36 Arguments for the Existence of God: a Work of Fiction

In Britain, cleverness is regarded as at once praiseworthy and not wholly admirable. Perhaps that is why Rebecca Goldstein has not yet achieved the same level of success here as she has done in her native United States. Her latest work of fiction, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, seems designed to keep things that way.

Try to sum it up and it sounds less like a novel than an IQ test. The titular 36 arguments are the appendix to a fictional book, The Varieties of Religious Illusion, by Goldstein's protagonist Cass Seltzer, "atheist with a soul". That is, until his publisher persuades him to make the arguments the main bulk of the book, creating a bestseller in the process. The arguments also turn up as an appendix to Goldstein's novel, which contains 36 chapters, all with titles of arguments for the existence of God. So the 36 arguments are a novel, the appendix to that novel, and the appendix to a non-fiction book within the fiction.

Not only that, but the book is populated almost entirely by really clever people. Seltzer's girlfriend is the hot-shot neuroscientist Lucinda Mandelbaum. His mentor, Jonas Elijah Klapper, is a mad genius whose university created a department just for him. His potential nemesis is an economist and Nobel laureate, Felix Fidley. And then there's a subplot involving a mathematical prodigy from a fictional Hasidic Jewish sect, the Valdeners.

Spending 344 pages in the company of hand-picked members of Mensa has its rewards. Eavesdropping on the frighteningly smart allows the reader to indulge in the fantasy that some of their brilliance is rubbing off. But neither the characters nor their ideas are enough to power the narrative, which rarely moves out of second gear. The problem is that little of consequence happens. There's "relationship stuff", but the Seltzer-Mandelbaum partnership is fine, rather than made in heaven, so it is hard to care whether they stick together or not.

There is also an attempt to inject some drama in a near-climactic debate between Seltzer and Fidley. For anyone who hasn't seen two big brains go head to head on the question of God's existence, it is a wonderfully lucid synopsis of some of the more intelligent arguments you would be likely to hear. But ultimately it doesn't really matter who wins or loses, and so, as drama, it falls flat.

The most engaging thread in the book is the story of the prodigy, six-year-old Azarya Sheiner. What is being explored here is the tension between the values of community, tradition and belonging on the one hand, and those of truth, reason and developing individual potential on the other. In this section of the novel, Goldstein lets the characters and the action play out these dilemmas, without too much commentary from either the narrative voice or other characters. In so doing, she creates a world with real life.

The pages turn less swiftly when we are in academe, which seems sterile in comparison. Perhaps that is the point. If so, it seems the weight of this book's many ideas slows down the vehicle that carries them.

Julian Baggini is the author of "Do They Think You're Stupid? One Hundred Ways of Spotting Spin and Nonsense from the Media, Pundits and Politicians" (Granta Books, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 15 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Falklands II

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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture