The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener
Back in print after years in book
abyss, The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener features Martin Gardner’s
engaging writing style.
Gardner, a religious individual, shares his fascinating beliefs about immortality. Religious belief is a “live
option,” a momentous decision with either-or alternatives. “Living” on
through genes, works, fame, and others’ memories after death is a pathetic, imitation
immortality. Gardner wants a real immortality. The belief in going to hell for
not having the correct faith, he argues, is horribly evil. A purse-snatcher should not
spend eternity in hell. Any gods who would do that are unjust and vile. But
for serving final justice, an afterlife is necessary.
A heavenly life, Gardner claims, must include
a body. Being akin to a ghost or puff of smoke is no life at all. A heavenly life must also include change. A static life is empty. The
hope for immortality, he writes, can provide everyday motivation. Individuals
who follow deterministic ideas become more deterministic than they otherwise
would have been, producing bad consequences. Gardner is fairly certain that
faith in god is no help in solving the specifics of moral problems, yet he
believes faith makes some individuals better.
Gardner blasts religions that pretend
good and evil are illusions. Here are some plausible morality of God (or Gods, hereafter referred
to as singular) options:
God can not influence the world. God exists in a
separate realm from this universe and is all-powerful there.
God is not all-powerful and can not intervene.
God will not intervene because it would somehow violate
human moral agency.
God does intervene is slight ways that no one is able
to notice because being noticed would somehow violate human moral agency.
God is immoral.
· God does not exist.
God is dog spelled backwards, so dogs are gods (kidding).
Gardner sides with the view that only
when God is hidden can human moral autonomy be preserved. If god did magic
tricks every week, we would be good for the wrong reasons. The existence of
evil should not be reason for despair. We should fight evil whether or not God
can do anything about it.
If all actions result from uncontrollable
forces or dice throws, rewards or punishments in an afterlife would themselves
be evil. If the universe had no evils, writes Gardner, there would be no growth
Gardner argues that any place with
zero suffering—whether heaven or earth—is a place of narrow and limited
happiness (though maybe not for creatures with different sorts of minds than humans). If you step in front of a car in heaven and you know that you
will be free of suffering, does that reduce heaven to a boring amusement park? Or one-hell-uva-lotta fun park?
How does that change moral agency?
If this were the best of all possible
worlds, it would lead to indifference. If everything is
the best possible, why bother? Without evils and struggles, good would not be
as important and ennobling. We should love moral laws and love living a moral
If you can’t find things in this work to argue with, however, you are a vegetable or dead. In economics Gardner is opposed to selfishness and selflessness, yet the best he comes up with are socialist nostrums. Worth skimming.
—J.T. Fournier, updated 5/09/09