Monday, 26 December 2011

Dawkins and 'The Magic of Reality'

One of my Christmas presents (requested by me) was Richard Dawkins' book for children, 'The Magic of Reality'.

He gives a definition of 'reality'. It is 'everything that exists'. How do we know things exist? 'We are only going to call something "real" if we can detect it with one of our five senses'. What about radio waves, for example, that we can't see or hear? Well, we know they exist because of what they produce - the signals that we can see or hear on TV or radio. Dinosaurs don't exist now, but we know they did because of fossils. So evidence has a lot to do with our knowledge. That opens up a big area which predictably enough the author ignores.

He then moves on to define 'magic' under the heading 'Science and the supernatural: explanation and its enemy'. He gives three definitions of 'magic': first, 'supernatural' magic which is the kind we find in myths and fairy tales, the magic of witches and fairy godmothers. Secondly, there is 'stage ' magic, that of Derren Brown and Penn and Teller. Third, there is magic as Prof. Dawkins uses it in this book, 'poetic magic': on a page with a beautiful sunset view, we are reminded (or told) that we are moved to tears by a beautiful piece of music, we are breathless with joy in the presence of a night sky; 'magic' in this sense means exhilarating, deeply moving, good-to-be-alive. This is 'magic' for Dawkins' purposes.

I have often thought that Richard Dawkins would have been at home at the beginning of the nineteenth century. A blend of rationalism and, for the 'goose-bumps' things in life which reason cannot explain, there is romanticism. What if one happens to be looking at the bits of reality which consist of the severed limbs of a Baghdad bomb victim or a million children dying of starvation or even nature red in tooth and claw - is that 'magic'? Magic for our author is the life of the emotions in response to the wonders of nature - not an unreal thing at all and delightful as we know, but for him it becomes a substitute for the supernatural, a tame, easily explained, undemanding and unthreatening substitute.

'Now', he proceeds,' I want to return to the idea of the supernatural and explain why it can never offer us a true explanation of the things we see in the world and universe around us. Indeed, to claim a supernatural explanation of something is not to explain it at all end even worse, to rule out any possibility of its ever being explained. Why do I say that? Because anything 'supernatural' must by definition be beyond reach of a natural explanation. It must be beyond the reach of science and the well-established tried and tested scientific method that has been responsible for the huge advances in knowledge we have enjoyed over the last 400 years or so. To say that something happened 'supernaturally' is not just to say 'We don't understand it' but to say 'We will never understand it, so don't even try'. Science, he goes on to say, uses its inability to explain everything and uses it as spur to go on to find answers for unexplained things - it is not lazy as are those who use a 'supernatural' explanation. Then there is an exposition of how evolution gives the answer to how life as we know it came about.

You can see what he is targeting. But

1. Notice that he has re-introduced the word supernatural here - after using the same word to define the 'witches and fairy godmothers' kind of magic he earlier dismissed. This is sadly typical of Dawkins - he is thoroughly dishonest in the way he argues. He subtly builds up a case by allusion and inference, the aim here being to put religion in the same camp as 'fairy tales'.

2. What of the great scientists who have been Christians, or at least convinced theists, and who see a Creator God behind all things, and find the task of 'thinking God's thoughts after him' as more than enough spur to finding answers to life's puzzles? Who are these people who use 'the supernatural' as an excuse for being lazy? Well of course, we know who they are in Dawkins' mind - they are the knaves and fools who do not believe in atheistic evolution.

3. Would the great advances of the last 400 years have been possible without a Christian world-view behind science? Modern-modern science as Schaeffer calls it is actually cutting off the branch on which it sits. Science has become what Schaeffer called 'sociological science', interested more in propaganda than in truth.

4. Dawkins operates with a 'God of the gaps' presupposition which assumes the only purpose of the 'supernatural' is to explain what cannot yet be explained by science. The supernatural as Christians properly use it is the presupposition behind everything that exists, whether explained or not; it tells us the purpose to life which science can never do (though I feel sure Prof Dawkins is going to tell me that Darwin gives us that as well). To say that something has a supernatural explanation is not to put it beyond the reach of science because all of nature has a supernatural explanation. But it is to say that there may be some things that science in itself cannot explain - such as miracles, the incarnation, the resurrection, the origin, nature, purpose and destiny of the human soul.

5. I look forward to seeing if Dawkins will explain why he thinks man has the capacity to be made 'breathless with joy' (he avoids using the word 'awe') at the wonder of what we see.

6. How will he explain why we should believe him when we say the supernatural will not help us to explain anything and will even be a barrier to explanation? How does he know that his explanations will not soon be re-explained? How, in short, can he be sure he knows what he thinks he knows?

I shall read on but I feel this book is likely to be less interested in teaching truth than in propaganda. Surprise, that...

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