The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins

Material objections to the miracles of life By Colin Tudge

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…

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The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins – Reviews, Books – The Independent

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