The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins (illustrated by Dave McKean)

Material objections to the miracles of life

Colin Tudge
Friday 23 September 2011 00:00 BST

Richard Dawkins has no sense of irony. He rails endlessly against fundamentalists yet he defends old-fashioned, Thomas Gradgrind-style materialism as zealously as the Mid-West Creationists defend the literal truth of Genesis. He accuses others of misrepresentation yet he seriously misrepresents religion. Also, which is irony writ large, he misrepresents science, in whose name he is assumed to speak. He condemns the Catholics for filling the heads of children with a particular view of life before they have had a chance to think for themselves – and now, in The Magic of Reality, written for readers as young as nine, he has done precisely that. As somebody said of Miss Jean Brodie, it's time he was put a stop to.

Thus he tells us that "reality is everything that exists" – and "exists", he makes clear, means whatever we can see or stub our toes on, albeit with the aid of telescopes and seismographs. Everything else – including things we might think exist, like jealousy and love – derive from that material base and are to a large extent illusory. This, he implies, is what emerges from science, and science is true.

Perhaps nine-year-olds are too young to be told that this is only one of many possible views – some emerging from science itself. Plato, four centuries before Christ, maintained that the ultimate reality is not stuff, but the idea. St John declared that "In the beginning was the word" – where "word" is translated from the Greek logos which can also be taken to mean "idea" but also means "mind" or indeed "consciousness".

Many philosophers have, like Baruch Spinoza, argued that consciousness is not just the noise that brains make but part of the fabric of the universe. We do not generate consciousness in our heads: we partake of what is all around us, just as our eyes partake of light. Over the past 90 years or so quantum physicists, beginning with Niels Bohr and Erwin Schrödinger, have shown that the mind of the observer affects, or seems to, the outcome of experiments carried out on fundamental particles.

All in all, what consciousness is is perhaps the most burning topic in modern science. The general conclusion so far is that the Dawkins-style concept of "reality" just won't do. This crude materialism belongs at best to the 19th century.

But science, as Dawkins conceives it, will lead us nonetheless to omniscience. Already, he tells us, "We know exactly how DNA works". This is untrue, absurd and dangerous. If it was true there would be nothing new to find out, yet Nature each week reveals new insights including the many ways in which DNA is in constant dialogue with its surroundings ("epigenesis"). In this, as in all life science, we are only at the beginning of finding out.

The notion of scientific omniscience is absurd for the reason that JS Mill pointed out a century and a half ago: that we can never be sure that we haven't missed something and have no way of knowing what that might be (Donald Rumsfeld's famous "unknown unknowns"). But Dawkins is an unreformed logical positivist, embracing the early-20th century philosophy which said that whatever you can't stub your toe on and throw maths at isn't worth bothering with and "meaningless". This notion mercifully died a death by the 1970s but, alas, it lingers on in the heads of some scientists, like Dawkins, and a few materialist philosophers like Dan Dennett and AC Grayling.

That the idea of scientific omniscience is supremely dangerous was demonstrated horribly in the late 19th and early 20th century by the zeal for eugenics. Nowadays it is leading gung-ho industrialists to suppose that we can and should re-create our crops and livestock (and even, perhaps, ourselves) by "genetic engineering". Alas, some gullible politicians who came to science late in life believe them. Yet the greatest lesson of 20th century philosophy is that science does not and cannot deal in certainties: that all its truths are partial and provisional, waiting to be knocked off their perch; and that we cannot in acceptable detail predict the results of our actions.

As zoologist Peter Medawar put the matter, science is merely "the art of the soluble". Scientists take care to address only those questions they think they have some chance of making a plausible fist at, with the tools available. Omniscience is something else entirely.

Dawkins is at his most inaccurate when he ventures into religion – which in this book he mentions only occasionally by name, though that is what it is mainly about. He assumes that people who are truly "religious" must believe in the literal truth of all the myths and miracles presented by their traditions; and takes it as obvious that miracles are nonsensical.

Religions do not depend upon their myths and miracles. They are there as illustrations. Neither is it true, as he contends, that miracles can be compared to the pumpkin that took Cinderella to the ball. Any theologian could have put him right on this. Indeed, many theologians have tried – but nothing can shift the idées fixes of a fundamentalist (though Dawkins tells us with not inconsiderable chutzpah to "keep an open mind"). Incidentally, you don't have to be a Catholic to find grotesque his description of the Virgin Mary: "a kind of goddess of a local religion". Why are Dawkins's editors afraid to edit?

Yet I do agree with Dawkins on what is ostensibly the main point of his book: "Science has its own magic". So it does - for it is helping to show just how wonderful the world in which we live really is. But the notion that the revelations of science are necessarily at odds with religion does no favours to either. Indeed, the 17th-century founders of modern science – Galileo, Newton, Descartes, Leibniz, Boyle, John Ray – were all devout. For them, to explore the wonders of the world through science was to glorify God. Bach said the same about his music. Dawkins's ultra-materialist view of life is crude by comparison. How can we not believe in miracles, when stuff like this is presented as a serious contribution to the education of our children?

Colin Tudge's latest book is 'Good Food for Everyone Forever' (Pari Publishing)

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