Teller reviews Martin Gardner’s autobiography

As a stripling I was an avid reader of Martin Gardner‘s “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American, though I was often too young (or too dumb) to follow them. Gardner died in 2010 at age 95, but near the end he wrote his autobiography, Undiluted Hocus-Pocus, which is reviewed by the magician Teller in today’s New York Times. Two bits of the review are striking, including this one in which Gardner uses decidedly outdated methods of writing:

Gardner, who died in 2010, wrote “Undiluted Hocus-Pocus” at the age of 95 in a one-room assisted-living apartment in Norman, Okla. He worked on an old electric typewriter and edited with scissors and rubber cement as he stood at the lectern from which he had long addressed the world in print. “I am given five pills every morning after breakfast,” he writes. “My blood pressure is low, my cholesterol is so-so, and my vision is perfect.” But, he adds, “at 95 I still have enough wits to keep writing.”

But this is really surprising to me, and I suspect was to Teller as well:

The final part of this book may make ­science buffs uneasy. Gardner, like a human Möbius strip combining the faith and skepticism of his parents, explains that he believes in God, even though he is aware that “atheists have all the best arguments. There are no proofs of God or of an afterlife. Indeed, all experience suggests there is no God.” Carl Sagan once asked Gardner if he believed simply because it made him happier. Gardner said yes. “My faith rests entirely on desire. However, the happiness it brings is not like the momentary glow that follows a second martini. It’s a lasting escape from the despair that follows a stabbing realization that you and everyone else are soon to vanish utterly from the universe.”

This seems to be a case of a man who forced himself to believe despite all evidence to the contrary, simply because it made him happy. That’s a mindset that I simply can’t fathom, especially in a guy like Gardner. Nevertheless, Teller gives the book a thumbs-up: His radiant self lives on in his massive and luminous literary output and shines at its sweetest, wittiest and most personal in “Undiluted Hocus-­Pocus.”

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Martin Gardner

64 Comments

  1. Mark Joseph
    Posted January 5, 2014 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I remember Gardner making the statement somewhere that he believed, even though he realized that there was no ground for it. Such a position, if I recall correctly, is called “fideism.”

    • gravityfly
      Posted January 5, 2014 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

      Is that the same as “belief in belief”?

  2. Diana MacPherson
    Posted January 5, 2014 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    sub

  3. Steve Reilly
    Posted January 5, 2014 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, he brought up his fideism in an interview with Michael Shermer:
    http://www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/10-05-26/

    I call myself a philosophical theist, or sometimes a fideist, who believes something on the basis of emotional reasons rather than intellectual reasons…As a fideist I don’t think there are any arguments that prove the existence of God or the immortality of the soul. Even more than that, I agree with Unamuno that the atheists have the better arguments. So it is a case of quixotic emotional belief that is really against the evidence and against the odds. The classic essay in defense of fideism is William James’ The Will to Believe. James’ argument, in essence, is that if you have strong emotional reasons for a metaphysical belief, and it is not strongly contradicted by science or logical reasons, then you have a right to make a leap of faith if it provides sufficient satisfaction.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 5, 2014 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      …and it is not strongly contradicted by science or logical reasons

      This part is where Gardner is compartmentalizing. If every element in the “metaphysical belief” would be completely rejected as a scientific hypothesis from every discipline concerned with that area (mind/body dualism, pk, esp, etc), then it IS “strongly contradicted by science,” no matter how loudly and insistently advocates may insist that “metaphysics” is beyond science. You don’t get to pick and choose.

    • gbjames
      Posted January 5, 2014 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      But in this case Gardner seems to have had plenty of reasons that strongly countered his emotions. So, by that measure he had no intellectual right for this leap of faith.

    • Posted January 5, 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      The first problem with such a position is that it’s fundamentally dishonest and self-destructive.

      You could construct all sorts of fantasies about yourself that you at least think couldn’t be disproven. You are the reincarnation of some important person. You are the rightful heir of some ancient kingdom and will one day reclaim your birthright. You are the avatar of some space alien who’ll come back one day to re-merge your essence with the hive mind, after which you’ll go on to explore other strange new worlds.

      If you understand that those are fantasies and not at all representative of reality, that sort of thing can be healthy entertainment. It could even be profitable, if you’re able to put them into a form (book, screenplay, whatever) that other people find entertaining as well.

      But if you go beyond that and pretend that these fantasies really are real…well, that’s a break with reality, and as soon as the delusion starts changing your behavior, you’re in trouble — just as with any other delusion.

      What’s more, in your particular case, it’s not just that nobody has yet proven your fantasies to not be real, it’s that your fantasies have overwhelmingly and emphatically been demonstrated to not be real. Especially since the recent confirmation of the Higgs, we have a full and compete accounting of all physics that could even theoretically influence human-scale events, and there’s no room for souls nor gods nor any of the rest. It’s like Sagan’s dragon: we’ve opened the garage door, stepped inside, and seen that the room is empty, the floor and walls and ceiling bare even of dragon posters.

      So, while it is certainly your right to deceive yourself however you wish to do so, you should at least do so in the knowledge that not only is that what you’re doing, but doing so is more than a little bit foolish and unhealthy.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Steve Reilly
        Posted January 5, 2014 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, just to be clear I meant to put that bit in quotes. It’s from the Gardner interview, not my own view.

      • Bob J.
        Posted January 5, 2014 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

        So what about my fantasiy that there is justice? And the time and effort I spend trying to make it true?

        • Posted January 5, 2014 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

          That depends.

          Do you believe that your fanciful justice already actually exists? If so, why bother doing anything about it?

          But if you imagine what the world would be like with justice, and you wished you lived in that world rather than this one, and you do what you can to turn this world into that world, then that’s exactly the way this is all supposed to work.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Bob J.
            Posted January 5, 2014 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

            I’ll pick the second as I don’t think it completely exists today. However, in your second choice one could simply substitute many other ideas or beings and have the same mindset. Specifically, substitute yhwh for justice and you have the world many, na most, Americans are attempting (including your italics) to build.

            • Posted January 5, 2014 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

              I’m pretty sure that nobody’s looking to build YHWH. Some certainly think they’re following his orders, and others are drooling at the prospect of royally fucking up the Earth in order to get his son here for his grand reunion tour, but that’s an entirely different thing.

              b&

              • Bob J.
                Posted January 6, 2014 at 1:04 am | Permalink

                Sorry, I guess I am not being articulate. I do think that many people would Agree with an altered rewire of your second paragraph – “But if you image what the world would be like with Jesus, and you wish you lived in that world rather than this one, and you do what you can to turn this world into that world, then that’s exactly the way this is all supposed to work.”

                The problem for me is that indeed I do “pretend that these fantasies (justice) really are real.” And “as soon as the delusion starts changing [my] behavior, you’re in trouble…” Well maybe I am in trouble, however, you continue “-just as with any other delusion.” I contend many delusions (indeed Pinker contends that most of what we remember is factually wrong) are not trouble but instead are useful. The problem is how do you tell useful from destructive?

              • Posted January 6, 2014 at 7:34 am | Permalink

                I think you’re confusing “an attainable goal” or “an ideal worth striving towards” with “something that really actually exists in the here-and-now.”

                Cheers,

                b&

        • Marella
          Posted January 5, 2014 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

          Justice is achievable, heaven isn’t. All the prayers of Christians for 2000 years haven’t made heaven real, nor all their fasting and scourging create a single angel.

  4. Mark Joseph
    Posted January 5, 2014 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    In his book The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener Gardner, after 11 chapters of “Why I Am Not A…” has chapter 12, “Why I Do Not Believe God’s Existence Can Be Demonstrated,” and chapter 13, “Why I Am Not An Atheist.” This last chapter begins “Whenever I speak of religious faith it will mean a belief, unsupported by logic or science, in both God and an afterlife.” Near the end of the chapter he writes: “I am quite content to confess with Unamuno that I have no basis whatever for my belief in God other than a passionate longing that God exist and that I and others will not cease to exist.”

    OK, I’m openminded enough to grant Gardner his fideist faith, which I don’t see as anything other that wishful thinking. My question to him, then, would have been “since your faith is not based on evidence, why did you pick the Christian God out of all the possible gods from which to choose?”

    • Barry Lyons
      Posted January 5, 2014 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

      I was just about to post a comment about “Scrivener” but I see Mark Joseph beat me to it. Gardner struck me as perhaps the only person I’ve ever read whose religious beliefs didn’t offend me. Teller explains why when he writes that Gardner knew that “atheists have all the best arguments.”

      On a related point, have any of you read Gardner’s novel, “The Flight of Peter Fromm”? I once typed out for a friend a long passage from the book. It’s a major scene where Peter’s religion teacher (an atheist, essentially, if I recall correctly), dresses down Peter, a divinity student, for his views on the Christian faith. I can’t find the page(s) on where this excerpt appears in the Prometheus Books edition of the book, but if anyone wants to see the passage, I’ll post here (or send it to Jerry who can do what he wants with it).

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted January 5, 2014 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

        I’d love to see it.

        • Barry Lyons
          Posted January 5, 2014 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

          Okay, here it is (sorry, Jerry, if the length of this annoys):

          So here’s the passage in question from Martin Gardner’s “The Flight of Peter Fromm” (I still can’t find the page number). The novel is essentially one long discussion between the religion professor (an atheist) and Peter, who is a wavering or insecure Christian:
          —-

          Peter had just finished telling me that he had been talking with one of the younger priests at the Church of Saint Thomas, and the priest had assured him that no modern Catholic believes any more that all non-Catholics are destined for eternal damnation.
          “Hallelujah!”, I exclaimed. “Yes, the population of Dante’s inferno has been steadily declining ever since he wrote about it. And Catholic obstetricians no longer keep at hand those long syringes they once used for baptizing infants who might die in the womb. But some sinners still arrive in hell, don’t they?”
          “Only those who consciously and willfully turn against God.”
          “Does anybody do that? And even if they did, should they suffer forever? Wouldn’t it be kinder just to let their wretched souls fade out of existence?”
          “But”, Peter countered, “we shouldn’t think of hell as duration in time. Heaven and hell are part of eternity. How can we know now what eternity means? Hell is just a crude symbol for something outside of space and time, something we can’t understand.”
          “I know exactly what you mean,” I said. “It’s the last defense. But even if the true nature of hell is beyond our comprehension, that doesn’t make the idea less offensive. Isn’t it easier, more respectful to God in fact, to assume the concept developed because it gave believers an outlet for their unconscious feelings of revenge and self-righteousness? Do you know what Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote about the suffering of the lost?”
          He shook his head.
          I got up and took a book down from the shelf. After locating the passage I had in mind, I read aloud: “In order that nothing be wanting to the happiness of the blessed in Heaven, a perfect view is granted of them the tortures of the damned.”
          Peter, his face coloring, tightened his lips and did not reply. We shifted to other topics. It was two in the morning (my wife had long since gone to bed), and both of us were getting sleepy.
          Again and again Peter came back to the notion of the finite symbol that points to a transcendent, inconceivable truth. Satan, for instance. Obviously he is not a personality like Milton’s admirable angel or Dante’s three-headed monster. Nevertheless, Peter argued, isn’t something lost when the concept of the devil is dropped altogether?
          “The Devil symbol puts evil outside of God,” he said, “but lower and less powerful. It treats evil as something that has to be fought and conquered. That’s why Chesterton, in “The Man Who Was Thursday,” picked for his Satan symbol the only true anarchist in the story. He was the man who really wanted to blow up the world.”
          Peter tried the same argument with Original Sin. He was willing to admit there had been no actual Garden of Eden, with its strange trees and thornless roses and persuasive serpent. Still, there must be a profound truth of some sort lurking behind the myth of the Fall, though he wasn’t sure exactly what it was.
          “How can you be saved unless you’re saved from something?” he asked.
          “Look, my dear boy,” I said (it is the only time I can recall when I almost lost my temper with him), “why don’t you stop fooling yourself? Blood sacrifices and atonements have long, long histories. They go back far beyond the death of Christ. You can read all about them in James Frazer’s Golden Bough. The atonement myth keeps popping up in so many forms, in so many cultures, precisely because it expresses so poignantly man’s feelings of loneliness, his sense of guilt, his hunger for the love and protection of a supreme Father. The myth, to be sure, is beautiful. It’s profound. Don’t cheapen it by believing that it’s true. The story of Leda and the swan is a charming Greek fable unless you think it really happened. Oz is a delightful place in a child’s imagination unless he begins to think Oz really exists. The Virgin Birth and the Resurrection are marvelous fairy tales. Let’s keep them that. Let’s not degrade God to the level of a magician who made a miraculous entrance on the stage of history two thousand years ago, disguised as a Jewish prophet and faith-healer, to perform a carnival trick of dying for the sins of humanity, then sprang back to life again, like Houdini escaping from a locked trunk, and finally left the scene by floating up into the clouds.”
          Peter was looking at me strangely. “I thought you didn’t believe in God.”
          “I don’t. But if I did, I’d try to believe in a more dignified deity than one who went about engaging such drolleries.”
          “The Crucifixion isn’t droll.”
          “No. Did you ever think, though, how droll the Virgin Birth would have been if only it were true? Poor old Joseph the carpenter, building a house and trying make up his mind whether his pregnant young wife is telling him the truth about Gabriel and the Holy Ghost! No wonder the Gospels tell us so little about him.”
          A year ago I would have not have dared talked this way to Peter. It would only have made him angry.

      • Reginald Selkirk
        Posted January 6, 2014 at 8:01 am | Permalink

        “Me too.”

        Gardner’s position, which he describes as “philosophical theism,” is described in his book The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener. So if you are surprised to find this out, it means you haven’t read that book.

        There are other people who are commonly misunderstood, despite stating their positions clearly enough. E.O. Wilson describes himself as a “provisional deist,” which ought to humiliate all those people who consistenly place him in their “Top ten atheist” lists.

    • Achrachno
      Posted January 5, 2014 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      “why did you pick the Christian God out of all the possible gods from which to choose?”

      I don’t think he accepted the Xian god — he seems to have been something like a deist or a very generic theist. He seems to have rejected all religions and creeds, but couldn’t quite part with “God”, whatever that meant to him.
      At least that’s my impression, but I’ve probably not read as much of his output as I should have.

      • Filippo
        Posted January 5, 2014 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

        My recollection, from reading “The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener” at least twice, is that he (perfunctorily?) declined to accept (the idea/belief of) Jesus, but wanted to believe that he will somehow persist beyond ” this mortal coil.”

        Perhaps he thought of the continued existence of his consciousness as Sagan did of life elsewhere in the universe. As Sagan’s doppelganger (?) Ellie in “Contact” puts it, in response to the idea that there might be no other sentient life in the universe: “a lot of wasted space.”

        Re: Hitchens’s thoughts on “leaving the party.” Is it better to (have to) “leave the party”? Or, “Guess what? You’re never going (to get) to leave the party.”

        • Mark Joseph
          Posted January 5, 2014 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

          Depends on the party.

          “The longest and most destructive party ever held is now into its fourth generation and still no one shows any signs of leaving. Somebody did once look at his watch, but that was eleven years ago now, and there has been no follow up.

          “The mess is extraordinary, and has to be seen to be believed, but if you don’t have any particular need to believe it, then don’t go and look because you won’t enjoy it.

          “There have recently been some bangs and flashes up in the clouds, and there is one theory that this is a battle being fought between the fleets of several rival carpet-cleaning companies who are hovering over the thing like vultures, but you shouldn’t believe anything you hear at parties, and particularly not anything you hear at this one.

          “One of the problems, and it’s one that is obviously going to get worse, is that all the people at the party are either the children or the grand children or the great-grandchildren of the people who wouldn’t leave in the first place, and because of all the business about selective breeding and recessive genes and so on, it means that all the people now at the party are either absolutely fanatical partygoers, or gibbering idiots or, more and more frequently, both.

          “Either way, it means that, genetically speaking, each succeeding generation is now less likely to leave than the preceding one.

          “So, other factors come into operation, like when the drinks are going to run out.”

          (Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe and Everything, Chapter 19)

    • Sastra
      Posted January 5, 2014 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      Mark Joseph #4 wrote:

      “since your faith is not based on evidence, why did you pick the Christian God out of all the possible gods from which to choose?”

      And his answer would be … “Probably because it’s what I grew up with, so it’s the most convenient.” Just admit the atheist’s point and run with it being a matter of custom and taste. Now what do we do?

      The reason Gardner’s fideism is much less disturbing to me than the fideism of most believers is that he doesn’t pretend that his desire or need to believe marks him as especially receptive to the Truth. He not only approaches supernatural claims as if he was choosing a dessert, he consistently behaves as if he has done nothing more significant or important than choosing a dessert. “God” is as personal as an imaginary friend and if it’s useful nobody cares whether or not it’s really “real.”

      As he sees it, if you don’t believe in God then that says nothing more negative about you than the fact that you don’t mutter questions to yourself when you’re trying to fix the dryer. Faith is not a path towards knowledge. It’s a hobby. And God is a satisfying mouth of fluff and empty calories.

      Martin Gardner seemed to be endorsing and pursuing a curiously humanist form of faith (as opposed to a metaphysical or spiritual form.) Not only doesn’t it matter whether or not people believe in God, it doesn’t matter whether God exists at all. God makes no difference to anything either way.

      This I think is directly opposed to the much more popular form of fideism, which assents that “the atheists have the better arguments” but then froths at the mouth about how discovering or acknowledging God is a matter of opening the heart and entering into the greatest relationship of which humans are capable … or some such tripe. Gardner spares us that.

      He’s more like someone chuckling over his habit of wearing his “lucky socks” when he watches his favorite team play. The down side is that this lovable character spent his life arguing against people who take “luck” and “magic” very seriously.

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted January 5, 2014 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

        Hi Sastra:

        You’re right, of course; your first paragraph points to John Loftus’ Outsider Test for Faith.

        And, while I agree that Gardner’s faith is relatively harmless (though I’ve gotten into trouble on this list before with such a declaration; hopefully I’ll express myself clearly this time) in that he would not have been a likely candidate to fly a plane into a building or bomb an abortion clinic, didn’t he ever encounter the following quotes from W. K. Clifford?

        “If I let myself believe anything on insufficient evidence, there may be no great harm done by the mere belief; in may be true after all, or I may never have occasion to exhibit it in outward acts. But I cannot help doing this great wrong toward Man, that I make myself credulous. The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous.”

        “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

        I respect Gardner as much as anyone, but why waste time with what he himself admits, though in different words, is wishful thinking? I wish I had a million dollars so that I didn’t have to go to work tomorrow, and could stay home and read, but what would people think of me if I pretended it were true out of great emotional longing, especially if I acted on it?

        So, I agree with you that his fideism is “less disturbing.” But, I still find it disturbing.

  5. John Marley
    Posted January 5, 2014 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    ” … and it is not strongly contradicted by science or logical reasons”

    Great, except that theism is ptretty strongly contradicted by both those things. That’s why, as you say, “atheists have the better arguments”.

    • Steve Reilly
      Posted January 5, 2014 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      Just to be clear I should have put all that in quotes. That’s Gardner in the interview, not me.

  6. steve oberski
    Posted January 5, 2014 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    Martin Gardner wrote the forward in “The Emperor’s New Mind” by Roger Penrose, which argues that the human mind is not a “computer made of meat” and can not be duplicated by the algorithmic methods of classical computers (i.e. a Turing machine).

    I suspect that both Penrose and Gardner were closet dualists, ascribing to the human mind certain non material aspects although they couched this in terms of quantum physics and microtubule decoherence.

    It’s been a long time since I read it but it all seemed to me to be an argument from ignorance.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 5, 2014 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      I think Gardner counted himself a “Mysterian” — someone who believes that an understanding of consciousness and the mind is permanently intractable.

    • peterr
      Posted January 6, 2014 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      Steve:

      I seem to be the official defender of mathematical platonists here, however tentative my own views on that might be:

      “…I suspect that .. Penrose ..(is a) closet dualist..”

      A few pages beyond Gardner’s foreword, in the middle of page xxi, Penrose writes

      “This is assuming that we also accept that ‘physical action’ of some kind is where we must look in order to find the origin of conscious phenomena.”

      Read the context there, and several other thongs in that book and its follow-up, and you’ll see that is his opinion, quite the opposite of dualism.

      If I may indulge in pure speculation, I suspect that what seems somewhat smug anti-platonism (not your remark here) every once in a while arises from an unwarranted suspicion that belief in some sort of god is a logical consequence of platonism.

  7. Posted January 5, 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    I suggest he didn’t believe at all – he just thought that he did http://lesswrong.com/lw/r/no_really_ive_deceived_myself/

    • Sastra
      Posted January 5, 2014 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

      That’s a good essay; thanks for the link.

      You can apparently “believe in God” without actually — you know — believing that God actually exists. And as long as you never ever say “God exists” and always make sure you say “I believe in God” nobody, including you, will ever catch on.

      Nor will they ever be able to argue with you. It’s a wise way to avoid any confrontation or serious thought. If the statement is “I BELIEVE in God” then it has to pass as correct. So you do. You didn’t say anything debatable.

      Except, of course, that it IS debatable. If sincere religious belief is the same as playacting the belief and vice versa, then you don’t believe in God. You believe in believing in God. Apologetics has deteriorated from a robust “Here is why people should believe” to a self-expressive personal journey of “this is why I choose to believe (but your path to happiness may be different than mine.)”

      It sounds more benign on the surface. Don’t look at the depths of shallows beneath

      • Barry Lyons
        Posted January 5, 2014 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

        Yes, Dennett discussed this “belief in belief” approach in his book.

        And you’re right about the deterioration and the self-expressive personal journey. Exactly.

  8. abrotherhoodofman
    Posted January 5, 2014 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    It’s a lasting escape from the despair that follows a stabbing realization that you and everyone else are soon to vanish utterly from the universe.”

    Ah, yes.

    Time to cue Dawkins: listen or read.

    • Filippo
      Posted January 5, 2014 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

      Carl Sagan has thoughts in that ballpark in “Pale Blue Dot.”

      • abrotherhoodofman
        Posted January 5, 2014 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

        Yes, a brilliant piece by Sagan.

  9. ladyatheist
    Posted January 5, 2014 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    In the 1980s I was “seeking” and having trouble believing, but without any confirmation that my doubts and skepticism were valid. All my friends believed in something, including some who believed in reincarnation, holistic medicine, spirit mediums, etc. Then I stumbled upon Not Necessarily the New Age. His chapter on Shirley MacLaine was one of the ones that really opened my eyes. (The other was Paul Edwards’ The Case Against Karma and Reincarnation, which debunked reincarnation mathematically!)

    How he could split off his Obedience to God, or more likely, obedience to his family and culture, reminds me of Christians I know who know about cults and “pagan” systems but are blind to their own belief. I was like that for awhile too.

  10. Posted January 5, 2014 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    The form of accommodationism of Marvin Gardner is probably pretty common, and I find myself strangely tongue tied at mounting a critical comment about his views b/c they match those of my mother. :[
    In any case he was a uniquely ‘self made’ contributor to Scientific American in a way that may not be possible today. This is from the September 2013 issue:
    “In 1956 Martin Gardner invented the perfect job for himself: writing a monthly column called Mathematical Games in the pages of Scientific American. Then he invented the Martin Gardner who could do the job. “I hurried at once to the used bookstore section of Manhattan, then near the Village, to buy all the books I could find on recreational math…If you look over all my columns…, you’ll find that they steadily become more sophisticated mathematically. That was because I was learning math.”

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted January 5, 2014 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

      And he made an excellent job of it, too.

  11. Richard Olson
    Posted January 5, 2014 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

  12. Steve Gerrard
    Posted January 5, 2014 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    Niels Bohr, responding to a visitor asking whether he believed the horseshoe he had hanging over his door really brought good luck: “Of course not, but I am told it works even if you don’t believe in it.”

    There may be two kinds of atheists in the world: those who wish there was a god, and those who are content that there isn’t one.

  13. Steve Gerrard
    Posted January 5, 2014 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    Niels Bohr, responding to a visitor asking whether he believed the horseshoe he had hanging over his door really brought good luck: “Of course not, but I am told it works even if you don’t believe in it.”

    There may be two kinds of atheists in the world: those who wish there was a god, and those who are content that there isn’t one.

  14. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted January 5, 2014 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    I find Martin Gardner’s choice of belief entirely inoffensive. He’s not going to insist anybody else believes the same way, or vote, or persecute anybody, or endanger anybody’s health, on the grounds of what some other person says about some holy book.
    I certainly don’t think belief (at his level) is self-destructive.

    There may be a logical incompatibility between his belief and scientific thought – but so what? We deal with logical incompatibilities in life all the time, any time we immerse ourselves in a story. Is science fiction self-destructive? Is following a sport delusional and self-destructive? – a lot of people seem to think there’s some significance to a group of men chasing a ball around a field, though we know perfectly well it’s totally futile and a waste of time, don’t we? And insofar as the ball-chasing costs money and resources it’s far more damaging than Martin Gardner’s quiet personal belief in a god.

    I said ‘choice of belief’ – I think Jerry’s “forced himself to believe” is quite wrong, I don’t think any force was required. I think MG chose or decided to believe, or just found that line of thought comfortable. I know logically you can’t decide whether to believe something or not – you do or you don’t. But I think in reality, if you start thinking in a certain way and just keep on thinking that way, it grows into a belief.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 5, 2014 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

      The particular problem I have with Martin Gardner’s fideism is that this isn’t simply a case where an astronomer or someone else in a scientific or reason-oriented profession also happens to be religious. If they’re not making a big deal of it we can shrug and give it a pass, agree.

      It’s that Martin Gardner was a noted skeptic who specialized in clear, cautious, analytic thinking — a master at dissecting unsupported claims fearlessly and without partiality. He attacked many sacred cows: parapsychology, pseudoscience, false history, alternative medicine, cryptozoology, and the entire gamut of woo. The skeptic’s skeptic.

      Till you get to religion. Then all of a sudden we go a-skipping along into the If-it-feels-good-believe-it and prove-to-me-it-isn’t-true-no-you-can’t Land. Because religion is metaphysics and I guess we’ve got a free zone if we’re polite about it and keep it to ourselves and admit it makes no sense so sue me.

      I think a “logical incompatibility between his belief and scientific thought” in a man who spent his entire life arguing that there should be no logical incompatibility between beliefs and scientific thought is problematic.

      Imo religion is not a minor little corner where we may permit ourselves to foolishly indulge if we so choose. It’s the Big Enchilada. It’s the King of Woo, Magical Thinking Personified, the underlying substructure for everything else — with “faith” as the grand cop-out, the immunizing strategy which turns lack-of-evidence for a claim into a positive benefit.

      I admit it. I hold Martin Gardner to a higher standard — not because he was so intelligent or wise or clever — but because skepticism was his field, damn it. It’s not inoffensive given those circumstances.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted January 6, 2014 at 4:18 am | Permalink

        Well, I would rather be charitable and count the things he got right, than single out the one thing he got wrong. Your use of the word ‘offensive’ disturbs me – I think it’s unduly judgmental and not justifiable. Particularly since he didn’t publicise or promote his version of religion.

        • Diane G.
          Posted January 14, 2014 at 2:00 am | Permalink

          I agree.

          And this is not really a new story–I thought it was widely known.

      • Reginald Selkirk
        Posted January 6, 2014 at 10:09 am | Permalink

        Till you get to religion. Then all of a sudden we go a-skipping along into the If-it-feels-good-believe-it and prove-to-me-it-isn’t-true-no-you-can’t Land…

        Well, no. Gardner had no problems skewering people’s religious beliefs. He wrote clearly and critically about Creationism, Urantia, etc.

        I appreciate that he admitted he had no arguments that would convince an atheist. If all theists were like that, I would not be so anti-religious.

        • Sastra
          Posted January 6, 2014 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

          While Gardner’s cavalier attitude is a strange mix of gratifying and frustrating, most theists who admit they have no arguments that would convince an atheist are poisonous.

          I don’t get it. If God exists, is important, and recognizing that is important, then it’s far more insulting to atheists to think that believing in God is a matter of the heart rather than the head. When the issue is not at issue and figuring out the truth comes down to a leap of faith, atheism is explained as smart, clever, reasonable people who are even so fatally incapable of overcoming the sad little deficiencies of their personalities. How is this better?

          The problem would I think become rapidly apparent if it were applied to any other fact claim:

          “Yes, I admit that the evidence in favor of global-warming is on your side, but I choose not to believe in it for the same reason I choose to care about others, strive to improve the world, and love my mother. You see, whether or not the earth is warming isn’t a scientific issue for me. It’s metaphysical. It has to do with a deep concern and appreciation for Nature — so I admit that I have no argument which would or ever could convince you. Let’s put the charts away and have some milk and cookies. Oh, if only ALL climate-change denialists were like me!”

          The only reason I can imagine an atheist preferring this approach is that it means the other person is not going to even try to convert you. They won’t argue or probably even bring religion up at all. Why would they? No point. Can’t teach a pig to sing nor make a silk purse out of their ear. Though, being polite, they won’t add the last part. To our faces.

          The idea that it is a rude and terrible thing to try to convince people that their religious views are wrong is a product of the belief that faith is sacred and beautiful — and the fact that faith vs. faith is an ugly fight. It’s not that I always want to argue about religion — far from it. But the idea that if I wanted to I simply couldn’t because it’s granted up front that ALL my rational arguments are better is deeply disturbing. Because if they think that God exists AND I have the better arguments, then that means I’m mistaken anyway because there’s something untouchably wrong about ME.

    • Kevin
      Posted January 5, 2014 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

      Gardner chose to believe in something transcendent. Most likely an afterlife, not so much a supernatural being. And he did this conciousless, when he wanted to think about the subject of his mortality. His thinking skills led him to consider the matter in depth as it interested him, but he volunteered to make this choice. That is, he forced it upon himself. There is nothing ruminant about it, he had fixed a hope on something that is profoundly against reason.

    • Marella
      Posted January 5, 2014 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think he “chose to believe” so much as found that regardless of reality he simply couldn’t imagine the universe without him in it. He simply couldn’t believe in his own death. It comes down to a combination of solipsism and a failure of imagination. I find it indicative of a not very admirable personality. I also think it’s extremely common here in Australia where formal religion is quite rare, but the inability to understand our own mortality is also prevalent.

      • Filippo
        Posted January 6, 2014 at 3:22 am | Permalink

        “I find it indicative of a not very admirable personality.”

        If “not very admirable,” perhaps at least “moderately neato”? I figure way too many personalities of human mammals on this planet are in any event not very admirable.

        From reading him, my imperfect, subjective impression was that his was a reasonably congenial, cordial, agreeable personality, not one around whom one had to unreasonably walk on egg shells for fear of evoking his opprobrium.

        He did have his admirers. (What were they called – “Gardner Gatherings”? – whether or not he himself showed up.) Re: the old saw, “You can pick your friends but not your relatives.”

  15. Posted January 5, 2014 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    “It’s a lasting escape”

    Appropriate for the King of Hearts/King of Cups. Presumably the card in the photo was chosen for a reason.

  16. Posted January 5, 2014 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    The Argument from Emotion.

    At least such believers recognize that it is not based on evidence and, presumably, do not attempt to legislate others into their beliefs. We are emotional beings, some more than others. Oh well, I appreciate Mr Gardner’s honesty.

  17. Jim I
    Posted January 5, 2014 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    Gardner called himself a philosophical theist (fideist) who believes in a personal God and one who can answer prayers. Deism I could understand but theism? In an interview, he even discusses his attraction to Seventh Day Adventism during high school:
    http://www.cambridgeblog.org/2008/10/the-martin-gardner-interview-part-5/

    To this day, I never understood how smart people like Gardner could subvert the truth for the sake of nostalgia (I wouldn’t call Gardner delusional). Did they bet the farm on Pascal’s wager?

    My question to them is an expanded version of Jerry’s ‘how do you know’ question which is: run the clock backwards. 50,000 years ago when humans were nomadic and wandering about, they knew nothing of God. So how did they find out? What was their unimpeachable source of information?

    The history of religion is so elementary: ancient dead/unnamed gods to dead polytheistic gods to one monotheistic god to different versions of one god.

  18. Posted January 6, 2014 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    Gardner’s dirty little secret is not without consequence. I feel that we should make it clear to all religious folk, especially their apologists who have reason to know better, that ninety million children dying before the age of five; the many wars, and drugs and two billion hungry are not helped by you retreating into personal fantasies which serve to inhibit the onward march of scientific understanding. Outrageous clubs for the deranged such as The Discovery Institute and bible colleges must be held accountable for trying to bamboozle the public into dropping science in favour of religious texts.
    Two centuries ago those theologians who ran our universities could be forgiven for their desperate innocence of the real world, which lead to delays in our understanding. Van Leeuwenhoek in the mid to late seventeenth century had identified bugs in human tissue, but two centuries later, when Semmelweis stumbled across handwashing and its efficacy in obstetrics, seemingly no-one was available to look for the link between the two. The crowded universities of the time were too busy in prayer.
    But today, we should give no leeway; no exculpatory acceptance, because, TODAY, they, who crowd the bible colleges, have all the knowledge of science available to help them dismantle their emotional dependencies upon supernatural beings, but choose instead to denigrate evolution and other science.
    I think that future Historians of Ideas will consider William Lane Craig and Stephen C Meyer of ‘Darwin’s Doubt’ as a dangerous lunatics who, in desperate times, tried to turn back the world to the fourteenth century.
    The age of accommodation is passed. It is time for the age of accountability, and the age of scorn.

    • Steve Reilly
      Posted January 6, 2014 at 8:02 am | Permalink

      I don’t think prayer had much to do with the reaction to Semmelwiess’s finding: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contemporary_reaction_to_Ignaz_Semmelweis

      Doctors just didn’t find it scientific enough (perhaps self-servingly, since accepting it would have meant that they themselves had killed numerous patients.)

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted January 6, 2014 at 10:12 am | Permalink

      I can’t agree that something he wrote openly about could be called a “secret,” let alone a “dirty little secret.”

      And if you place Gardner in the same category with the Discovery Institute, I’m afraid that all you’re doing is undercutting your own credibility.

      • Posted January 6, 2014 at 10:38 am | Permalink

        The ‘dirty little secret’ is to publically denounce others while holding similar views. There, sorted for you.

        • Steve Reilly
          Posted January 6, 2014 at 10:44 am | Permalink

          He publicly denounced views, and he publicly acknowledged his own, different, views. I’m missing the secret.

  19. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted January 6, 2014 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    I learned that Gardner was a (quiet) theist a few years back.

  20. Posted January 6, 2014 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Brevity is not a good idea on this site, clearly.I loved and trusted the Scientific American for many years. From five thousand miles away I had no idea that he publically announced his semi-religious views.Did he announce his views in the Sci Am? If he did not, then it was a secret. I feel cheated.The theme of my letter was that I feel he should be firmer against such accomodationism as to ‘forgive’ him.

  21. Posted January 6, 2014 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    For me after a time studying the History of Ideas, I recognised a terrible human proclivity for equating powerful emotional needs with explanations for the universe around us. Rule by conviction, not by knowledge. The crazed clerics always got their own way. It seemed to me that many of the unconvincing explanations such as Four Humours Theory, or the equation of disease and sin, or devil-possession, or the current Islamic belief that their gods daily engineer all objects and processes second by second, which are not to be questioned, – all were so widely accepted by powerful people that humans continued in misery for millennia too long. My schooling all those years ago was dependant upon the suppression of independent thought in favour of traditional mass ignorance. We were obliged to pray together, and to accept their gods into our hearts.
    By the age of ten I began to understand that I was born into a madhouse where the people around me saw and talked with invisible beings. I remember trying it on. We were in a playground, looking up at unfamiliar vapour-trails, and I told my teacher that it was god writing on the sky with chalk, me seeking to please her. That was my first and only attempt to ride the tiger of irrationality. And then, school after school, things got worse, right up to the four universities I attended. I was put to a desk to learn under people who had only the smallest grasp of reality. For me any fact-claim had to have credible support. The Social Sciences were the worst; ‘solution-ideology’ at its most dangerous; cultural orientation pretending to be science. It left me with a poor opinion of academics. And it puzzled me that so many of the class were willing to go along with it all, those twin handcuffs of religion, and the priority of gut-feeling over observation. And don’t get the idea that I am a cold materialist; I have been a DJ at an American rock station, television chat-show presenter, I made films, wrote and directed major drama, wrote long novels, poetry, painting, the lot.
    But the real haunting of my life came from those who claimed the the supremacy of irrational gut-feeling over hard, testable fact. It is a smug little hole they have prepared for themselves. Unassailable. Selfish. As I said in an earlier post; the champions of woo never seem to understand that their gut-feeling approach to life has increasing consequences. Sastra mentioned Global Warming Denial. Let’s not forget alternative ‘medicine’. Now the new and terrible attempts to replace science-books with religious texts. And the 21st century obscenity of bible-colleges and madrassas.
    The British poet, Mathew Arnold once wrote (Dover Beach) …
    “…The sea of faith
    Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
    Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d….”
    I think he meant the ‘Sea of filth’

  22. Posted January 6, 2014 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Martin Gardner, who published that most valuable tome, “The Annotated Alice,” understood whimsey. If you don’t, then you will never understand Gardner. Charles Dodgson, “known when in Wonderland as Lewis Carroll,” a symbolic mathematician & creator of puzzles – understood whimsey as well, and I don’t mean the detective, Lord Peter Whimsey. If you haven’t read “Alice …” then you very likely just won’t get Martin Gardner. He knew how to be both serious and whimsical. I recommend learning how to do that and most certainly I recommend Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” and “Alice Through the Looking Glass.” If you are new to whimsey, then most certainly you would do best to read Gardner’s annotated version. Whatever — read Carroll! And for heaven sake don’t fuss about his choice to “believe” because “it made him happy.” His wonderful writings have made a great many others happier than any of those who are complaining about his ideas.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted January 7, 2014 at 12:45 am | Permalink

      +1

      I always liked Lewis Carroll. Fantasy with a dash of cynicism to stop it getting too saccharine.


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