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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.

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