In their respective novels SUM: Forty Tales from the Afterlives and 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, David Eagleman and Rebecca Goldstein both explore the relationship among science, literature and religion. In a candid and uncensored email conversation, the authors compare their writing processes and talk about their search to marry the limitations of science with literary imagination.
First, let me say that I loved 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. It’s wide ranging and very smart in its approach to life’s questions. While reading your book, it struck me that you and I are both writing from a similar space at the intersection of science and literature. We both live in the corridors of academia–and even more specifically, in the world of the science of the mind–and our fiction seems to soak up that background in the form of vocabulary and concepts.
There’s probably a lot to explore about that nexus of worlds, but to get the conversation started I thought I’d pick out one particular point: I think that space provides a good launching pad for exploring big ideas while giving no truck to dogmatism. And that seems to be the formula for both good science and good literature.
As we know, many first-class writers spend their energies assembling arguments in the God/No God debate, but perhaps there is more interesting material to talk about. To this end, I immediately liked the deception of your book’s title: I felt that the real story was neither about arguments for nor against the existence of God, but instead about interesting ideas in the middle ground. The narrative seeks no easy solutions, but is instead willing to live with complexity. This is epitomized in one of your characters, Azarya, who understands both the speciousness of religious edicts as well as their deep importance to community.
In the end, your book struck me as both post-religious and post-atheist. Am I correct about that characterization, or would you disagree? This is actually a description that a reader suggested to me about Sum during a book reading. I loved the phrase and stole it! After all, life is more interestingly complicated than either side of the God argument might suggest, and it often feels to me that a science-based and non-dogmatic position might be the right place to start the exploration. After all, the scientific temperament is persuaded by evidence, but when no evidence exists, it is comfortable with uncertainty. I think that’s an interesting place from which to write literature nowadays. What are your thoughts?
It is wonderful to be in dialogue with you. Although we’ve never met, I know that there is much mutual understanding and sympathy. We’re both as deeply touched by science as by literature, and, for some reason that I’ll never understand, that makes us members of a smallish set. I have some specific questions I’d love to ask you, but before I get to them let me address your questions to me.
You’re right that I tried, from the very beginning of the book–that is, in its title–to squeeze in the ambiguity and complexity and paradox that I think lurks around these God debates. The full title is even longer than the one you quote. It’s “36 Arguments for the Existence of God: a Work of Fiction,” and I meant that sub-title to be an ironic comment on the proofs themselves (or, as one ardent atheist reader pointed out, on God Himself, a work of fiction). I wanted ambiguity and complexity and paradox because that’s the sphere that humans inhabit at their deepest core, and no questions draw deeper from that core than those raised by the God debates. In the Appendix, where I simply analyze the arguments as a trained philosopher, I can be straightforwardly rigorous, knocking down one argument for God’s existence after another. But in the body of the novel, where the human reactions toward the whole complicated business of religion is what animates the plot and characters, things gets far more complicated. Is it possible to be an atheist who feels sympathy toward at least some of the religious impulses–which, by the way, I think can be given purely secular expression? Would that make me post-atheist and post-religious? I’m not sure, but in any case, that describes me.
So here’s my question to you regarding your extraordinary Sum: Do you have a philosophical position regarding the possibility of the afterlife, and did it in any way play into the conception of your novel? Do your professional views in neuroscience allow you to entertain the possibility of an afterlife?
Great – that gives me a richer understanding of your work, thanks. By the way, speaking of your full title, I wondered whether you sometimes have a hard time explaining the subtle meaning to fresh readers? I ask because I’ve had that problem with my subtitle (Forty Tales from the Afterlives). At books readings, some fraction of the crowd shows up because they’ve heard I’m a neuroscientist, and they assume I’ll be describing clinical near-death experiences and making a proclamation about the afterlife. I’d be interested to know how many people are buying our material online, sight-unseen, judging the books only by their covers.
As for my position regarding the afterlife, I don’t hold one. From a literary standpoint, I chose the idea of mutually exclusive afterlives because they provide such a good foil for highlighting what matters to us in the here-and-now. From a scientific standpoint, most neuroscientists would probably subscribe to the likely scenario that we simply shut off when our brain ceases to function. But we don’t actually know that with certainty. Like every previous generation of scientists, we operate under the belief that we have all the main pieces of the puzzle, and now we’re just trying to fit them all together. Presumably, like every previous generation, we’re wrong. (There is always the argument from parsimony, but of course historically that approach has been wrong at least as many times as it’s been right.) A few years ago I wrote an article in Discover Magazine called “10 Unsolved Questions of the Brain”, and I think it surprised some readers to find that we don’t really know answers to even the most basic questions: how to read the neural code, how memories work, what intelligence is, why we spend one third of our lives asleep, and how to build consciousness from physical pieces and parts, and so on. Even in this golden era, our knowledge is vastly outstripped by our ignorance.
To my mind, this situation encourages a celebration of the enormous size of the possibility space, and that’s what Sum is about. It goes without saying that all the stories in Sum are meant to be totally improbable and humorous. But what is serious is the exercise in loosening up our thinking. The main thing science teaches is an appreciation of how much we don’t know, and I used mutually exclusive stories to structure to illustrate this.
Are these issues of possibility and creativity what attract you to both science and literature, or do you have other reasons? And what’s your take on why more scientists aren’t writing fiction?
We’re in even deeper sympathy with one another than I had suspected (though now that I reflect back on Sum, I should have guessed). My Ph.D. dissertation was on the limits of scientific explanation, especially as regards the phenomena of consciousness–all the abundance of inner life that is our primary focus of description as novelists. Back when I was doing my graduate work, this was a very unpopular position, especially in the ranks of analytic philosophy, which is my province. Strict reductionism was pretty much the dogma of the day, and the very word ‘consciousness’ was tainted. To insist that a strictly physical description of a person, either in terms of her hardware or software, would leave out what it’s like to be that person, what it feels like for that person to be the person that she is, was to meet, quite often, with lectures about latent religiosity hiding itself in the philosophy of mind. All that has changed a great deal now, of course, but back then anti-reductionism was a lonely place to be. I was lucky because Tom Nagel–who wrote a wonderful article I’m sure you’re acquainted with, “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?”–was at Princeton when I was a student there, and so I was able to work with him on my dissertation.
Speaking of Nagel, I have my protagonist in “36 Arguments for The Existence of God,” Cass Seltzer, falling into gleeful amazement, as a student, when he reads Nagel’s book, “The View from Nowhere.” Cass connects what he’s reading with one of his earliest childhood memories, lying in his bunk bed and thinking himself into bafflement about his own personal identity. “Here was the bedtime metaphysics that used to exercise him to the point of hyperventilation being described with precision by a prominent philosopher. (Thomas Nagel sounded prominent from the book jacket.)”
That sort of moment–when I have a character discovering that some problem that is very personal to him and that he assumes nobody else has ever considered, is really a standard philosophical problem–is very important to me. It’s part of the reason I turned away from writing the kind of works that would only be read by other academics. I’m convinced that all people ponder these questions, that these existential dilemmas and ontological bafflements belong to the deepest core of us. We all–not just scientists and philosophers–have what I call the ontological urge, trying to figure out the nature of the world and of ourselves within it. This urge leads us into many false beliefs, of course–sometimes because we just can’t tolerate the overwhelming uncertainty of having so many of our questions go unanswered and so we grasp onto answers prematurely–but it also leads us to whatever knowledge we’ve been able, personally and collectively, to acquire.
It’s this picture I have of human nature that makes me so eager to bring science and philosophy and literature together. Fiction is a way of showing how deeply these questions are felt. I’ve always thought that the distinction between cognition, on the one hand, and emotion, on the other, is too sharply drawn, and now you neuroscientists are validating the deep interconnections between thinking and feeling, the subject of some of Antonio Demasio’s fascinating books.
The meshing of cognition and emotion is a vindication, I think, of the sort of fiction that you, too, produce in Sum, merging fanciful thought experiments with one of the most emotionally fraught of all ontological questions: the nature of our real being and how this bears on the possibility of our surviving the body’s death. Certainly when it comes to this question, everybody feels the ontological urge.
Sorry to go on so long, but I feel we’re really getting into it now. Does any of this resonate?
Yes, that all resonates! You and I both seek to marry the cognitive to the emotional, usually by taking an idea and extrapolating it to the point where it matters to people. And both science and philosophy offer infinite, rich material for this approach. That is why most of the stories in Sum launch from scientific foundations; similarly, I immediately appreciated how your writing takes advantage of scientific ideas to re-cast questions in lush new vocabularies of game theory, prime numbers, private subjective experience, and so on.
And I think I see another connection between our work. It seems that we’re both interested in the awe at the edge of science, but that doesn’t mean we’re willing to spill out our wonderment for any old story. We’re interested in first clearing away the detritus to get a clear view on the most interesting bits of the problem. So, for example, in the appendix to your book you take compelling arguments for the existence of God and disassemble them. Many of the stories in Sum do the same thing but with a different approach. Instead of hitting the arguments head on, I use a reductio ad absurdum, taking basic assumptions to their logical extremes. For example, how old should each person be in the afterlife? In the story “Prism,” God becomes confused about what age to make people: if he keeps people the age they were when they died, their bodies are broken and they look terrible. Perhaps he should make them young—but how young, exactly? And is it a problem that granddaughters will no longer recognize their grandmothers? In other stories, I examine the idea that people can be reasonably categorized into good and bad, or the assumption that one would even want to live forever. I started chewing on these problems after asking strangers on airplanes how they conceive of the afterlife — and it became clear to me that the most basic assumptions were often not thought out to completion. Instead of directly refuting any assumptions, I simply let the consequences play out. Like your appendix, this has the result of clearing unexamined intuitions out of the way.
And that allows us to reach the more interesting, teeth-sinking material deep in the forests of our ignorance. That’s where I can write the other type of story in Sum, the kind that is not resting on old assumptions but making up entirely new ones, often launching from scientific or philosophical ideas. It has always seemed reasonable that any sort of spirituality should be predicated on what we already know, and we know so much now about the size of the cosmos, microbial infection, computation, quantum mechanics, natural selection, and so on. Some religious scholars try to use science to justify their stories; a better approach, perhaps, is to use science as the bedrock off of which to springboard into more interesting, innovative narratives.
After all, as I said last time, the main thing science teaches is the size of the possibility space. When smart kids first start in science, they believe that science will be able answer everything; more seasoned scientists appreciate the extent to which the cosmos outstrips our imagination. It sometimes feels strange that when we walk into the bookstore we mostly find books taking theological positions with absolute certainty. Why isn’t there a broader dialogue? As Voltaire put it “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” Sum was a way for me to write a piece of literature that shone a flashlight around the interesting bits of the possibility space, and, as far as I can see, that’s what 36 Arguments allowed you too.
Thinking about things in this way has led me down the path of my next book, entitled Why I am a Possibilian. Possibilianism is a movement that I accidentally started when giving talks about Sum, and it has grown from 0 to 5,000 hits on Google in the past year. I think that’s good news for authors like us: there seems to be an appetite for transcending traditional claims while simultaneously retaining deep humility about our knowledge.
A few questions for you: this is your ninth book, and I’m curious how you’ve changed through the process of writing them. Do you feel there are things you understand now that you didn’t when you began? Either about the material or about yourself? And (while I know that you’ve just published 36 Arguments less than a month ago) do you have any ideas about what your next book will be on?
You ended your last message to me asking me what I’ve learned in the process of writing nine books. Each book has brought, of course, its specific discoveries. So, for example in my first novel, The Mind-Body Problem, my main protagonist struggles to understand why her life feels so wrong to her, the nature of the sickness in her soul. She comes up with the concept of the mattering map to help articulate what ails her. Since then—just as with your concept of a possibilian—the concept has taken on an independent life. I just checked now, and there are tens of thousands of hits on Google. Sometimes I’m credited with the concept, more often it seems I’m not, but there it is, out there in the world, being used (as I just learned from my brief Google search) in an article in Harvard Business Review, called “How Mattering Maps Affect Behavior” and in books and articles on fans and geeks and online communities, and in works of economics and psychology. I would never have come up with this concept if I hadn’t been inhabiting the foreign point of view of my fictional character, Renee Feuer. It was really her concept, the kind of thing she would think up but not me. Do I find such a statement mysterious? Yes, I do. Nonetheless, I know it to be true. Inhabiting another point of view—which is exactly what literature asks us to do, whether we’re reading it or writing it—puts us in the way of assaults from truths we might never have otherwise encountered.
Two of my books were non-fiction. Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel is on a revolutionary mathematical discovery and the strange man behind it. Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity is about the philosophy of the seventeenth-century philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, who is a man who made every claim for the life of pure reason that’s ever been made. These two book dealt with weighty themes which are hard to understand and even harder to make accessible and engaging to the layman. Yet writing them had felt to me like a walk in the park compared to writing a novel.
Novels are often regarded as frivolous, escapist make-believe, whereas a work on mathematical logic or on the philosophy of the über-rationalist Spinoza is clearly serious. Books like those obviously teach the reader something and so, for disciplined and serious people, who want even their leisure to contribute to their projects of self- improvement, they’re the reading matter of choice. In fact, quite often fans of my non-fiction will assure me that “Of course, I’ve never read your fiction.” They seem to think that this will impress me with what serious people they are. I understand why they dismiss fiction; I understand why made-up stories can seem childish compared to books on history or popular economics or psychology or physics. Still, I think the dismissal of fiction as a way of discovering important truths is itself missing out on important truths, and it makes me sad. Sometimes it’s made me so sad that I promise myself I’ll stop writing fiction. What’s the point, I sometimes ask, when people who take ideas seriously don’t even bother with fiction? But in the end, I can’t forsake this form of writing, not only because of its ways of mixing cognition and emotion that we’ve discussed, or for the assaults from large truths that it encourages, but for a deeper reason than all of these. The novel, imaginatively plunging into people’s lives, struggles to do justice to us, showing us how irreducibly individual and quirky and irreplaceable each human life is. It’s the form that labors to encompass the sheer tremendousness of just being this thing, a human being, and in the end validates what we all know about ourselves, our own uniqueness and importance, but have to be constantly reminded about others. We each of us carry around a world within us. So yes, there is that vast and mystifying world out there, the province of our sciences. But there, too, just as vast and mysterious, is the world as it is for each of us. “What a piece of work is a man.” That’s what I learn from every good novel and short story I read, each of them teaching it to me all over again, making the lesson so new that it hits me each time with the shock of a revelation.
What a pleasure, David, it’s been to exchange thoughts with you. I think—to use the concept of my fictional character—we occupy the same zone on the mattering map. I certainly know that everything you write will greatly matter to me.