Richard Dawkins Takes the Magic Out of Reality
Because of his popular fame, the dogmatic atheist Richard Dawkins has made himself immune to critical challenge. His biggest bestseller, The God Delusion, was roundly castigated in intellectual outlets for being misinformed about the state of modern spiritual belief, Caltech physicist Leonard Mlodinow, co-author with Stephen Hawking of The Grand Design, has written a new book with me on the deep issues involved around science and God, called War of the Worldviews. In it he says, “While science often casts doubt on spiritual beliefs and doctrines insofar as they make representations about the physical world, science does not – and cannot – conclude that God is an illusion.” Our book is in a long line of considered treatments from many quarters.
But Dawkins is on a mission to prove that all spirituality is the field of fools and knaves. Now, in a new book that is essentially a primer for young atheists, Dawkins continues to ignore his critics, and the result is shameless propaganda disguised as helpful, even avuncular popular science. In many places it flirts with intellectual dishonesty.
The Magic of Reality is a sunny title for a young adult book that suggests its real agenda in the subtitle: “How We Know What’s Really True.” The giveaway is “really,” because it implies that there are ways of knowing the truth that might seem valid but aren’t. For the good of our children’s minds, these false ways must be extirpated. In the book’s didactic introduction the reader is informed that reality consists of “everything that exists,” which is unarguable. To discover what is real, we use our five senses, Dawkins writes, and when things get too big or faraway (distant galaxies) or too small (bacteria), our senses are augmented with devices like telescopes and microscopes.
One anticipates that Dawkins will add a caveat that the five senses aren’t always reliable, as when our eyes tell us that the sun rises in the sky at morning and sets at twilight. But no such caveat is offered; the reader is already being guided incorrectly. Quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of relativity posed revolutionary challenges to what the five senses tell us, but Dawkins doesn’t mention them, even in passing. Perhaps this is forgivable in a book for young readers, but it falls short of the promise to tell us how we know what is really true.
Dawkins outlines in simple terms how the scientific method works, but what he really warms to is false knowledge of the kind he calls supernatural. Much time is spent on obscure mythology (e.g., Pan Gu, the first living being in Chinese creation myths) in order to pooh pooh it. The reader is warned with numbing repetition that no supernatural explanation can ever be true. The logic here is circular. If any supernatural phenomenon, from psychism to biblical miracles, turns out to be true, only science can prove its truth, and therefore it won’t be supernatural in the first place. Anything that science cannot prove thus falls into two categories: either it’s false, or science will get around to it soon enough.
Like any dogmatist, Dawkins maintains a merry arrogance about his ignorance. His dismissiveness toward spirituality of any kind is a cover for deep misunderstanding. In Dawkins’ scheme, nothing that we know emotionally or intuitively is valid. Likewise, nothing unconscious, delivered in dreams, produced by a sudden flash of insight, made evident by a chance observation (like the discovery of penicillin) counts as a valid way of knowing the truth, either. The history of science undercuts Dawkins’ stance. For instance, Friedrich August Kekulé struggled to understand the structure of benzene until in a day-dream he envisioned it as a snaking eating its own tail. We won’t even speak of art, morals, metaphysics, philosophy, or wisdom. Dawkins, like other staunch materialists, believes that all subjective experience, being a product of the brain, must come down to a physical process, leaving no possibility that the physical processes of the brain may be correlates to something happening in the mind. How microvolts of electricity and neurochemicals flying across synapses produce the entire world is a deep mystery, often referred to as the hard problem in consciousness research. This Dawkins doesn’t even consider. (No matter that light and sound are perceived inside a brain that is utterly dark and silent.) The bulk of the book is taken up with cut-and-dried answers to questions about evolution, physics, and the cosmos. Cut-and-dried materialism isn’t an intellectual sin; it’s rare to find any student textbook that questions the infallibility of the scientific method.
What is obnoxious about Dawkins’ version is his tone of absolute authority about matters that he shows complete ignorance of. Respected physicists like John Archibald Wheeler, Sir Arthur Eddington, Freeman Dyson, Hans-Peter Dürr, Henry Stapp, Sir Roger Penrose, Eugene Wigner, Erwin Schrodinger, and Werner Heisenberg suggest a fundamental role for consciousness in quantum theory and a mental component at the level of biological organisms and the universe itself. Dawkins bypasses evidence from his own field of genetics that might upset his hobby horse. He ignores, either willfully or through ignorance, the evidence for directed mutagenesis first put forward by John Cairns of Harvard in 1988. John Cairns showed that if you grow bacteria with the inability to metabolize lactose, they evolve that ability in petri dishes tens of thousands of times faster than would be predicted if mutations simply occurred randomly. Professor Rudolph Tanzi of Harvard Medical School further points out that mutations in the human genome do not occur randomly but cluster in “hot spots” that are hundreds of times more likely to undergo mutation.
Could these hot spots be driving the evolution of humans according to our current need for survival? Tanzi and others are eager to speculate and thus expand Darwinsim, where Dawkins uses evolution merely as a club against superstition and organized religion – this does a disservice to young readers and betrays the hollowness of Dawkins’ allegiance to scientific objectivity. Recent evidence from whole human genome sequencing has shown that in a newborn there are roughly 30 new (de novo) mutations that were not present in mom or dad. So, for the first time, we can earnestly begin to ask whether human DNA undergoes directed mutagenesis that has been already observed in bacterial genomes. (Tanzi and I have had several conversations on how the mind may influence the flow of energy and information in living things, and beyond that to the universe as a whole.)
One doesn’t ask for advanced genetics in a primer for young adults, but one does ask that the writer know his field before adopting a tone of authority. It’s ironic that Dawkins is addressing “how we know what’s really true” when he is oblivious of the fact that we can never know the whole truth. The scientific method does not explore “nature as it is” but nature as exposed to a human nervous system and the available range of questions we ask about Nature. The unknown inspires more than the search for new facts: “Revere those things beyond science which really matter and about which it is so difficult to speak.” (Werner Heisenberg)
Dawkins, carried away by his own propaganda, keeps repeating the same fallacy over and over, drumming it into the young reader’s head. Only science tells us what’s real. In actuality, science extrapolates data so that experience can be quantified and measured. But that is not the same as saying that data is superior to experience – the crude position that Dawkins seems to believe in. Experience remains richer than any scientific model. If I say that I am in love with the most beautiful woman in the world, in what way is a skeptic proving anything when he points out the improbability that I have found one woman out of three billion who is the most beautiful?
Does science tell us why a brave soldier runs in to rescue his buddies under heavy fire? Does science tell us why we want to be creative and why we exalt art? Does science even tell a scientist that he exists? Dawkins fails to admit that some things may not be reducible to data. As the noted mathematician and physicist Eugene Wigner remarked, “Where in Schrodinger’s equation is the joy of being alive?” Dawkins sneers at such questions, which he has a right to do. But to back up his disdain by cloaking himself in the scientific method is dishonest. He even has the temerity to say, with considerable piousness, that science must remain open to those things that it cannot yet explain, which is exactly the opposite of his attitude, an iron-bound skepticism that has decided a priori what can and cannot be true. He is a one-man society for the suppression of curiosity.
These willful distortions will likely remain invisible, to both his untutored young audience and popular culture in general. I have no interest in defending the God that Dawkins disbelieves in. The real tragedy is that the possibility of an expanded science, one that can answer the most difficult questions, isn’t suggested by The Magic of Reality. It’s been two generations since Sir James Jeans remarked that the universe “looks more like a great thought than a great machine.” You would never suspect reading The Magic of Reality that many reputed scientists with credentials far above Dawkins’ are seriously asking if the universe is conscious, if mind creates action at the subatomic level, if purpose can be understood as a property of the cosmos, if “soft inheritance” allows for evolution without classic gene mutations, and so on.
Blinded by his atheistic certainty, Dawkins promulgates a notion of science that is already outmoded. He isolates himself from scientists who are far-sighted enough to leave all possible solutions on the table. As the astrophysicist Joel Primack and co-author Nancy Abrams point out in their book The New Universe and the Human Future, the challenges facing our planet are so severe that we need to draw from every aspect of human knowledge, including wisdom, myth, archetypes, and the creative unconscious. No doubt all of Dawkins’ shortcomings will be pointed out by academics who know their philosophy and theology. It’s a shame that he will get away scot-free in the popular press. This book tries to kill the legacy of faith in human culture, but it winds up showing bad faith toward the science that Dawkins supposedly reveres.
Published by the HuffingtonPost