Madeleine Davies

The magic of reality

In Faith on December 11, 2011 at 6:28 pm

A friend once told me that there are two sorts of people who read books by Richard Dawkins – people who already agree with him and people who will never agree with him. I suspect he may be right.

I am probably in the latter camp. But I loved reading “The Magic of Reality”. It is a brilliant introduction to science. If you, like me, managed to get through five years of science at school without ever really understanding how rainbows come about or why the earth orbits the sun as it does, then you will by the time you close this book (I would like to cut out and frame the pictures by Dave McKean).

Dawkins intent is to show his readers the magic of reality – a magic he describes as “poetic” (“deeply moving, exhilarating: something that gives us goose bumps, something that makes us feel more fully alive”). This he achieves, writing wonderful explanations simple enough for a 12 year-old to grasp, without ever patronising his audience, all in a way which conveys his passion not only for his subject but for communicating it to young minds.

W H Davies lamented that “we have no time to stop and stare”. Dawkins wants to show us that what we stare at becomes even more wonderful if we understand it. “Rainbows are not just beautiful to look at,” he writes. “In a way, they tell us when everything began, including time and space. I think that makes the rainbow even more beautiful.”

Contrast is key in this book. The scientific explanation and the view it offers us is not just beautiful, it is more beautiful than the other windows through which you might look at the world or the vistas they open up. “Next to the true beauty and magic of the real world, supernatural spells and stage tricks seem cheap and tawdry by comparison,” Dawkins asserts. “The magic of reality is neither supernatural not a trick, but – quite simply – wonderful. Wonderful, and real. Wonderful because real.”

Which begs the question – how do we define real?

For Dawkins, reality “always come back to our senses, one way or another”. So while he acknowledges that things like jealousy and joy, happiness and love are real, for him the important thing to remember is that “they depend for their existence on brains” –  something else that can be subjected to scientific study.

With this definition in place, the rules are set for a race through time and space, comparing the “cheap and tawdry” supernatural with the wonderfully “real”. Each chapter begins with a cursory look at some of the myths surrounding a particular question (“Who was the first person?” “What is a rainbow”) before the “true” scientific explanation is given.

Although Dawkins posits that it is “fascinating” to consider the origins of myths and that stories are “fun”, he sounds insincere, making barely a nod to anthropology or other academic disciplines. Occasionally, he adopts a rather sneery tone. When telling the Persephone myth he mentions that her consumption of precisely six pomegranate seeds condemned her to spending half of the year in the underworld “by the kind of logic we have become used to where myths are concerned”.

Dawkins believes that the supernatural and science are opposed, with the formerly easily exposed as ridiculous. But not everybody agrees.

The great anthropolgist Sir James George Frazer was no less aware than Dawkins of the evils of magic and religion. He described his seminal work The Golden Bough as “a melancholy record of human error and folly”, tracing the movement of “higher thought” from magic, through religion to science.

Yet, he cautioned against ridiculing or misunderstanding myth and magic. Unlike Dawkins, he perceived continuity, not a schism, in the evolution of ideas. An entire chapter of The Golden Bough is devoted to “Our debt to the savage” (bear in mind this was written some time ago), in which he points out that it would be “ungrateful and unphilosophic” to ridicule earlier assays on truth

Interestingly, he drew a direct line between magicians and scientists, categorising both as men attempting to make sense of the world around them and “manipulating the forces of nature for the good of man”.

Magical ceremonies, he argues, are just experiments which have failed; both magic and science rest on “a faith in order as the underlying principle of all things”.

“They [magicians] were the direct predecessors, not merely of our physicians and surgeons, but of our investigators and discoverers in every branch of natural science,” he argues. “We stand upon the foundation reared by the generations that have gone before, and we can but dimly realise the painful and prolonged efforts which it has cost humanity to struggle up to the point, no very exalted one after all, which we have reached.”

There is no such humility in The Magic of Reality, except when it comes to the achievements of Dawkins’ predecessors in his branch of study. At times, you wonder whether he is being deliberately obtuse. For example, he points out that none of the “so-called holy books” reveal the great scientific discoveries of the centuries – how to treat cancer or explain the internal combustion engine. But is it really that “odd” that these books do not touch on these things? I don’t find it odd that a scientific text book fails to describe God’s love for his creation or what heaven might be like.

Dawkins argues that myths, fairytales and magic “can never offer us a true explanation of the things we see in the world”. There is no recognition that a person might embrace both a scientific explanation of the world and another way of deriving truth from it, of finding beauty. A rainbow is created when light from the sun is reflected back to your eyes by raindrops. But can it not also be a symbol of a loving God? Cannot both be true?

Dawkins professes to loving “poetic” magic yet part of poetry is seeing beyond the literal to a different sort of meaning. Perhaps it is “wildly implausible” that Noah built an ark big enough to house two of every species. Perhaps not. Or perhaps the meaning of that story is other than whether one man could fashion a giant boat. Is Jesus’ turning of water into wine simply a magic trick or is it a bigger story about a God who seeks to bless, redeem and restore the world?

There are plenty of leading questions in this book, with Dawkins regularly exhorting his readers to recognise the beauty of science in contrast to the myths that precede them. Following his explanation of evolution and revelation that all animals are our cousins he asks: “Isn’t that a far more wonderful thought than any myth? And the most wonderful thing of all is that we know for certain it is literally true.”

I have grown up with the belief that I was created by a loving God, that everyone was made in his image and that we have a purpose in eternity. So his suggestion that when I look in the mirror I think “I’m looking at a survival machine for genes” holds little appeal. I’m just not sure what is beautiful about this thought.

Much later in the book, he takes on the question of why bad things happen, writing that, “it is hard to resist this feeling that, somehow, there ought to be a kind of natural justice”. The suggestion being that this is a feeling to be resisited. Indulging it might lead to the sort of messy questions that science can’t really answer. I liked his suggestion that auto-immune disease might be an evolutionary develoment towards resistance to cancer but the question remains, why? What, ultimately, is the point of surviving? To pass on our genes. Oh right.

Part way through this book, Dawkins tells a story of realising as a child that we have already seen, on Earth, all the colours our eyes are capable of seeing. Disappointing yes, but let’s be under no illusions and press on towards the beauty of reality. No time for daydreaming here. “We have the joy and excitement of real scientific investigation and discovery to keep our imaginations in line” he says.

Dawkins purports to possess a boundless desire to explore the world around him. But for me, it’s a rather restricted view. Not all of our
questions can be answered by science, neither does it possess all the beauty and truth we are looking for.

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