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The Magic of Reality

Stephen Tomkins


Richard Dawkins
Bantam Books, 270pp

Richard Dawkins has said many things that I vehemently disagree with but I don't remember any that seemed as misguided as this: in a chapter of The Magic of Reality on atoms, he declines to say anything about quantum physics on the ground that he does not understand it himself, concluding, 'I know my limitations'.

This book is a good example of how frustratingly untrue that is, not least because it demonstrates what a peerless writer Dawkins is when he stays within his limits. The greater part of The Magic of Reality is an attempt to present scientific information about our world, and it does so with wonderfully engaging clarity. Dawkins explains rainbows and atoms, orbits and genes (of course), tectonic plates and stars. It's gorgeously and exhaustively illustrated by Dave McKean, who has produced many of Neil Gaiman's picture books.

Quite whom the book is aimed at is hard to say. There are longer stretches of text than one expects   these days in non-fiction books for teenagers, while the crustily avuncular tone suggests an earlier age group - Edwardian teenagers, perhaps. But the question doesn't really matter. It will be fascinating to any child ready to take it on, and equally fascinating to us arts graduates who will once again be confronted with our monstrous ignorance about the most basic stuff, and enlightened.

The irritating thing about the The Magic of Reality is that it's all this superb science writing is trapped in a tract advocating materialist theory, and opposing the possibility of supernatural activity in the universe. And if we learned one thing from The God Delusion (which  I think would be a pretty accurate figure), it's that Dawkins is a lousy philosopher, with no interest in the problems of his position and a penchant for rebutting his opponents without reading let alone engaging with them. But he wrote that book without any evident awareness of his limitations, and continues to philosophise here, though his anti-theism is somewhat more guarded.

Each chapter takes a question, such as 'Who was the first person?' Dawkins then recounts some myths that he takes as attempts to answer the question - the Tasmanian story of Dromerdeener, Adam and Eve, Odin. He then asks 'Who was the first person really?' and unpacks 'the true, scientific answer' of gradual evolution, explaining fossilisation, carbon dating and DNA en route.

You don't have to take Genesis literally to feel unhappy about this delving into religious myth. It does nothing to elucidate the issues or frame the questions; it merely serves to give the impression that religion exists as an unsuccessful attempt to give scientific answers to scientific questions. Questions to which, it then turns out, what do you know, science has better answers.

I'm not sure this rhetorical sleight of hand does science as much of a favour as it's meant to. The tone of smug dismissal, the demand that we choose between story and science, and the obvious silliness of his side-swipe claiming that Christians who don't believe in Adam still blame him for original sin, altogether leave a rather tart taste in the mouth. 

­­More explicitly, Dawkins discusses how we know what is real. We can detect things with our senses; we can use scientific equipment to aid our senses, such as microscopes, telescopes and televisions; and we can posit hypothetical models and scientifically test them. Is it possible that anything exists that can't be detected by these methods? Dawkins concedes that emotions exist, but adds that they depend on the brain. And that brings him, rather prematurely to his conclusion, 'So that is reality, and that is how we can know whether something is real or not'. 

The reader of any age has to feel that the author has simply side-stepped his own question, let alone all the questions that go along with it. Are my emotions merely a physical part or activity of my brain? Is it logically possible to access someone's subjective consciousness, as opposed to their brain activity, and if not is it real? Can scientific detection tell us whether or not there are real things outside the competence of the scientific method? And do I have to deny the reality of everything whose existence can't be scientifically detected - beauty, mathematics, human rights, wrongdoing, the laws of science, your mind?

The final question of the book is 'What is a miracle?'  Dawkins explains various ways in which natural events might be taken as supernatural, then recounts a popular version of Hume's argument: a miracle is an extremely improbable event, so whenever you hear tell of one you should always ask if the truth of the story is more likely than that the teller is lying or mistaken (and answer no). 

But again you don't have to dislike Dawkins's scepticism about miracles in general to feel that putting the argument like this exposes a fatal problem. We're told that supernatural events are extremely improbable, but on what basis? It's very hard to see how science could measure their probability. Surely we first have to decide what kind of universe we live in. If it is one dependent upon a creator who is able and willing to interfere with it, then it is not the least bit improbable that some miracles should occur (however many alleged miracles might be bogus). If it is the universe of materialist theory, then miracles are not improbable, they are simply impossible. 

Dawkins ends by applying Hume's rule to the story of Jesus turning water into wine, repeating a trick from The God Delusion by picking on one of the least corroborated miracle stories and the most obviously symbolic in the gospels, as if to discount that would disprove them all. 

The idea of preaching atheism at children and young people under the cover of science might raise of Christians, but it wouldn't be a good move to let it. Considering the amount of propaganda under every cover imaginable that Christians have directed at children form the earliest age for the last two centuries, we really don't have a leg to stand on. It's just lucky for us that neither does Dawkins's philosophy.