William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Martin Gardner, Philosophical Scrivener, RIP

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.


  1. Briggs

    May 24, 2010 at 7:02 am

    Not surprisingly, the New York Times obituary gets it wrong (well, obits are, I understand, assigned to the least experienced.)

    In his philosophical writing Mr. Gardner rejected speculative metaphysics because it could not be proved logically or empirically. He wrestled with religion in essays and in a novel that described his personal journey from fundamentalism, “The Flight of Peter Fromm” (1973). He ultimately found no reason to believe in anything religious except a human desire to avoid “deep-seated despair.” So, he said, he believed in God.

    The first sentence is demonstrably false, and the exact opposite of what Gardner believed. The hint of “despair” is ridiculous, and once more the opposite of his philosophy. They do get right that Gardner believed in God, but the way it is written makes his belief appear tepid at best. Once more, the opposite is true.

  2. I read very little of Gardner’s work after a certain point in life. I know he wrote many wonderful columns including those about the exploits of his antagonist, Dr. Matrix(?). However, I recall only one of his columns distinctly, just prior to the election in 1980, I think, in which he mocked the Laffer curve. He argued against the Laffer curve, but his objections admitted implicitly Laffer’s point that tax rates can be too high to maximize revenue. Gardner was a committed Marxist was he not?

  3. Not sure if this post was about Gardner so much as belief in a deity,

    A nit: “…important to emphasize that Gardner was not an atheist.” That wording implies only a binary possibility. Agnostics aren’t atheists either any more than zero is a negative number. Better to say Gardner was a theist — and if his belief was correct, still is.

    I miss the monthly articles Gardner in SciAm. They were always fun.

    I am converging on the belief that anything found in the media is merely one more thing to look into — IOW, they publish rumor vs. fact.

  4. Thanks for the news about Martin Gardner. Somehow, I missed it in the regular media.

    I read “Fads and Falacies…” back in my salad days, and it fostered a skepticism in me that continues to this day. I also went through a period of fascination with Skeptical Inquirer, also eventually losing interest when it abandoned true skepticism to left wing progressivism.

    Gardner has made a very positive contribution to society — a measure of a very worthwhile life!

  5. “God cannot intercede materially, because He designed the physical laws upon which the universe runs. To break them is therefore impossible; they are inviolate.”

    I make rules I break all the times- a God should be no less powerful or restricted. If you are powerful enough to call existence from the void– certainly you could do a bit of tweaking IF you wanted. Just arguing here- I have wondered why there are any physical laws given our concept of an all powerful god. The laws of physics would seem to imply a conscious effort or need to reduce the amount of attention and will to keep everything in its “right” place. Why would an all powerful God care about such things? Or perhaps it is a God that wanted His creation to appreciate the elegance of His work? But “impossible” is not a term I would use to describe a limitation to whatever caused existence.

    Bacon said superstition rises because man observes when a thing hits and not when it misses. What have we missed? (Don’t take the quote as a shot at belief as superstition- not my intent here)

    Was Kimball describing awe or faith? Awe allows for much more interesting discussions than faith.

    There may be no greater compliment to a man than people continue to find posthumous value in and argue the meaning of his words. You have done him a great kindness– I will have to read his works.

  6. DAV

    The UNIVAC 1108 computer arithmetic did have a negative zero. This didn’t usually cause any numerical problems, but it was something you needed to be aware of.

  7. (Martin Gardner, RIP)^100

  8. Yes, Martin Gardner was a first class philosopher and the world would be a poorer place had he not written so excellently.

    Gardner was a Marxist, as is The Git. Gardner wrote: “The Marx Brothers As Social Critics: Satire and Comic Nihilism in the Films”.

    “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it is too dark to read.” — Groucho Marx

  9. Briggs

    May 24, 2010 at 3:57 pm


    We are all Marxists now. If you don’t like that, don’t leave in a huff. And if you can’t do that, then you can leave in a minute-and-a-huff.

  10. Ray, indeed. It was a one’s complement machine (or at least supported such — memory’s hazy — been a while; Univac 1108 was the third machine I learned) but that doesn’t change the real number line. I wonder how many other old fogies are around here.

  11. Good read Briggsy. Pedantic nit pick alert! Misled, not mislead in “Now, it is certainly true—examples are without number—that intuition has mislead, that it has provided for beliefs that were false.”

    (chuckle – unless you are referring to an element that is not Pb?)

  12. “The Marx Brothers As Social Critics” was published by Martin A. Gardner.
    Our Gardner had no middle initial at all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


© 2016 William M. Briggs

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑