Rebecca Goldstein | Philosophy, Science and religion

About Rebecca Goldstein
Rebecca Goldstein is an American philospher and author of ten booksBetraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (2006), Thirty-Six Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction (2010) and her latest work Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away (2014) to mention a few. She was born into an Orthodox Jewish family but now describes herself as an atheist. Rebecca Goldstein holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University and the list of her awards is long, the latest being the National Humanities Medal, given to her by President Obama in a ceremony at the White House.

You are a philosopher, but you also have a background in science. How do you see the relation between science and philosophy? Do you see any links between them or are they completely detached from each other?
– I thought growing up that I would be a scientist and when I got to university I studied mostly math and physics. It all changed for me when I was taking an advanced course in quantum mechanics and asked my professor “what does this theory say about the nature of reality?” He replied that I was not allowed to ask that question. This was at a time when Niels Bohr’s interpretation of quantum mechanics, the so-called Copenhagen interpretation, was prevalent. This interpretation demanded that one must stick exclusively to the mathematical formalism of the theory and to the predictions the theory made, without asking about any implications regarding physical reality. To me, the whole beauty of science, and particularly physics, is that it tells us something astonishing about reality, correcting our naïve intuitions about space and time and causality. And then also it was quite horrible for me to hear a science professor say that certain questions aren’t allowed, because the prohibition echoed the kind of rebuke I’d heard in my religiously orthodox home growing up, only now the orthodoxy was transposed into science. I think that the whole point of the life of the mind, the liberating freedom of it, is that all questions are allowable.

– Finally my physics professor said to me that I should go and talk to the philosophers because they ask the same kind of “meaningless questions”. So I went and talked to the fantastic Sidney Morgenbesser, and he spoke to me a long time and finally said to me “you’re a philosopher.” At that point I moved on to philosophy, getting my Ph.D. in philosophy of science. So why am I giving you this background story? Because I think it casts light on what the proper relationship between science and philosophy should be. We are together, scientists and philosophers, in trying to further the human quest of making sense out of the world, making sense of ourselves in the world.

– Many of the questions can be answered using the ever expanding empirical methodology of the sciences, but some of them can’t be. Philosophy is often of use here, in both sorting out the questions that have been answered by science from those that haven’t, and also in helping us make some progress in clarifying the nonscientific questions. The question, for example, of what it is that science does — does it simply make predictions or does it describe reality? — which was the question that my physics professor answered by mere fiat, is a philosophical question to which science can’t provide the answer since it’s not itself an empirical question. And then, of course, there are the normative problems of life, all those questions that involve not only the word ‘is’ but the word ‘ought’, including that all-important question: towards what goals and values ought we be devoting our one and only life? Even were all the questions of science to be answered, these normative questions, of paramount concern to all of us, would still remain.

“Emancipation of slaves, the women’s movement, LBGTQ, animal rights – they all started with philosophical arguments.”

– Science is always giving us input and philosophers have to adjust their answers according to what is compatible with the best scientific theory of the day, which means they have to know the science. And sometimes the questions philosophers insist on asking actually change the science. For example, today most physicists, especially younger ones, are not adherents of the Copenhagen interpretation. There are other interpretations on the table, such as the Many-worlds interpretation and the Bohmian interpretation. To some extent, it was philosophers who pushed and argued that perhaps we should allow our scientific theories, even the bizarre quantum mechanics, to speak to the possible nature of reality and this philosophical input helped to widen the scientific responses to quantum mechanics. To conclude, I think philosophers and scientists are great allies who complement each other. It’s a division of labor in the service of putting our reason to work in figuring out the big questions we humans all entertain. It’s not a competition between philosophy and science. There are so many forces arrayed against the power of reason at the moment, so to waste our energy on internal fighting is very stupid.

Can you provide some evidence of progress philosophy has accomplished?
– All the moral progress that’s been made is partly a matter of philosophical arguments. Emancipation of slaves, the women’s movement, LBGTQ rights, animal rights – these movements all began with philosophical arguments. These arguments often take the form of demonstrating that we’ve already committed to certain moral principles and that our behavior is inconsistent with those principles. Philosophical reasoning is expert at disclosing hidden premises, drawing out implications, testing for inconsistencies, and these disclosures have been involved in the moral progress we’ve made. Even the principles of democracy were first argued for on philosophical grounds.

– But I would say some of the philosophical progress is also hidden within scientific progress itself. I’ve already touched on the way that philosophers of science helped to push physicists away from the orthodoxy of the Copenhagen interpretation. Another example is The Demarcation Problem: trying to distinguish between what is a scientific proposition and what isn’t. This is obviously not a question that science itself can answer, and the answer accepted by almost all scientists — namely falsifiability — came from a philosopher, Karl Popper. So, to some extent, the very progress of science has been contingent on philosophical reasoning. The moral of this story is that philosophical progress is often difficult to see precisely because it penetrates so deeply into our intellectual and moral framework. What philosophical progress does is to change our entire intellectual and ethical orientation. We don’t see these changes because we see with them. They become the very intellectual air that we’re breathing.

Karl Popper (1902-1994)

You mentioned morality, which by many is linked to religion. How do you view atheism and religion in terms of morality? Some religious claim that without religion you can’t have morals?
– Yes, you can be an atheist and highly moral. In fact, there is a movement called Effective Altruism in which there are people who accept highly-paid demanding jobs simply so that they can give the bulk of their incomes over to those in the world — perfect strangers — who most sorely need it. This is a movement that was initiated by several atheist philosophers, such as Peter Singer. That the argument that morality requires religion is still around just blows my mind— especially since one of the very best arguments against it goes back to the dawn of philosophy.

– It’s an elegant argument that comes from Plato in a very early dialogue, the Euthyphro. Being an ancient Greek, he spoke in terms of “the gods,” but we can update his Euthyphro argument, translating it into monotheistic terms. Plato asks whether God has a reason for his moral commandments — for example, to take care of the defenseless among us — or does he have no reason? Those are the two alternatives, either God has a reason motivating his commandments or he doesn’t. If the latter is the case, then God’s commandments are based on nothing more substantive than mere arbitrary whims and that seems to completely hollow out morality. The arbitrary whims of God doesn’t provide a satisfactory understanding of morality. So let’s consider the other alternative, that God does indeed have a reason for his specific commandments: He commands us to protect the defenseless because that is the moral thing to do.

“either God is redundant, or he is completely inadequate.”

– Well, that means that there is morality independent of God. God has a reason for his commandments. Let’s try to figure out what that reason is, because if it’s good enough for God, it should be good enough for us. What this really shows is that either God is redundant, or he is completely inadequate. This is the argument that Plato gave at the dawn of western philosophy, and it has motivated moral philosophers from the beginning to figure out morality using the human faculty of reason. Because we’ve applied reason, liberal religious people read Scripture non-literally, glossing over the parts where such things as slavery and misogyny are endorsed.

Ancient Greek philosopher Plato

You think morality can come from reasoning?
– Not entirely from reason but reason does have an important role to play, yes. I think that moral philosophy has helped us to make a great deal of progress. There are of course different moral theories, the two main contenders being Kant’s view that some acts in themselves are immoral — for example, lying — even if, on occasion they might have good consequences, and the utilitarian view that morality is to be entirely evaluated on the basis of consequences: it’s those acts that lead to the greatest good for the greatest number of people that are the right ones. But what all moral theories have in common is the view that human life matters, that, in the moral sense, we all matter equally. That is fundamental.

Would all religions agree on the assumption that all life matters equally?
– Equally? Well, there would be a basis for the claim in the three Abrahamic religions. Specifically, it is written in Genesis 9:6 that to shed human blood is wrong because all humans were made in God’s image, and that’s what gives sanctity to all humans. So that passage does imply that all humans matter equally. But in fact, the history of religion has played itself out very differently, with religions too often regarding those who believe differently as having forfeited even the right to live.

What do you think about the future of religion?
– Certainly much of religion has been influenced by humanist secular moral philosophy. Even though there are Biblical verses that speak about slaves, sexism and genocide, as religion has been liberalized those verses are willfully forgotten. For the most part there has been a liberalizing within religion, but the forces of liberalization have, for the most part, come externally, from the enlightenment. As long as we’re fighting for the same causes, which is the betterment of life for all, I’m fine with liberal religion. As far as religion’s future, if current trends continue we can anticipate the growth of secularism, already well under way in Europe. And even in the US, an outlier in the Western world in terms of religiosity, the fastest growing group is the “nones“. They say “no religion” but they often have some kind of spiritual views. Even if the “nones” is not necessarily an agnostic or atheist group, there are for sure many agnostics and atheists within it.


Considering your own religious background, would you say that religion gives you something that you can’t get from anywhere else?
– For some people it does. It gives community, a place to think about existential questions in a community of people that you can trust as sharing your values, and this is comforting and, when the values are good ones, also good. There are secular alternatives, like humanist groups that try to provide the same thing. I think this is a deep need, to come together and experience that wonderful feeling you get when you think about and discuss deep questions and also join your neighbors in performing good works. Another thing religion provides is rituals, which for some people are extremely important. There is scientific research supporting the hypothesis that rituals can promote a sense of wellbeing — even completely non-religious rituals, like habitually preparing your coffee in the morning. Perhaps they help us to feel that we have some control over the chaos of life. And then especially at certain milestones in life, like births, and deaths and marriages, it’s nice to have rituals that mark the significance. Again, this isn’t a function that only religions can perform but secularists have to recognize this need and respond to it. We can’t live on reason alone.

– Another thing that people derive from religiosity is a sense of certitude about the nature of the world and that they are in fact doing good. I actually don’t think this is good; I’m not a friend of certitude. We are rarely in an epistemic position to be as certain as we feel ourselves to be. I think we live better if we question ourselves and question even our deepest beliefs. Sure, certitude about an afterlife would be very nice, but if you know anything about science you’d realize that it’s extremely improbable. The false certainty that religion can yield can have psychological benefits, but I also agree with what Kant said, that the enlightenment, which places a premium on self-critical reason, is intellectual maturity. I have enough faith in humanity to think that we can become mature and that we don’t have to be told lies that are inconsistent with what science tells us.

“changing one’s views in the light of self-critical reason can be incredibly painful, but this is intellectual maturity.”

It can be tremendously satisfying to dive into deep, philosophical questions with others and discuss, think, reason and explore. What value does it bring? How would you recommend people to get more of that into their lives?
– Books are a really good start and book groups are fantastic. The reason we write books is not for our own pleasure — believe me, it can be quite painful, not only to write but to publish — but because we hope that the books will help people to think about these things and to discuss them. It’s a very good thing to discuss ideas with other people. We all have questionable premises that are so deep down in our thinking that they’re invisible, and we don’t even realize we have them until someone who thinks differently challenges us. We don’t like having our premises challenged but it’s often necessary for growth, for discovering that we don’t really have much justification for what we think, that we’re taking too much for granted. Suddenly, there can be real revolution in your own thinking.

– It can be painful and unsettling, believe me. I used to pray every day, and I still remember the time when I realized that I no longer believed in God. I was in a library, where I worked as a college student, and I ran into the bathroom and cried. I realized that not only did I no longer have faith, but I’d lost even my faith in faith, and this saddened me. It saddened me not only because of what I had lost in the sense of my own cosmic significance in the universe, with God almighty paying attention to me and guiding me in life, but even more profoundly because I was now separated from the people I loved most in the world – my family. Religion so defined us within my family, partly because, as not only Jews but also Orthodox Jews, religion made us such outsiders in society at large. Not to share my family’s way of viewing the world felt like a betrayal of them and of the tragic history we’d suffered in Europe. So changing one’s views in the light of self-critical reason can be incredibly painful, but this is intellectual maturity. It can lead to great growth, to linking up with other communities and other ways, not involving false beliefs about the nature of reality, of trying to live a worthy life and contributing to the lives of others.