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The View from Nowhere or Somewhere?

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SINCE MY EARLY TWENTIES I have madly underlined the metaphysical bits in novels like War and Peace and The Razor’s Edge, preferring that my philosophy be delivered in the pages of a fictional work. One might argue that all great literary fiction illuminates the human experience, but the relatively new philosophical novel genre is burgeoning and undertaking more than a cursory examination of existential questions. The continued popularity of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Sophie’s World, suggests that more individuals seek answers to existential queries such as “Does God Exist?” through such works, and it is in this genre on this question that Rebecca Newberger Goldstein gives us in her book, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God.

Ms. Goldstein’s protagonist, Cass Seltzer, is an academic with his Ph.D. in the psychology of religion who has written a book called The Varieties of Religious Illusion, which becomes a surprise bestseller and earns him the dubious title, “atheist with a soul.” In his book, Cass presents 36 Arguments for the Existence of God with a skeptic’s precision, and yet it’s obvious that he also perceives the world with a poet’s passionate intuition, symbolized by his choice of the number 36 for its mystical significance rooted in the Kabbalah’s “Lamed-Vav”—named for the 36 righteous who greet Ayn Sof, the divine presence. In Gematria, a form of Jewish numerology, 36 also symbolizes a notion of “two lives.”

“Two lives” are metaphorically represented in 36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Cass Seltzer’s devotion to his mentor Professor Klapper (who dismisses skepticism as “positivistic, nihilistic scientism”), and the pure brilliance of the child genius, Azarya, who at the precocious age of six years, discovers that there is no largest prime number. Goldstein poses complex metaphysical questions and precisely takes apart 36 arguments for the existence of God in a manner that will appeal to both the existential thinker and the skeptical questioner—proof that it’s constructive to use metaphor and analogy to bring some clarity to questions about the nature of reality.

To those not schooled in the methods of critical thinking, the big questions can seem out of reach, answerable only by minds trained in classic systems of investigation. Many individuals thus unschooled get their existential fix in pop culture, in music and movies such as The Matrix. As is suggested in Goldstein’s title, many individuals still turn to a work of fiction called the bible for their answers to life’s big questions. Biblical scholars would agree that the ancient Hebraic texts were originally written to impart metaphysical truths, but any pure symbolic references have devolved through messy translation and misinterpretation, into a travesty that has rooted a God problem within the belief systems of billions of people worldwide who deify the messenger rather than the message.

Like her protagonist, Cass Seltzer, Rebecca Goldstein is a Ph.D and the author of papers addressing reduction, realism and the mind, as well as the book Incompleteness: the Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel. She is interested in more than cursory investigations into the nature of reality. As a self-described atheist, Goldstein has also asked herself such questions as, “How does all this philosophy I’ve studied help me to deal with the brute contingencies of life?” and “How does it relate to life as it’s really lived?”

Early on in the story, Cass Seltzer happens upon Thomas Nagel’s book, The View from Nowhere, and is struck by the fact that here is a man who shares the same “bedtime metaphysical” question: “How can I be a particular person?” I examine this question myself in my own forthcoming book, Conversations with Eddie Other, considering the notion that the human thinking process can access realms of thought that are purely objective, and what this tells us about the theory of undecidability: whether a proposition can be clearly found provable or refutable in a specified deductive system. Regardless if the “language” used is mathematical or linguistic, subjective interpretation confuses any deductive system. Throughout Goldstein’s narrative, Cass Seltzer’s internal dilemma symbolizes this notion of the impossibility of a purely objective interpretation as he flirts with point-of-view perception of reality.

Early in her book, Goldstein quotes from Nagel’s The View from Nowhere. One passage is particularly illuminative: “I may occupy TN [Thomas Nagel] or see the world through the eyes of TN, but I can’t be TN. I can’t be a mere person. From this point of view it can appear that ‘I am TN,’ insofar as it is true, is not an identity but a subject-predicate position.” Cass Seltzer summarizes Nagel’s book, surmising that “the basic idea (in the book) is that we humans have the unique capacity to detach ourselves from our own particular point of view, achieving degrees of objectivity, all the way up to and including the view of how things are in themselves, from no particular viewpoint at all.”

I share Cass’s notion that it may be quite possible to access this view from nowhere, but the distinction should be made between a “no place” that is a “thing in itself” and a no place that is “no thing” at all.

Because most individuals cannot grasp an infinite nothing, this notion of a View from Nowhere has been made into a religion, into a God. Spinoza’s own conclusion was that, “the universe that itself provides all the answers about itself simply is God.” In Buddhism, this “groundless ground” is the absolute that can only be accessed by relinquishing the thinking process. Goldstein considers this possibility: can an individual inhabit a position that is not a position? A position neither based in the dual/binary worlds of scientism on one side and intuition on the other? Is it possible to perceive reality from this View from Nowhere, this Ayn Sof, this nothing, this groundless ground and to then understand existence?

Einstein said, “If, then, it is true that the axiomatic basis of theoretical physics cannot be extracted from experience but must be freely invented….I hold it true that pure thought can grasp reality, as the ancients dreamed.” Nagel’s View from Nowhere, the notion of a “centerless world” and the proposition that “none of us occupies a metaphysically privileged position” cannot be proved empirically (although some might argue that Einstein reduced it to a perfect metaphysical equation with his theory of relativity).

Perhaps there is a way to solve Nagel’s “unsolved problem of particular subjectivity.” If it is the case that E = mc2 (and this theory has not been disproved), perhaps the very sole-centered position of perception is the key to understanding existence, what Stephen Hawking and other physicists hope to discover as the source of “what breathes fire into our equations.” This nothing can be noted, using not what Buddhists consider the only manner in which one may perceive objective reality (the meditative state), or a “unique capacity” of intuition, but by utilizing a very specific manner of critical thought. Perhaps that is the only way Thomas Nagel’s questions, “What kind of fact is it—if it is a fact—that I am Thomas Nagel? How can I be a particular person?” can be answered. Perhaps by questioning and noting the clarity of pure thought (as Einstein mentioned) is the only way a particular person is “himself.”

If Heidegger was correct and it is the case that the notion of Platonic forms set ontological investigations back by focusing on existence as a being (a thing with properties and substance), the focus should be directed toward what is prior to being—which he famously referred to as “the nothing.” This then becomes the issue with philosophical investigations that cannot get beyond Platonism—a frustration shared by Wittgenstein when he said, “How extraordinary that Plato could have got even as far as he did! Or that we could not get any further!”

In the same way that Wittgenstein pressed the boundaries of empiricism and came to das mystiche, works by philosophers such as Heidegger tell us that our “bedtime metaphysical” pondering, this observing of a self and questioning one’s own existence: “Here I Am,” should not end in a pat empirical answer, nor some vague transcendental or mystical sensation. Rather, “Here I Am” is simply how it is.

If the universe is both personal and universal, as both Seltzer and Nagel suggest, and it’s not possible for an individual to wrap his/her logical thinking process around the notion, one should neither assign mystical significance to this nothing, nor should it seek to empirically dissect it as a “thing in itself.”

Even when Goldstein’s child genius, Azarya, becomes an adult, his life choices show how difficult it is for an individual to resolve its own human foibles or “reconcile the necessary with the impossible.” Can we humans reconcile the often contradictory qualities of our behavior, the messes that we so often find ourselves in when having to face the consequences of poorly thought out choices in life? Perhaps when one perceives from the View from Nowhere, one’s previously contradictory axiomatic choices that once reduced life to a series of tautological propositions, come clear, and the ability to understand what has previously been a mystery is unconcealed.

At the end of Goldstein’s book, a Harvard debate between her protagonist, Cass Seltzer, and a religious apologist argue the proposition: “Does God exist?” Goldstein shows us that a line in the sand cannot be drawn with precision when Cass concludes his argument with the claim that while an objective point of view from the View from Nowhere is available to us all, each individual is ultimately responsible for its own moral choices.

In her appendix, Goldstein exposes flaws inherent in the weaker arguments one hears from theists (from the Cosmological Argument to the Argument from Pragmatism (William James’ Leap of Faith), but she also points out the flaws in reasoning within more subtle claims, such as The Argument from the Fine-Tuning of Physical Constants and The Argument from the Hard Problem of Consciousness. 36 Arguments for the Existence of God not only delivers what the freethinking reader wants from a philosophical novel, but is a must-read for any skeptic who wishes to arm him/herself with thoughtful ammunition in the ongoing battle to end religious irrationality.

In particular, within the Argument from the Intelligibility of the Universe, Goldstein examines the idea that perhaps no answer exists to certain hard questions. Although I suspect that Ms. Goldstein shares Thomas Nagel’s view that Wittgenstein is a philosophical idealist, I think that he mirrors her sentiments as evinced in one of his aphorisms at the end of the Tractatus when he writes, “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer.”

Goldstein evocatively concludes her own book thus: “Maybe some things just are (“stuff happens”), including the fundamental laws of nature. Philosophers sometimes call this just-is-ness “contingency.” Perhaps in the end, we are all humbled by “the brutality of incomprehensibility that assaults us from all sides.” Perhaps indeed.

About the author

Maia Caron is author of the soon to be published book Conversations with Eddie Other, a philosophical novel about why the world of the persona is upside down and how only the individual can right it again, and what this portends for theology and theistic arguments for God’s existence.

Recommended by Amazon

10 Comments

  1. N.R.G. says:

    Just a small clarification regarding Ms. Caron’s short discussion of Kabbalah in her otherwise intelligent, interesting and thoughtful review. Not that skeptical readers will be that interested, or even react to this so positively, but I offer it just for the sake of clarity.

    The 36 Righteous are not called “Lamed-av”, but rather “Lamed-Vav”. Lamed and Vav are both letters in the Hebrew alphabet (Aleph Beit, the first two letters); Lamed is the 12th, and Vav is the 6th. Regarding the first ten letters of the alphabet, their ordinal position equals their gematrial value, hence Vav = 6. The values for the 11th through 20th letters, however, increase by tens instead of units, hence the 11th letter Chaf = 20, and our 12th letter Lamed = 30. “Lamed-Vav”, therefore, equals 30+6=36.

    From the 20th letter onwards, the increase is by hundreds. So between the 22 regular letters and the special end forms for five of them, we have values from 1 through 900. The name for the first letter Aleph, which equals 1, can also be read Eleph, which means 1,000, closing out the set of units, tens and hundreds by returning to the beginning. Works out nicely, doesn’t it?

    So how does 36 symbolize “two lives”? Because the word in Hebrew for “life” is Chai, made up of the 8th and 10th letters Chet and Yood, totalling 18. And two lives equals 36. Charity is often given in multiples of 18, as a reminder that the money should improve our lives.

    Now, to the Ayn Sof. I offer this explanation both admitting a lot of ignorance about the concepts, and without taking a position regarding their truth or falseness. For a long time, I did believe all of this to be true, but recently I’ve become skeptical (which brings me here!).

    The “divine presence” is usually called the Shechinah, not Ayn Sof. Ayn Sof literally means “without end” – and implicitly, without beginning. In other words, the boundlessness and eternality of God. Shechinah, on the other hand, means “Indwelling (Presence)”.

    According to my very limited understanding, Ayn Sof is unreachable by any created being, so the 36 Righteous wouldn’t “greet” the Ayn Sof, but rather a “closer” spiritual reality, God throughout remaining “One”. “Presence” implies being perceivable and accessible, which is not the case with Ayn Sof. At this level, God can only be described by what It is not (hence boundless, endless, etc.), not by what It is.

    There is much wisdom in the Kabbalah. The question is, do we need a God for it to be so…

    N.R.G.

  2. Rumbles says:

    It is a shame that Caron’s review becomes more of a prologue for her own, soon to be published, book.

    The second shame, and great surprise for that matter, is that skeptical philosophy, according to this article, looks so similar to western new age mysticism or its eastern parent religions.

    Is skeptical philosophy really akin to new age belief? The nothing seems akin to a higher plane or the divine; the answers found, or the key to reaching that place found, in the mind or within. Wow, what similarities.

    The article debunks religious thinking using logic and then copies religious thinking towards “nothing” in order to find meaning. Seriously? Is this a surprise to anyone else? The two groups may believe they are coming from very different places, but they sure read like country cousins in this article; and both seek meaning.

    It makes sense culturally that western new age beliefs have been influenced by western rational philosophy. But is it possible that the reverse is just as true? Or, are these two polar opposites of thinking really saying the same thing in different ways? Caron’s article reads like they are.

    • MFG says:

      “Are these two polar opposites of thinking really saying the same thing in different ways?”

      Well, what if they are?

      Perhaps the opposites are not such opposites after all?

      Or, pushed to their extremes, meet?

      Perhaps it’s a mistake to categorize the admission of mystery as a “new age belief”?

      Indeed, are we to characterize Wittgenstein as a “new age believer” for recognizing the limits of logic?

      Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to Goldstein’s and Caron’s books, both.

  3. Brock says:

    Stop the nonsense already! Philosophers are caught in the cages of their self-created “rules” of logic–in addition to the limits imposed by their own singular lack of experience. The “world” is! I am! If I touch you or drop a rock on your foot, you will know you and I exist. Will breaking a bone or burning your home be any more “real”? If you or I disappear, the universe will get along just fine, thank you. Hundreds of millions of people have been deliberately killed by other people and the “laws” of the universe remain unchanged. We can know there is no such thing as a god because none is necessary to account for all phenomena. Get over it! get on with it! As for “mystery”-of course there is more to learn-isn’t that the most wonderful news? Creating worlds that don’t exist is called fiction–enjoy it as such.

    • MFG says:

      That was my point, basically.

      We may never be able to “explain” absolutely everything, but life goes on, right?

      Admitting as much doesn’t make you a “new age believer.”

  4. Eliezer Pennywhistler says:

    It’s a bit of a side issue, but I need to correct two of your comments on Jewish mysticism.

    1) While “36” does equal “two lives” in Kabalistic numerology, it refers to the entwining of two lives (and all the implications thereof).

    2) NRG is right –“Lamed-av” is really “lamed-vav”. (Lamed-av would mean something like “learned father”).

    3) The notion of the 36 is not Kabbalistic, but Talmudic. (Specifically TractateSanhedrin 97b and Tractate Sukkah 45b.)

    4) Lamed-vavniks do not greet “Ayn Sof”. Ain Sof is that non-physical part of Divinity that humans cannot reach. What the Talmud says is that in every generation 36 holy people “greet the Shechinah” – the Divine Presence that interacts with Creation.

    4a) It may be worth mentioning that the notion is poetic and mystical. It is not meant to be taken literally.

    4b) The role of the 36 hidden righteous is to justify Humanity in the eyes of God. For the sake of these 36, God preserves the world (even if the rest of Humanity has sunk to the level of total barbarism).

    The twin implications of this tradition are that 1) the existence of the Universe may just depend on your ethical conduct; and 2) all people have hidden depths you might not perceive and might never know about, so you should interact with every other person as if the Universe depends on them.

    • N.R.G. says:

      E.P. – 1) I hadn’t heard the idea that the two lives represented by 36 are necessarily intertwined, but it sounds nice. Source?

      3) Thanks for the confirmation. I never thought that I’d learn some Torah here! (source fo the 36.)

      4) What is the “physical part of divinity” – JC? Not according to Judaism – God is not physical in any way (if He is at all, that is).

      Interesting that you assume that any one of us could be one of the 36 Hidden Righteous, upon whom the universe depends. The whole idea doesn’t make much sense, but it’s very positive to think so.

      I don’t think that she included Hindus and Buddhists among the “billions of people worldwide who deify the messenger rather than the message.” I think that she basically meant the Christians – although there is a tradition that Abraham gave his other children gifts and sent them to the East. But I thought that Chinese and Indian religions predated Judaism anyway – they just got it “wrong”…

      And I don’t think that she meant that it was the Jews who made the messy translations and misinterpretations – it was everyone else (although wayward Jews could have also).

      P.S. – is there a way to get notification of new comments in a particular thread?

      N.R.G.

  5. Eliezer Pennywhistler says:

    Nearly forgot.

    The paragraph “Biblical scholars would agree that the ancient Hebraic texts were originally written to impart metaphysical truths, but any pure symbolic references have devolved through messy translation and misinterpretation, into a travesty that has rooted a God problem within the belief systems of billions of people worldwide who deify the messenger rather than the message.” makes no sense in English, and gives me a headache just trying to parse it out.

    It seems to imply that Jewish Scripture caused the Hindus and the Buddhists to believe in God. Or caused them to stop believing in God. Or screwed up their notion of God. Or something.

    It also seems to imply that Judaism has no idea how to translate it’s own Hebrew Scriptures into other languages, and has made a big mess of it all. And then forgot how to interpret what their Scriptures say — which created and “rooted” problems in the religious traditions of China, Japan, Vietnam, India, Europe and the New World.

    Busy beavers, those Jews!

  6. Jonathan Lubin says:

    Well, I just finished the book, and it’s hard to see that Ms. Caron and I read the same work. She doesn’t mention at all that it’s hilarious: I laughed so loud while reading it that my partner had to close the bedroom door to get to sleep. Or that it’s a wonderful sendup of academic politics. Or to what extent the faculty baron Jonas Elijah Klapper is exhibited as a monumental philistine and colossal pompous fool.

  7. alan delman says:

    Interesting thought-provoking discussion and commentary with some further evidence of the usual lack of understanding of the history and essence of Buddhism among many skeptics.
    (Michael,need to consider addressing this ongoing gap sometime.)

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