The Free Will Debate: Martin Gardner and the Mysterians

As we continue our series of articles and podcasts on the subject of free will, one particular viewpoint keeps tapping the back of my mind, like a reliable friend who is there to remind you of your lapses. What if we’re approaching the free will discussion incorrectly altogether? What if the problem of free will can’t be solved, or at least not yet? What if we don’t have the requisite knowledge to definitively answer the free will problem?

These questions were brilliantly elucidated by the grandfather of the skeptic movement himself, author Martin Gardner. Mathematician, master debunker of the paranormal, and self-proclaimed “philosophical scrivener,” Gardner outlined his views on the free will problem in an essay entitled, “The Mystery of Free Will.” He argues that “the free will problem cannot be solved because we do not know exactly how to put the question.”[i] The complexities involved in establishing a proper investigation of free will (a fuller picture of human consciousness, physics, and social systems) currently precludes us from answering the free will question with any confidence. As he puts it, “Our attempt to capture the essence of that freedom either slides off into determinism, another name for destiny, or it tumbles over to the side of pure caprice. Neither definition gives us what we desperately want free will to mean.”[ii]

So, what does Gardner mean by free will? He describes the problem as “another name for self-awareness or consciousness. I cannot conceive of having one without the other.”[iii] In other words, Gardner believes that free will is predicated on the presumption that human beings have some level of self-awareness or consciousness. Now, while this is descriptive of what Gardner thinks we have, he thinks we’re currently incapable of “distinguishing free will from determinism and haphazardry.”[iv] Determinism’s reductionism places free will in the ash heap of philosophical history, relegating the problem to nothing more than an illusion that we must accept. Conversely, indeterminism “becomes equally delusory, a choice made by some obscure randomizer in the brain which functions like the flip of a coin.” Neither option leaves a ponderer fully satisfied that the problem has been solved; it is best to leave free will as an open-ended mystery — “a mystery bound up, how we do not know, with the transcendent mystery of time.”[v]

With this answer, Gardner belongs to a small, but influential cadre of philosophers described as the “Mysterians,” thinkers whose unsettled views of free will, mind, and consciousness require their shrewdness. Gardner shared this view with physicist Roger Penrose, and they both believed that “there are deep mysteries about the brain that neurobiologists are nowhere close to solving.”[vi] Other “Mysterians” on the problem of free will are philosophers Thomas Nagel, Colin McGinn, and Jerry Fodor, as well as linguist and social theorist Noam Chomsky. They follow the simple, but effective adage that Ludwig Wittgenstein penned in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”[vii]

Wittgenstein appears not to be the only German-language philosopher that Gardner consulted when coming to his conclusion on free will. For that, we turn to the Prussian enlightenment genius, Immanuel Kant. Like Kant, Gardner believed that “the best we can do (we who are not gods) is, Kant wrote, comprehend its [free will’s] incomprehensibility.”[viii]  According to Kant, the empirical, rational investigation of reality rested on a logical assumption of causal determinism, but the intangible (or numinous) aspects of human freedom (what he attributed to a soul) belonged to a “transcendent, timeless realm” where humans are “truly free.” These two contradictory forces, “empirical determinism” and “noumenal freedom,” seem impossible to reconcile.[ix]

Kant specifically addressed this issue in his work, Religion within the Limits of Reason:

Here we understand perfectly well what freedom is, practically (when it is a question of duty), whereas we cannot without contradiction even think of wishing to understand theoretically the causality of freedom (or its nature).[x]

Gardner admits (as a proper skeptic) that he doesn’t necessarily buy into some of Kant’s metaphysical claims, but the general point is the same. We feel we have free will, but that’s at odds with what we know about the mechanics of the universe. This is the apparent contradiction that is unsolved by mere sophistry, leaving Gardner most comfortable with admitting his doesn’t have a solution.

As someone who identifies as a compatibilist and has spoken of its merits, I am equally enthralled with the mysterian position. Gardner and others are not afraid to say, “I don’t know,” which is both intellectually honest and philosophically astute. Perhaps there are mysteries about consciousness, mind, and time that we have yet to fully comprehend, and until we have the requisite knowledge about these conceptions, we are inept to solve the problem of free will. Humility is the beginning of the path to wisdom, and in that regard, Gardner had it in spades.



[i] Martin Gardner, The Night Is Large: Collected Essays, 1938-1995 (New York: Macmillan/St. Martin’s Press, 1995), 427.

[ii] Ibid., 428.

[iii] Ibid., 427.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid., 428.

[vi] Ibid., xix. In a future essay, I will explore how neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga aptly attempts to assuage Garner and Penrose’s fears by demonstrating a pragmatic approach to free will that is grounded in neuroscience.

[vii] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, Inc., 1922), 189, accessed February 5, 2018, Google Books.

[viii] Gardner, The Night is Large, 428.

[ix] Ibid., 440.

[x] Kant, as quoted in Gardner, 440.


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