map”, the way in which we, implicitly or explicitly, place various people and things in our life according to how much we value them. As she describes it in The Mind-Body Problem, “The map in fact is a projection of its inhabitants’ perceptions. A person’s location on it is determined by what matters to him, matters overwhelmingly, the kind of mattering that produces his perceptions of people, of himself and others: of who are the nobodies and who the somebodies, who the deprived and who the gifted, who the better-never-to-have-been-born and who the heroes. One and the same person can appear differently when viewed from different positions.”

I would never have come up with this idea of mattering map,” says Goldstein. “If you google ‘mattering map’, there are tens of thousands of hits. Sometimes I’m credited with it, sometimes I’m not, but it’s now a term in feminist psychology, and I found something written about it at Harvard Business School. This is a theoretical term that came about because I was inhabiting her point of view. I find that fascinating.”

Fiction takes Goldstein deeper into the inner lives of thinkers than academic philosophy usually tolerates. In one way, this simply allows for a welcome correction of misleading stereotypes. Goldstein knows and evokes “what the passionate intellectual life is about. In science and in philosophy, my characters are not just playing with ideas. This is a matter of life and death for them. Their lives are wrapped around ideas and that is what I think it is like to be a philosopher.”

More challenging for formal philosophy is the extent to which Goldstein’s work, including biographical non-fiction, suggests that the personal and psychological matter to philosophy as well as the purely impersonal and logical. This is something which became particularly evident to Goldstein as she researched and wrote her book about Spinoza. It was for a series called Jewish Encounters, and that worried her. “To think of him from that parochial point of view would be a betrayal of Spinoza, hence the name: The Betrayal of Spinoza.” When she took on the book, she says “I thought I understood the Ethics completely, I had taught it by that time so many times.” In fact, she had a lot to learn.

“I looked at Spinoza’s biography and the kind of preoccupations he was surrounded with about identity, about group identity, Jewish identity. It was a bunch of survivors of the Portuguese inquisitions who were reclaiming their Jewish identity, asking all these essentialist questions about what constitutes a Jew? What’s the essence of a Jew? Suddenly, when I knew that about Spinoza, I got insight into his Ethics. He was dealing with the question of personal identity and what it is. We inherit a certain kind of passive identity, and then there’s the active identity that we reconstruct through ourselves, and to the extent that we’re rational we all share the same identity. It’s kind of applying Cartesian methodology to the problems of his community and saying it doesn’t matter what a Jew is. To the extent that you’re really rational, we all share the same identity, so this question just doesn’t matter.

“That to me was interesting and challenged the way I think about philosophy, which is that you can understand the ideas in terms of the arguments presented and know what it’s all about. Suddenly, I saw this book is about something else as well, it’s about a question that’s not apparent unless you know he’s Jewish.”

We keep coming back to religion in our conversation, which is not surprising, since it is not just a central theme of her latest novel, but a major interest in her life. Her protagonist in the novel is described as an “atheist with a soul”, a phrase which captures Goldstein’s unease that much atheist writing misses something very important about the religious life.

“I did get involved somewhat with the new atheist debate, and I’m completely ontologically with them, but I often would say to Steve [Pinker, her partner], ‘you know, there’s something that you guys are not getting, and that’s what it feels like to be part of a religious community and for your self identity to be tied up with the identity of that group, and what a betrayal it feels like,’ because it did feel to me like a terrific betrayal to leave that community.

“Although I reached my philosophical conclusions very early on about religion and atheism and all of that, the pull towards that particular narrative, that history, that community, those emotions – that emotional involvement has never gone away. I’ve tried to argue myself out of it, but it’s just such a formative part of my personality and it comes out in the fiction quite often. I don’t set out to write about this thing, but there it comes. In some way or another, the Jewish theme emerges.”

Goldstein raises the now familiar objection that the new atheist critique focuses too much on the rational grounds for doctrine and belief when “it’s really not so very much about the arguments for God’s existence.” She has a particularly compelling example to illustrate this from her own family.

“I have a nephew who, if you looked at him, you would think you knew everything about his metaphysics. I mean, he’s orthodox, he wears a black hat. Whenever I need technical knowledge about Talmud, or something, I’ll ask him. So I asked him something very technical, and he said, ‘Rebecca, why would you want to know that?’ And I would write back to him: ‘you don’t want to know why I want to know that,’ because it was obviously something very heretical. And then he wrote back and said, ‘I thought you knew me better. There’s no thought you’ve entertained which I haven’t entertained myself and probably believe.’ How fascinating, that this could be, that there could be somebody who’s living a totally religious life, his life is completely determined by Jewish law, and yet he has exactly the same point of view that I do. I think that’s fascinating and that’s something that’s missing from this discussion about the arguments, the rational grounds for belief.

“You can even be an orthodox Jewish atheist, because it’s extremely performative. It’s a behaviourist religion. It’s not doctrinal and it does not compel belief. As long as you wait six hours between eating meat and milk, and you keep the Sabbath, and all those things, you’re a good Jew, which is why my nephew can be the way he is, somebody who thinks as I do, and yet performs all of the rituals.”

Goldstein can even imagine an alternative life where she made the same choices as her nephew. “Talmud can be very intellectually satisfying, and it’s a religious obligation for men to study Talmud. My family is very learned in that way, but I was not allowed to study Talmud because I was a girl. I sometimes wonder, had I been a boy, would I have gotten so pulled in to the intellectual side of it and felt satisfied enough that I wouldn’t have gone through the quite tormented decision to leave it? And it was a tormented decision to leave it, it felt like treason.”

And still does?

“Yes, sure. If everybody were like me, the story would cease. I feel like the orthodox Jews are sort of doing it for me. I don’t want the story to go out of existence, I don’t want any of these stories to go out of existence, and that requires people who are actually believing and behaving in a way that I can’t myself, and that feels inconsistent or not quite right.”

Philosophical preoccupations still weigh heavily on Goldstein’s mind, even though it’s been decades since she wrote any technical philosophy. Does she still consider herself to be a philosopher? “Sort of, yes,” she says, and laughs. “I still am always thinking about philosophy, I still read widely in philosophy, even in current journals when it’s something that interests me, so in my inner life I continue to participate. It’s like being an orthodox Jew but not practising; it’s like part of it is being part of the community and I’m not, so in that sense I’m not a philosopher anymore.”

Our conversation inevitably centred on ideas and philosophy, but it’s worth stressing that Goldstein the novelist is not just interested in dramatising ideas. “I never want the ideas to be so naked that it feels like a Platonic dialogue, as much as I love those. I want them first and foremost to be fiction, so be well covered with the flesh of plot and character and all of that. But underneath it it’s always a philosophical problem I’m worrying about.”

And there are some things she gets from fiction that philosophy, for all its worth, just can’t provide. “I love stories and I love being in the grip of a story and not knowing how it’s going to work out, and it surprises me. I love the unconscious process of this which for me is unlike doing philosophy, where everything is under control, very deliberate and there’s not all that much room, at least in the way I do philosophy, for the unconscious. I like that.”

36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction is published by Grove Atlantic in the UK and Pantheon in North America

Julian Baggini (www.julianbaggini.com) is editor-in-chief of tpm

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