The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener
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…
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