Field of Science

Gardner's broken skepticism

Martin Gardner, another famous skeptic, died a few days ago, and eSkeptic brings an interview with him by Michael Shermer from 1997. I am always disappointed when so-called skeptics cannot apply their skepticism everywhere, but must save some domain from inquiry. For example:
Skeptic: Inevitably skepticism leads to asking the God question. You call yourself a fideist.

Gardner: I call myself a philosophical theist, or sometimes a fideist, who believes something on the basis of emotional reasons rather than intellectual reasons.

Skeptic: This will surely strike readers as something of a paradox for a man who is so skeptical about so many things.

Gardner: People think that if you don’t believe Uri Geller can bend spoons then you must be an atheist. But I think these are two different things. I call myself a philosophical theist in the tradition of Kant, Charles Peirce, William James, and especially Miguel Unamuno, one of my favorite philosophers. As a fideist I don’t think there are any arguments that prove the existence of God or the immortality of the soul. Even more than that, I agree with Unamuno that the atheists have the better arguments. So it is a case of quixotic emotional belief that is really against the evidence and against the odds. The classic essay in defense of fideism is William James’ The Will to Believe. James’ argument, in essence, is that if you have strong emotional reasons for a metaphysical belief, and it is not strongly contradicted by science or logical reasons, then you have a right to make a leap of faith if it provides sufficient satisfaction.

It makes the atheists furious when you take this position because they can no more argue with you than they can argue over whether you like the taste of beer or not. To me it is entirely an emotional thing. [Emphasis added.]
I beg to differ. Whether you like beer or not is actually a matter of fact. What goes on in your brain - liking or disliking beer - is empirically testable, at least in principle. Sure, you have a right to make a leap of faith, but it will have nothing to do with truth or fact, and that is what being s skeptic is all about. Even as Gardner explains himself, I find his whole succumbing to emotional forces weak and unenligntning.

"[T]here are any arguments that prove the existence of God or the immortality of the soul", so there is no reason to embrace belief in it, either. Gardner's fear of death is just that, and has nothing to do with the existence of life after death.
Skeptic: Couldn’t someone make this same argument for belief in New Age hokum? Couldn’t they quote you in support of their beliefs?

Gardner: They could use that argument, except New Agers also have a whole series of beliefs that can be empirically refuted. Like reincarnation — the evidence against that is overwhelming. Most New Agers also accept most of the beliefs of the parapsychologists. They believe in ESP and PK and channeling. We have very strong empirical evidence against these beliefs. So I think there is a big difference between belief in God and belief in the paranormal.

William James made this clear in The Will to Believe. In the first place, it has to be a leap of faith about something that has overwhelming importance to an individual. Second, it has to be something for which there isn’t any strong empirical evidence or logical argument against it. So there is something radically different about belief in a mind behind the universe and the whole cluster of beliefs that the New Age movement presents.
The place Gardner got his idea of an afterlife and an immortal soul is Christianity, and for that religion there is as much evidence to refute as there is for New Age hokum.
Skeptic: So in your earlier statement that the atheists’ arguments are better than the theists’ arguments, you must mean only slightly better.

Gardner: Well, they are better in the sense that the theist has a tremendous problem of explaining the existence of evil, and to me that is the strongest argument against God. If there is a God and he is all powerful and all good, why does he allow evil into the world? Evil exists, so is God all good but not all powerful? Or is he all powerful but not all good? That is a very powerful argument and I don’t know of any good way to answer it.
Ironically, I don't think this is a problem for theism at all. The Bible is fallacious on so many accounts (check out “Oh, you can’t go through seminary and come out believing in God!”), so why not about God being omnipotent? The human writers of the Bible probably did not think of their God as someone who could do literally anything, but rather someone who could do all that they needed to get done, like defeating their enemies and providing a plenty harvest, etc. But even if we take it to mean that God can make a stick that is longer than itself, and is generally superb at breaking the rules of logic, then admitting that he is not all good should be easy. just take a look at the freakin' Old Testament! (E.g. the plagues.)


  1. I'm sympathetic to Gardner's position in the sense that I think it is okay to make a "leap of faith" if one keeps it well-constrained. That means recognizing the belief as irrational, not trying to position it as objectively superior other equivalent irrational beliefs, and being willing to discard the belief if it has the potential for very real negative consequences.

    Gardner is most of the way there, but not quite. For instance, to argue that there is more evidence against reincarnation than against a heaven-oriented afterlife is just absurd -- either you assert that there can be no evidence about any of them because we cannot do experiments about subjective post-death experiences, or you (more properly) assert that there is copious evidence against both since our modern understanding of neurobiology strongly contradicts the idea of consciousness persisting in the absence of the physical brain.

    I think he also fails to see how his beliefs might have a negative impact, both on his own personal psyche, as well as by enabling other less constrained beliefs.

    In any case, I guess the point I am making is that to be a "skeptic" does not mean you need to be skeptical about 100% of topics 24/7, as long as you realize when you are being anti-skeptical and keep it under control. Gardner seems part way there, but not all the way.

    I totally differ with him on this, though:

    It makes the atheists furious when you take this position because they can no more argue with you than they can argue over whether you like the taste of beer or not.

    Speaking for myself, a fideist-esque argument most certainly does not make me furious. I mean, he has conceded the facts, what more can I ask for? Now, if he then continued on, "..and my irrational beliefs lead me to think that abortion is a crime and homosexuality is an abomination," I might be furious. But if he wants to believe something silly, as long as he admits it's silly and keeps it under control (i.e. the silliness doesn't start to infect other beliefs), then I don't care. He admits I am right, but wants to go on pretending about Santa Claus anyway. So what?

    In that limited sense, it is quite like whether he enjoys the taste of beer. As long as he recognizes it as an entirely personal decision, and doesn't try to lobby in favor of prohibition or something, I really don't care. (And FWIW, not liking the taste of beer seems almost as silly to me as theism! ;D )

  2. Sure, whatever one keeps to oneself makes no difference to anyone else. Except that when Gardner explains why he's a 'fideist', it might suggest to others that that's a philosophical tenable standpoint, and I think it isn't.

  3. "Philosophically untenable" is a good way of putting it. It is one thing to assert, as I do, that a rational -- even skeptical! -- person can under some conditions hold personal views which are philosophically untenable, without that undermining their overall philosophical stance. It is quite another thing to assert that a philosophically untenable viewpoint is philosophically tenable.

  4. We can't argue against all arbitary viewpoints without arguing against morality as a subjective issue.

    Somewhere along the line we arbitarily decided that it was good to be good, freedom and equality were good. Arbitary thinking isn't always a villain... I guess it depends on what you prioritize.


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS