Hilary Putnam’s Roadmap to God

Putnam David Kaufmann in nextbook:

Hilary Putnam’s Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life is not disappointing. In a short series of equally short lectures on four important religious philosophers of the 20th century (Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, and Ludwig Wittgenstein), Putnam outlines a rigorous and yet livable approach to Judaism. He writes for a general audience. He doesn’t indulge in parsing. There are no nits.

Instead, Putnam asks us to confront some fundamental issues. What is the essence of the divine? How do we account for evil? What are the ethical demands that religion makes on us? He suggests that we need to pose these questions differently. We should not ask what God is, but how we should experience Him. We should not explain evil but confront it. We should find our way to God through our relations with our fellow humans and not the other way around. According to Putnam, the big problems aren’t so big. In fact they aren’t even problems.

Putnam’s book is recognizably and in a certain way also traditionally Jewish. It presents its own coherent argument in the guise of a commentary on other texts. It speaks through them as well as about them. This approach allows Putnam, who has been one of the leading American philosophers of science for over four decades, to begin with Wittgenstein’s insight that faith is different from science because it does not depend on proof. You can abide by the tenets of the Torah even if you don’t strictly believe that they were handed down at Sinai. You can balance the story of Adam and Eve and the theory of evolution because religious truths are not necessarily damaged by contradictory evidence.

Religion can withstand secular science because religion is more than a series of dogmas. It represents a way of life. It expresses an attitude toward the world and is deeply entwined with a set of everyday activities and commitments. Religion cannot be outfoxed by science or logic. Try as they might, cosmologists cannot prove that the heavens do not proclaim the glory of God.