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Reason and its Limitations

The Princeton University philosopher says the only God that really makes sense is Spinoza’s.

Rebecca Goldstein

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein graduated from Columbia University, receiving the Montague Prize for Excellence in Philosophy, and immediately went on to graduate work at Princeton University, receiving her PhD in philosophy. While in graduate school she was awarded a National Science Foundation Fellowship and a Whiting Foundation Fellowship. As well as her teaching work she is also a writer whose novels and short stories dramatise the concerns of philosophy.

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Your first book is Middlemarch, by George Eliot.

Many people will be familiar with this book. The main story concerns a young woman named Dorothea, who is very hungry for an intellectually and spiritually expansive life, though she’s not quite sure how to secure it. Given the time that she lives in, her first thought is to marry the man who can teach her the most, and this leads her to make an unfortunate marriage with the dry pedant Mr Casaubon. Casaubon turns out to be not only an impoverished thinker but a rigid and small-souled person. So it really is a book about her bucking convention and living with the consequences, and slowly finding her way toward moral clarity.

George Eliot was not only a great novelist, but a fine philosopher. You feel, underneath the workings of the plot, a very good philosophical mind thinking things out in a very original way. Only very recently, when I was writing something on Spinoza’s literary influences, did I discover that George Eliot had translated Spinoza’s work from the Latin into English. She only decided to turn to literature after she finished translating The Ethics. So here are these two great writers whom I love, Eliot and Spinoza, and Eliot had loved him. Still, Spinoza didn’t think much of the imagination. He didn’t think that it could be a cognitive instrument, whereas Eliot did, and you can sense her arguing with him through her fiction.

Your next choice is The Ethics, by the man himself, Baruch Spinoza.

He is, of course, one of the great 17th-century rationalists, someone who made all the claims for reason that have ever been made. Reason can not only discover the nature of the world but can make us better people and more spiritually transcendent people! So every claim you can imagine. There is great ambiguity in him. He was called a God-intoxicated man by the poet Novalis. But he was also perhaps one of the most effective atheists of all time. And he was seen that way. He was excommunicated by his own community – the Jewish community of Amsterdam, and he was denounced by all of Europe in his day and well into the Age of Enlightenment.

His conception of reality is so profoundly radical, even today, that the usual concepts of atheist, theist, and agnostic just don’t really fit neatly.

He completely rejects the idea of a transcendent God. He identifies God with existence itself, with the laws of nature and all that those laws yield. It is a very abstract idea of existence and that is what he identifies with God. He doesn’t think that the normal conceptions of God make any sense at all, and he tries to do justice to his intuition, still a viable intuition, that the laws of nature will prove self-explanatory.

And do you agree with him after all your research?

To me the only God that really makes sense, if any of them make sense, would be Spinoza’s God. Identifying God with the laws of nature themselves, the final theory of everything, and the sense of awe this can invoke, which Spinoza called the Intellectual Love of God: that is a conception of God that appeals to me tremendously, as it did to George Eliot, my favourite novelist, which was a surprise.

But you also side with imagination and don’t just go for reason?

Yes, I align myself very much with the argument that George Eliot is making. Imaginatively inhabiting other lives, which is what we do in literature, can induce a great moral growth. She says we have to struggle to know what it is like to be other people, that these acts of the imagination are morally relevant.

Another novel you have chosen is Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince.

Iris Murdoch had been an Oxford don in philosophy and then became a very well respected novelist. A preoccupation with philosophical questions runs beneath her wonderfully inventive plots. With Eliot it’s Spinoza who is looming behind the fiction, and with Murdoch it’s often Plato. And Plato also had no use for the life of the imagination. Like Spinoza, Plato is another chauvinist on behalf of reason. He banished the poets from his Utopia. He is very suspicious of enchantment of all sorts, and art is a profound form of enchantment, as is romance. So he’s wary of both of them, but also he is torn, sometimes allowing himself to entertain the thought that there are truths that one can only get at through both aesthetic and erotic enchantment, and he argues with himself. (I love a philosopher who can argue with himself.) In The Black Prince, Murdoch is carrying forth this Platonic argument.

The Black Prince is about a very ambiguous character, an aging tax collector, who feels himself to have always been a great novelist, even though he’s never written the great novel. He retires, he’s about to write the great novel, but he falls in love with an inappropriately young woman. It is not clear if he is a dirty old man or if he is showing us the path to redemption. Murdoch maintains this ambiguity, which is a very Platonic ambiguity, throughout the whole book.

The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James.

I think I am very drawn to torn souls! James is yet another. This book is about the phenomenology of religion, what it feels like from the inside. James is interested in extraordinary religious experiences, not the humdrum sort, but those that rip a person wide open, reconfigure the world for him. You get the feeling with James that he would love to have one of these extraordinary religious experiences himself. The things he describes are frankly quite mad. These people are perhaps having a revelation or are more likely insane, and James seems to think that both might be simultaneously true. He himself is quite a rational man, but by the way he describes these experiences you can tell that he is longing to have one, too. There is a tremendous amount of pathos and brilliant writing. He is Henry James’s brother and he, too, writes like an angel and like a novelist.

Your final choice is Religion Is Not About God, by Loyal Rue.

I like this book’s title, which is itself a proposition. It is already making a statement, and I think it is a true statement. The book is an attempt to explain why people need religion, why it arose in the first place and what vital needs it nourishes. The explanatory model he employs comes from evolutionary psychology. He is trying to account for what, if any, is the adaptive purpose of religion. Why does almost every society, as soon as it gets to a certain level of complexity, construct some sort of religious mythology, one which merges both cosmology and morality? He locates religion’s origins in our need to feel both personally whole and part of a cohesive society. He goes through each of the religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism – and tries to show the conditions of society in which these religions arose and why they served such a strong adaptive purpose so that they continued to be felt for millennia to be absolutely necessary and true. These were highly successful mythologies – that is the word he uses – because they answered to central goals in living lives that felt more whole and more socially coherent.

And then he asks the question whether the world’s religions are still serving that twin adaptive purpose or have they become counterproductive, and, if they have, what is to take their place?

Tying together all these books, fiction and nonfiction, is the theme of reason and its possible limitations. Spinoza thinks there are no limits on reason. Reason can do it all. But the other four books offer well-reasoned challenges to reason’s hegemony.

March 27, 2010

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