For a book whose title sounds like an affirmation of faith but whose story is about an atheist refuting the existence of God, reading 36 Arguments is a surprisingly spiritual experience. What if mankind, with our huge brains and highly developed abilities to reason, could evolve a moral philosophy that makes life both comprehensible and livable without falling back on the outside influence of God? That is the idea addressed in Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's highly enjoyable novel.
Many reviews laud the wit and entertainment Goldstein provides but, honestly, the breadth and depth of ideas covered require close and thoughtful reading. Only occasionally a page-turner, the book's longish philosophical and intellectual passages did not whiz by for me. I found I needed a quiet place to read and plenty of time to reflect on my own ideas about life as I made my way through the story.
The characters stand out as bright spots of invention. Cass Seltzer, who has risen from a lowly professor of religious psychology to fame and fortune after the publication of his book, The Varieties of Religious Illusion, is at heart a nice Jewish boy who respects women and resorts to good manners in sticky situations. The four main women in his life constitute a range of pithy, intelligent, independent thinkers, each of whom bedazzle him. His mother Deb, raised in a closed Jewish community by a smothering and critical mother, escaped to become a loving but hands-off friend to both of her sons. His first girlfriend, Roz, a larger than life free spirit whose anthropological work led her to found her own Immortality Foundation and who intends to live until she is 500 years old, turned down a marriage proposal from Cass because she has way too much that she wants to accomplish in life to have time to be some man's wife. Pascale, the ultimate, self-absorbed French poet, did marry Cass but left him for another man. His current girlfriend, Lucinda Mandelbaum, is the alarmingly beautiful and brilliant Goddess of Game Theory who must constantly fight male attitudes in that highly competitive field.
Cass has strong male influences in his life as well, though his father is not one of them. Surviving the torment of his first PhD professor, tolerating the slick support of his literary agent and relying on an equally tormented but loyal fellow PhD candidate, have brought to Cass's life much hard won strength and wisdom. From a young age Cass has experienced profound transcendent episodes while contemplating philosophical questions, and this preoccupation of his is realized in the brightest character of all: Azarya, child prodigy and mathematical genius, son and heir apparent of the Rabbi from the childhood community of Cass's mother, who embodies the existential questions that lie at the heart of the story.
At the back of the book is an appendix consisting of the 36 arguments for the existence of God, each laid out in the style of formal logic and followed by an explanation of the flaws found. The arguments have names such as The Argument from the Big Bang, The Argument from Survival After Death, The Argument from Suffering. Since the story has 36 chapters, which are also entitled as arguments (for example The Argument from Reversal of Fortune or The Argument from Fraught Distance), I chose to read an argument from the Appendix at the beginning of each chapter. This method gave my reading the symmetry of a geometric proof. When I reached the climactic debate between Cass and Felix Fidley, a Nobel-laureate economist who has challenged him on the existence of God, I was able to follow it easily because by then I knew all the arguments.
The denouement in Cass's personal life is less neat, because no matter what beliefs or philosophy one adheres to, life is messy. By this time, Ms. Goldstein had me in her power and I worried that she would let me down with some outcome in which I could not believe. Possibly philosophers are better at ending books than mere writers of fiction because she manages to state her case, acknowledging the potential chaos of life while affirming that man is capable of rising above it through reason after all.
So, dear reader, this novel can be read on a few different levels: a romance, a mystery, an intellectual thriller or a philosophical/religious treatise. In any case, some grounding in science, math and philosophy or at least a willingness to explore those subjects would be helpful. I would recommend, if you're just looking for a good entertaining read, that you give this one a miss.
This review was originally published in February 2010, and has been updated for the February 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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