What is reality?

© Alex Nikada, istockphoto

I am reading two books side by side at the moment: Alister McGrath’s ‘Surprised by Meaning: Science, Faith and how we make sense of things’ (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011) and Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Magic of Reality: How we know what’s really true’ (Bantam Press, 2011).

In ‘Surprised by Meaning’, McGrath focuses on the search for meaning. Longing to make sense of everything we see and experience in the world is a basic human experience. It’s like the ultimate detective novel: how to make best sense of the clues? What’s the truth? I love this quote from McGrath, drawing on an image used by William Whewell.

We must find the right thread on which to string the pearls of our observations, so that they disclose their true pattern.

Dawkins on the other hand writes to convey his amazement and joy at the beauty of the world that science uncovers (a sentiment that McGrath has also expressed in his writing).

What I hope to show you in this book is that reality – the facts of the real world as understood through the methods of science – are magical in…the poetic sense, the good-to-be-alive sense.

Dawkins is also looking for answers. Where I part ways with him is his assessment of what constitutes reliable evidence. I wanted to read Dawkins latest book because I knew it would be a beautifully illustrated celebration of science. I always get so much from his imaginative analogies (the pile of photos analogy for human evolution is genius), and his writing style is something I want to learn from. I will try to pick out some quotes for another post in the future. Others have critiqued his understanding of philosophy and world religions. I do like this thought though:

That is the wonder and the joy of science: it goes on and on uncovering things. This doesn’t mean we should believe just anything that anybody might dream up: there are a million things we can imagine but which are highly unlikely to be real – fairies and hobgoblins, leprechauns and hippogriffs. We should always be open minded, but the only good reason to believe that something exists is if there is real evidence that it does.

I fully agree with this statement – great scientists possess the ability to make a courageously open minded assessment of all the evidence, and that should apply to beliefs as well as scientific data.

14 thoughts on “What is reality?

  1. Ruth Thomas October 20, 2011 / 1:48 pm

    Thanks Ruth. It’s a fascinating question: what do we accept as “evidence” and how strong does it need to be? You can’t normally use exactly the same evidence in a court of law as in a physics lab. Standards of evidence of “Beyond reasonable doubt” and “On the balance of probabilities” are both used in different legal contexts. To change a scientific paradigm (eg the current fun over whether neutrinos really can travel faster than light), you’d need to demonstrate your result beyond doubt because it’s such a fundamental shift in thought. But if a chemist discovers a potential new cure for cancer, we want to be able to bring it into use as soon as it seems as though it’s more likely than not to make patients better rather than worse.

    So: do leprechauns exist? I don’t know and it doesn’t really matter; there’s no irrefutable evidence either way so I won’t bother deciding either way. Does God exist? It matters a lot more; it’s possible that my eternal destiny may depend on what I decide. Since once again there’s no irrefutable evidence either way, I may just have to take a punt on it.


    • Ruth Bancewicz October 20, 2011 / 9:28 pm

      Yes, but scientific evidence doesn’t affect my life in a big way (apart from being essential to make decent planes, etc) but my faith in God demands everything. So I need reliable enough evidence to be able to feel confident to start putting my faith in God. In a way its like an experiment – if the ‘faith experiment’ works you know you can keep putting your faith in whatever you put your faith in…


      • michala June 5, 2012 / 2:33 pm

        i would say the earth & the patterns in Nature[unknown,seen & unseen]is very much as if us humans have been placed in a living experiment.there is evidence of supernatural physics in space[defy scientific laws] so this may extend to the natural process on earth.evolution can only take you so far as it does not support gravity,eco systems,mechanisms in animals which have to be produced quicky & precisely in order to work together.Hence its not hard to accept that evolution could have happened quicky then stopped-statis in geology then a new species abruptly appears.there is an unknown force here at work not explained by evolution alone.many animals may have adapted to the enviornment[primitive bird] but may not have evolved from reptile [primitive bird] to modern bird.the adaptation stopped in process due to lack of information[mutations] which enabled full transition.


  2. Derek White October 20, 2011 / 4:38 pm

    Thanks for this Ruth. Well done, you, for endeavouring to do a ‘read comparison’. I find Dawkins easier to read than McGrath. As you say, he (his minions) is/are brilliant at storytelling and illustration. I had a read of a review recently—it does seem to be a rather clever peace of ‘journalism’. Philosophy is, of course, more than the love of wisdom it is how this perceived wisdom is shared among other things. Dawkins seems to have learnt a bit about that of late. A few years ago whilst developing a series on apologetics I (think it was me) coined the phrase ‘high probability faith’—I think Dawkins is using the same tack—or something akin. As you know, I am engaged in some work (initial stages) in Evolutionary Theodicy. This is, I think, more of an issue for Dawkins et al than fairies down the bottom of the garden. In his book ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ (Arms Races & Theodicy), Richard Dawkins considers the problem of (too much) pain:

    “Pain, like everything else about life, we presume, is a Darwinian device which functions to improve the sufferer’s survival. Brains are built with a rule of thumb such as, ‘If you experience the sensation of pain, stop whatever you’re doing and don’t do it again.’ ……Theoretically, you’d think the equivalent of a little red flag could painlessly be raised somewhere in the brain…….Why the searing agony, an agony that can last for days and from which the memory may never shake itself free ? Perhaps grappling with this question is evolution’s own version of theodicy. Why so painful? What’s wrong with the little red flag? ”

    One suspects that Dawkins is posing a rhetorical question as he would, most likely, not be expecting an answer from a process that is purely material—a process without planned intention and without pity—a merciless cycle of ‘gene survival’. However, when the notion of a ‘guiding hand’ is inserted into the process there are questions that leave so many theologians and Christian apologists with ‘red faces’. Moreover, when the guiding hand is the ‘hand’ of the God of the Judeo/Christian scriptures—a God who is considered: Omnipotent, omniscient and good, there are tough questions to ask and tough questions to face.



    • Ruth Bancewicz October 20, 2011 / 9:25 pm

      Thanks Derek – have you finished your literature review on Theodicy? I’d love to see it!!


  3. Richard Hosking October 23, 2011 / 7:52 pm

    Hi Ruth,

    Great quote from William Whewell. I think any thread of scientific and religious observations must pass through Auschwitz, where heirs to the Enlightenment exterminated slave labourers using applied science, technology and engineering. Imprisoned amidst such unimaginable horror, Jewish psychiatrist Viktor Frankl – heir to a much older tradition – helped his fellow inmates endure by developing a new form of psychotherapy. This was based on life’s meaning and the profound human capacity to choose one’s response to any given situation.

    Religious morality – also based on the concept of free will – is one area where Richard Dawkins’ grasp of reality appears exceedingly tenuous.* It’s true that religious answers to the problem of evil can feel painfully inadequate. However, in response to the question ‘Where was God?’ Auschwitz survivor Rabbi Hugo Gryn always asked ‘Where was man?’ (Genesis 3:9). About this, Richard Dawkins can have nothing to say. The Bible, in contrast, speaks volumes.

    Viktor Frankl ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ (Rider, 2004)
    * John Cornwell ‘Darwin’s Angel’ (Profile Books, 2008) pp. 77-84 (Well worth reading)


  4. Shajan October 24, 2011 / 3:55 am

    Dawkins’ statement “the facts of the real world as understood through the methods of science – are magical in…the poetic sense” is problematic.

    There isn’t anything magical or awe inspiring about facts of the world as long as they remain mere objective facts. To perceive beauty one need to go beyond objective facts and be one with the object of perception and this is not science in the ordinary sense.

    What exactly is happening when a scientist looks at the starlit sky and see it is beautiful? Twinkling little stars are nothing but massive, luminous balls of plasma held together by gravity, light years away from earth. This is an objective fact and as long as the scientist insists that the reality of the starlit sky is nothing more than his/her objective knowledge, there is no way this experience can lead to beauty or awe. Facts remain mere facts, cold and uncorrupted by subjectivity.

    Appreciation of beauty involves a shifting perspective. Seeing something as beautiful means the observer is forgetting the objectivity of the thing for a brief moment and being one with the object. If one remains constantly aware of things as objective descriptions, there isn’t any beauty to perceive.

    It is natural for most people, including scientists, to shift perspectives and see the ‘practical use’ as well as ‘beauty and awe’. This is the way we have evolved. It is unwise to insist that only one of these contrasting modes of perception is valid.

    Mr. Dawkins is eating his cake and having it too. I don’t doubt his claim “facts of the real world as understood through the methods of science – are magical in…the poetic sense”. But it doesn’t gel with the materialistic worldview ‘Real=Objectively Knowable’, because in that case the ‘experience of beauty and awe’ cannot be REAL.

    Perhaps Mr. Dawkins is having hallucinations.


    • michala June 3, 2012 / 4:25 pm

      i agree-ever heard of the ‘dawkins delusion’-he is an example of ‘bad science’ he has a clever trick of wrapping it up in elaborate rhetoric which blinds the likes of ruth & other scientists.


      • Ruth Bancewicz June 6, 2012 / 9:43 am

        I think it’s all about being discerning. I appreciate his way of explaining science and his sense of wonder, but as I said in the article, I disagree with his philosophy, and his rejection of God. Your’e right, he’s very rhetorical, and I like McGrath’s writing on the subject.


        • michala June 6, 2012 / 6:18 pm

          i agree Ruth & quite a few scientists[christian & non christian] may question his methods & reasoning[circular reasoning].whether there is a ‘selfish gene’ title of his first book, is debatable & may not be fully correct scientifically.i guess you have to see both sides & consider all evidence/research even if they may contradict/support evolution theory.neo darwinists would say the theory needs updating due to new discoveries/methods.i would be more discerning & really consider the mathematical probabilities of good mutations producing new species.[fruit fly experiments]but saying that we probably evolved from an extinct ape or neandethal man!


  5. Ruth Bancewicz October 24, 2011 / 7:25 pm

    To be fair, I expect that experience of beauty does have scientific aspects to it, and I’m sure we’ll eventually have reasonable explanations for morality at least at some level, and understanding that wouldn’t take away anything from the experience for me – it’s that whole mechanism vs meaning thing – they can coexist, right?


    • Richard Hosking October 25, 2011 / 2:57 pm

      Absolutely, I’m sure moral decisions correlate with brain activity, and things like reciprocal altruism have a genetic component. However, human beliefs affect behaviour, so the moral content of those beliefs is important.

      An exhibit in the Danish WW2 Resistance Museum graphically illustrates this, where a Nazi children’s picture book which taught racial hatred is displayed immediately next to a label from a Zyklon B canister. The chain of association is unmistakable.

      In contrast, it takes enormous moral courage to stand up against brutal authoritarian regimes. A good example is Sophie Scholl, the young German student who was executed for publicly criticising Hitler’s Third Reich. “Her firm Christian belief in God and in every human being’s essential dignity formed her basis for resisting Nazi ideology.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophie_Scholl

      Presumably, Dawkins would have to conclude Sophie was deluded.


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