MARTIN GARDNER (1914-2010)

The prolific Scientific American columnist, founder of CSICOP, and savant of a thousand interests
has died.

I lack the wisdom to sum up such an interesting life, especially for someone that I only knew in print. I can only remark that I have often found Gardner's playfulness, skepticism and curious views on the possibility of religious belief to be endlessly intriguing, even inspirational in ways that I find difficult to express in words.

Skeptics will rightly emphasize Gardner's role in debunking pseudo-scientific claims and the catholicity of his pursuits. They will join Doug Hofstadter in proclaiming his passing a real loss:

"This is really a sad day. Not so much sad that Martin died, since we all knew it had to come pretty soon, but sad because his spirit was so important to so many of us, and because he had such a profound influence on so many of us. He is totally unreproducible—he was sui generis—and what's so strange is that so few people today are really aware of what a giant he was in so many fields—to name some of them: the propagation of truly deep and beautiful mathematical ideas (not just "mathematical games," far from it!); the intense battling of pseudoscience and related ideas; the invention of superb magic tricks; the love for beautiful poetry; the fascination with profound philosophical ideas (Newcomb's paradox, free will, etcetera etcetera); the elusive border between nonsense and sense; the idea of intellectual hoaxes done in order to make serious points (for example, one time, at my instigation, he wrote a scathing review of his own book The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener in The New York Review of Books, and the idea was to talk about the ideas seriously even though he was attacking the ideas that he himself believed in); and on and on and on and on. Martin Gardner was so profoundly influential on so many top-notch thinkers in so many disciplines—just a remarkable human being—and at the same time he was so unbelievably modest and unassuming. Totally. So it is a very sad day to think that such a person is gone, and that so many of us owe him so much, and that so few people—even extremely intelligent, well-informed people—realize who he was or have even ever heard of him. Very strange. But I guess that when you are a total non–self-trumpeter like Martin, that's what you want and that's what you get. And so perhaps it's all for the best that he remains sort of hidden behind the scenes, known only to a special set of people."

I wish I could say that I was one of that special set, but probably not. I'm just a high school science teacher, on the periphery of that realm occupied by truly great thinkers, engaged but ultimately lacking in deep mathematical or logical insight. In fact, my interest in Gardner is in part based simply upon his atypical views on religion, hardly the sort of thing that would endear him to the class of professional skeptics I often interact with and probably something that quite of few of them regard as an embarrassing inconsistency.

You see, the author of so many 'Mathematical Games' described himself as a philosophical theist, rejecting much conventional religion while remaining fascinated by the nature of religious belief.

It is an interesting fact that Gardner was held in high regard by many non-believers and skeptics, but remained something of a believer himself. This is...ironic. Perhaps, in the minds of those inclined to fill their gaps with God, Gardner has now become, in Doug Hofstadter's phrase, a 'Metamagical Thema' of his own.

Well, as I said, I'm hardly the sort of eminence whose opinion counts where such an individual is concerned. More consideration of Gardner's legacy is here, and well worth reading.