On an exceptionally crowded, humid and dreary tube journey the other day, as my iPod sounded its farewell song, and no book or newspaper could be found nearby, I took to reading all the strange adverts around me in order to escape my temporal existence as part of a giant underground radiator. One poster did catch my eye: Richard Dawkins’ new book, The Magic of Reality. I thought to myself, is this the same Dawkins? Could I really be intrigued by his book?
Of course, in reality the tube is magical in a sense; a system of intricate underground tunnels moving millions of people from one end of a city to another at high speeds. However, most of the time I can’t see passed the extremely un-magical elements of it. Unpleasant odours and sights mar my experience. Essentially, seeing magic in reality is therefore a matter of perspective and language, two things that are intimately bound together.
About a week ago Dawkins appeared on Newsnight explaining his new book and why he wrote it. My initial feeling that perhaps Dawkins has managed in some way to produce an insightful book about the magnificence of reality was instantly dashed. While promoting a book titled, The Magic of Reality, Dawkins spoke very little about reality itself. Most of the discussion revolved around how his book denies not only the possibility of religious stories, but also common fairy tales such as Cinderella.
Dawkins seems to think that by explaining to children that a fairy Godmother cannot turn a pumpkin into a carriage, children will grow up forming beliefs “properly”. I assume he means through ‘reason’ or through science. Personally I can’t imagine anything less magical than going through life viewing every work of art and literature with doubt and disbelief. Imagine attending Cinderella at the ballet; Tchaikovsky playing as dancers move to the music and a story unfolds before you. Now imagine you could never really immerse yourself within that experience because you think its ridiculous that a mouse could turn into a horse, or that due to socio-political and economic conditions at the time, a prince could never realistically marry Cinderella. The piece of art loses all its meaning and impact upon the viewer and the viewer forcibly detaches himself from the show. No real emotion could ever stir within us, in this ‘rationalised’ world of pervasive ‘belief’.
In response to a question which asked whether he believed that his book was more poetic than religious stories and fairy tales, Dawkins responded in the affirmative – all on Earth was formed out of tiny dust spinning in orbit. I agree with him – it is an extremely poetic concept – but only if you described it in an extremely poetic way, with poetic language which might not adhere to the strict scientific explanation Dawkins advocates. Art carries its meanings through aesthetic beauty and all forms of art have their own specific language of symbols and codes. Such language assuredly lies outside the realm of Dawkins’ narrow scientific discourse.
What Dawkins fails to realise is that all modes of human thinking, including science, operate through discourses. For example, animals are grouped into species, genera, kingdoms (etc.) based on genetics, whereas in medieval China animals were categorised differently, based on their social usefulness or based on their behaviour. Neither of these systems are “wrong” or “right”, since animals can be classified in this way. They are simply methods which allow us to make sense of the world around us. In a university you will find that the same topic can be studied literarily, historically, sociologically or anthropologically. Like science, these modes of thinking have developed in particular ways, in specific institutions. They make sense within themselves and remain distinct from each other.
The most striking example of Dawkins’ misunderstanding of structural discourses was highlighted when a passage of his book was read out which referred to the Bible. It stated that because the Bible claimed that God created light before he created the sun and stars, light could not have existed. I’m neither a Christian nor a Jew, but it is difficult to believe that ancient or medieval people who developed founding philosophical texts which are still studied today, never realised that the sun, stars and moon are inextricably linked with light. It doesn’t take a genius to think that the reference to light in the Bible could be metaphorical, describing a characteristic of God’s creation. The word ‘light’ has multiple meanings and uses in Jewish and Christian scripture, and cannot simply be reduced in terms of UV rays or invisible colour spectrums. Attempting to explain this in a scientific framework is counter-intuitive, irrelevant and meaningless.
Dawkins did however, have one point I could sympathise with: the tendencies of fanatics to understand the Bible literally,and to hold intolerant beliefs because of this. Yet, both Dawkins and religious fanatics ironically do the same thing. They develop their own discourse and view everything which lies outside of that discourse as worthless. A better approach may be to encourage everyone to see the true magic of reality in all its various languages and perspectives. If anything, that’s what allowed me to survive the tube that day.
Photo by: David McKean
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