This is point of inquiry for Monday, March 10th, 2014, on Josh Zepps, host of Huff Post Live.
We’ve got a great show today and an equally great sponsor, Squarespace, which is the easy, cheap way for you to build an awesome website that looks like you and feels like you. I know you’ve been meaning to get around to this. I am going to use the site. I’ve been playing around with it and it looks awesome. You can get a free trial and 10 percent off your first purchase by using our point of inquiry offer code, which is inquiry at Squarespace dot com. We are a charity. We appreciate your support. Let’s get this show on the road. This week’s guest is Rebecca Goldstein, a secular philosopher and writer whose books include biographies of Spinoza and Girdle and numerous novels, including 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, a work of fiction. She got her P.H. Day from Princeton and went on to teach the philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, philosophy of psychology and much more. She has visiting fellowships at Brandeis, Dartmouth and Yale. She writes book reviews for The New York Times and the L.A. Times. She was honored as Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association and Freethought heroin by the Freedom from Religion Foundation. And as a fun trivia fact, she just happens to be married to the great scientist Steven Pinker. Her new book is Plato at the Google Plex y Philosophy Won’t Go Away. And she joins me to talk about science, faith and everything.
So you’re a philosopher who writes and thinks a lot about the mind and about psychology and about science and about theology. I suppose one of the greatest traditions in philosophy is the debate over the existence of God. I’m interested in. To what extent you think theological debates actually influence human belief?
I think to some extent, I think some people take them seriously. I myself was raised very religiously. I was raised in an extremely Orthodox Jewish household. And I read Bertrand Russell as why I’m not a Christian. When I was a kid, I don’t know how it got to it. I’ve heard it was a great thing or something. And, you know, and that dismantled arguments for God’s existence that I had thought were fairly powerful.
And what were those arguments that you thought were powerful?
The cosmological argument, you know, why is there something rather than nothing? There have to be a first cause that the ontological argument, you know, they rely on.
You found that that was was thing, that one. I’ve never understood. I’ve never been able to understand in my study the philosophy really about you.
But I got the idea that by definition that a God who doesn’t exist would be less perfect than a God who does exist. I thought it was nifty as a kid. Therefore, he must exist. Otherwise, there would be something that could be more perfect than him. I had an analogy that there are the most delicious green cupcakes on in the universe on the far side of the moon. Yeah, and they must be there. Yeah, because if I didn’t exist, they’d be less perfect than ones that do exist. Since they’re the most perfect ones in the universe, they must exist.
So the formulation I don’t want to get stuck on surely argument.
And I don’t think I actually I did as a kid. I don’t think I knew about that argument on the moral argument was the most important one to me, because that was the one that I heard the most.
You know, growing up in a in a religious household, which is, you know, you need God to ground morality and and Bertrand Russell repeat very succinctly and very elegantly and our counter argument that predates monotheism that goes back to Plato, to his Euthyphro, which shows the impossibility is a knock down.
It’s one of my favorite things at university. The Euthyphro Dilemma. Can you just explain that to us?
Well, so you know, Plato directed to the gods, but we’ll just translate it into monotheistic terms. So. So, yes. So those who say that we need God in order to ground moral truth. And so you ask the following question, does God love what’s good? Giving charity as opposed to committing genocide, for example, does God love what’s good and want us to do it because it’s good? Or is it good? Because he wants it by fiat for no reason. That’s his win. That’s his desire. He might as well as wanted us to wear a pants backwards on Friday, you know, and then that would I mean, clearly the latter that is just a whim of an amoral God, doesn’t crown morality, doesn’t give us morality. It may make us problem pragmatic to do if the boss, you know, the great fascist, what to do. But it doesn’t make it moral. So it’s the first option that God must want us to do it because it’s the moral thing to do. But then there’s an independent reason for its morality. The reason that God wants us to do it is the reason. Let’s discover that reason, and that’s the reason to do it. And God is redundant. There’s no he’s irrelevant.
I once had a conversation about this with that with a colleague who said, ah, but there’s a third option, which is that there are independent reasons why things are good.
But we need God in order to lead us to those reasons and explain those reasons and write them down and show and reveal them to us. There’s no there’s no non theistic way, non theological way to get access to that realm of independent morality.
Yeah. So I would respond in two ways to that. I would say, have you heard of moral philosophy? That is exactly what moral philosophy has been trying to do and has done and has had an impact on us. Such an impact. And this is a second part of my argument that we now read scripture. Oh. Anything new. Oh. Oh, good God. Does it really mean that we want. He wants us to storm the Sabbath breakers and the adulterers and.
But he still cares deeply about gay. About gays. Yes. Yes.
Yes. And of course, you know. And eventually we will through our own efforts, our own moral efforts to understand what’s right and wrong. Be reading. Our children and grandchildren will be reading Leviticus, you know, about the the stoning the gays in the same way that we read Deuteronomy about the slaves. Oh, can’t really mean that. So it’s. No, I mean. The book itself, the good book, is not good. We need our human reason to decide what isn’t literal and what is metaphorical and the way we’ve gotten to that point where we are interpreting those who who care to interpret the good book are what we’ve done is through human reason is through that first option, trying to find out what’s good.
Richard Dawkins talks a fair bit about that as well, about the sort of the marching, the ever progressing vanguard of what is acceptable. I mean, you look at you read texts from as recently as the 50s, let alone the 20s, and the kind of casual racism that is that is just taken for granted. It’s so striking. And that didn’t come from anything like that. Change didn’t happen for any religious reason, happened because of social reasons. To what extent do you think that philosophers like yourself helped to shape that progressive, evolving vanguard of ethics? And to what extent is it just sort of a consequence of people muddling through and getting along? We don’t know.
Why don’t we don’t we don’t mental well. Nobody wants to change their mind. We are such inertial creatures, especially if it’s in our self interest, you know, not to change our minds about serving people in power do not want to change their minds. And it takes as the first step is a very complicated process, I think. But as a first step, if you go back to all of these progressive movements, you will find arguments. You will actually, you know, you will find with slavery, you know, it’s Montesquieu and John Locke and but before John Locke, I mean, Montesquieu, I think maybe should get credit.
But aren’t humans trying this out? Hey, the same logic that applies to, you know, the commitment to our own lives, probably in wanting our own lives to flourish. And those who we identify with probably applies to other groups as well and sort of exploring this. And everybody kind of doesn’t pay terribly most much attention, but it gets slowly gets discussed. I don’t think that arguments all by themselves ever can create change. It has to. Social movements have to. There has to be activism. There’s to be there has to be a motion. We have to start empathizing with the marginalized group. And, you know, in the end, a certain point. Change has happened. But the first step was an argument was a false offical argument, whether it was made by a professional philosopher or not. But it’s an argument. And I think what happens is that the tracks of the intellectual work gets covered over because it becomes an emotional and, you know, political movement. And one forgets, you know, that the first seed was was it was an abstract argument.
And then we can’t even imagine our intuitions change. We can’t even imagine how we didn’t feel that way to begin with.
Right. It becomes common sense doesn’t. You don’t need to think about the initial argument against slavery because it’s so patently it seems like the easiest moral question that anyone could ever encounter. Can you own another human being? No.
Own another human. Because I know, boy, what that took in terms of, you know, first argument, then social movement and, you know, an artist. Also, I think Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe did a tremendous amount for for the Emancipation.
I’m just I’m just thinking since we’re talking about essentially empathy, about. About the philosophy of extending empathy to other people. Yeah. Experiences. How do you feel about the animal rights movement begins. Peter Singer speaks in another. Philosophers speak in similar sorts of terms about if you have a sentiment creature.
Yeah. Then we have to we can’t be speciesist about it.
We sort of have to accept that their right to live free from being tortured for a long period of time and then and then slaughtered simply because we like the taste of them better is probably morally problematic. And we might look back on it 100 years with the same kind of disdain that we currently have for slavery.
I’m really glad you brought that up, because I think that that is, you know, a contemporary example of exactly the process that has been going on throughout history with all of these changes. And when Peter started talking about this about 35 years ago, he thought very eccentric, putting, you know, he’s trying out this 4th of crazy Austrian man.
Exactly. Crazy, I say.
So and and, you know, slowly, slowly, it’s been discussed. It’s turned into a movement. And it is. And it’s very, very and it’s making people comfortable. And. And I do think that the emotions will change or intuitions will change. And I do think actually, you know, our grandchildren will look back on factory farming at the very least and say, how could they? The way we look back at slave owners.
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When your professor in your teaching philosophy of mind or any of these subjects, do you ever encounter religious students who come up to you and express concerns about a secular understanding of this stuff?
Absolutely. I would not be good, Professor, if I didn’t try to. I mean, it would be in fact, you know, I’ve had students I get very uncomfortable in having to requiring a lot of handholding.
And I’m in a very good position to do that because I went through the process that I myself was, you know, very religious. And it’s extremely difficult to get up every morning and pray. To. And now, you know, in fact, I often get up early in the morning and use the time that I used to pray to read poetry, which is that’s the same sort of inward contemplated acting.
Yeah. It’s interesting you say that two went through that process because that presumes that sort of begs the question that they are going through a process that will end in them being a nonbeliever.
And I have seen it happen.
Oh, is it possible for them to be rigorous philosophers of mind and of religion and of psychology and remain devout believers? Oh, yeah.
I mean, there are definitely no serious philosophers who are believers. But I think. Can you reconcile it? Can I reconcile that? It depends how they how they do it. Appealing to this special faculty, the census, to the TARDIS that you know you know, it’s just a sensory fact. And if you don’t have the sense, you know, that Jesus Christ is in your life and is your savior, well, then you’re just, you know, cognitively lacking. And there’s really no argument to me that just negates the entire process of a philosophy and of science, because the only things that can be on the table, it seems to me, if you are a philosopher or a scientist or somebody who signed onto the project of reason. The only thing that’s on the table are facts and arguments that are accessible to everybody who signs onto the project of reason. And you tell me as a nonbeliever, there’s really just nothing to say to you. You know, it’s just you you’re you’re lacking this faculty. You’re just is. It’s it just undermines this entire process.
Yeah. My sense is that it’s unfair because it’s like saying that you’ve got a special radio station that I can’t tune into. Well, then that’s a that’s an unsolvable problem, isn’t it irreducible.
It’s a reducible. And this is one stop. At what point what’s the point in having reason if you’ve got an escape should from it. If there’s a back door out of it. Exactly. You didn’t have it in the first. What exactly?
So it’s just, you know. So two for four for lots of us. So a philosopher to pull this kind of shtick to me is just getting the entire process.
Let’s take it back to laypeople, though, right? Because a lot of the real a lot of the so-called reasons why people are religious I think has little to do with arguments. Yes. Just kind of what I was alluding to this question and a lot to do with a sense that the world would be a very empty, dull, amoral, spiritless place without a sense of the divine. In other words, there’s no equation. There’s a there’s a there’s a false equivalency, I guess, between a sense of uplift and a sense of majesty and the sense of the cosmos.
And that that sense of transcendence that we sometimes get with the doctrines of formal religions. Right. How do you how do you interpret all of those experiences? Yes. Not through the prism of religion.
Well, I mean, obviously, they are they are available to people who are who are secular. And that’s the great the great beauty, the great gift of Baruch Spinoza, whose work really tried to show us that the kind of transcendence, the grand view, you know, viewing the world sub spikier to turn the tide, as you know, under the guise of eternity.
There is nothing a no flimsy yet.
There’s nothing more uplifting then than that point of view.
So I guess a better way to phrase my question is, is have you ever had an experience of trying to convince a religious believer that there that that sense is not necessarily coupled to there?
Yes, I I come from a very religious family and they remain religion that want to go work out for you, you know?
I do think that there are great individual differences among us and that perhaps there are people who need really to feel as if there is a God paying attention to them in order to feel that their life matters, that they are mentally narcissistic when you say it.
Well, that’s really what I know that they need to feel someone is.
Looking at the whole time that the whole time and cares about them, I mean, there’s also the fear of death. That’s another emotional reason. And and, you know, Spinoza gives us very cold comfort. And I mean, there is no afterlife. I mean, obviously. And he know he’s.
Well, that’s I’ll pick you up on obviously. Then, you know, there is a whole range of spiritual belief that is non doctrine, non doctrinal. I suppose one of the largest I think the fastest growing religion in America is is unaffiliated, right? Yeah. With some vague sense of the majesty of everything. I mean, I often say that I’m definitely an atheist towards the claims of formal religions. Yeah. I suppose I’m agnostic towards the possibility that the whole cosmos is constructed in some way with some vast intent that is beyond being fathomed. Is it ridiculous when I mean, why do you say obviously is it ridiculous that our consciousness mightn’t be some weird development that could exist as the disembodied of the mind?
And if somebody from disembodied the mind could exist, I mean, all the scientific evidence, really, we talked to a full of mind about these.
You know, it is that it’s the brain of a lot of people and that they actually prevent.
Eckhart Tolle, you know, interestingly enough, I am going I’ve always turned down the invitation, but David Chalmers Consciousness Conference and I am going to be on a panel with Jim Brown, which is going to be quite interesting. Keiki and Javal John Searle.
This should be really fascinating event, but yeah, no, I mean, I, I find it like it’s possible that there is just one to one correlations between the mind, everything that takes place in the mind and this organic substrate. Um. And so that there is, you know, a disembodied mind. But it it’s coming very, very unlikely as neuroscience is. We’re really understanding the mechanism of the brain. It’s becoming very unlikely.
So when you have divine experiences, when you have those experiences where, you know, I was I was sitting on top of a volcano on Easter Island last year and watching the sunrise and just was overwhelmed with what a religious person would regard being an epiphany.
Yeah, I mean, that’s a point at which I think there’s gotta be something more to all this stuff and to the fact that I am atom’s perceiving atoms that I am that I am, that the universe has created me and spewed me out of a star.
And now I’m self-aware enough to even contemplate that and to look at that star that I mean wonder.
I think I really wondered.
That’s the thing that causes goose bumps for me, that we material things are able to contemplate the universe at large and and learn to interpret what we were spewed out of it. And yet we can contemplate it. We can discover it. We can be moved by the extraordinary beauty of the natural laws, the, you know, the guiding principle of of of physics has been actually ever since. Plato has to me, is look for the most beautiful mathematics. And you’ll you’ll find the truth. And, you know, physicists are still using this. This is this is extraordinary. And that and that is a kind of that there is a grandeur and vision of the world is this door, which is at the end of of his origin.
And for you, it’s there’s nothing compelling about the question. Yes, but why?
Oh, there everything is. Is it completely. So, you know, physicists asking, why is there something rather than nothing, which is a great old metaphysical question is, of course, you know, but I and once I read something, why is that something?
Why does that something develop into a consciousness or why did it in our case?
Yeah. You know, women, it’s not a pretty good explanation, but yes, he does.
And, you know, we’re not at the point of completely being able to understand that. But if you really do think that we are the products of the random processes of evolution, it’s amazing that we know everything. Of course, there are going to be huge gaps in our knowledge. And, you know, it it just seems to me that the God of the gaps just seem it seems to me ridiculous. It’s so arrogant that we can’t explain it. There has to be this other explanation which should be thanking our stars that we understand anything at all. I think that’s the wonder.
Yeah. One of my pet peeves about religion is the false humility of it being the idea that religious people think that that scientists and philosophers are arrogant for claiming to know things.
But then religious people say that all they know is the entire purpose and meaning behind the universe, the origin of the universe. What’s going to happen after we die? Exactly.
Yes, exactly right. And and according to their their imaginative program.
So I think. It’s humbling to to think of us as this part of this universe who are privileged enough to understand as much as we do, and that there’s that’s a transcendent experience. I have a book before the one that I have right now played out.
The googolplex was 36, 36, argues for the existence of God, a work of fiction. The subtitle was very, very important. I got into a lot of trouble when I was unbooked or tour. They did announce the subtitle. They had a bunch of believers thinking they are going to give 30 declaring through the existence of God.
But the first chapter ends with my my atheist author. He’s he’s just kind of almost by accident, published an atheist best seller is really just to to impress a girl and to get a girl. And but he is just he’s standing on the bridge over the fros and Charles River, and he’s just thrown up out of himself with this transcendent experience, the beauty of the river and the water’s rushing through the arches of the bridge. And it looks like a cathedral laid out there. And just, you know, gratitude for what this strange turn his life has made and just utter gratitude toward the universe. And it’s a kind of transcendence. And I’m very, very given to that.
I mean, I think any artist is right. I mean, you know, I mean, as a novelist that, you know, I’m very, very given to that. But it’s. And, you know, when he. But but there was I was really trying to answer in a fictional form exactly this question. You know, can an atheist feel this experience that religious people always put in religious terms? And that’s language that’s always ready for us to to to try to describe this experience.
And so on a practical level, and if we want to spread secularism and secular thinking and and reason and a few ism, what do you make of the new atheists of Dawkins, Sam Harris, Chris Hitchens?
Rest in peace.
You know, there’s a lot of debate about whether or not they unnecessarily antagonize people or whether or not this kind of conversational intolerance towards religious nonsense is something that we should all embrace and make it a little bit more embarrassing to make pious religious claims in public.
Well, you know, as a person who was convinced by Bertrand Russell Healthwatch, I am not a Christian. You know, I have to applaud the attempts to really, you know, go out there and see what’s what’s what’s wrong with these with these beliefs. And that, you know, it’s perfectly possible and the more than possible to be a moral person without religious beliefs. And you know that answering these. These. Answering this back. Putting it on the table. Not treating it as with so much respect, religious beliefs. I’ve got to applaud it. I mean, I was somebody who was was convinced by that. And there were a lotta, you know, young people, kids, people wavering who find themselves to these folks and they’re really changed. So I do think that perhaps not to be so irascible, people don’t like to be told they’re stupid and that really makes people very, very defensive, only curl up and they don’t want to hear. So I’m very, very. I mean, that’s one of the reasons that I wrote that novel, was to put it in terms in an emotional terms. I’m very as a philosopher, I believe a lot in emotions as well, that it’s not just arguments, that emotions have a lot to play. And that’s why, you know, art can be very, very important.
Yeah, I can’t remember who said that. You can’t reason someone out of a position that they didn’t reason themselves into.
Yeah, I think I mean, maybe you can, but maybe art is the gentle way.
It is a tribute to a way of doing it. And I don’t have my you know, so I can’t I hope you don’t mind my quote.
Are already done spinning out of control.
But, you know, he had famously said the concepts without percepts are empty and percepts without concepts are blind. And my paraphrase that I applied to this question that we’ve been discussing all through here is that moral arguments without emotions are hefty, but emotions without arguments are blind, that we really need both of them working together. So sort of coming down very, very hard on the arguments and stressing how stupid you are if you believe otherwise. These are the right emotional tactic.
And what do you make of where American culture is, where the religious right to use the influence that it has?
It’s fine. It’s just I don’t even know. I was just in Uganda.
The most amazing trip. I’m watching Richard Wrangham, who studies the chimps, watching his chimps, whom he’s been tracking for twenty six.
Here is I mean, this was an amazing experience, but in Qatar, the religious right has pushed through this anti gay.
This hirable, not the Ugandan religious right. You mean the American jerrycan?
I’m sorry, I didn’t make that clear. It’s the American evangelicals. What is the way of doing this in Uganda?
You know, I mean, it’s to me, it’s you know, it’s absolutely terrifying. And the they’re so politically smart and, you know, they have.
Why do they resonate, though? Why do they resonate?
They don’t resonate, but nearly as much in other educated rich countries.
Yeah, I don’t understand that. Actually, myself, I mean, there are theories about why America is has remained such a religious country because there isn’t a state religion. Right. And so there’s a free market for religions. And Lord knows, they do use capitalist tricks, you know, to to spread themselves. But which is interesting because I again, I’ve kind of Spinoza had thought because he, like Plato, had a dim view of the masses responsiveness to reason. So he actually, like Plato, thought to keep most people in check. You need some sort of religion, but put it in the make it a state religion like the Church of England actually don’t allow the clergy to have power. Don’t allow people who actually take this seriously to have power. But, you know, just just to sort of nice religious thing, religious ceremonies, nobody taking a terribly seriously.
But do you think the middle longer term, it’ll die down in the States? Do you think which which direction do you think the trajectory is headed in? Will we someday be like Denmark, where 60 or 70 percent of the population are completely atheist?
These I mean, Western Europe in general is going that way. Japan has gone this way. I am hopeful that, you know, the US will go that way. But I do think that it’s important for us to be involved with this any way we can.
What are the most useful ways? I mean, one way is argument. And you do that and write books and help people to think about things in different ways. For people who are philosophers and who aren’t writers, but who are out there and who just want to be part of a mission of making America more reasonable.
What do you what do you advise them to do?
Well, there are these many organizations like sort of like the Center for Free Inquiry.
And that is, you know, I think that that’s a terrifically important because it serves many purposes. You know that there are there are organized activities in trying to outreach programs and the joy of the possibilities of life and the joyfulness of life without without God. And a lot of books are being written now about this.
You know, where do you find your meaning and to what extent do you think it’s okay to raise it in public conversations? You know, we talk about, you know, shouldn’t talk about politics or religion around the dinner table. And I say yes. And yet, you know, if someone used the N-word at the dinner table, you would just it would become a topic of conversation. You just wouldn’t stand for that. If someone if you know, if someone was wildly homophobic at at my dinner table, they just wouldn’t stand for. Exactly. In the same way, if someone talks about the literal truth of how much they believe in the creator of the universe. And he sent down his only begotten son and then he rose three days later. It is the price that we have to pay to become more secular, being a little bit more disagreeable.
I think so. And I think that is the great lesson that the new atheists have have have given us. There’s there’s no reason to treat this with kid gloves, especially because it’s a political movement as well as not just private beliefs. It’s a political movement and it’s having real effects. You know, here in this country and certainly on gay rights and, you know, and elsewhere in the world now, it’s having an effect. And so real lives are being are less than they could otherwise P.. So it’s a moral issue, I think.
And you may not even I mean, you’re probably not going to win over the person who is a deep believer, but you might win over some passers by.
Look at exactly here. And here’s the thing that I really want to convince people of, which is that, you know, it’s possible to be a good person with God. Good. I mean, this is a terrible disservice to to all of us. Did you know that we’re somehow we’re all secret? I mean, what are origins are big. I mean, all sorts of dreadful things. So I actually mentioned. Before that, you know, this book there is are the existence, God, and they often left off the subtitle and I was at the Free Library of Philadelphia that, you know, talking about this book and this woman in the audience. I’m going to even just wait until the Q&A. She said we’d meet with him. Are you are you saying you’re an atheist?
How can you why would you say something like that in public? You know, it’s clearly she thought it was like saying, you know, I eat babies or I you know, it wasn’t. Yeah, it was something.
So she thinks it’s Satanist to say, hey, I’ll go insane.
I am a a you know, an immoral person. And so thank goodness, you know, my false offer training the Socratic dialog. All right. And I you know, I just said to you know. You know what? I think you and I really agree more than we disagree on. And I brought up all of these issues, these moral issues. And I said, you know, what do you think of this? And, you know, and here’s what I think about this. And I agree with you. And here’s the reason I have and I gave her purely secular reasons for why I think that these that this is the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do. And it was you know, it took out like the whole time. And but people told me afterwards that it was you know, it was interesting then at the end of when I’m supposed to be selling my books. Right. I see she’s in line. She comes up to me. She hands me a scrap of papers. And I’m not going to buy your book because, you know, I really don’t agree with what you say, but you’re a very nice lady and I want your autograph.
And I thought triumph. She thinks I’m a nice lady. Bridge the divide. We bridge the divide. Something had to happen, you know.
Here’s a nice lady, even though she doesn’t believe in God.
Wonderful. On that hopeful note, Rebecca Goldstein’s latest book is Plato at the Googleplex. Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. Rebecca. Thanks so much. Thank you, Larry. This was fun. Thank you.