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The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener

by Martin Gardner


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 or courage.


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 life.


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


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