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Martin Gardner, 1914-2010 R.I.P.

That represents one side of Gardner’s intellectual activity, the disabused, skeptical side. Another side is on view in many of his essays on philosophy and religion. In The Night is Large, a compendious collection of essays from 1938-1995, Gardner included sections on the physical and social sciences, pseudoscience, mathematics, the arts, philosophy and, finally, religion.  In the last essay, “Surprise,” he describes his own position as “philosophical theist.” Commenting on the deep religious faith of the mathematician Georg Cantor, Gardner writes that

It is because I, too, believe in this “wholly other” realm, a realm in which our universe is an infinitesimal island, that I can call myself a mystic in the Platonic sense.

Gardner went on to acknowledge that he was not “arguing a case but  only expressing an emotion.”

It has no agreed-upon name. There is no way you can talk someone into feeling it, any more than you can talk someone into falling in love or liking a piece of music  or a type of cheese. Rudolf Otto, the German Protestant theologian, coined the word numinous (from the Latin numen, meaning divine power ) to express this emotion. . . .  For Otto, the essence of the emotion is an awareness of what he called the mysterium tremendum, the tremendous mystery of the wholly other. . . .

If one is a theist, the emotion combines with strong feelings of humility, of the littleness of one’s self, of holiness, of gratitude for the privilege of existing.

My last correspondence with Gardner was just a month or so ago. I wrote to tell him about the coincidence that a good friend now occupies the house he lived in for decades on Euclid Avenue (how’s that for an appropriate name?) in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. I discovered this quite by accident. My wife and I were having dinner with a few other people at our friends’ house.  I can’t remember Gardner’s name came up, but when it did I mentioned that he had lived for many years in Hastings-on-Hudson.  “Yes,” said my friend, “and he lived in this very house.” One of the other couples present also knew Gardner. They recalled the time he invited them, shortly after they had moved to the neighborhood, to his house for drinks. Would it be alright if they brought their young children along, since no baby-sitter was available? Of course, nothing could be more agreeable!  They arrived and Gardner proceeded to entertain the children with magic tricks for two hours.

It was some years ago now that I noticed on one of Gardner’s books that he was born in the fateful year 1914.  “Gosh, that’s a long time ago!” I thought.  It is even longer ago now, of course, but then it is an oft-noted fact that one’s sense of time compresses as one ages. At twenty, sixty years seems a very long time. At fifty, it no longer seems quite so extensive. And of course sub specie aeternitas, which view we can never inhabit but only allude to, such puny spans of time are as nothing. A thought which tends, I believe, to nurture that sense of “ontological wonder” Martin Gardner so eloquently evoked.

Requiescat in pace.