Martin Gardner, Skeptical Inquirer

Martin Gardner on religion and mysterian science

Researching Carl Sagan’s thoughts on religion I stumbled upon a Washington Post article titled “Carl Sagan denied being an atheist. So what did he believe? [Part 1].” The article led me to the “mysterian” thoughts of the late and very lamented Martin Gardner.

“Sagan became agitated after reading a new book by the legendary skeptic Martin Gardner, whom Sagan had admired since the early 1950s,” Joel Achenbach reports in the Washington Post article. “It suggested that perhaps there was a singular God ruling the universe and some potential for life after death.” In November 1996, Sagan wrote to Gardner: “[T]he only reason for this position that I can find is that it feels good… How could you of all people advocate a position because it’s emotionally satisfying, rather than demand rigorous standards of evidence even if they lead to a position that is emotionally distasteful?”

Gardner’s reply is given in “A Mind at Play: An Interview with Martin Gardner,” by Kendrick Frazier, published in Skeptical Inquirer. “Shortly before he died, Carl Sagan wrote to say he had reread my Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener and was it fair to say that I believed in God solely because it made me “feel good.” I replied that this was exactly right, though the emotion was deeper than the way one feels good after three drinks. It is a way of escaping from a deep-seated despair. William James’s essay “The Will to Believe” is the classic defense of the right to make such an emotional “leap of faith.” My theism is independent of any religious movement, and in the tradition that starts with Plato and includes Kant, and a raft of later philosophers, down to Charles Peirce, William James, and Miguel de Unamuno. I defend it ad nauseam in my Whys.”

“Of my books, the one that I am most pleased to have written is my confessional, The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener,” said Gardner. I highly recommend the book, first written in 1983 and republished in 1999. “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,” reads Karl Giberson’s review. “[Gardner] 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.”

I have a huge respect for Carl Sagan but here I side with Martin Gardner and William James. Sagan’s position is based on – and limited by – current scientific evidence, but Gardner makes a quantum leap into the unknown, and dares to hope.

I used to enjoy a lot, as a teen, Gardner’s Scientific American columns on mathematical games and puzzles, but also on “real” mathematics and physics. I learned much more from him than from my unbelievably boring (and often not correct) school books, and Martin Gardner is one of my heroes.

According to Wikipedia, Martin Gardner was a fideistic deist, professing belief in a god as creator, but critical of organized religion. He stated that he would not rule out a priori the possibility that as yet unknown paranormal forces may influence the physical world. See my review of “The Church of the Fourth Dimension,” a chapter of Gardner‘s book “The Colossal Book of Mathematics: Classic Puzzles, Paradoxes, and Problems,” where Gardner gives a nice and (relatively) simple introduction to the mathematical concept of a transcendent, trans-dimensional elsewhere, where perhaps Gods and souls can be found.

“There are dozens of monumental questions about which I have to say ‘I don’t know,'” said Gardner in the Skeptical Inquirer interview. “I don’t know whether there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, or whether life is so improbable that we are truly alone in the cosmos. I don’t know whether there is just one universe, or a multiverse in which an infinite number of universes explode into existence, live and die, each with its own set of laws and physical constants. I don’t know if quantum mechanics will someday give way to a deeper theory. I don’t know whether there is a finite set of basic laws of physics or whether there are infinite depths of structure like an infinite set of Chinese boxes. Will the electron turn out to have an interior structure? I wish I knew!”

Like Gardner, I don’t know any of that, and I wish to know. Based on a gut feeling, I suspect that Shakespeare’s “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” could remain true forever. Our scientific understanding of the universe could grow without bonds, but always find new fractal depths of unexplained phenomena, in a big infinite fractal onion universe to be explored by future scientists.

In the Skeptical Inquirer interview, Gardner defines himself as a “mysterian.” Some mysterians consider consciousness as a mystery that human intelligence will never unravel, but others including Gardner believe that, while consciousness is not within the grasp of present human understanding, it may be comprehensible to future advances of science and technology.

“I can say this. I believe that the human mind, or even the mind of a cat, is more interesting in its complexity than an entire galaxy if it is devoid of life,” continues Gardner. “I belong to a group of thinkers known as the ‘mysterians.’ It includes Roger Penrose, Thomas Nagel, John Searle, Noam Chomsky, Colin McGinn, and many others who believe that no computer, of the kind we know how to build, will ever become self-aware and acquire the creative powers of the human mind. I believe there is a deep mystery about how consciousness emerged as brains became more complex, and that neuroscientists are a long long way from understanding how they work.”

The key words here are “of the kind we know how to build” and “neuroscientists are a long long way from understanding.” Gardner is open to the possibility that future neuroscientists could understand the brain-mind system much better than today’s neuroscientists, and future engineers could know how to build new types of computers, different from today’s computers, able to run a conscious human mind.

I used to be persuaded that quantitative improvements to today’s computer science – faster processors, more memory, and that kind of things – could run conscious AIs and uploaded human minds. Now I prefer Gardner’s honest “I don’t know.” Perhaps Penrose and Hameroff have a point, and consciousness depends critically on subtle quantum aspects of our neural circuitry, not present in silicon electronics. One way or another, we will find out, but the path to conscious AI and mind uploading could be longer than the optimistic experts think, and require yet undiscovered science and engineering.

The brain is a computer in the sense that it is a physical system that follows physical laws. Once these laws are well understood and engineers are able to reproduce the key physical features of the neural substrate, computers could run conscious minds. If a conscious mind can run only on a substrate with certain specific properties, then we will have to engineer new substrates with those specific properties. If Penrose and Hameroff are right, we will have to develop alternative substrates that exhibit the key quantum properties found (actually not yet found) in carbon-based biology. I think Martin Gardner would agree with that.

  • spud100

    Part of Gardners’ fideism was based on string theory. gardner reasoned, that what is behind mattter? Energy. What was behind energy? Strings. What was behind strings? Mathematics, ala Tegmark, Schmidhuber, Fredkin, etc. What is behind math? Gardner’s God, or Gardner surmised, the thoughts of God. Gardner said “if all is just numbers, that what was thought about one time, could be thought about again another time. That was good enough for Gardner.

    More interesting to me, is who is this God? Sticking with math and thermodynamics, of the 19th century, who or what could God be? I would say Ludwig Boltzmann’s Brains, or perhaps, out of infinite vastness, the only BB ever to have existed. Someone super intelligent, who springs into existence with false memories. Because the BB is powerful, this BB, creates multiverses with his ideas. The whole theory of Boltzmann and later, Suskind and Bousso, is as scientifically solid any other theory. Basically infinite time and space leads to an observer with thinks. This observer is central to quantum mechanics.

    From De Mille’s The Ten Commanments (1956) Aaron: “who is this god you met?” Moses: “he is the light of eternal mind.” Not bad for an old movie. BB explains a lot, but pushes it up the road qs well, I know. But BB does sort of answer the God, Mind, thing, using total vacuum and random flunctuations. So, wheres the salvation thing that is good for our emotions come in??

    I don’t know if it does, however we can see where a plausible theory is needed, a workable mechanism. This is where Steinhart comes in handy, for he, Ben Goertzel, Guilio Prisco, and others (open source), have the intellect, and the mathematical skill, to push this plausibility search, along. This is my sense of things right now, today.

    • kt

      If fideism is ‘based on string theory’ then doesn’t that mean it’s not fideism anymore? I thought a fideistic religious belief was one based purely on faith, not supported by any rational or scientific arguments?

      Martin was a fundamentalist Christian as a child, and then he gradually lost his Christian faith (IIRC, during his time at the University of Chicago) but remained a philosophical theist, believing in both God and an afterlife.

      His whole philosophy is detailed in his Whys book, available in Kindle format at Amazon for only $7.99 (a steal!). I recommend it.

      Another good one is Raymond Smullyan’s “Who Knows”. Smullyan spends a third of the book discussing Gardner’s Whys. (Gardner and Smullyan were friends). Who Knows is available at Amazon for only $9.56.

      Martin Gardner and Raymond Smullyan are definitely two of my favorites.

      • Giulio Prisco

        Thanks kt for the pointer to Smullyan’s work. One more book for my reading list (I won’t have time to read them all in this lifetime).

        I don’t think Gardner really meant string theory (which is really a family of theories that can be quite different from each other (see my reply to Spud’s post). Rather, he thought of string theory as an example of future physics, not yet well understood.

        • kt

          I was just quibbling about the use of the word “fideism”. Gardner described himself as a fideist because his belief in God (and an afterlife) was based on a deep-seated emotion and not on any rational or scientific arguments (he thought all the so-called proofs of God were invalid). The biggest fideist of them all was probably Unamuno (see The Tragic Sense of Life).

          At the same time, he wasn’t afraid of suggesting whimsical models – not to be taken too seriously – of how God might answer prayer or provide an afterlife (examples in his Whys).

          YVW for the Smullyan book. It’s just part 1 that deals with Gardner’s book. Part 2 is about Hell. Part 3 is about Bucke’s ‘Cosmic Consciousness’.

          Smullyan (known mostly for his books on logic) has yet another religious/spiritual book out, albeit not in Kindle form: A Spiritual Journey. This book also is divided into 3 parts. Part 1 is mostly spiritual/religious musings, quotes, etc. of various sorts. Part 2 is about the transcendentalists (e.g. Emerson). And Part 3 is once again about Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness (an idea that fascinates Smullyan).

          • spud100

            I will definite look into both Gardner and Smulyan’s books, KT. Perhaps I can pick up something useful for me, that I have missed. Next down, download from Zon’

          • David Román

            Unamuno is also worth a look, like kt says. A not-so-strange case of rebel without a religious cause, a la Heidegger, who eventually found one not entirely uncommon to 1930s thinkers. Beyond the particulars of time, place and ideology, proof that even detached, cool minds can embrace an organized movement.

          • spud100

            I downloaded the recommended books and might do so with Unamuno, as well. For myself, I am not looking the poetry of Gardner, Smulyan, and Unamuno, but rather the force of astronomy, physics, and computer science, to lead the way forward. This may, reasonably be too much to ask of the sciences. However, for our species, I am believing that the sciences must be the only way forward. To my thinking, science drives the poetry. I may have this backwards?

          • Giulio Prisco

            Hi Spud. Not backwards, but both ways. Science drives poetry, and poetry drives science. How could science and poetry advance otherwise?

            We don’t have a detailed understanding of the structure of space-time at the Planck scale. What we have is “scientific poetry” based on vague concepts like fractal space-time, Smolin’s “atoms of space-time,” or Abraham’s space-time emergent from dynamical networks in another plane of (Akashic?) reality.

            We can’t do much more than scientific poetry today, but of course science keeps advancing and today’s poetry will inspire with powerful mental imagery the researchers that will develop tomorrow’s science.

          • David Román

            It’s also important to keep in mind that science alone doesn’t have to be a force for good, or advancement. Notoriously, Islamist leaders tend to be science graduates and dropouts, people driven astray by a search of the absolute truth. Poets can be equally dangerous (Zizek has written much on the subject of poetry as the weapon of choice during the Yugoslavian war of the 1990s) so I would say a fine-tuned balance between both sides would be least dangerous.

          • Giulio Prisco

            Yes, both passion for truth and passion for beauty have dangerous aspects as well.

            Stalin said that “The writer is the engineer of the human soul,” which is a beautiful quote, and he appreciated science as well, but his passion led to unpleasant outcomes.

            I think the risk of dangerous passions in both science and poetry can be reduced by keeping a sense of humor, a sense of proportions, and above all a sense of compassion: people are more important than books.

          • magnus

            I ve been doing some changes in life: new boss, new car, new living place, but same family) and had little time to consider our task. But pondering the risks and especially human weakness i really think that a lack of humor and distance lies in the core of extremism. We need passion, but as the brain is of today, with possible outbreak of old survivalistic””algorithms “, i sometimes consider a kind of masonary variant of the cosmism movement, in the civilised sense. But of course, this type of organisation is not immune against fanatism with destructive outcome, but maybe a bit more safe. In a swedish article Kurzweil.was called extremist. Maybe he is. But i don t consider him dangerous. Cheers

          • Giulio Prisco

            Hi Magnus, congratulations and best wishes for your life changes! We need to cultivate passion, and at the same time we need to bear in mind that it can lead to dangerous excesses. In general, what has potential for good has also potential for evil. Do say more about “a kind of masonary variant of the cosmism movement” when you find the time.

          • magnus

            Re “”cultivate passion”. Those are THE words!

            The masonary variant of cosmism could be another corner of our movement. Something for cautious scientists, or whatever profession, who wouldn’t go public or stand in.the first.row, but with some kind of passion for questions of our kind. That could be one reason for founding it. Another reason is to preserve the high level formulation of the cosmistic vision.through dark ages, but.also through times of to “mainstreamisch” transhumanism. And, so far I know, the masonary kind of organisation is good at preservation as well as adaption. (The catolic church, the Vatikan, could also be a kind of model. That’s the next step…, well)
            There is also the question of having a secret, beeing a member of something real but not that well known. That will possibly attract other kind of people, who are then getting educated and slowly introduced to our cautious optimism concerning the problem of death.
            And, I don’t think it s to easy to infiltrate them and make them join our quest…

          • Giulio Prisco

            Hi David. Gardner’s “Whys” is full of Unamuno quotes, which resonate with my thinking a lot.

    • Giulio Prisco

      Hi Spud. I think Gardner mentioned string theory as an example of physics beyond the Standard Model. Similarly, a Boltzmann Brain is but one of many conceptions of Gardner’s God. What Gardner said in his autobiography “Undiluted Hocus-Pocus” is:

      “When many of my fans discovered that I believed in God and even hoped
      for an afterlife, they were shocked and dismayed… I do not mean the
      God of the Bible, especially the God of the Old Testament, or any other
      book that claims to be divinely inspired. For me God is a ‘Wholly Other’
      transcendent intelligence, impossible for us to understand. He or she
      is somehow responsible for our universe and capable of providing, how I
      have no inkling, an afterlife.

      • spud100

        It would appear to me that the task for those of us, still alive, (funny yes?) is to research what scientists are writing, and see if we can make use of their work. In scientific academia, there is no use for an afterlife, or using astronomical and physics studies to convey meaning to human existance. This, it seems is what Gardner and Smulyan were more curious about. Most scientists today, are not looking for profundities, rather, they are content with answeing interesting mysteries, like the mass of the Higgs particle, or what is the make up of dark matter. For these guys, beyond answering questions and getting grants, there need be no other meaning. I think it is foolish for us spiritually-minded, anti-despair minded, to not look for and use, the discoveries and conclusions, of the bright minds, not to help make our lives better, at least psychologically. I will download Gardner, and Smulyan’s books now.


        • Giulio Prisco

          Hi Spud. Professional scientists need to be very careful about what they say, because allegations of “pseudoscience” can destroy a reputation and a career, especially for a young not yet established scientist.

          If I were a young scientist with a family to support, I would keep my search for meaning strictly private and publish only aseptic science that can fly below the radar of the PC thought cops.

          Of course, spiritually significant conclusion can be – and often are – hidden in the data, equations and conceptual models of mainstream science. I think our task is to decipher the hidden spiritual aspects of modern science and bring them to the front.

          I started reading Gardner’s book “The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener” and I can already highly recommend it. Gardner had a knack for making subtle concept visible, and a personal philosophy very close to mine.

          • spud100

            Yes, downloaded Scrivener, yesterday. Completely understanable advice regarding a scientists reputation, and retaliation by a hostile, intolerant, majority, especially, academic scientists, who rule from university posts, and run science journal magazines, and ‘peer-review’ any article for ideological, purity. In the blog Science 2.0, in 2013, one physicist who worked at CERN, did muse, that as a scientist, the only possibility for an afterlife, he could imagine, was that after an enormous, amount, of cosmological time, and space, a person might return as a boltzmann brain. It was not that this fellow was promoting the Church of the Boltzman Brains (reformed), but that this was how he viewed as an infinitesimal, chance at re-existing. A little bit of fun, I suppose?

      • spud100

        Here is yes, a UK Daily Mail article with British futurist Ian Pearson, in a related article on this discussion, about Gardner, that may have given Gardner and Smulyan, a brief pause. It kind of hits on all we have discussed, and besides, this is the fastest way to give out information, Not a bad article.

        • Giulio Prisco

          Very interesting article, thanks. I hope Pearson will write something himself. The Daily Mail has a bad reputation, because often they don’t check their facts and publish old news as new. But the Daily Mail has a lot of readers and does useful work in getting our ideas out there.

          “If you’re under the age of 40, there is a good chance you will achieve ‘electronic immortality’ during your lifetime. This is the idea that all of your thoughts and experiences will be uploaded and stored online for future generations. That’s according to a futurologist who not only believes technology will let humans merge with computers, that this will create an entirely new species called Homo optimus. And, he claims this could occur as soon as 2050.”

          I don’t see uploading that soon, but I will be happy to be proven wrong.

          • kt

            I’m skeptical too, but would also be happy to be proven wrong. I think Gardner would have been highly skeptical.

            Gardner, as a fideist, didn’t need any speculative science to prop up his religious faith. IIRC, he was highly critical of the more “out there” transhumanist ideas. I vaguely recall him criticizing Moravec’s ideas in his Whys book. I also vaguely recall him criticizing Frank Tipler’s ideas in the pages of Skeptical Inquirer. He was, after all, referred to by some people as the “father of the modern skeptical movement”.