Pinker, Goldstein, Spinoza, Oscar Wilde, the Confraternity of the Fatherless, and Epistemological Perversion

The AHA’s Humanist of the Year Award was presented to Rebecca Goldstein. She has a Ph.D in philosophy, having studied under Thomas Nagel (of “what is it like to be a bat” fame). Her latest book is Thirty-six Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction. That last part is important. (The novel does include an appendix setting forth the 36 arguments – and their refutation.)

Goldstein and Pinker

Goldstein was introduced by Steven Pinker, her husband, author of The Blank Slate and other seminal intellectual blockbusters. (The two greatly admired each other long before they ever met.) Pinker noted that Goldstein writes “novels of ideas,” something that doesn’t usually work out too well, with robotic characters (he mentioned Ayn Rand). But Goldstein, he said, has revolutionized the genre, showing that the ideas that engage philosophers are those that matter in people’s lives.

[A personal note: at the end, I introduced myself to Steven Pinker, and thanked him for having bought my book, The Case for Rational Optimism. “A WONDERFUL BOOK!” he exclaimed, adding that he’ll be citing it in his own next book. That was about as close as I’ll ever get to entering Heaven.]

Goldstein noted that in growing up, her inability to believe felt like a moral failing (though she didn’t try very hard.) She invoked Oscar Wilde, who wrote that he’d like to found “an order for those who cannot believe” – a “confraternity of the fatherless.”

She characterized religion as reflecting a notion that the groundlessness of the belief leaves one free to embrace it on faith, as some sort of triumph. But this, she said, is an epistemological perversion; bad grounds are bad grounds, and there is nothing heroic in such a belief. What’s heroic is to abjure it.

Spinoza -- Was it the hairdo that really attracted her to him and Pinker?

This led her to Benedict Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch philosopher, who sowed the seeds for The Enlightenment. He dreamed of detaching us from the irrational beliefs of our heritage – centered on the idea that one was lucky to have been born in the right group. (Thus, the Jews’ “covenant with God,” and again the Christian concept that “we’re going to Heaven and others aren’t.”) Spinoza wanted us to instead converge on the same rational beliefs, so that the importance of contingencies of birth would wither away. Those are not important, he believed; rather, it’s the ideas we struggle toward.

Spinoza was excommunicated by his Jewish congregation. He was considered dangerous because he showed that God isn’t needed for morality, it’s grounded in human nature. Goldstein called him a “radical secularist.”

And, she concluded, there is no supernatural force that will right the world’s wrongs – it’s up to us – the “confraternity of the fatherless” – acting as full grown-ups – to do it ourselves.




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