36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction

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From the author of The Mind-Body Problem: a witty and intoxicating novel of ideas that plunges into the great debate between faith and reason.
 
At the center is Cass Seltzer, a professor of psychology whose book, The Varieties of Religious Illusion, has become a surprise best seller. Dubbed “the atheist with a soul,” he wins over the stunning Lucinda Mandelbaum—“the goddess of game theory.” But he is haunted by reminders of two people who...

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Overview

From the author of The Mind-Body Problem: a witty and intoxicating novel of ideas that plunges into the great debate between faith and reason.
 
At the center is Cass Seltzer, a professor of psychology whose book, The Varieties of Religious Illusion, has become a surprise best seller. Dubbed “the atheist with a soul,” he wins over the stunning Lucinda Mandelbaum—“the goddess of game theory.” But he is haunted by reminders of two people who ignited his passion to understand religion: his teacher Jonas Elijah Klapper, a renowned literary scholar with a suspicious obsession with messianism, and an angelic six-year-old mathematical genius, heir to the leadership of an exotic Hasidic sect.
 
Hilarious, heartbreaking, and intellectually captivating, 36 Arguments explores the rapture and torments of religious experience in all its variety.

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  • 6 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction
    6 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction  

Editorial Reviews

Ron Charles
Amid the multitude of bestselling books by atheists and apologists preaching to their respective choirs, here finally is an answer to prayer and reason: a brainy, compassionate, divinely witty novel by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein called 36 Arguments for the Existence of God…Goldstein can make Spinoza sing and Godel comprehensible, and in her cerebral fiction she dances across disciplines with delight, writing domestic comedy about Cartesian metaphysics and academic satire about photoelectric energy. 36 Arguments radiates all the humor and erudition we've come to expect from Goldstein…In the end, the novel's thesis seems awfully close to what Cass preaches: Whether or not God exists, in moments of transcendent happiness we all feel a love beyond ourselves, beyond anything. Goldstein doesn't want to shake your faith or confirm it, but she'll make you a believer in the power of fiction.
—The Washington Post
Janet Maslin
…a big, ambitious novel that is nominally about God, although it unfolds on an extremely earthly plane. Overcomplicated yet dazzling, sparked by frequent flashes of nonchalant brilliance, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God affirms Ms. Goldstein's rare ability to explore the quotidian and the cosmological with equal ease…the pleasures to be found in 36 Arguments for the Existence of God are scattershot. But there are a great many of them, and this novel's bracing intellectual energy never flags. Though it is finally more a work of showmanship than scholarship, it affirms Ms. Goldstein's position as a satirist and a seeker of real moral questions at a time when silly ones prevail.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
An “atheist with a soul” is in for a lot of soul-searching in MacArthur genius Goldstein's rollicking latest (Mazel). Cass Seltzer, a university professor specializing in “the psychology of religion,” hits the big time with a bestselling book and an offer to teach at Harvard—quite a step up from his current position at Frankfurter University. While waiting for his girlfriend to return from a conference, Cass receives an unexpected visit from Roz Margolis, whom he dated 20 years earlier and who looks as good now as she ever did. Her secret: dedicating her substantial smarts to unlocking the secrets of immortality. Cass's recent success and Roz's sudden appearance send him into contemplation of the tumultuous events of his past, involving his former mentor, his failed first marriage and a young mathematical prodigy whose talent may go unrealized, culminating in a standing-room-only debate with a formidable opponent where Cass must reconcile his new, unfamiliar life with his experience of himself. Irreverent and witty, Goldstein seamlessly weaves philosophy into this lively and colorful chronicle of intellectual and emotional struggles. (Jan.)
Kirkus Reviews
Madcap novel of ideas, careening between the hilarious and the ponderous. Goldstein (Betraying Spinoza, 2009, etc.), whose fiction and biographies alike reflect her background in philosophy, has certainly chosen a timely topic. Protagonist Cass Seltzer soared from academic obscurity to bestselling renown with The Varieties of Religious Illusion, in which he attempts to refute every basis for belief in God without belittling those who accept them, thus distinguishing himself in the contemporary debate over faith and reason as "the atheist with a soul." For the prior two decades, Cass had "all but owned the psychology of religion, but only because nobody else wanted it." His book's success brings him a write-your-own-ticket offer from Harvard and an even greater reward: the love of the beautiful, formidably intelligent Lucinda Mandelbaum, whose work in the field of game theory he can barely understand. His success also brings him the enmity of his mentor, Jonas Elijah Klapper, who might be a genius but is definitely a messianic crackpot. "The Klap" kept another protege from receiving his doctorate for more than 13 years and once proposed that Seltzer switch his dissertation topic to "the hermeneutics of the potato kugel." Within the novel, intellectual slapstick collides with romantic farce, as the lovesick professor discovers that "romantic infatuation can be a form of religious delusion, too." It builds to a public debate over God's existence that isn't going to make anyone forget Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor and concludes with the titular "36 arguments" that Seltzer's book refutes, filled with such hair-splitting redundancy that one suspects his was one of those bestsellers boughtin great numbers by people who never actually got around to reading it. Always smart and intermittently very funny, but the shifts in tone, leaps in chronology and changes of focus can induce whiplash.
From the Publisher
“Dazzling, and sparked by frequent flashes of nonchalant brilliance.”—The New York Times

“Brainy, compassionate, divinely witty.”—The Washington Post

“[A] literary miracle.”—Maureen Corrigan, “Fresh Air,” NPR

“Rebecca Goldstein is a rare find among contemporary novelists: she has intellectual muscle as well as a tender emotional reach.” —Ian McEwan

“Deeply moving and a joy to read.” —Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
 
“Captivating, original, and at times riotously funny.” —Commentary
 
“Compelling, heady . . . and laced with a deliciously dark wit.” —Boston Globe
 
“Thoughtful, witty, and—I cannot stress enough—really entertaining.” —Christian Science Monitor

"Goldstein can make Spinoza sing and Gödel comprehensible, and in her cerebral fiction she dances across disciplines with delight….36 Arguments radiates all the humor and erudition we've come to expect from Goldstein, and despite the novel's attention to the oldest questions, it has arrived at exactly the right moment. ... One of the funniest [academic satires] ever written. ...Goldstein doesn't want to shake your faith or confirm it, but she'll make you a believer in the power of fiction."—The Washington Post

"When Rebecca Goldstein, the American philosopher-novelist who looks like Rapunzel but thinks like Wittgenstein, was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Award (commonly known as the “genius award”) in 1996, she was praised for her ability to “dramatise the concerns of philosophy without sacrificing the demands of imaginative storytelling”. That is putting her achievements lightly. Her most recent book, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, is a vast….which is nonetheless possessed of a steely intellectual coherence that is frighteningly impressive to behold."—The Times (London)

36 Arguments for the Existence of God affirms Ms. Goldstein’s rare ability to explore the quotidian and the cosmological with equal ease. ...The novel’s bracing intellectual energy never flags. ... It affirms Ms. Goldstein’s position as a satirist and a seeker of real moral questions at a time when silly ones prevail."— The New York Times

“Hilariously irreverent. . . . The draw of transcendental longings, Seltzer discovers, is not to be found in logical proofs but in the accumulated wonder of all that can be encountered in this life: love, family, the sheer privilege of being alive.” —Financial Times (London)
 
 “400 pages of smarts….[36 Arguments] lays out a great range of witticisms, echoes and allusions.”  —London Review of Books

"Like an answer to a fevered prayer. ... Part academic farce, part metaphysical romance, all novel of ideas, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God may not settle the question of whether God exists but it does affirm the phenomenon of literary miracles."—Maureen Corrigan, “Fresh Air,” NPR

“A looping tale [with] affectionate irony about academic life, culture wars, and relationships in turn-of-the-millennium America….[With] the same engaging cocktail of philosophy, roman a clef fun, and scholarly soap opera that marked her earlier books….She shows off all her considerable smarts. . . . Playful, humane.” —The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
 
"The best Jewish woman writing in America today....Her latest, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God is flat out the most gratifying novel—woman's, Jewish, American, whatever—this reviewer has read in many a long reading season. 36 triumphs in a whole bunch of literary subgenres….[It is] a novel whose manifold delights can only be hinted at in a review. 36 Arguments for the Existence of God is brimming with richly realized characters, brimming with ideas, brimming with life."—The Jerusalem Report

“[Goldstein] has taken on some of the deepest, philosophical questions of human existence and shaped them into a page-turner at once funny and heartbreaking and challenging and—yes—proves that there’s no such thing as ‘too smart’ to write a terrifically engaging novel.” —Moment Magazine
 
"When a writer is as clever as Goldstein, it does not seem fair that she should also write with charm, humour, and emotional acuity. But that is the package on offer in this ingenious and heartwarming novel. ... A delightful novel, which could be one of the literary hits of the year."—The Mail on Sunday (London)

“A remarkable novel—as entertaining as it is illuminating—savagely funny in its characterizations, brilliant in its contemplation of the self and the sublime. This is a timely and timeless book, and definitive proof of Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s protean intellect and engaging talent.”—Jess Walter, author of The Zero

"An enjoyable feast of ideas that also serves as a very funny satire on the politics of campus life."—Times Literary Supplement (London)

"Thoughtful, witty, and—I cannot stress enough—really entertaining, 36 Arguments is part campus comedy, part romantic farce, part philosophical treatise. It is also, without question, the smartest kid in class…. Not since The Tao of Pooh has philosophy been so much fun."—Christian Science Monitor 

"Rebecca Newberger Goldstein does it all. She has written a hilarious novel about people’s existential agonies, a page-turner about the intellectual mysteries that obsess them. The characters in 36 Arguments For the Existence of God explore the great moral issues of our day in a novel that is deeply moving and a joy to read."—Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything is Illuminated

"A tour de force showcasing Goldstein’s intent intellect and vast knowledge."—The Daily Beast

"Goldstein’s glorious novel celebrates the perils, pitfalls and profound joys of a life of the mind and spirit."—Jewish Chronicle (London)

 “Goldstein is a brilliant exponent of her subject, and she has crafted a story that is caustically irreverent, yet provocative and informative without being completely didactic. And….by the end, 36 Arguments is also deeply touching.”—Boston Globe

"Satire with a soul."—Chronicle of Higher Education

“Triumphant….With wicked comic genius, the book masterfully manipulates philosophers and their principles, kabbalistic literature and its acolytes, and a whole series of paradoxical ideas that live, breathe, and take on lives of their own.” —The Jewish Week  
 
“[36 Arguments] prove[s] that you can be both smart and funny, that Albert Einstein and Albert Brooks have a lot more in common than their first names. . . . The payoff is sublime.” —Chicago Tribune
 
“In elegant and often hysterical prose. . . . [Goldstein] leaves us with a way to think about what having a soul might actually mean.” —The American Prospect
 
“A charming story, deftly told, crackling with intelligence.” —Huffington Post
 
“Highly entertaining. . . . Clever and witty. . . . [With] delightful characters. . . . 36 Arguments for the Existence of God will give you lots to laugh about as well as lots to think about.” —Psychology Today
 
"Impressively succeeds in combining esoteric philosophical argument and laugh-out-loud humour. ... The cleverest and most entertaining novel I have read for a long time."—Robert Colbeck, Yorkshire Evening Post 

"Goldstein is, as always, a lovely and thoughtful writer. Her respect and understanding for her characters might well earn her the epithet 'philosophical novelist with a soul’."— New Scientist

"[A] greatly entertaining novel."—Daily Mail (London)

"A high-energy caper in which religion, relativism, passion, and primitivism meet in the brainy collisions and collusions of a best-selling scholar, ex-lovers, rabbis, cosmologists, and one tiny math prodigy."—Elle, "Trust Us: This Month's Quick Picks,"

“A hilarious novel that will add fuel to the debate that Richard Dawkins has made a million-pound industry. Rebecca Goldstein has penned a great story that will steal some of Dawkins’ action….An intellectual delight.” –The Bookseller (UK)

“This novel brims with ideas about the nature of religion and how humans interact with it….It’s refreshing to read a novel so bursting with intellectual rigor.” –The Big Issue

“A bonbon for both intellect and funny bone, 36 Arguments is a delicious entertainment.” —Montreal Gazette
 
 “Fascinating. . . . Funny. . . . Effervescent and knowing. . . . A lovely dream.” —Jane Smiley, Los Angeles Times

The Barnes & Noble Review
The first decade of the 21st century will be remembered as a time of polarized debates between the new atheists on the one hand and the religiously fervent on the other. Few books have explored the fertile nexus in the middle, praising paradox, celebrating uncertainty, and enjoying the numinous without committing to any sacred particulars. Rebecca Goldstein's novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God stakes out its territory in this middle ground, illuminating questions of faith in a tale set in the corridors of academia.

At the center of Goldstein's story lives Cass Seltzer, a young professor launched into academic fame by the unexpected popularity of his book on the psychology of religion. His book has dismantled 36 famous arguments that have commonly been put forward to prove God's existence. These include the Cosmological Argument (God must exist because everything that exists must have a cause), the Argument from Design (beautifully designed things must have a designer), and the Argument from the Beauty of Physical Laws (the laws of nature are intrinsically beautiful). Cass pens his masterful counterarguments (which Goldstein includes as an appendix to her novel) only to demonstrate that the "most thorough demolition of these arguments would make little difference to the felt qualities of religious experience." Because of his insistence on the genuineness of the spiritual impulse, the media have dubbed him "the atheist with a soul."

For all his newfound success, Cass is ill-fated in love. His first wife, a poet who captured him with her words, becomes wordless from a stroke and finally leaves him. His current partner, Lucinda, is an expert in game theory who views relationships as she does economics. For her, everything is a zero-sum game: when one gains, another loses. Cass is victim to women who possess "savage certainty."

Beyond the women in his life, his deepest admiration is reserved for his thesis adviser, Jonas Elijah Klapper, a fleshy and egomaniacal professor whose capacious mind absorbs everything in the academic canon and beyond. His genius is matched only by his pomposity; his deprecation by others is counterbalanced by Cass's fathomless esteem.

We also meet a six-year-old mathematical genius, Azarya, the long-haired heir to the Hasidic rabbinate. He is born as one who already knows the world, understanding prime numbers before he ever learns the name for them (he calls them angels, because that's all his parochial vocabulary permits). A few readers may find Azarya's mathematical acrobatics a little incongruous in a book of fiction, but the author would presumably assert that this is the nature of the modern world: there is no reason novels should respect traditional subject matter boundaries.

Via these characters -- especially Professor Klapper -- Cass rides through a landscape of great thoughts and great thinkers, with chapters alternating between his preparations as a young graduate student and his lift-off as a high-profile professor. With Goldstein's vast knowledge animating her characters' discussions, we find ourselves on a whistle-stop tour though baroque and fascinating niches of human knowledge, from poetry and philosophy to religion and science.

The story is firmly rooted in the customs of American academia, and Goldstein's readers play the part of anthropologists studying this illustrious but bizarre culture. Even more specifically, Cass's world is a very Jewish academia in which the colorful details of gastronomy, name change, scholarly achievement, rabbinic ancestry, and ornate traditions provide a rich palette.

Love, loss, and ambition keep the plot moving at a good clip, but the story is really about the characters' inner lives. As in Goldstein's previous books, characters wrestle with questions of ethics and faith. The theme of messianism runs strongly through the book, and the subject attracts the brilliant Klapper, who points out that "for the Hasid [a messianic sect of orthodox Judaism], the ordinary is already brimming with the extraordinary." And this is what we take away from Goldstein's writing: a magnification of the beauty in the details. She turns her focus on the ordinary and brings millennia of philosophy to light it up. As Cass would put it, this is the religious experience outside the traditional house of worship.

To my mind, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God is both post-religion and post-atheism. Goldstein is not impressed by dogma from either side but instead explores the world of meaning in the middle, balancing her work between the scientism of the ivory tower and the numinous experience of the pearly gates. She uses literature to battle savage certainty.

One enjoyable aspect of this book is its stylistic freedom: scattered through the text one finds prime number triangles, stretches of Hebrew, and rational-actor matrices; some chapters consist of nothing but short email conversations, as tight as poetry. This liberty of design provides a canvas of the modern age, in which letters and numbers and game theory and electronic missives live side by side in the background vocabulary.

Goldstein majored in philosophy -- as an undergraduate and then as a Ph.D. candidate -- and went on to teach the philosophies of science, mind, and psychology. The breadth and depth of her knowledge are obvious in 36 Arguments for the Existence of God; she flexes all her muscles to construct a rich matrix of ideas, spanning the history of Jewish orthodoxy, Arnold's "Dover Beach," primitive Amazonians, and Qabalistic opinions on potato kugel. When Goldstein won a MacArthur "Genius" fellowship in 1996, the granting committee wrote that "her novels and short stories dramatize the concerns of philosophy without sacrificing the demands of imaginative storytelling." And that is as true in this book as it is in her others, which have covered the spectrum from fiction (The Mind-Body Problem, The Late-Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind, The Dark Sister, Strange Attractors, Mazel, Properties of Light) to philosophy (Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt G?del and Betraying Spinoza). Goldstein has said that she believes literary fiction to be "remarkably suited" to grappling with the problems of objective truth and subjective needs: philosophy and science do not have a lock on these questions.

This is her finest fiction yet, celebrating her uncommon ability to marry rigorous scientific thought to the philosophy of what matters. She's a connoisseur of the sciences, but she also campaigns for what lies beyond their ken: questions of humanity, humility, faith, admiration, lunacy, and love. She exploits the structure of the novel for a multi-pronged approach to knowing the world. Often humorous, sometimes heavy, always enlightening, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God is a book of astonishing scope and beauty, one in which the brilliant Goldstein takes us on a journey that is as emotionally satisfying as it is intellectually expansive. --David Eagleman

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine and the author of Sum, a bestselling work of literary fiction translated into 21 languages.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307378187
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/12/2010
  • Pages: 402
  • Product dimensions: 6.46 (w) x 9.58 (h) x 1.36 (d)

Meet the Author

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein received her doctorate in philosophy from Princeton University. Her award-winning books include the novels The Mind-Body Problem, Properties of Light, and Mazel, and nonfiction studies of Kurt Gödel and Baruch Spinoza. She has received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and Guggenheim and Radcliffe fellowships, and she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2005. She lives in Massachusetts.

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Read an 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.

For thirty-five weeks now, Cass has had the privilege of acquiring this intimacy of information regarding Lucinda Mandelbaum: her rituals of brushing and flossing and exfoliating and lotioning; the facts that she gets hiccoughs if she eats hard-boiled eggs too quickly and that her cold hands and feet are the result of Raynaud’s syndrome; that she had spent her junior year of college at Oxford and had acquired a taste for certain British products that she orders from a Web site called British Delights; that as a girl she had wanted to be either a concert pianist or Nancy Drew; that she sometimes makes a whole dinner of a product called Sticky Toffee Pudding, is mildly libertarian in her politics, and gasps always with the same sound of astonishment in lovemaking.

How is it that Cass Seltzer is intimate with the texture of Lucinda Mandelbaum’s life? His election—in that old crazy Calvinist sense, about which Cass knows more than a little—is absolute.

Suspended here above the ice-stilled Charles, he pictures Lucinda asleep, her mouth slightly open and her delicate eyelids fluttering in dreams—oh, make them happy!

She usually falls asleep before him, and the sight of her sleeping always wrenches his heart. All that mental power temporally suspended, her lashes reclining on the delicate curve of her high cheekbone, her fluffy ash-blond hair released from its daytime restraints and spread fragrant and soft on her Tempur-Pedic pillow. He sees the little girl she must have been. He sees the phantom child yet to be, materializing before his mind with her mother’s incandescent skin and hair, her gray eyes outlined in blue and lit with points of fierce intelligence. Watching Lucinda sleeping or absentmindedly playing with a strand of hair while she scratches out the esoteric symbols of her science, or leaving his front gate—with its sign left over from the previous owners, “Please close the gate, remember our children”—the force of the fantasy catches him off guard.

Nobody out there is keeping the books, of course, but maybe he’s earned the right to such happiness? Maybe the years he’d given up to mourning Pascale have paid out a retributive dividend? No. He knows better than to believe in such hocus-pocus, nothing else but more spilled religion.

Pascale’s absurd scarf mummying him up to his rimless glasses, he hadn’t thought much about where he would go at this hour and had headed straight for Harvard Square and then down to the river, and then up onto Weeks Bridge, dead center, which seems to be the spot that he’d been seeking.

The night is so cold that everything seems to have been stripped bare of superfluous existence, reduced to the purity of abstraction. Cass has the distinct impression that he can see better in the sharpened air, that the cold is counteracting the nearsightedness that has had him wearing glasses since he was twelve. He takes them off and, of course, can’t see a thing, can barely see past the nimbus phantom of his own breath.

But then he stares harder and it seems that he can see better, that the world has slid into sharper focus. It’s only now, with his glasses off, that he catches sight of the spectacle that the extreme cold has created in the river below, frozen solid except where it’s forced through the three arches of the bridge’s substructure, creating an effect that could reasonably be called sublime, and in the Kantian sense: not cozily beautiful, but touched by a metaphysical chill. The quickened water has sculpted three immense and perfect arches into the solid ice, soaring fifty or sixty feet to their apices, sublime almost as if by design. The surface of the water in the carved-out breaches is polished to obsidian, lustered to transparency against the white-blue gleam of the frozen encasement, and, perspective askew, the whole of it looks like a cathedral rising endlessly, the arches becoming windows opening out onto vistas of black.

Standing dead center on Weeks Bridge, in the dead of winter in the dead of night, staring down at the sublime formation, Cass is contemplating the strange thing that his life has become.

To him. His life has become strange to him. He feels as if he’s wearing somebody else’s coat, grabbed in a hurry from the bed in the spare bedroom after a boozy party. He’s walking around in someone else’s bespoke cashmere while that guy’s got Cass’s hooded parka, and only Cass seems to have noticed the switch.

What has happened is that Cass Seltzer has become an intellectual celebrity. He’s become famous for his abstract ideas. And not just any old abstract ideas, but atheist abstract ideas, which makes him, according to some of the latest polls, a spokesperson for the most distrusted minority in America, the one that most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.

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Foreword

1. This novel takes the reader straight to the heart of one of the major debates of the present day, the clash between faith and reason. Why do you think Goldstein decided to write about this topic in novel form, rather than non-fiction?

2. A reviewer in Booklist described this novel as being about “love in all its wildness.” How is this novel about love? What kinds of love?

3. Do the events in the novel prove Cass right in his claim that the religious impulse spills over into non-religious contexts?  How do the various episodes bear out Cass’s belief? 

4. Do you consider Cass to be, in some sense, a religious man?  Is he a spiritual man?  Is there a difference?

5. Did Azarya make the right decision, given that his father had died?  Had his father not died, do you think his decision would have been different?  Should it have been? Do you think that Azarya is a hypocrite, a saint, or something in between?

6. Had you guessed whom the emails were from?

7. Why do you think the author chose to make Azarya a mathematical prodigy?

8. Who won the debate, Cass Seltzer or Felix Fidley?  Who do you think had the better arguments? Why do you think the debate came to focus on the issue of morality? 

9. Was Lucinda’s decision concerning Cass understandable?  What kind of a woman was she? Is she a sympathetic character or not?

10. Religion is an immensely serious topic and yet the author chose to write her novel in a mostly comic vein.  Why do you think she did that?  What role does humor play in the novel?  Is her humor sometimes cruel? 

11.There are various “tribes” in the novel: the Onuma that Roz studies, the tribe of students around Klapper, the Valdeners. How do these tribes compare with each other?

12. Why does Goldstein tell her tale in the third person, rather than Cass’s first person voice? Are there any times when she leaves his perspective and enters the mind of other characters?

13. Many of the characters of the novel are struggling with finding meaning in their lives and deciding which paths to take. Do any of them succeed?

14. Which of the 36 arguments is the most convincing?  Why do you think the author included the appendix?

15. Why does Thomas Nagel’s idea of the “View from Nowhere” resonate so deeply with Cass?  Have you ever experienced anything like the ecstatic sense of getting outside of yourself that Cass describes throughout the novel?  Did you know what Cass was talking about with his “Cass here/Jesse there”?

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

1. This novel takes the reader straight to the heart of one of the major debates of the present day, the clash between faith and reason. Why do you think Goldstein decided to write about this topic in novel form rather than nonfiction?

2. A reviewer in Booklist described this novel as being about “love in all its wildness.” How is this novel about love? What kinds of love?

3. Do the events in the novel prove Cass right in his claim that the religious impulse spills over into nonreligious contexts? How do the various episodes bear out Cass’s belief?

4. Do you consider Cass to be, in some sense, a religious man? Is he a spiritual man? Is there a difference?

5. Does Azarya make the right decision, given that his father has died? Had his father not died, do you think his decision would have been different? Should it have been? Do you see Azarya as a hypocrite, a saint, or something in between?

6. Did you guess who was sending the e-mails?

7. Why do you think the author chose to make Azarya a mathematical prodigy?

8. In your opinion, who wins the debate, Cass Seltzer or Felix Fidley? Who has the better arguments? Why does the debate come to focus on the issue of morality?

9. Is Lucinda’s decision concerning Cass understandable? What kind of woman is she? Is she a sympathetic character?

10. Religion is an immensely serious topic and yet the author chose to write her novel in a mostly comic vein. Why do you think she did that? What role does humor play? Do you find her humor to be sometimes cruel?

11. There are various “tribes” in the novel: the Onuma that Roz studies, the tribe of students around Klapper, the Valdeners. How do these tribes compare with each other?

12. Why does Goldstein tell her tale in the third person, rather than Cass’s first-person voice? Are there times when she leaves his perspective and enters the minds of other characters?

13. Many of the characters are struggling to find meaning in their lives as they decide which paths to take. Do any of them succeed?

14. Which of the thirty-six arguments is the most convincing? Why do you think the author included the appendix?

15. Why does Thomas Nagel’s idea of the View from Nowhere resonate so deeply with Cass? Have you ever experienced anything like the ecstatic sense of getting outside of yourself that Cass describes throughout the novel? Did you know what Cass was talking about with his distinction Cass here/Jesse there?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center e-newsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com.)

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 36 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 36 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 28, 2010

    Harvard or Bust!

    In 1966, Berkley's Michael Scriven gave the world Primary Philosophy, with one chapter devoted to presenting, in a clear schematic form, about twenty traditional proofs for the existence of God and their refutations.

    Now, in 2010, the fictional psychologist of religion Cass Seltzer has catalogued 36+ proofs and their refutations-the larger list attributable to the overtime efforts of creationists to flog their intelligently designed dead horse. Professor Seltzer's book catches the wave of the "neo-atheist" best-sellers and catapults him from the suburbs of Frankfurter (read Brandeis) University to the Valhalla of Harvard.

    Rebecca Goldstein (on whom I've had a slight crush since reading the perfect Betraying Spinoza, even though there's no way I could win her away from rock star cognitivist Steve Pinker) has crafted a novel that explores a few days in Cass Seltzer's life, in which he exults over his academic good fortune and nearly forgets to prepare for the climactic debate with a glitzy theist. (Naturally, this being a contemporary novel, the contemporary narrative digresses into three or four long past narratives, converging on the present.) This "debate"-something like the big sport event at the end of so many movies, with a touch of the "Grand Inquisitor" thrown in-goes to Seltzer. He proves not only that there is no God but, more important, that atheists are just as capable, even more capable, of ethical sensibility and just action as theists.

    The debate is not quite the very end, however. Ultimately, the novel resolves its longest subplot involving the intellectually gifted son of a Hassidic Rebbe who is lured away from the reservation to study at MIT. In this it is an odd echo of one of the best novels of recent years, Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union.

    36 Arguments is a well-made novel by an engaging philosopher/novelist. She has done what many writers try unsuccessfully to do: embody philosophical stances into characters, without reducing the text to dull speechifying. Zoe Heller also does this well in her recent novel, The Believers. Although Goldstein's prose occasionally lapses into Dan Brown territory ('furrowed brow,' "book-lined office"), the dialogue is always crisp and funny.

    And the satire is hilarious. I expect that nearly every person, institution, and place with a fictitious name can be mapped onto a real entity. I love Persnippity New Jersey and the ridicule of Commentary and the neocons. (Too bad The Forward assigned a neocon to review this book.) Everyone can recognize the oversized burlesque of Harold Bloom (The Perversity of Persuasion, indeed!) I wish I were enough in the know to recognize the whole Waltham-Cambridge-New York ensemble. (Is Cass Seltzer Steve Pinker, writer of popular best sellers on arcane subjects?)

    And then there's the Appendix, Cass's schematic for the 36 arguments. Although the charm of this book is to show that the non-existence of God (what Scriven called the presumption of atheism) is largely irrelevant to living a good life, the Appendix is nevertheless a superior bit of philosophical pedagogy, and should be required reading for every professor and undergraduate, in every department. And the Internet being what it is, the Appendix will inevitably become universally available. Some day it may even be denounced in religiously-oriented schools, by people who entirely misread her book, much as Spinoza was denounced in the Orthodox school Ms. Goldstein attended

    5 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 19, 2010

    Wonderfully challenging read!

    First I must say: I LOVED this book. I will not pretend I understood all references to history, philosophy and religion. But it did not prevent me from relishing the story and intellectual stimulation of the book. Obviously, it is a challenging read, but also very inspiring and touching. Great characters, great storytelling. Read the appendix with 36 arguments first, so you can enjoy references to it in the text. Also, the appendix is the reason I want to have this book in my permanent library. It does not matter if you believe in God or not - this book poses great questions for both sides. If I were a writer I would want to write like Rebecca Goldstein.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 22, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I am not a masochist

    I have rarely given up on a book but this was one. Reviews led me to believe it would be thought provoking; it was mind numbing! The author's style was pompous, with run on sentences and vocabulary that appeared only to be for the purpose of impressing. Sorry, but I cannot recommend this book.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 20, 2010

    Poorly written

    This is the most disgusting book I have read in years. 35 word sentences do no keep me interested. A real waste of money and time.

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 27, 2011

    What a great and challenging read

    Took this book on vacation with me and could not put it down. I appreciated the ideas, the characterizations and the story equally. I am not even close to an intellectual, just a stay at home mom. There were pages that I had to read two or three times to clearly understand the arguments and ideas being posited. That said, loved the challenge. It is not a quick or easy read, but was totally worth the effort, to my mind.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2010

    Save your Money

    Looked interesting on shelf-looks are deceiving-fell asleep on 1st
    page.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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