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.