NOVEMBER 4, 2013
A CASE CAN BE MADE, in purely practical terms, for Martin Gardner as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. His popularizations of science and mathematical games in Scientific American, over the 25 years he wrote for them, might have helped create more young mathematicians and computer scientists than any other single factor prior to the advent of the personal computer. Unlike his friend, the logician Raymond Smullyan, Gardner was capable of appealing to the literary side of left-brained sorts, and did so with far more taste and restraint than Douglas Hofstadter, his successor at Scientific American, has ever managed. Undiluted Hocus-Pocus, his posthumously published autobiography, has no dramatic revelations to offer about the modest and plainspoken Gardner, but it reveals the sort of mentality that shaped itself around his encyclopedic interests.
Gardner introduced my young self to the Oulipo (in two memorable columns), G. K. Chesterton, Newcomb’s Paradox, and transfinite numbers. He would have introduced me to John Conway’s cellular automata Game of Life if I hadn’t already been such a computer geek; his three columns are still the definitive overview. Gardner’s Annotated Alice dazzled me with its working out of the chess game in Through the Looking Glass and its three pages of notes on “Jabberwocky.” His deadpan, hilarious work debunking pseudoscience taught me about Immanuel Velikovsky, Wilhelm Reich, and a host of other sham artists duping the public. He may well have been the first writer to debunk Scientology — in 1952. He read ecumenically: who else would include Maurice Maeterlinck’s insane “Beekeeping: The Nuptial Flight” in an anthology called Great Essays in Science?
Gardner’s debunking extended to the pseudoscience of supply-side economics, cementing my own hostility toward self-serving economic bullshit and inoculating me against Ayn Rand. Hostile to the unsubstantiated deductions of both Adam Smith and Karl Marx, Gardner elegantly refuted voodoo economists Arthur Laffer, George Gilder, and Jude Wanniski, who helped instigate the Reaganomic tax cutting that led us to where we are today. He corrected their infamous Laffer curve —
with his own neo-Laffer curve:
Speaking of the “technosnarl” in the middle, he said “the actual shape of the curve is somewhat arbitrary.” He finished with a Finnegans Wake quote: “Stockins of Winning’s Folly Merryfalls […] Godamedy, you’re a delville of a tolkar!”
Gardner, who remained his entire life a democratic socialist in the line of H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, Gunnar Myrdal, and Irving Howe, had a very good eye for pointing out reductionist bullshit. This is a rare skill among quantitative types, where the likes of Steven Levitt and Steven Pinker have misled millions into thinking that human behavior can be reduced to a couple of linear equations. Yet, in contrast to many humanistic thinkers, Gardner’s skepticism did not translate into a belief that his own subjective views somehow transcended science. When putting together a Dover anthology of Best Remembered Poems, he dutifully picked up hundreds of used dime-store and book club editions of poetry’s greatest hits, then counted which poems appeared most often, adding his editorial commentary but not fiddling with the results.
Gardner’s voracious collection and consumption of puzzles, games, and theories seemed to be a totalizing passion and, indeed, the last half of his autobiography frequently leaves Gardner-the-person behind in favor of anecdotes about others and reflections on history and science. Personal details become scarce. Most surprising is the fact that, after several pages of recounting what sounds like a pleasant, stable, and fairly uneventful family life, the death of his wife Charlotte, after 48 years of marriage, is only mentioned in a dependent clause. “After Charlotte died in 2000, and I was unable to pass a test for renewal of my driver’s license, I realized that at eighty-six it was time to check into an assisted living facility.” There is no talk of grief, nor of loneliness. Perhaps Gardner was not comfortable articulating these feelings for all to read; perhaps he did not articulate them to anyone.
Gardner’s idiosyncratic literary tastes make a little more sense in light of such emotional austerity. He preferred Nabokov to Joyce, Perec to Proust, and Carl Sandburg to William Carlos Williams. Joyce’s wordplay was dismissed as second-rate (“Any clever writer can compose acrostics, toss in old riddles, blend two or more words into one, concoct puns, and hide meanings under thick layers of enigmatic persiflage”) and Williams’s poetry as graceless (“I always read his poems slowly, three or four times, hoping to find something of more value than undistinguished prose broken into lines”). Effectively immune to the modernist sensibility, he felt more of an emotional kinship with the cynical Christian wit of G. K. Chesterton and the lyricism of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Hardy. As with quite a few scientist-mathematician-engineer types, his aesthetic taste seemed to be guided by an affection for the manipulation of formalisms, though his literary sense was far beyond that of someone like Hofstadter, whose tin-eared and unforgettable translation of Eugene Onegin (“flashy belles flash fleshy feet”?!) still stands as a marker to the dangers of literary hubris.
Gardner is at his most emotional describing what seem to have been a classically happy marriage — he recalls sitting on the subway with his wife and newborn as one of the happiest moments of his life, a moment of peace and accomplishment, not ambition or prestige — and describing a very traditional sense of religious awe. While Gardner had no patience for supposed evidence of anything supernatural, he remained a firmly nondenominational monotheist for most of his life. He baldly admits that this is a matter of faith and flies in the face of all available evidence, and that it is a choice he has made for the sake of his own happiness. I suppose you could say he proselytizes a bit, but since he knows that his case is weak, he doesn’t come off as particularly confrontational: “I managed to retain faith in a personal God and a hope for an afterlife.” Gardner writes:
Philosophical theism is based unashamedly on posits of the heart, not the head. It freely admits that atheists have all the best arguments. There are no proofs of God or of an afterlife. Indeed, all experience suggests there is no God. If God exists, why would he so carefully conceal himself? All experience suggests that when we die, our body rots and nothing in our brain survives. […] It’s a lasting escape from the despair that follows a stabbing realization that you and everyone else are soon to vanish utterly from the universe. It is an effort, perhaps genetic, to relieve the anguish of believing the universe is nothing more than the tale of a blind idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.
A weak case seems to make for a more robust faith.
Elsewhere, Gardner more forcefully advocates for a sense of awe and even terror at the incomprehensibility of the world, suggesting that he saw the spread of parapsychology and astrology as betraying a widespread ignorance of just how baffling nature is by itself. His metaphysical outlook drew together Lewis Carroll and Franz Kafka: “At the heart of things science finds only a mad, never-ending quadrille of Mock Turtle Waves and Gryphon Particles. […] We are not even sure that Count West-West, the owner of the Castle, really exists.”
Yet Gardner also believed that mathematics was physics was reality, and that science gave us a privileged view of the world. Though metaphysically Platonist, his methodology and epistemology was that of logical positivism, the influential and brilliant but ultimately untenable philosophy put forth by members of the Vienna Circle in the early 20th century. Building on Russell and Wittgenstein’s early work, logicians like Rudolf Carnap and Moritz Schlick attempted to show, in the words of Carnap’s most famous book, “the logical structure of the world,” and dismiss most metaphysical pondering as meaningless jargon.
Like Gardner and Russell, most of the Vienna Circle were dedicated democratic socialists. At the end of his Aufbau, Carnap wrote some words that apply well to Gardner:
Even if modern movements frequently underestimate the importance of science for life, we do not wish to fall into the opposite error. Rather, we wish to admit clearly to ourselves, who are engaged in scientific work, that the mastery of life requires an effort of all our various powers; we should be wary of the shortsighted belief that the demands of life can all be met with the power of conceptual thinking alone. […] Our work is carried by the faith that this attitude will win the future.
It is that last rejoinder that is hardest for logicians to adhere to. Gardner and Carnap admired the rigor and elegance of logical positivism so much that they possessed a blind spot for its own foundational weaknesses, subsequently pointed out by Wittgenstein, Quine, Sellars, and others.
It is with Gardner’s Platonism, rather than his monotheism, that the issue of unfounded belief becomes a serious philosophical issue. The intuitions to which Gardner appeals to rescue logical positivism are, unfortunately, the same kind of intuitions that Saul Kripke and Timothy Williamson use to build logical castles in the air in the name of “common sense.” Kripke “establishes” that mind and brain must be different based purely on armchair reflections about possible parallel worlds; Williamson believes that there is a requisite number of hairs (20? 589?) that distinguishes a bald man from a non-bald man, but that it is impossible for us to ever know what that number is. Gardner would no doubt deride such conclusions as fanciful, but this too would be an argument from that most mysterious of authorities, common sense.
But it’s hard for me to see Gardner’s philosophical blind spots as matters of serious consequence, since he appears to have been on the right side on so many issues, unlike the endless supply of supply-siders, libertarians, and pseudoscientists whom he criticized. His affinity for recreational mathematics went alongside a loathing of pomposity and unearned self-importance. In his autobiography, he describes in detail the origin of his disdain of professor Mortimer Adler and President Robert Hutchins of the University of Chicago, to whom he attributes an intellectual narcissism and solipsism that may be all too familiar to many in the humanities today:
Adler had a tremendous ego. He edited the Encyclopedia Britannica. If you look through the first volume, which has general articles, you will find very short articles on Bertrand Russell, no article on Carnap, a very short article on Quine—and when you turn to Adler, a big, long article of several columns! But the university was an exciting place partly because Adler aroused so much animosity among the faculty and among the students. […] There was also a joke going around at the time that the University of Chicago was a Baptist school where Jewish professors were teaching Catholic theology.
Ever the archivist, Gardner digs up a little-known speech in which Adler appeared to endorse the Catholic Church’s execution of heretics. He exposes Adler and Hutchins’s “Great Books” scheme of the 1930s as reactionary and philosophically defective, trying to turn the clock back to Catholic scholasticism, while also pointing out the real damage it did to the University of Chicago’s pragmatic, progressive tradition. Philosopher Cheryl Misak has chronicled this decline as well, which set the stage for the crypto-oligarchist leanings of Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom as well as the dangerously reductive economics of Milton Friedman. It is a sad story to read. This offhand statement of Gardner’s own experience says more about the practice of criticism than many more learned histories: “For some odd reason, however, when a member of the Chicago school actually practices criticism, he sounds just like any other critic, except for a more peevish tone and a stronger emphasis on the imbecility of anyone who disagrees with him.” It is the same disappointment with zealotry that Gardner expressed in his attack on supply-siders in 1981: “The Lafferites combine supreme self-confidence with a supremely low opinion of their detractors.”
As these remarks suggest, Gardner habitually linked the personal with the occupational and the philosophical. He attacks theologian Paul Tillich for his arrogance and adultery, and loathes Hemingway’s macho bullying both in life and in his fiction. In his politely devastating critique of Allan Bloom’s infamous 1987 screed The Closing of the American Mind, Gardner rightly criticized the book as little more than an updating of Hutchins and Adler’s enthrallment with medieval theology in all its self-willed ignorance. Yet Gardner also made his case against Bloom’s reactionary sexism in the most quantitative and inarguable terms, as in this endearing footnote:
Bloom’s perpetual, compulsive use of male pronouns reflects his opposition to the growing practice of eliminating sexist language from secular books. On the first two pages of his preface I counted 17 male pronouns that refer to college teachers. Although his university’s president is a woman, no female faculty members are visible in his book. In a seven-page chapter titled “The Self” I circled 58 uses of “man” and “men” when bachelor Bloom really means humanity.
Over the years, Gardner examined and revisited his opinions, allowing more self-doubt than his opponents ever managed. After dismissing William Carlos Williams’s poetry, he writes, “Long after I am dead, my readers (if I have any) will say either ‘How perceptive Gardner was’ or ‘What peculiar blind spots he had.’” I’d say both. It’s his forthrightness about both that makes him such a literary exemplar of the rationalist scientific tradition. With a mind ill-adapted to the systems of irrationality that plague human society, his inability to appreciate many of their aesthetic manifestations may well have been inevitable.
The manuscript of Undiluted Hocus-Pocus was uncompleted at the time of Gardner’s death in 2010, and the seams do show. While I’d never heard of his peculiar encounter with Salvador Dali before, a number of the stories in it will be familiar to longtime Gardner readers, such as the two times Quine cried: “Once at his marriage ceremony, and later when he was prevented from joining Ed [Haskell, his best friend] at one of their many vacations together because the ‘head rascal’ was ill and dying.” Of his own aging process he says little beyond a few sentences describing his move into an assisted-living facility after his wife’s death. The detached tone chronicling the move is terribly sad, but Gardner does not dwell on it. It was either a topic on which he either chose not to speak or on which he had nothing to say, evidently preferring to stay in his beloved Platonic realm of mathematics, puzzles, and games.
Valuable as Undiluted Hocus-Pocus is for Gardner fans, his nonfiction collection The Night is Large (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1997) would make a better starting point for a novitiate. It contains less explicitly autobiographical material by proportion, yet, because Gardner’s interests were his life, it does not feel any less personal. Gardner was not an introspective tormented soul; he was a searcher, an investigator, a magpie, and an enthusiast. Without the full display of his enthusiasms, his autobiography feels incomplete.