On May 22, one of America's most interesting minds and engaging writers passed. Martin Gardner possessed a unique combination of literary breadth, rigorous logic, mathematical intuition, and lively, engaging writing.
I never met Gardner, but I know him well -- and so do the students who take my freshman honors seminar at Eastern Nazarene College, "Contemporary Questions." Like many great writers, Gardner has put his soul in print, allowing us to peek in and see what a true genius thinks about the great questions of life -- free will, God, immortality, evil, prayer, politics, markets.
In about eight weeks 30 incoming freshman honors students will get a letter from me and their first reading for college -- Gardner's opening essay from The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener. Titled "Why I Am Not a Solipsist," the essay jump-starts the academic juices and derails any student who thinks he has college all figured out. (I use the male pronoun here because women don't come to college with such unrealistic assessments of themselves.)
A solipsist, in case you are wondering, is someone who believes that he or she is the only person in the world. The apparent "external" world is just a projection of our minds. Solipsism is a great way to start engaging the mystery of the world, for it is both absurd and irrefutable. There is simply no way to prove that the external world is not your own fantastic construction -- which sort of establishes from the get-go that pretty much everything is up for grabs. On the first class I wear a shirt that my students gave me two years ago that says "Is it solipsistic in here or is that just me?"
Gardner is a delightful paradox. Best known as a hard-nosed, card-carrying, take-no-prisoners skeptic, he cleverly and ruthlessly exposed the fakery of faith healing, spoon-bending, alien abducting, mind-palm-tarot-card reading, holocaust denying, and every other imaginable pseudoscience. But, almost alone among skeptics, he believed passionately in God, prayer, and eternal life. He called himself a "fideist" -- someone who embraces belief in God without having a rational foundation to do so. I can't quote him directly on this, since I am in Barcelona now and my library is in Boston, but he says something to the effect that he believes passionately in a God that is in and through everything because "the God that is outside of me calls to the God that is within me." This God, says Gardner, hears prayers and may even reward us with eternal life when we die.
In reading Gardner my students discover for the first time that the world is full of mystery of the deep philosophical kind. Free will, evil, and God are intertwined mysteries that Gardner doubts we can unravel. But this does not mean they are not real. Gardner was genuinely skeptical about paranormal claims that went against science but, paradoxically, he affirmed and celebrated a world that went beyond science. We can believe, says Gardner, when our will compels us to believe. We are not constrained by science to accept only whatever is on the right-hand side of the equal sign.
Gardner's essays in The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener are a tour de force of mature, honest thinking expressed in golden and often witty prose. In fact, Gardner's wit is enough to justify reading him, and he loved to play tricks on his readers. Once, in collusion with the editor, Gardner wrote a hostile review of The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener for the New York Review of Books!
In an age when science claims to be all-encompassing and skepticism seems corrosive to faith, Gardner was a breath of fresh air. He could "out-skeptic" the harshest of the New Atheists and yet his imagination was so much more robust that he could intuit a world beyond science. He will be missed.