Is Dawkins’ new book a children’s primer for scientism?

by Steve Douglas

April 18th, 2012 | 0 Comments

When I first heard a description of Dawkins’ latest book, The Magic of Reality, I thought it sounded intriguing, if not promising. However, I certainly don’t like the way this review paints the book.

…Dawkins’ volume is as accessible as it is illuminating, covering a remarkable spectrum of subjects and natural phenomena — from who the very first person was to how earthquakes work to what dark matter is — in a way that infuses reality with the kind of fascination and whimsy we’re used to finding in myth and folklore. Each chapter begins with a famous myth from one of the world’s religions or folklore traditions, which Dawkins proceeds to myth-bust by examining the actual scientific processes and phenomena that these stories try to explain.

Does Dawkins expect this book to teach children “to fight myth with science”, as that article’s subtitle asserts?

I haven’t read the book, but I hadn’t previously gotten the impression that it attempts to “replace” myth with science before this review. Now, I have all ideas that Dawkins really does want to do just that, but is that what this book intends to do? If so, for all the good this book does in promoting science among the young, it’s a poisoned well from which I’d be wary of letting my kids drink.

Please bear in mind that from here on I’m critiquing the review’s understanding of Dawkins’ book, and the view of those who agree with that interpretation.

Perhaps the most delightful aspect of Dawkins’ atheism is his a-rational, perhaps even ir-rational, curiosity about nature and his boundless enthusiasm for science (or is it his enthusiasm for his own curiosity about science?). It’s a worthy exercise to try to infuse wonder and even “whimsy” into scientific inquiry about the natural world since those things often seem to be the domain only of the intangible, in constructed narratives and philosophical/theological explanations of the abstract. But here it sounds as though Dawkins wants, at worst, to replace a healthy appreciation for mythology with a love of science or, at best, to downplay the ongoing insight of myth and narrative into the human experience that cultural anthropologists and comparative mythologists have been teaching us for decades. I have grave misgivings about claims that science can (and especially should) trump those sorts of non-scientific insights into meaning, purpose, and wonder made by people like Joseph Campbell by treating myths as nonsense stories entertaining to only people who don’t care to know better and need justifications for flying planes into buildings.

I’m not even speaking here as a Christian, but as someone who values the role myths play in human society. I’m doing my best to instill in my children an appreciation for the mythologies of other cultures, and I don’t find it necessary to give them an appreciation for science by myth-busting the cosmology of the Sumerians or (still less) by denigrating non-industrialized societies’ methods of grappling with bigger questions of the universe. I just don’t think it’s a great idea to make a campaign of “debunking” or subjugating myths to a pursuit of scientific understanding as though it were the apex of human achievement. It’s not, and shouldn’t be. I live my life for much more than that.

As for science’s ability to inspire wonder, whimsy, and mystery, let me just say that those atheists who believe that they know for relatively certain that nothing exists outside of what’s already known about the universe (its physicality, etc.) are guilty of “established science of the gaps” thinking, which can’t help but cordon off a whole realm of inquiry that has been part and parcel of humanity’s descent from the trees and, if you’ll pardon the triumphalist teleology, its subsequent ascent up the evolutionary tree, ending up as organisms that can do science. My point is that dyed-in-the-wool materialists have decidedly less opportunity for wonder than those a little less confident about the prevailing scientific understanding of the universe. If I see a face on the surface of Mars, there is undoubtedly more wonder and room for curiosity in, “What could that be? Might it really be an artifact of alien life?” than in, “Well, aliens probably don’t exist, so it’s got to be a natural formation of some kind.”

My biggest beef is this: if someone wants to substitute reductive materialism for all alternative forms of meaning, wonder, etc., well and good for them. But do we want self-laudatory science’s “materialism of the gaps ” taught to our kids? I sincerely hope this book is not trying to make claims about how much qualitatively better hard science is than cultural metanarratives, religion, and probably even philosophy itself (Dawkins always, a little too contently, refuses the label “philosopher”, perhaps for this reason). “Kids, you can read and even permit yourself to enjoy your silly little fabricated stories, but if it’s not actual science, it’s not reality and hence a waste of your time and potential as a human being.”

Hogwash.

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April 18th, 2012

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