Friday, September 14, 2012

The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins: A Review

I have to admit that this review isn't based upon a deep and thorough reading of the book. In fact, I haven't read the whole book, and I have no intention of doing so; I've read one of Dawkins's books and that's enough for me. To be absolutely honest, I haven't read anything of The Magic of Reality except the title.

But I do find that title extraordinarily interesting and telling.

I know from reading about the book that it is aimed at children, and that it hopes to arouse in them a sense of the wonders of the physical universe-- and, of course, to implant in them the idea that the physical universe is the only one we've got.

But why magic? Why that word?

When you think of it, it's the last word Dawkins should want to use, magic being the very demon haunting his scientistic worldview. Isn't magic the stuff and nonsense that he is trying to banish from respectable discourse? (Taking it for granted, of course, that Dawkins and his fellows would see no difference between sacramental acts, miracles, and magic.)

Is Dawkins just trying to steal his opponents' clothes? Maybe, but even if he is, it seems an extraordinarily self-defeating attempt at appropriation. Because we all know that something unique is conveyed by the word "magic", a hunger and an expectation lurking in the human soul, that can never be replaced by all the repetitive, verifiable, universal phenomena of science.

And there is a further irony to the title; a hint that the physical phenomena that Dawkins rhapsodises over, and that he obviously attributes to "atoms and the void" and nothing else, are ultimately....magic.

(I am not back to posting, just felt like getting that out of my system....)


  1. I've had the opportunity to briefly study this book. It's filled with graphics (many rather ugly) that impede, rather than enhance, it's readability. One page features the face of (Sir) Isaac Newton, bizarrely distorted, one eye monstrously higher than the other.

    The final sentence of the book reads:

    "The truth is more magical - in the best and most exciting sense of the word - than any myth or made-up mystery or miracle. Science has its own magic: the magic of reality."

    Dawkins appears to be saying that there are only two types of magic: the "made up" and the real. The "made up" magic is purely imaginary, and the real magic is both the wonder we have at reality, and the science that reveals that reality. The word "magic" is thereby co-opted for science and its meaning revised.

    The structure of the book pits myth against science, in "call and response" form. Chapters open with the mythical explanation of a phenomena, and then describe the scientific explanation.

    Mention of Jesus is reserved for the end of the final chapter, on Miracles, where Dawkins states

    "...we know that lots of fiction has been made up about this particular preacher called Jesus."

    The chosen example is a 500 year old song called the Cherry Tree Carol, which tells of a Jesus - in utero - commanding a tree to bend down to offer fruit to Mary. As this is not held to be an account of an actual miracle, and as the water into wine miracle is mentioned in only one gospel and not written by an eye-witness, Dawkins suggests:

    "It is safe to conclude that the water-into-wine story is pure fiction..."

    The strategy is both plain and sly. To go 12 rounds with Jesus would be too glaringly obvious, so he sets up and debunks a series of fall-myths. Having stacked these up in a great pile he finally, almost offhandedly, thrusts in a mention of "this particular preacher" so that the accumulated mass of exploded myths will come crashing down upon him. Thank you and goodnight.

    The absence of any attempt to explain miracles attributed to Mohammed suggests that Dawkins regards them as either irrefutable or unworthy of attention. Or something.

    The book does not touch on philosophy, so ideals or reasons for existence are not addressed. As the kind of science Dawkins represents has nothing to say on this subject, presumably there is nothing worth saying. His message for the young seems to be that childish things should be not only be put away, but never picked up at all.

    One message the book seeks to imprint is that stories are all very well (adopt patronising kindly smile) but that science can explain them and, if not, there is nothing to explain. So move along now children. Dawkins should play in a panto version of Lewis' The Silver Chair. The role of the lady in green would fit him like a glove.

    The back cover blurb is dominated by a glowing testimonial from the well known Professor of Nihil, Lawrence Krauss, who I'm sure requires no introduction to readers of Ed Feser or the Maverick Philosopher.

    [continued below due to comment size restriction]

  2. The Magic of Reality brought to my mind a set of old encyclopaedias I knew as a child, that still reside on a high, dusty shelf. One volume has an illustration of the proverb "Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise". The first picture shows a girl holding a doll, at which a boy is amusedly pointing. The second shows the doll dismembered: beheaded; eyeless; limbs wrenched out, and the grinning boy holding out one of the arms to the girl, who clutches her face in tears. The accompanying text reads:

    "Our happiness is not increased by having too much knowledge. The gift of imagination can enable us to believe wonderful things about our toys… A little girl will regard her doll as if it were her own baby. Her imagination endows it with endearing qualities, so that she is able to love and cherish it. She will not thank the rude boy, shown in the picture, who jeers at her and sets out to prove that her darling is a lifeless thing, stuffed with straw. She is much happier thinking otherwise and, if she allows the boy to prove his point, she may know more than she did before but she will certainly lose her feeling of contentment. It is our ideals and our hopes that keep us contented. If these are taken from us we shall be miserable, as many a person whop is greedy for knowledge has discovered to his cost."

    If Dawkins believes truth and reality to be of such vital import that he will not baulk at the dismemberment of myths that even he cannot deny offer contentment, why does he not direct his energies towards the abolition of advertising and other forms of media-led misinformation? In the West at least, these are responsible for the dissemination of far more pervasive falsehoods than any religion.

  3. I think that encyclopedia illustration is one of the most horrible and saddest things I've ever read. It reminds me of the poignant moment in Alien (or is it Aliens?) where Ripley speaks about a little girl's doll as though it was real and the little girl (who has treated the doll like a real thing all the way through) says: "But she's only made of plastic." I think children know very well the difference between make-believe, legend, story and religious claims. Personally I can't remember ever having a credulous acceptance of religion; I think I was pretty much an agnostic most of my childhood. I can particularly remember the "Who made God?" question occurred to me rather early. I imagined an eternal sequence of deities stretching back forever; in my mind the more ancient ones were more primitive, and I remember having a monstrous image of a Jabba-the-Hut-like creature, open-mouthed, with strands of fluid stretching between his enormous lips.

    Dawkins, to be fair, seems like a rather humanistic humanist to me, in that he sees a role for myth, ceremony and ritual (as far as I can tell). He has even said some nice things about the King James Bible. I think he has an antennae for the transcendent; which seems lacking in more bullish atheists. I wonder why, given that, he is so fanatical?

    Oh, those childhood encyclopedias-- what happy memory! "When the centuries behind me like a fruitful land reposed, and I clung to all the present for the promise that it closed, When I dipt into the future, far as human eyes could see, Saw the vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be?"

    I hope you don't mind me asking, Jonny, and I ask only out of curiosity and won't be at all offended if you tell me to mind my own bloody business, but what are your own spiritual/metaphysical beliefs?

  4. Self-knowledge is a slippery fish, but fence-sitting, lukewarm, agnostic, would probably be a fair description. Truth interests me but I have the recurring intuition that, as when shooting arrows in the wind, we may need to aim wide to hit the target.

  5. Interesting....I think human beings have a tribalistic urge to belong to one side or the other. I have had the experience of watching a soccer match on TV, well into the game and not knowing anything about either team at first, and finding myself a passionate partisan of one or the other before a very few minutes. So that makes me rather fascinated by agnosticism-- concerning religion or anything else.

  6. On the rare occasions I watch a game, my loyalties tend to switch throughout. Either without really thinking about it, or favouring the less cynical team. Loved football at 10 years old but the hostility - talented players being cursed and spat at - and blind tribalism of the matchday crowd eventually put me off.