Before I met Rebecca Goldstein, I worried she might be snooty. She looks glamorous and brainy in author photos, with long blond hair and an austere expression. She’s an adept in physics and mathematics with a doctorate in philosophy from Princeton. She has won acclaim for her highbrow fiction and quasi-fiction, including The Mind-Body Problem: A Novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, Plato at the Googleplex and biographies of Spinoza and Gödel, two of history’s knottiest thinkers. She’s spoken at Davos, given a TED talk, won a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. In 2015, Barack Obama gave her the National Humanities Medal in a ceremony at the White House. Come on, the woman is entitled to be snooty.
Then I met Goldstein in the fall of 2015 at “The Weirdness of Consciousness,” an event at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Robert Wright, a journalist and old friend of mine, organized “Weirdness.” He loves to dwell on how “weird” consciousness is, hence the title. The announcement stated: “Science can explain the body, but can it explain the mind? The failure of scientists and philosophers to reach a consensus explanation of consciousness has led to a revival of interest in theories once widely dismissed, such as panpsychism.”
Wright chatted with David “the hard problem” Chalmers and Goldstein. She didn’t try to dazzle us with eloquence and erudition, although she was in fact eloquent and erudite. She seemed—no, she was—fascinated by the hard problem, panpsychism and the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics. She was eager to hear what Chalmers and Wright had to say and to share her thoughts with them and the audience. The ideas mattered.
At Barnard she studied mathematics and physics, which she thought would eventually account for everything, including the mind. Then riding a New York City subway car, puzzling over a tract by Hobbes on how matter makes a mind, she had an epiphany. “I’m thinking, ‘Whoa! How does matter in motion give rise to’”—she framed her head with her hands—“‘this! All of this!’ And it just hit me… And it was the most exciting intellectual experience of my life. It was like, ‘Oh, God. It’s not all physics, certainly not physics as we know it.’”
At Princeton she studied under Thomas Nagel, whose 1974 essay “What is it like to be a bat?” reinforced her dissatisfaction with conventional, materialist accounts of consciousness. Few other philosophers at the time were interested in consciousness, and some viewed it as a pseudo-problem. That is one reason why she abandoned academic philosophy and turned to fiction as a means of exploring mind-body conundrums.
She thought science would eventually validate panpsychism. Physicists would show that consciousness lies latent within all matter, just as the exotic quantum properties charm, color and strangeness do. “I’m still a materialist,” she said, “but matter is a hell of a lot more interesting than we used to think it is.”
Goldstein charmed me. Slight, almost ethereal, she listened with fierce concentration, which intensified when she spoke. She leaned into her points, brow knitted, hands thrusting and swiping, as if rearranging invisible ideas. She had one of the night’s biggest laugh lines. It occurred during an exchange over zombies, hypothetical beings that act like humans yet lack an inner life. Goldstein said she suspected certain philosophers, especially hard-core materialists who insist that consciousness is no big deal, of being zombies.
After the public event I joined the speakers for dinner, and I ended up sitting next to Goldstein. She was the same one-on-one as on stage, earnest to the point of nerdiness, endearingly so. When I said I shared her obsession with the mind-body problem, she said she couldn’t understand why everyone isn’t obsessed, because it’s about who we are, really, and who doesn’t care about that?
Binging on her writings afterward, I discovered that Goldstein can be hard on snooty intellectuals. The Mind-Body Problem: A Novel, published in 1983, satirizes academics who view the life of the mind as a competition, who care more about status and clever one-upmanship than truth. But Goldstein is tender toward her targets, too, and she conveys what it feels like to be a smart, ambitious young woman obsessed with the mind-body problem.
The heroine of Mind-Body Problem, Renee Feuer, adores her father, a devout Jewish cantor, but she cannot believe in his God. She pursues a doctorate in philosophy at Princeton, where she discovers, to her dismay, that her colleagues disdain the mind-body problem as trivial or nonsensical. Renee bitterly faults them for “not only refusing to consider the mysteries of existence (which is a position I can understand) but adamantly denying that there are any (which is a position I cannot understand).”
Renee craves understanding of bodies and minds, especially her own, and she wants to be desired, loved, respected. She wants her life to mean something, to matter. But does she matter mostly as a mind or body? As an attractive girlfriend, wife or mistress? An object of desire? As an intellectual trying to solve the mind-body problem? If she isn’t a genius, what is the point of being a philosopher? Of being anything?
At Princeton, what matters is intelligence, as defined by academic success, and “the people who matter most, the heroes, are the geniuses.” Renee venerates genius too, and she even marries one, mathematician Noam Himmel. But she cannot accept a value system that ranks some lives above others. The monotheistic faiths tell us we all matter to God. If God doesn’t exist, how do we matter?
Goldstein returned to this question decades later in Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. The book rebuts the claim of Stephen Hawking and other physicists that science has rendered philosophy obsolete. We need philosophy more than ever, Goldstein argues, to tell us what science means. She imagines Plato on a modern book tour, holding his own in encounters with software engineers trying to automate ethics and brain scientists seeking the neural basis of reason and emotion.
But Goldstein knocks the ancient Greeks for their snootiness, their insistence that you must achieve greatness as a leader, warrior, artist or sage for your life to be meaningful. The Greeks insisted that one “must live so that one will be spoken about,” Goldstein writes. “It is, in the end, the only kind of immortality for which we may hope.” Goldstein calls this stance the “Ethos of the Extraordinary.” You have no hope for an extraordinary life, needless to say, if you are a slave, or a woman. Plato ranked philosophers above all others, and he even asserted, via Socrates, that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
In one scene in Googleplex, Plato’s media escort, Cheryl, rips him for suggesting that “someone who doesn’t have a higher-than-average IQ can’t live a worthwhile life.” She wraps up her diatribe, “A person is a person. Everybody’s life is just as important as anybody else’s, and if you don’t know this simple truth for yourself, then just go ask them.” Plato, after listening carefully to Cheryl, says softly, “Brava.” Cheryl, suspecting condescension, says, “What, are you kidding me?” Plato replies, “Not in the least, that was magnificent.”
I love this scene. Goldstein simultaneously bashes Plato and redeems him, by showing him learning from a woman. But when I recall it now, it’s tinged with irony. Goldstein, who assures the rest of us that we matter, isn’t sure how much she matters.
* * * * *
Goldstein lives in Boston, but when I met her she was teaching at New York University. I interviewed her twice, at an NYU apartment for visiting professors and in an NYU high-rise. She seemed slightly different each time, as though changes in locale shifted her personality settings. Or were my settings shifting? The apartment where I first interviewed her was devoid of character. We sat opposite each other at a black circular table. The air around us felt charged, as if Goldstein were emanating an ionizing force, stronger, paradoxically, because she seemed so frail. Or so I scribbled in my notebook.
Goldstein confirmed that she has much in common with Renee, the narrator of Mind-Body Problem: A Novel. Goldstein’s father was a Jewish cantor, born in Poland, who struggled to support his family. Even in a wealthy New York suburb, being a cantor “was a really meager living.” Her father taught bar mitzvah lessons, “but he would never charge people, so they would give him what they wanted.”
After her father died in 1980, neighbors approached Goldstein to tell her about his “secret acts of charity.” He “would have given away his last crust of bread. He was just a very other-worldly, beautiful man.” He remains her “hero,” the person “I most admire in all the world.” For her father, faith meant cultivating knowledge and virtue, which brings you closer to God.
As a girl, Goldstein started asking her father how God could allow the Holocaust and other horrors to happen. “He said, ‘We don’t understand.’ He spoke about free will, people are responsible for their own actions. But it was just too much.” Reading critiques of religion by Bertrand Russell and other skeptics convinced young Rebecca that we don’t need God to be good or have meaningful lives.
She continued observing Jewish rituals for decades. When she was 19, she married Sheldon Goldstein, a quantum theorist and orthodox Jew. He, like her father, asked her to behave as if she believed. She complied until they were divorced in 1999. By then she had given birth to two daughters.
Pretending to believe wasn’t difficult for Goldstein, because she has never been an “exultant nonbeliever.” She loathes the kind of atheist whose rhetoric implies, “Look how much smarter I am than all these believers.” Her loss of faith was painful, “a severance from a tradition I love.” She remains fascinated by, and sympathetic to, “the mystical worldview, the religious worldview.”
Atheists fail to appreciate our primal human need to matter, Goldstein said, a need that probably has deep evolutionary roots. “That’s a condition of human life. Everybody has it.” When we think we don’t matter, we suffer. Religion satisfies this instinctual need. “The Abrahamic religions really solidly grounded your sense of mattering,” Goldstein said, rapping the table. “You matter to God. He’s watching you.”
Unfortunately, the concept of a personal God is hard to reconcile with science. “We know we don’t matter to the universe in a religious way, where we cosmically mattered.” A great achievement of Spinoza and later philosophers was to make the case that all lives matter, whether or not God exists. Kant articulated this principle when he argued, as Goldstein put it, that “every person has to be seen as an end in his or her self, and not a means to an end.”
She noted that evolution has embedded moral impulses and intuitions, including a sense of fairness, in our genes. “This might sound crazy, and I might take it back, but I don’t think morality is actually that complicated,” she said. “Our moral emotions, of outrage, and indignation, that’s there in two-year-old kids. ‘It’s not fair, my sister got more than I did!’” Morality consists in recognizing that others deserve to be treated fairly, too.
Goldstein recalled being at a party when a physicist trying to talk to someone beside her picked her up and moved her aside. She thought it was funny, but another man was outraged that she had been treated so disrespectfully. “So you think, ‘What is it about me that entitles me to be treated with respect and dignity?’” Goldstein said. “If you’re going to make these demands, you have to universalize it to everybody.” She laughed. “Voila! There’s morality!”
Why did she turn to fiction to explore mind-body problems? Why not stick with philosophy? Academic philosophy did not treat her well, Goldstein replied. She suffered from two disadvantages: her interest in consciousness, which was considered flaky, and her gender. “I thought naively after leaving Orthodoxy I would never encounter sexism again.” Some of her Princeton colleagues attributed her interest in the mind-body problem to her “religious past” and accused her of being a “mystic.” Goldstein found these reactions “demeaning and infuriating.”
After graduating from Princeton, she got a job teaching at Barnard. But shortly after Mind-Body Problem was published, she was denied tenure. Devastated, she decided to become a full-time writer of “philosophy fiction,” which would “take philosophy just as seriously as good science fiction does.” Plato was a precedent. Although he disparaged poetry, Plato invented characters, dialogue and elaborate metaphors, like the parable of the cave, to make his points.
Goldstein found philosophy fiction liberating. “I don’t have to argue it, or footnote it. I can just say, ‘Here is a possibility. Try to experience this.’” She loves how unpredictably readers react to her work. “I get letters from readers and I go, ‘Whoa! You thought the book was that?’” Her “loose and ragged hold” on her own subjectivity, Goldstein said, allows her to inhabit characters like Hedda, heroine of The Dark Sister, a “belligerent feminist” over six feet tall. Writing about Hedda, Goldstein found herself “strutting through my little neighborhood, picking fights.”
As a novelist, she conceives ideas that wouldn’t have occurred to her as a conventional philosopher. One is “the mattering map,” which Renee, the heroine of Mind-Body Problem, invents while brooding over the meaning of life. The map is a vast mental projection of all the things that matter to people, that make their lives worth living. Each individual’s location on the map, Goldstein writes,
is determined by what matters to him, matters overwhelmingly, the kind of mattering that produces his perceptions of people, of himself and others: of who are the nobodies and who the somebodies, who the deprived and who the gifted, who the better to have never been born and who the heroes.
What matters to you might be what matters to Goldstein and other experts in this book, pondering who we are. It might be other forms of mathematical, scientific, philosophical and artistic truth, or enlightenment and other spiritual goals. It might be love, marriage, raising children, helping others less fortunate than you, saving animals, saving all of nature. It might be food, sports, fashion, or the attainment of wealth, power and status, worldly success. It might be thrill-seeking via sex, extreme sports, travel, drugs, violence.
“I never would have discovered [the map] if I hadn’t been thinking like Renee Feuer,” Goldstein said. To her delight, scholars have embraced the mattering map as a celebration of human diversity, of the many ways we live meaningful lives. Many people, unfortunately, see mattering as a competition, with winners and losers. “I’m richer, smarter, more beautiful, taller,” Goldstein said. “I’m the right race, the chosen people, and gender—or in my case the wrong gender.” Competition can be fun, and productive, as long as it does not become an end in itself, a blood sport.
Fiction can help us appreciate that everybody matters, everybody is entitled to create her own version of a meaningful life, Goldstein said. She likes blending history and fantasy, scholarship and imagination, the real and the make-believe. “When people ask me now about my next book—fiction or nonfiction—I just want to say I don’t recognize the distinction any more.” Fiction is especially appropriate for exploring the mind-body problem, “because what is a novel but descriptions of the consciousness of the various characters?”
Those trying to solve the mind-body problem “should be throwing everything that they have” at it, drawing upon all modes of knowledge. “Scientists should be philosophically literate, and philosophers should be scientifically literate, and everybody should be literarily literate.” Goldstein chuckled. One reason the mind-body problem is so difficult to solve is that people have emotional reactions to it. “Temperament really determines a lot of our orientations toward this question in particular.” Some thinkers are “allergic to mystery. They break out in hives.”
This aversion could explain why hardcore materialists downplay consciousness and even deny that it exists. “It’s crazy, right? There can’t be consciousness, because otherwise the universe would be mysterious!” Other scholars, especially in the humanities, revel in mystery, the more the better, and they seem to hope that science will never explain the mind.
Goldstein rejects both these views. Like Christof Koch, Alison Gopnik and other subjects of this book, she thinks consciousness is a profound and solvable mystery. Saying that “matter has not given up all its secrets,” she hoped that scientists will eventually discover a true theory of everything, which accounts for matter and consciousness. The theory must explain “why these had to be the laws of nature,” and it “has to explain us, it has to explain consciousness.” Such a theory “would be amazing, a tremendous triumph.”
This is the sublime truth that Spinoza sought. In Betraying Spinoza, Goldstein describes the philosopher’s personal life in ways that, she suspects, would have horrified him (hence the book’s title). She imagines what it was like to be a 17th-century Jewish sage expelled from his faith for heresy. Spinoza objected to Judaism’s insistence that Jews or any other people are special, or “chosen.” He sought a God, a truth, that is eternal and universal, impersonal and objective, that transcends the messy ephemera of his personal life, and of human life in general. We can rise above our suffering, our mortality, by contemplating this sublime cosmic principle.
Goldstein identifies with Spinoza and his quest for absolute truth, which reflects his faith in reason. She would be appalled if the search for ultimate laws culminated in a “dead end” where—she clapped her hands—“that’s it! These are the laws and there’s no more explanation.” She shook her head. “Somehow that seems like a violation of reason.” And yet reason suggests that such a theory might be unattainable. That is an implicit theme of Goldstein’s biography of Gödel, Incompleteness. Gödel’s incompleteness theorem proved, as Goldstein puts it: “In any formal system adequate for number theory there exists an undecidable formula—that is, a formula that is not provable and whose negation is not provable.”
Goldstein calls the theorem one of three “theoretical cataclysms,” along with the uncertainty principle and relativity, that rocked the foundations of the “exact sciences” in the 20th century. Gödel did not prove that proof is impossible, Goldstein emphasizes, any more than Einstein showed that everything is relative or Heisenberg that nothing is certain. But Gödel’s theorem casts doubt on the possibility of a theory that can explain everything, including itself.
The tragic irony of Gödel’s life is that he was afflicted with severe paranoia, which Goldstein calls “rationality run amuck.” Convinced that someone was trying to poison him, Gödel stopped eating and starved to death. His incompleteness theorem, Goldstein writes, is “darkly mirrored in the predicament of psychopathology: Just as no proof of the consistency of a formal systems can be accomplished within the system itself, so, too, no validation of our rationality—of our very sanity—can be accomplished using our rationality itself.”
Gödel’s interests went beyond mathematics. He had a “fascination with examining the meaning and implications of man-made laws that faintly mirrored his interest in the eternal laws of logic,” Goldstein notes. While studying to become a U.S. citizen in the 1950s, Gödel told a friend that he had discovered a logical contradiction in the Constitution, which made it possible for American democracy to descend into tyranny. Some paranoia is justified.
When I asked how she felt about humanity’s future, Goldstein frowned. We have progressed morally over the past few centuries, she said. Democracy and rights for women and other historically oppressed people have spread, and war and other forms of violence have declined. But she was “horrified” by recent counter-trends in the U.S. and elsewhere. Competitive mattering has run amok. Unrestrained capitalism “makes some people feel as if they don’t matter in this world,” she said.
“A society that doesn’t take care of its most vulnerable is an unfit society.” Goldstein thought we were done with the “moral mistakes” of “racism and sexism and xenophobia and America-first,” all of which assume that some lives matter more than others. But “oh my God here it is again!” She sighed heavily. “The fact that demagoguery can get such a hold of people is terrible to me, and depressing.”
Is optimism a moral requirement for an intellectual? Goldstein glanced at the ceiling, mulling the question over. “No,” she said with a grim smile. “Realism is a moral requirement for an intellectual.”
* * * * *
Spinoza once described his quest this way: “After experience had taught me that all the usual surroundings of social life are vain and futile; seeing that none of the objects of my fears contained in themselves anything either good or bad, except in so far as the mind is affected by them, I finally resolved to inquire . . . whether, in fact, there might be anything of which the discovery and attainment would enable me to enjoy continuous, supreme, and unending happiness.” Emphasis added. Spinoza wanted to escape the cave, to become enlightened.
When I asked Goldstein if she believes that truth—knowledge of yourself and the world—can make you happy, she smiled ruefully. “It hasn’t been my personal experience.” I hesitated before asking the obvious follow-up question, because it felt intrusive, even more than asking about sex. Are you happy? seemed too blunt, so I asked, Do you consider yourself to be a happy person?
Goldstein has a habit of speaking with conviction and then pausing to second-guess herself. Sometimes she affirms her utterance, with a nod and a “Yeah.” Sometimes she qualifies or retracts it. She displayed this trait in response to my query about her happiness. Her immediate reaction was to shake her head vigorously and say, “No.” She does not consider herself to be a happy person.
You seem happy, I said.
“I’m happy when I don’t think about myself.” She reflected. “I tend to obsess about certain things. I’m happy when I’m just thinking, lost in a project. That to me is happiness. But…” Pause. “Like many people, I have a lot of demons.”
A real reporter would have jumped on that admission, pressing for details. Instead I asked, Isn’t philosophy supposed to be consoling?
“It is consoling,” she said, especially Spinoza’s philosophy, which posits that human reason is a microcosm of divine reason, which in secular terms is equivalent to the laws of nature. The payoff of such a worldview is “seeing yourself in relation to the biggest picture possible, and losing yourself in the big picture.” She spoke slowly, cautiously. But the big picture can be terrifying, I said. “It can be terrifying too,” she murmured. “It can be terrifying too.”
She reflected again. “Maybe I should say I’m a happy person. Most people who know me well think I’m a very happy person, so maybe that’s the best judge, right?” Her husband, psychologist Steven Pinker, whom she married in 2007, thinks she is “an extremely positive, happy person, and he probably knows me better than anyone else. So… Yeah.”
You are not the best judge of your own virtue. Others must determine whether you are good or bad. But surely you are the best judge of your happiness, right? Maybe not. Maybe you can be happy and not know it. People with the neurological condition called blindsight insist they cannot see. They are subjectively blind. But toss a ball to a blindsighted person, and her hand will dart out and catch it. Jab a finger toward her eye, and she will flinch.1To my surprise, some mind theorists have questioned whether blindsight is genuine. On April 17, 2017, NYU hosted a debate about blindsight and related phenomena called “Is There Unconscious Perception?” Like many philosophical debates, this one seemed to come down to quibbles about the meaning of terms like “perception,” “knowledge,” “consciousness” and “awareness.” Philosopher Ned Block, one of the speakers, convinced me that blindsight is indeed real.
Maybe blindsight has an emotional analog. You feel sad, glum, blue, but an objective observer would say that you’re actually happy, joyful, glad. Call it bluebliss. Glumjoy. Wait, I have it. Sadgladness. Of course, the converse is more likely to be true: All happiness is delusional. You think you’re happy, but from an objective perspective, you’re not. This would be gladsadness.
Goldstein dramatizes this condition in her novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. The protagonist, Cass Seltzer, a psychologist of religion, shares traits with his creator. He doesn’t believe in God, but he sympathizes with those who do, and he often doubts his own doubt. Cass nonetheless overcomes his self-doubt and demolishes the case for God in a debate at Harvard with a fearsome Christian intellectual. The audience sides with Cass, cheering his lines and laughing at his jibes.
Cass can’t wait to recount his victory to his lover, Lucinda, another high-achieving academic, because he knows how thrilled she will be. As he drives home, he envisions them making love, and Cambridge, suffused with a mystical erotic glow, beams his joy back at him. When he gets home and exults to Lucinda, she receives the news of his triumph coldly. She accuses him of cruelty, of flaunting his success when he knows she is struggling in her career. To his horror, she says she is leaving him and walks out of the house.
An omniscient, objective observer, watching Cass drive home earlier, would have known that his joy is based at least in part on his erroneous belief that his girlfriend loves him. The observer might have concluded that Cass’s happiness is delusional. Cass is experiencing gladsadness. Happiness is fleeting, especially the happiness that comes from worldly success, and from erotic love. So even if Cass’s girlfriend had melted into his arms that night, the omniscient observer, who can see the future, might still have concluded that Cass’s happiness is delusional. After all, sooner or later Cass’s love will dim, his career will slump, he’ll get old and die.2I empathized with Cass. I ended my book Rational Mysticism, which described my quest to discover the meaning of life, with a scene in which I celebrated winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, with my wife and children. This familial, earthly love, I wrote, is what makes life meaningful. I didn’t realize it then, but in retrospect my marriage was already falling apart. I was gladsad, delusionally happy.
And if Cass is right, and there is no God, no heaven—when we’re gone, we’re gone—then what was the point of his life, anyway? From this cosmically objective perspective, this view from nowhere, which is consistent with what science tells us about the world, all human gladness might appear to be gladsadness. Spinoza claimed to have found a way to be genuinely, objectively happy, in spite of death, and life’s vicissitudes, but, assuming he achieved this happiness, maybe he was gladsad too.
When I asked about mortality, Goldstein replied that the death of others, of loved ones, is hard to bear. “My sister died young, that was very hard. And my dad died young, that was hard,” she said. “I’ve lost people. I don’t believe they still exist. I don’t give that any degree of probability.”
In her youth, she briefly confronted the prospect of her own demise. She was swimming at a beach near New York City, and a riptide started pulling her away from shore. Before a lifeguard rescued her, she was saddened but not terrified at the prospect of dying. She thought, “All things die, and this is me. There are going to be a lot of sad people, but what’s to fear? You just don’t exist any more.” Disbelief has its consolations.
* * * * *
Toward the end of my first interview with Goldstein, her voice grew hoarse, her energy waned. She watched me anxiously as I stuffed my recorder, notebook and pen in a backpack. “Is this enough?” she asked. “Do you have enough?” I could have asked her the same question.
When we spoke a year later, I asked what she meant when she said she had “demons.” She replied, “I think it might be a little too deep to…” She paused. “I think they have to do with these issues of mattering.” She is “prone to shame,” she said, as a result of her Orthodox upbringing. “When I get some indication that some people disapprove of me, or think I’ve done something wrong, or think my writing is dreadful,” she hears voices from her past. Goldstein scrunched her face into a theatrical scowl and said in a harsh, hectoring voice, “Why do you do this? Why do you put yourself out there? Who are you to do this kind of thing?’” She smiled wryly. “That is the voice in which my demons speak.”
As Goldstein imagined Spinoza’s inner life, I’ll imagine hers. What is her Rosebud, the key to understanding her psyche? There are plenty of candidates. Her beloved father. Her tortured relationship with Judaism, and with philosophy. But I nominate an unusual, recurrent experience in her childhood. Before I tell you about her experience, I need to remind you of the one I describe at the beginning of this book, when as a boy walking to a fishing hole I suddenly became self-aware.
Before describing it in this book, I’ve never really talked about this incident. It means a lot to me, but it’s hard to explain to others. And so I was stunned when I came upon a passage in 36 Arguments for the Existence of God in which the hero, Cass, recalls a recurrent “metaphysical seizure” or “vertigo” that struck him in childhood. Lying in bed, he was overcome by the improbability that he was just himself and no one else.
“The more he tried to get a fix on the fact of being Cass here,” Goldstein writes, “the more the whole idea of it just got away from him.” Even as an adult, Cass kept asking himself, “How can it be that, of all things, one is this thing, so that one can say, astonishingly, ‘Here I am’”? This passage popped off the page at me. Cass was expressing how I felt as a boy muttering, “I’m me.”
Had Goldstein given her own childhood experience to her fictional character Cass? Yes, she confirmed, Cass’s eerie “vertigo” was hers. Lying in bed as a girl she would wonder, “What is it about me that makes me me… What makes me this and not that?” Goldstein’s voice was hushed, her eyes had a faraway look, she seemed transported back into that state. Underlying the feeling, she said, was the “scary” sense of the “sheer contingency” of reality.
What Goldstein calls “contingency” is randomness, improbability, arbitrariness—or what I like to call weirdness. Why this, of all things? And the weirdness of your own, individual self reflects the weirdness of existence. Why anything? Goldstein suspects people who are “truly bothered by philosophical problems” are more likely to have experienced the vertigo, and I suspect she’s right. If a mystical vision conveys oneness, the confrontation with contingency is anti-mystical, but it feels equally revelatory. Thou art not that.3After reading about the experiences described by Goldstein and me, my friend Richard Kroehling sent me a link to a poem by Peter Handke, “Song of Childhood.” Here is an excerpt, translated from German: When the child was a child, It was the time for these questions: Why am I me, and why not you? Why am I here, and why not there? When did time begin, and where does space end? Is life under the sun not just a dream?… How can it be that I, who I am, didn’t exist before I came to be, and that, someday, I, who I am, will no longer be who I am?
When the child was a child,
It was the time for these questions:
Why am I me, and why not you?
Why am I here, and why not there?
When did time begin, and where does space end?
Is life under the sun not just a dream?…
How can it be that I, who I am,
didn’t exist before I came to be,
and that, someday, I, who I am,
will no longer be who I am?
This intuition underlies Goldstein’s hope that science will one day solve the mind-body problem, the central riddle of existence. She yearns for a revelation that can dispel that terrifying sense of contingency she felt as a girl. She wants science to provide objective, empirical assurance that she, we, all of us were meant to be, had to be. We’re necessary. We matter. But I doubt science can give Goldstein what she seeks. Unlike Christof Koch and Stuart Kauffman, her fellow panpsychists, Goldstein does not feel at home in her self, or in the universe. She has never lost that childhood sense of weirdness. She feels, deep down, like a stranger in this world.
Spinoza sought to escape contingency through contemplation of the eternal, impersonal order of nature, which today we would identify with the laws of physics. Here’s the catch. You need to be extraordinary, blessed with a high IQ, to appreciate general relativity and quantum mechanics, or Spinoza’s philosophy, for that matter. The sublime happiness he offers is accessible only to a lucky, elite few. And even then your appreciation of quantum field theory will probably not protect you from heartbreak, from the contingencies of life as a mortal being, unless you were a cold, snooty jerk to begin with.
Goldstein is not a cold, snooty jerk. She travels through life with scant protection from the elements. She is not the kind of intellectual who looks down on non-intellectuals. She doubts the value of her own work. She doesn’t believe in God or an afterlife. She fears that, in the long run, none of us really matter. Her outlook is so stark, so stripped of comforting illusions, that she doesn’t even view death with horror. The prospect of nothingness comforts her.
Estrangement has an upside. Being at home in the world can blind you to it. Most of us don’t see, really see, the weirdness of things, or, if we catch a glimpse, we quickly forget it, even though it’s always right there in front of us. And what Goldstein called her “loose and ragged hold” on her self makes it easier to imagine being someone else. Goldstein reminds me of Marianne Moore’s poem Nevertheless by. It begins:
you’ve seen a strawberry
that’s had a struggle; yet
was, where the fragments met,
a hedgehog or a star-
fish for the multitude
Goldstein has turned her struggles into art, “philosophy fiction.” She makes ideas come alive by embedding them in characters buffeted by lust, ambition, loneliness, fear, the craving for love, for the world’s approval. But is this enough?
* * * * *
Philosophers, like it or not, have much in common with poets and other artists. Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams don’t impart truth, empirical or ethical. They don’t say, This is how things are, or ought to be. They say, This is how things might be. Philosophy does this too, even when it doesn’t intend to. Plato, who denounced rhetorical trickery, advanced his arguments with stories, the meanings of which can be murky. I like teaching the parable of the cave to freshmen not because it’s clear but because it isn’t.
Art doesn’t give us truth in the sense that science does. Art jolts us out of our perceptual doldrums and helps us see life anew. Good philosophy does that too. I can still remember the exalted vertigo I felt reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra for the first time, or Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Do I get Wittgenstein? Of course not. What Feynman said of quantum mechanics applies to Wittgenstein. If you say you understand him, you don’t. Confronting his oracular utterances, I feel like Amy Adams in the film Arrival. I’m awed by my encounter with an alien intelligence, in which, if I look hard enough, I might dimly discern myself.
Conversely, some of my favorite works of art have philosophical themes. In mordant metaphysical fables like “The Zahir” and “Funes the Memorious,” Borges warns that there is such a thing as too much knowledge. Absolute truth, far from saving us, might be a black hole into which we vanish forever. Charlie Kauffman’s film Anomalisa features a depressed protagonist who sees and hears others—including his wife—as puppets with identical male faces and voices. The hero meets and falls in love, sort of, with Lisa, a woman who has her own voice and face. Kauffman’s films dramatize depersonalization and solipsism so powerfully—so viscerally—that I fear for his sanity.4In a note in the last chapter, I mention that philosopher Timothy Williamson presents an argument based on the so-called Sorites paradox that you cannot know with certainty whether you are hot or not. You could argue in a similar vein that it is impossible to say with certainty whether a given work is art, science, philosophy or theology.
Goldstein’s work succeeds as philosophy and art. Her fiction and quasi-fiction explore the mind-body problem more deeply than most works of science and philosophy. She achieves a deeper truth through satire and irony, through stories about real and imaginary people.
Art like Goldstein’s doesn’t offer the final word on anything, nor does it seek to. It doesn’t aim at the truth in the sense that science and philosophy do, but that means it can offer a deeper truth, which is that there is no final truth. Reality can never be entirely captured by a novel, poem, sonata, painting, film. Like the Gödelian sentence “This is a lie,” art thrusts truth at you and snatches it back in the same instant.
Art solves, sort of, the solipsism problem, and the mattering problem, by yanking you out of yourself and showing you the world through someone else’s eyes, someone who yearns to be happy, to be good, to matter, just as you do. Some of my favorite explorations of the mind-body problem simply call attention to it. They remind us how odd it is to be a sentient hunk of meat, matter that yearns to matter. They reveal the strangeness of thoughts and emotions. They don’t explain, they illuminate, in ways that amplify the strangeness. My pal Bob Wright is right about consciousness. It’s weird.
Take Ulysses, which imagines what it feels like to be a young writer who loves Ireland but yearns to escape it. Or a Jewish ad salesman who fears his wife is cheating on him. Or that same wife, who cheats on her husband even though she still loves him, and falls asleep remembering the first time they made love. Goldstein, after I gushed about Joyce, nodded. She feels the same way about Proust.5After speaking to Goldstein I tried, once again, to read Swan’s Way, even though I have failed many times. I got far enough to encounter a passage in which Proust reflects on the difference, or lack thereof, between real and fictional people: It is true that the people concerned in [novels] were not what Francois would have called “real people.” But none of the feelings which the joys or misfortunes of a “real” person awaken in us can be awakened except through a mental picture of those joys or misfortunes… A “real” person, profoundly as we may sympathize with him, is in a great measure perceptible only through our senses, that is to say, he remains opaque, offers a dead weight which our sensibilities have not the strength to lift. If some misfortune comes to him, it is only in one small section of the complete idea we have of him that we are capable of feeling any emotion; indeed it is only in one small section of the complete idea he has of himself that he is capable of feeling any emotion either. Proust’s characters are so finely etched that they seem more real than real people. The characters of Joyce, Tolstoy and Alice Munroe also have this quality. The downside of reading these masters of hyper-realism is that my own self, compared to their fictional characters, begins to seem dim and unreal. Psychologists and other scientists can probe subjective experience, sort of, but novelists help us grasp “what is it really like to be a conscious thing.”
The Beautiful can lead us astray. That is why Plato excluded poets from his perfect world. Art can incite hatred. In college, I saw saw Triumph of the Will, the Leni Riefenstahl documentary about a Nazi rally. Rationally, I was repulsed. Viscerally, Riefenstahl’s music and imagery stirred me. When Hitler hailed the hordes of adoring, beautiful men, women and children, part of me wanted to jump to my feet and cheer.6A more recent example of bad art—bad morally, it is all too effective—is American Sniper. Director Clint Eastwood based the film on the story of Chris Kyle, a Navy Seal who while fighting in Iraq had more confirmed kills than any soldier in history. Eastwood glorifies American soldiers and demonizes Iraqis with cartoonish simple-mindedness. Kyle kills Iraqi women and children because they are trying to kill his buddies. He feels awful afterwards, but that just shows what a good guy he is. (The real Chris Kyle bragged in his autobiography that he had no qualms about killing any Iraqis, whom he called “savages.”) Actor Seth Rogen compared American Sniper to the mock Nazi movie—which also stars a sniper—embedded within the 2009 Quentin Tarantino film Inglourious Basterds. Rogen later apologized for the analogy, but it was apt. As journalist Chris Hedges points out, American Sniper resembles “the big-budget feature films pumped out in Germany during the Nazi era to exalt deformed values of militarism, racial self-glorification and state violence.” American Sniper is jingoistic, war-mongering trash, which justifies the U.S. slaughter of civilians in an unnecessary war. It is also the most financially successful war film ever. Most of my students who have seen it love it. See my column “What War Propaganda Like ‘American Sniper’ Reveals About Us.”
Humanities professors preach that great art makes you a better person, but that, like many platitudes we professors spout, is false. Stalin was a voracious reader of literature, including poetry. He once told a group of writers, “The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks…. And therefore I raise my glass to you, writers, the engineers of the human soul.” By the time he died, Stalin had slaughtered almost as many people as Hitler.
Great art is morally ambiguous, or amoral. And it cannot satisfy those who seek permanent, final truth, an “Aha!” that lasts forever, that makes us truly glad, because its revelations are self-immolating. Art might not satisfy Goldstein herself, who wants science to solve the mind-body problem once and for all, but it has its consolations.
At the end of The Mind-Body Problem, Renee says if an “angel of God” appeared and offered to answer any question, she would ask for the solution to the mind-body problem. What if her dream came true? How would the angel answer? Would he hand her a monograph on integrated information theory, or strange loops? A Gödel-style proof that materialism cannot account for consciousness, or that the debate over free will cannot be resolved? No. The angel would open his mouth and sing a song so beautiful that Renee is overcome with awe, terror, ecstasy.
After the revelation fades, as it must, Renee cannot describe it to herself, let alone to others. She hoped illumination would bind her more tightly to the world, but she feels, if anything, more alone, just as she did when she was a child pondering the weirdness of her self, of everything. The happiness she yearns for still eludes her. But for a moment she felt the answer, she knew, and that’s something. And as she strains to recall her encounter, a few vague, fragmented memories arise, memories of the angel’s song, of what she felt as she listened. Renee opens her laptop and starts writing, trying to convey that feeling, even though she knows she’ll fail, in her own eyes if not the eyes of others.
Listen to Goldstein talk about happiness in New York City, February 3, 2016.
Listen to Goldstein and me talk on Meaningoflife.tv after this book was published.