In the heady days, only a decade ago, when psychologists thought they had unlocked the conceptual capacities of apes by teaching them American Sign Language, a leading researcher confessed to me that he would refrain from teaching one key item to his chimpanzee—the fact of her impending personal mortality. No other animal, he explained, understood this most terrible of all facts—and he had nightmarish visions of his enlightened ape spreading the bad news by sign throughout chimpdom.
Ever since we learned this fact as the most unfortunate consequence of evolving a larger brain, we have done our best to mitigate it. I remembered this recently when I sang Bach’s great motet Jesu meine Freude and came to that sublime fugue with the most God-awful tongue-twisting text: “Sie aber seid nicht fleischlich, sondern geistlich“—you are not made of flesh, but of spirit. Much of the greatest work in philosophy, religion, art, and music exists either to bewail our mortality or to argue that a spiritual continuity permits us to accept the physical decline and eventual decay of our bodies.
Since P.T. Barnum drew a correct equation between the birth of suckers and the passage of minutes, this legitimate search for mitigation has had its counterpart in a vast nether world of huckstering and nonsense about occult phenomena. We either seek to communicate directly with souls in the beyond (spiritualism) or merely in the present (telepathy and other forms of ESP), or we invent an independent, higher realm of spiritual forces and hope that we can plug into it by harnessing its powers (psychokinesis) or living according to its laws (astrology). Sometimes, we are merely struck with awe, as authors of such nonsense strike ore (e.g., the objects of UFOlogy as realized projections of our minds).
Moreover—and by what elitist arrogance should we think otherwise—occultism has always been as fashionable in chic intellectual circles as in drugstore paperbacks and The National Enquirer. Several years ago, I wrote to the manager of the Harvard Coop bookstore, complaining that their paper-back science section had been moved to a less visible position on another floor and replaced with a large section on astrology and the occult. He replied that science had not been eliminated, merely moved to reflect a “sales reality.” I replied that I had never doubted the reason, but had written to protest it. We had clearly reached an impasse.
In this climate, beleaguered rationalism needs its skilled debaters—writers who can combine wit, penetrating analysis, sharp prose, and sweet reason into an expansive view that expunges nonsense without stifling innovation, and that presents the excitement and humanity of science in a positive way, not (to quote the immortal words of Mr. Agnew, via Mr. Safire) like a “nattering nabob of negativism.”
For more than thirty years, Martin Gardner has played this largely thankless role with tireless efficiency and rarely strained good humor. He is more than a mere individual fighting a set of personal battles; he has become a priceless national…
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