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Gardner’s Game with God

The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener

by Martin Gardner
Morrow, 450 pp., $22.50; $12.95 (paper)

This is one of the strangest books of philosophical game playing to come along in many a moon. The author seems well acquainted with modern philosophy—indeed, he studied under Rudolf Carnap and even edited one of Carnap’s books—yet he defends a point of view so anachronistic, so out of step with current fashion, that were it not for a plethora of contemporary quotations and citations, his book could almost have been written at the time of Kant, a thinker the author apparently admires.

Martin Gardner is well known for the mathematical games column he wrote for Scientific American. He is also the editor of The Annotated Alice, as well as annotated volumes on “The Ancient Mariner,” Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, and a collection of ballads about the mighty Casey who struck out. In addition to his many books about science, pseudoscience, and mathematics, and several children’s books, he has also written a curious novel, The Flight of Peter Fromm. Disguised as a biography, it chronicles the progressive disillusionment of a young Protestant divinity student at the University of Chicago who, after chucking Christianity, preserves a faith in God. Because the novel’s narrator is an atheist, it has been difficult to know whether Gardner’s sympathies are with his narrator or with his bewildered student.

Now the secret is out. Gardner’s sympathies are not with his narrator. As his new book makes clear, although he has little use for any organized religion, he believes there are good reasons, though only emotional ones, for faith. He is as ruthless as Carnap or Bertrand Russell in dismissing systematic theology as nonsense. An entire chapter is devoted to demolishing proofs of God, and poking fun at Mortimer Adler for his unshakable conviction that a valid proof can be formulated. Only an irrational “leap of faith,” as Kierkegaard described it, an impulse springing mysteriously from the heart and will, can underpin philosophical theism.

To put it bluntly, Gardner is a simpleminded fideist who sees himself in the tradition of Kant, William James, and Miguel de Unamuno. It is impossible to imagine anyone reading his outrageous confessional (unless the reader is a clone of Gardner) who, however impressed he may be by the author’s wide-ranging erudition and rhetorical skill, will not be infuriated by his idiosyncrasies.

The first “why” Gardner asks is why he is a realist; that is, why he believes a mathematically structured universe is “out there,” independent of all human minds. “Let me not look aloft and see my own / Feature and form upon the Judgment-throne.” These lines, from a poem by G.K. Chesterton, are the chapter’s epigraph. It turns out that Gardner is a fan of G.K.’s, even though he has not the slightest sympathy for Roman Catholic doctrine. He also admires H.G. Wells. Wells and Chesterton? It would be hard to pick two writers more incompatible or about whom today’s critics care less. “Can you comprehend,” Gardner asks, “as most of my friends cannot, how it is possible to admire…the writings of both men? If so, you will understand how it is possible to combine a Chestertonian faith…with a Wellsian admiration for science, and at the same time ignore each man’s areas of blindness.”

After arguing for the reality of an outside world (here Gardner sides with Russell and Hans Reichenbach in making a firm ontological commitment to realism, rather than with Carnap, who defended realism only because he considered it a more efficient language than phenomenology), Gardner takes on the pragmatic theory of truth. In a series of clever arguments based on selecting a card at random from a deck (Gardner is an amateur magician), he concludes that pragmatism failed in its effort to replace the traditional Aristotelian correspondence theory of truth with a theory in which truth is defined as the passing of tests for truth. Although he thinks Russell and John Dewey differed mainly in their choice of language when they clashed repeatedly over this question, he sides strongly with Russell’s language. Pragmatism died, Gardner tells us, because the verbal revolution it desired was pragmatically undesirable.

Gardner’s chapter on why he is not a “paranormalist” contains little he has not said elsewhere and ad nauseam. He is down on parapsychologists not because he thinks psychic forces are impossible—nothing in science is impossible, he never tires of saying—but because he finds their evidence too feeble beside the wildness of their claims. Would the world be more interesting if psi forces existed? Maybe yes, maybe no. Gardner speculates amusingly on some of the less-pleasant consequences that could result if ESP and PK turn out to be genuine.

In explaining why he is not a relativist with respect to aesthetic values, Gardner goes to preposterous lengths to justify his convictions that “Dante and Shakespeare were better poets than Ella Wheeler Wilcox, that Michelangelo was a greater painter than Jackson Pollock, and that Beethoven’s music is superior to that of John Cage or a punk rock band.” So what else is new?

There is something to be said for Gardner’s defense of objective value judgments in aesthetics, but he spoils it all with a dreary recital of his own peculiar tastes in poetry. No one will fault his admiration for Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, and Emily Dickinson, but what is one to make of his distaste for Yeats? He considers T.S. Eliot “overrated,” and agrees with Nabokov that Ezra Pound was a “total fake.” Although he says he has tried his best to enjoy William Carlos Williams, he has yet to find a poem by Williams he thinks worth reading twice. The reader is asked to compare a crude parody of Williams with one of Williams’s best-known short poems. Gardner’s atrocious spoof—it contains such lines as “Your knees are a southern breeze”—is obviously inferior to Williams’s lovely lyric about the butterfly on a red wheelbarrow.

Moral relativism enrages Gardner even more than aesthetic relativism. Here his position is substantially the same as Dewey’s: a naturalistic ethics can be based on a common human nature provided one makes such emotional assumptions as that it is better to be healthy than sick, and better to be alive than dead. Stale arguments against the extreme cultural relativism that once dominated American anthropology are trotted out and doggedly defended; but when it comes to the “staggering” moral decisions that will have to be made when biologists find ways to alter human nature, Gardner writes, “I have no light to throw on these rapidly approaching and terrible questions.”

Free will is the next topic to occupy Gardner’s attention. No modern philosopher is likely to be impressed by his simple way of evading this ancient conundrum. He “solves” it by declaring it unsolvable. As Gardner sees it, the fundamental dilemma is that determinism leads straight to fatalism, but indeterminism is even worse because it turns free will into the haphazard toss of a die inside one’s skull. There is no way, he insists, to define free will without sliding into one or the other of these dark chasms. The best we can do, indeed the only thing we can do, is leave will a blinding mystery. It is not fate, it is not chance. It is somehow both, yet somehow neither. “Ask not how it works,” he concludes, “because no one on earth can tell you.”

When he comes to politics and economics, Gardner’s chaotic high jinks seem calculated to drive both liberals and conservatives up the wall. Gardner has no respect for what he calls the “Smithians”—all those who think government should shrink, leaving as much play as possible for the free market. Robert Nozick’s minimal state is dismissed as a “me generation” aberration, and Ayn Rand is shoved aside as the ugly offspring of Milton Friedman and Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Withering scorn is heaped on the supply-siders. He quotes Paul Samuelson’s remark that if Friedman didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent him. He likens Friedman to a chiropractor. Unlike an authentic doctor who knows too much to make a snap diagnosis, a chiropractor will tell you at once why your back is aching and how quickly he can cure it.

On the other hand, conservatives will be delighted by Gardner’s jabs at Karl Marx. He quotes an amusing passage from a forgotten book on Russia by Wells in which the insane abundance of Das Kapital is compared with Marx’s woolly beard. The sooner Michael Harrington forgets about Marx, says Gardner, the better. Politically, Gardner turns out to be—who could have guessed it?—an old-fashioned democratic socialist in the tradition of Wells, Russell, Norman Thomas, Gunnar Myrdal, Irving Howe, and a host of other socialists who are as ignored today by most liberals as they are hated by all conservatives and whose practical political prospects, which he does not discuss, seem as dim as ever.

We are now halfway through Gardner’s bizarre book, and ready for its biggest surprise, his back flip into fideism. But first he writes a diversionary chapter on polytheism. Like Lord Dunsany—whose name suggests how out of date are Gardner’s tastes, but whose fantasies he admires—Gardner has a wistful fondness for the beautiful gods of ancient Greece and little to say about their cruelty. Although he finally chooses monotheism, it is largely on the flimsy ground of “Occam’s razor.” Emotionally, he believes, a single God will do all a plurality would, and do it better, though in a final sense he says he does not know if God is one or many, or even if numbers have any meaning when applied to God. He sees Christianity as almost as polytheistic as Hinduism. Are not Jesus and the Holy Ghost manifestations of a higher deity, just as Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva are manifestations of Brahman, not to forget Satan, the Immaculate Mary, and the vast medieval hierarchy of angels?

At this point one might expect Gardner to glide into a pantheism along the lines of Alfred North Whitehead’s, but no. He dislikes pantheism even more than polytheism. His God is “personal,” though he emphasizes, with Thomas Aquinas and Charles Peirce, that we have not the foggiest notion of what it means to pin human traits on God. He applauds today’s Christian feminists for their attacks on the male bias of the Bible, but goes them one better. He sees no way the bias can be removed without removing the Incarnation itself, and therefore abandoning the heart of Christianity. Nevertheless, if God is to be of any value to us we must model him with the highest metaphors we have. Gardner quotes a colorful passage from C.S. Lewis on what happens when God is modeled with nonpersonal symbols. He becomes a kind of gas, or maybe jello, that permeates the cosmos, of less use to us than a cloud or stone.

There are more surprises. Not only does Gardner believe in God, he also believes that petitionary prayer can make a difference. How? He doesn’t know. As for skeptics, “Do they think, the fools,” Gardner quotes from Thornton Wilder’s The Cabala, “that their powers of observation are cleverer than the devices of a god?” For Gardner, the mystery of prayer is bound up with the terrible mysteries of time, causality, and free will. To defend the right to pray, he constructs several ingenious models, one of them deriving from quantum mechanics. They are put forth whimsically. His only motive, he claims, is to show that belief in the efficacy of prayer is not logically contradictory. Are any of the models true? “Do not ask me,” Gardner answers himself.

One of the characteristics of Gardner’s “theological positivism,” as he calls it, is that he is content to accept paradox and mystery in regions where philosophers endlessly seek solutions. For a theist, the most dreadful of all mysteries is random, insane evil. Two chapters are devoted to the ancient argument that God either could prevent evil but doesn’t, hence is not good, or wants to prevent it but can’t, in which case He is not all-powerful. Gardner not only has no answer to this deadly dilemma, he actually thinks it makes atheism more sensible than theism! All the better arguments, he freely admits, are on the atheist’s side. The leap of faith is an irrational, absurd somersault of the soul that some people cannot avoid making (Gardner does not know why) even though all experience suggests that the leap is as foolish as Don Quixote’s belief that Dulcinea smells like sweet perfume. The modern fideist, Gardner writes, must grant it all.

Note how Gardner here ensures that no one can prove him wrong. His invisible God is like the White Knight’s green whiskers; no one can see them because he keeps them always behind his fan. The atheist argument from evil to no God bounces harmlessly off Gardner’s head because he does not deny its persuasiveness. Like Pascal, he defends his fideism on the grounds that if it were otherwise, if we knew the secret of evil, faith would not be faith. It would become compelled belief.

What is one to say about such a view, wholly unsupported by reason or revelation? I can best reply with a passage from Russell that Gardner must know but apparently could not bring himself to quote:

There is to my mind something pusillanimous and sniveling about this point of view, which makes me scarcely able to consider it with patience. To refuse to face facts merely because they are unpleasant is considered the mark of a weak character, except in the sphere of religion. I do not see how it can be ignoble to yield to the tyranny of fear in all ordinary terrestrial matters, but noble and virtuous to do exactly the same thing when God and the future life are concerned. *

Gardner’s discussion of immortality is the most outlandish in the book. Although he realizes that within one’s head theism can be separated from hope for another life, he follows Unamuno in regarding the two beliefs as interlocked inside the heart. He quotes Unamuno’s conversation with the peasant who, after being told that perhaps there is a God but no afterlife, responded, “Then wherefore God?” Although Gardner believes Jesus to have been an ordinary man, likely born illegitimate and possibly gay, he professes to admire most of what he suspects Jesus actually taught. He is amazed that Paul Tillich, who did not believe in a personal God or an afterlife—Jesus’ two basic themes—could have made the cover of Time as a great Christian theologian. As for hell, which Gardner thinks Jesus also taught, he cites this as one reason why he stopped calling himself a Christian.

Gardner constructs three models for an afterlife, all designed (like his models for prayer) to show that the doctrine is not logically inconsistent. Is one of the models true? “For my part,” Gardner answers, “I believe that none of the models…is true. I am persuaded that the truth about immortality is as far beyond our grasp as the ideas in this book are beyond the grasp of glow-worm.” Again it is all a matter of “faith,” for which he can show no rational basis.

The book’s last chapter but one is a frank attempt to arouse in the reader a sense of what Rudolf Otto called the “numinous,” a Chestertonian awe before the incredible mystery of existence. The final chapter pleads for religious tolerance. Gardner is appalled by the view that history is a duel to the death between Christianity and atheism; a duel that Chesterton and Whittaker Chambers saw, and William Buckley and Ronald Reagan still see, as manifest today in the military confrontation of “Christian” America and “atheist” Russia. Gardner quotes a poem by Stephen Crane about a “complacent fat man” who climbed to the top of a mountain, expecting to see “good white lands and bad black lands,” only to find that the scene was gray. This leads to the book’s final metaphor. Today’s philosophical grayness becomes a backdrop that intensifies the colors of an unpredictable future.

How seriously should we take Gardner’s fideism? He seems sincere, yet one wonders. After all, the man has a reputation as a hoaxer. His April 1975 column in Scientific American purported to disclose such dramatic breakthroughs as the discovery of a map that required five colors, a fatal flaw in relativity theory, an opening move in chess (pawn to queen’s rook four) that is a certain win for white, and a lost parchment proving that Leonardo da Vinci invented the flush toilet. Thousands of readers wrote to tell Gardner where he went wrong, and one irate professor tried to have him expelled from the American Mathematical Society. Happily, the society made him an honorary life member. George Groth, by the way, is one of Gardner’s pseudonyms.

  1. *

    From The Value of Free Thought: How to Become a Truth-Seeker and Break the Chains of Mental Slavery, by Bertrand Russell (1944). Reprinted in Understanding History and Other Essays (Philosophical Library, 1957).

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