Novelist Rebecca Goldstein visits Stevens to defend philosophy

Why do freshmen at Stevens, most of whom plan to major in engineering, have to read Plato and Descartes? Let me generalize that question: In an age dominated by science and engineering, what is the point of philosophy?

I’ve been mulling over the question in recent columns in The Stute. I’ve also been talking about it with students and scholars inside and outside Stevens. One person whose insights I have found especially illuminating is Rebecca Goldstein, who is coming to Stevens April 27.

Goldstein has explored philosophical conundrums in 10 books, including fiction and non-fiction. Her first book, The Mind Body Problem, a bestselling novel, explores the mysteries of mind, morality and meaning through imaginary characters. Her most recent book, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, imagines how the ancient Greek thinker would react to the modern world, and vice versa.

Goldstein has won many awards. She received a MacArthur “Genius” grant in 1996. In 2015 she visited the While House to get the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama. But what most impresses me about her is her passion for ideas.

I first met her in 2015 when I attended a panel discussion on the mind-body problem in New York City. I was entranced by her performance. Slight, almost ethereal, she listened with fierce concentration, which intensified when she spoke. She leaned into her points, brow knitted, hands jabbing and slicing.

She had been obsessed with the mind-body problem, she said, since she was an undergraduate at Barnard in the 1970s. While reading the British philosopher Hobbes on how implausible it is that the mind springs from the motion of matter, Goldstein had an epiphany, which she called the greatest intellectual thrill of her life. No merely physical description, she realized, can possibly account for our subjective experiences.

She ended up earning a doctorate in philosophy at Princeton under the guidance of Thomas Nagel, who deepened her appreciation of the mind-body problem. In her Ph.D. thesis, Goldstein argued that materialism, at least in its conventional forms, can’t possibly account for consciousness. Our ideas about matter need to be radically revised to account for consciousness.

After the panel discussion in New York, I ended up chatting with Goldstein. When I said I shared her obsession with the mind-body problem, she said she couldn’t understand why everyone isn’t obsessed with it. After all, the mind-body problem is really about what we are and can be and should be.

After this meeting, I binged on Goldstein’s books, which brim with her enthusiasm for ideas. She excels at dramatizing how ideas are embodied, thwarted, amplified, twisted in real and imaginary people, from Plato and Spinoza to Renee Feuer, the heroine of The Mind-Body Problem. The meta-theme of Goldstein’s work is that, now more than ever, we need philosophy and fiction—we need the humanities—to help us make sense of the world.

At some point I asked Goldstein if she would give at talk at Stevens, and to my delight she accepted. She is giving her talk, “Is Philosophy Obsolete?”, in DeBaun Auditorium on Thursday, April 27, at 5 p.m. The talk, sponsored by the Center for Science Writings and the College of Arts & Letters, is free and open to all. I hope you can make it.

John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings.