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Martin Gardner on Philosophical Theism, Adventists and Price

The American branch of the Cambridge University Press blog posts a five part interview with former Scientific American and Skeptical Inquirer columnist Martin Gardner. He is one of the world’s foremost anti-pseudoscience polemicists.

Here is some context regarding his beliefs and early interest in Adventism.

I did a confessional, I don’t know if you’ve seen it or not, called The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener. I have a chapter in there where I say that if you can imagine someone who can admire both Wells and Chesterton, then you get a glimpse of my own philosophical views. I am a philosophical theist. I believe in a personal god, and I believe in an afterlife, and I believe in prayer, but I don’t believe in any established religion. This is called philosophical theism. It was defended by a lot of famous philosophers, starting with Kant. It includes Charles Pierce and William James and my favorite philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, a Spanish philosopher, who’s not very well known, Ralph Barton Perry, Edgar Brightman, and I could name a lot of other thinkers who were philosophical theists without identifying themselves with any particular religion.

DA: Which of your books is in some sense a favorite?

Gardner: I think my Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener is my favorite because it is a detailed account of everything I believe.

DA: When you tell people what you believe, unless it’s Pablum-like, there’s likely to be some strong reaction.

Gardner:Well, the book is controversial because almost everybody who believes in a personal god is into an established religion. The idea of believing in God and not being affiliated with any particular religion is a strange kind of a position to take.

DA: Did the reviews really focus on that?

Gardner: It didn’t get many reviews. It got some good reviews mainly by Christians. The best review was by an Anglican priest, who reviewed it for an Anglican journal. It was a ten-page review. That was the best review it ever got. Actually, a lot of liberal Protestants and very liberal Catholics are really philosophical theists, but they won’t use the term. A lot of prominent Protestant preachers who are liberal Protestants don’t buy any of the traditional doctrines. Take Harry Emerson Fosdick and Norman Vincent Peale, for example. You don’t know what they believed about any Christian doctrine. I don’t think Norman Vincent Peale bought the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection, but he had a big following among conservative Protestants.

DA: You’ve talked about the surprise you threw at some readers in your The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, when you said you are a philosophical theist. For those who don’t know what the term means, you began to explain that this is a belief in a god, and you said in your case that prayer was a part of it, and that you believe in a hereafter.

Gardner: That’s true, I do.

DA: What does your hereafter look like?

Gardner: You can’t say anything about it at all. It’s like talking about attributes of God. It’s in a transcendental realm, and you just believe by hope and a leap of faith that there’s that possibility, but you can’t say anything about it in any detail because obviously nobody knows anything about it. I don’t buy the mediums who communicate with the dead. There’s no empirical evidence for it, and no logical proof, but the possibility is open. If there is a personal god, an after existence follows automatically if you think that God is just, because obviously nature doesn’t care anything about human life. A thousand people can be snuffed out of existence by an earthquake. So to me, the belief in a personal god and belief in some kind of immortality is part of the same leap of faith. It’s hard to have one without the other. But I certainly don’t know that there is an afterlife, in the sense of having any kind of knowledge. It’s a peculiar thing in my brain. It may even have a genetic basis. Philosophical theism is entirely emotional. As Kant said, he destroyed pure reason to make room for faith.

DA: How long have you been a philosophical theist? Did it develop over a long period of time?

Gardner: Absolutely yes—it is a remnant I saved out of my Protestant past.

DA: I don’t know if it’s any comfort, but you’re certainly back in Protestant country again, here in North Carolina.

Gardner: Oh yes, there are lots of Seventh Day Adventists (sic) around here. I was quite interested in the Adventist movement when I was in high school. George McCready Price, a prominent Adventist, convinced me that evolution was a false theory when I was in high school. I have a collection of his books. He wrote about 15 or 20 books.

. . .

DA: You’ve read a lot of contemporary material, and you’ve read a lot by those who have been gone a long time. Are there any of those departed people that you’d like to sit down with over dinner, or visit with in your library and chat with them?

Gardner: I’d love to chat with Gödel for example. He had some strange cosmological views, and I’d like to talk to him about that, about time travel into the past. I never could quite understand that. And of course he was a dedicated Platonist. He thought all of mathematics was out there, including the transfinite numbers. I’d enjoy talking to him about that. Of course I’d love to talk with Einstein and Neils Bohr. Among puzzle makers, I’d most want to talk with Henry Dudeney and Sam Loyd.

DA: They really rang your bell.

Gardner: I also would enjoy talking to Bertrand Russell. He’s one of my heroes. I guess you could call him a mathematician.

DA: Absolutely. Look at his work on Principia Mathematica with Whitehead, and his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy. He was a big influence on me when I was young.

Gardner: He was a realist in mathematics. He believed that mathematical objects and theorems have a peculiar kind of existence, not the same as that of stars and stones, but a reality independent of human minds and cultures. A prime number of, say, a trillion digits, is prime even if no one knows it is prime. Andromeda was a spiral nebula long before any humans observed it. I remember a statement he made once that “2 plus 2 is 4 even in the interior of the sun.”

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