Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Magic of Reality

I expect many young people will have received a copy of Richard Dawkins's book The Magic of Reality for Christmas.  I even saw someone reading a copy on the tube this week.  This was the paperback which lacks the illustrations by David McKean.  This is a shame since the pictures were the best feature of the original hardback edition of the book.

The Magic of Reality is intended to provide a general introduction to science for teenagers.  They can learn a great deal about the state of modern science from reading the precise prose.  Unfortunately, the book also gives a very misleading impression of how science works and why it is so successful. Dawkins is especially inaccurate about the relationship between science and religion.

Each chapter begins with an account of some of the myths with which humans once explained different aspects of nature.  These myths are admirably wide ranging.  We learn of the Tasmanian legend in which the god Moinee crafted the first men with kangaroo's tails. The African sky god, Bumba, is invoked for vomiting up the sun.  Dawkins lavishes careful attention on the gory Aztec practices of human sacrifice.  He includes tales from the Bible, such as Adam and Eve, or Noah's flood, in this picturesque gallery of pagan mythology to make his unsubtle point that these stories are all alike.

Dawkins then asserts that a scientific view of the universe has displaced all the myths.  Humanity, he implies, has grown out of the fairy tales that gave comfort to its youth.  As a mature species, we have now learnt how to discover the truth - a truth that is just as exciting as the legendary tales it replaced.  Of course, we no longer directly blame angry deities for earthquakes and plagues.  But Dawkins is peddling a naive myth himself to explain the rise of science.  He imagines that the only requirement for a scientific worldview to take root was for man to look upon the world with eyes unclouded by religion.  This is not only patronising to just about every culture that has existed on Earth. Propagating his own myth means that Dawkins distorts the story of science even if he accurately describes scientific theories.  And more dangerously, he explicitly states that science is the only road to truth and that alternative modes of thought have no value.

The story of how modern science really arose shows the danger of uncompromising rationality and the importance of other ways of looking at the world.  In particular, religion had an essential role in scientific advance.  Even by the standards of their day, many great scientists were especially devout, if not always orthodox, Christians.  Johannes Kepler, Blaise Pascal, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell were all unusually religious men.  And this ignores the host of Jesuit scientists, like Roger Boscovich, who have been written out of English-language histories of science. 

This should alert us to the risk that Dawkins's vision of science is overly simplistic.  Today, it is commonly believed that science was invented by pagan Greeks and held back by Christianity.  But Dawkins denigrates even the scientific achievements of ancient Greece.  For instance, he files the theories of the physician Hippocrates, which were the keystone of medicine until the nineteenth century, under mythology.  It is true that Greek science, Hippocratic medicine included, was very often mistaken.  But it had almost nothing to do with the legends with which we are all so familiar.  You don't find many mentions of Zeus or Apollo in the works of Aristotle.  Hippocrates specifically denied that the "sacred disease" of epilepsy had a divine cause at all. 

Aristotle's careful demonstrations, derived by a method of observation and logical analysis, meant that his science stood on a foundation of pure reason.  Dawkins should have been proud.  The trouble is, as Dawkins is well aware, Aristotle's science was almost completely wrong: wrong to say the sun and other planets orbit the earth; wrong to say that moving objects must be moved by something else; wrong to say heavier objects must fall faster than lighter ones; wrong to say vacuums are impossible; wrong to say the universe was eternal; and wrong to say animal species are fixed and unchanging.

All these mistakes are forgivable.  Aristotle did not fail to discover the workings of nature because he was careless or foolish.  His problem, like that of his fellow Greek philosophers, was too much reason and not too little.  He lacked the scientific method of experimentation and the radically irrational idea that we must test theories even if we already think they are right.  It is no good blaming religion or superstition for the Greeks' scientific errors.  And the central message of Dawkins's book, that modern science arose when faith was rejected for reason, is clearly wrong too.

Contrary to Richard Dawkins, Christianity has a central place in the rise of science.  And he is wrong to imply that modern science was something that happened when clever men and women started to investigate nature with their blinkers removed.  It was not the triumph of reason over faith.  Scientific advance requires us to look at the world in a very special way, and Christianity provided a reason to start doing it.  

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TheOFloinn said...

There is no experiment Aristotle could have performed that would have told him the earth was in motion. No parallax was visible among the fixed stars; no steady east wind buffets our face. Not until the late 1700s and early 1800s were there instruments capable of detecting parallax and Coriolis and a concept of inertia to explain away the lack of the east wind.

An object in potency being actualized must be actualized by something else already actual. This is because something that is not yet actual can't do diddly. (Keep in mind that a) kinesis did not mean only local motion; b) cyclic motion was a state of "rest.") Mach's Conjecture holds that inertial motion is due to the summed gravitational influences of all bodied in the universe, so even this can be thought of as being moved by another.

ICTHUS said...

Enjoyed the post.By a happy serendipity it resonates with what I have just bee (re)reading: GK Chesterton's Orthodoxy, an autobiographical account of his own faith development.

The first chapter is all about the correlation between insanity and pure rationalism. I suspect he would class Dawkins as a madman confined to a very small world, lacking both imagination and mysticism.

Alejandro Rodríguez said...

Heck, even those creation myths he decries were rather accurate for their time. Also, it is rather amusing (and somewhat racist of his past) how he describes the Aztecs as very bloody considering Eurasia had similar, and worse practices like abandoning children to their peril, burying virgins alive, stoning people for adultery, gladiatorial fights and of course, child sacrifice by the canannites and phoenicians. The aztecs and the mayans were no worse than any other culture at the time.

Crude said...

Does Dawkins at any point mention that science has gone through multiple explanations of 'creation' that turned out to be false?

David B Marshall said...

The Aztecs were FAR worse than most cultures of their time. Their version of human sacrifice was one of the worst in history, until the Dialectic Materialists and National Socialists got going. They were also, I believe, worse than any other mesoamerican culture, though they were all particularly cruel.

Anonymous said...

Old fashioned redneck fanaticism - nihilistically damning all outside their cult - flourishes, I see.