All regular readers will surely know Martin Gardner, writer, philosopher, mathematician, magician, exposer of flim flam. He died Saturday night; according to long-time friend and magician James Randi, peacefully.
For those who did not know Gardner, Roger Kimball’s tribute is an excellent starting point.
Gardner made it to 95, which is a damn good run. Florence King warns that we should never call somebody a “national treasure” because it is a cliché; but if those words don’t apply to Gardner, they’ll never be adequate for anybody. We are all better off because he lived.
Most of us knew his mathematical columns for Scientific American, back when that publication was serious. Many or most of those columns were compiled into books, of which we all have a few on our shelves.
He was also known for his columns exposing pseudo-science in the Skeptical Inquirer, back when that publication did not belong to the Socialist party. His best-known book in this field is Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, a sublime work that is mandatory reading.
Most don’t realize that Gardner was not a trained mathematician: he was a philosopher. He was a student of Rudolph Carnap, one of the leading minds of logical probability and, well, friend to induction. It is helpful to know that Carnap was hostile to the theories of Karl Popper; this skepticism was passed to Gardner, who gave it to all of us, tightly packaged in, inter alia, Are Universes Thicker Than Blackberries?. I in particular owe a tremendous intellectual debt to these grand gentlemen.
But about those topics, another day. For now, let’s look at his deepest work, The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, which he said was “a book of essays about what I believe and why.”
Gardner called himself a “philosophical theist”; and since that term is unfamiliar, it is important to emphasize that Gardner was not an atheist. He accepted the existence of God and believed in the afterlife. Yet he was not religious, in the sense of belonging to an organized sect. He did, however, pray, but not on bended knee, but as Coleridge did, in “a silent ‘sense of supplication.’”
Prayer is a mode of communication, but not a magical activity designed to sway God to intercede in a material way. Indeed, Gardner was a kind of fideist, which the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy somewhat too tersely describes as the belief “that faith is in some sense independent of, if not outright adversarial toward, reason.”
God cannot intercede materially, because He designed the physical laws upon which the universe runs. To break them is therefore impossible; they are inviolate. Because of this, we cannot seek for the proof of God’s existence empirically. We can only come to God through faith.
Ah, faith, a very difficult word. Troublemaker William James liked to quote a schoolboy who said, “Faith is when you believe something you know ain’t true.” This is scurrilous. A better definition comes from Russell, who said faith is “a firm belief in something for which there is no evidence.” This can only be improved by changing the last words to “for which there can be no evidence.”
It is important—crucial!—to hold separate this meaning from “faith”‘s other shades, hope and trust. You may hope of God but you must first have faith in His existence. And trust is a rational response to empirical evidence; you trust a pilot to steer you in the proper direction, for example.
It is Russell’s sense of “faith” that philosophers have found so frightening. They want to talk of belief in the absence of material proof, but they don’t want to use the word “faith” because of its connotations with religion. So they instead talk of “a priori knowledge”, or of “synthetic a priori statements.”
But it’s all one, and there lies the fright and the reason many philosophers and would-be philosophers embraced relativism so warmly. You cannot discuss faith, the belief in the absence of proof, without asking why. The answer is always, “because my intuition says so.” Now, it is certainly true—examples are without number—that intuition has misled, that it has provided for beliefs that were false. But from this it does not follow that intuition always misleads.
Carnap labored vainly his whole career to emphasize that point, but he never convinced more than a minority. The rest of philosophy, as Donald Williams tells us, “in its dread of superstition and dogmatic reaction, has been oriented purposely toward skepticism: that a conclusion is admired in proportion as it is skeptical; that a jejune argument for skepticism will be admitted where a scrupulous defense of knowledge is derided or ignored; that an affirmative theory is a mere annoyance to be stamped down as quickly as possible to a normal level of denial and defeat.” (A favorite quote of David Stove’s.)
Gardner never surrendered to the wiles of skepticism. He quoted Luke: “And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, today thou shalt be with me in paradise.” I am sure those of us who do not have faith at least hope Gardner has gone to his reward.