Critique of “The Magic of Reality”

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In Richard Dawkins’ recent book, The Magic of Reality, he writes a chapter in which he formulates his argument, in heavy dependence on David Hume, against the miraculous. Before critiquing the argument as we find it there, I must say a few positive words about the book in general. I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Magic of Reality, the prose is clear and, at times, beautifully crafted; if anyone has ever wondered why Richard Dawkins is such a celebrated science writer they will discover amply evidence in this work.

The above compliments, however, pertain to his popularization of scientific ideas. When it comes to Dawkins engagement with philosophical or theological matters, I am afraid I have to register numerous complaints. Allow me to state my fundamental problem in this manner: Richard Dawkins, himself, thunders against the young earth creation scientists and I.D. theorists for misunderstanding evolutionary science and then writing books critiquing and casting doubt on the legitimacy of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis, thereby, preying on the uninformed general public. Dawkins has, in print, called some of these attempted critiques of evolution pathetic.

But in a similar manner, Dawkins doesn’t take religion seriously enough to write thoughtfully and accurately about it; his already arrived at conclusions have determined his methods of engagement, and in this manner, he is as guilty of caricature, confusion and misinformation as the creation scientists that he pours sophisticated scorn upon.

For a brilliant man, Dr. Dawkins’ refusal to take religious philosophers and theologians seriously is unfortunate and it is clearly evident in his attempted refutation of miracles, which, though concisely written and lucid, results in numerous straw-man arguments and caricatures of the Christian position.

In a previous post we dealt with David Hume’s argument against miracles and Dawkins relies heavily on Hume’s thought, which is, in fact, the strongest section of his chapter (click here for an article responding to Hume). But in this article, we will leave Hume to one side and walk through some of the other major assertions and assumptions that Dawkins makes throughout his chapter because they are common in the general populace.

Definition of a Miracle

A miracle is, simply stated, God interrupting the normal course of nature for His purposes. It is always beneficial to define the word miracle before attempting to argue for their occurrence or nonoccurrence. Dawkins, however, fails to provide us with a clear definition of the miraculous and even in a popular work this seems inexcusable, given the topic of his chapter. In fact, if I read between the lines (which can be admittedly dangerous), it seems throughout the chapter that Dawkins definition of the miraculous would be, ‘events that only stupid or misinformed people believe in.’

This working definition of the miraculous (assumed but never fully stated) explains Dawkins willingness to conflate what a Christian philosopher would define as a genuine miracle and something like a vision of the Virgin Mary. Even within the Christian canon (See. Acts 3:1-10, Acts 10:9-17) there is a marked difference in how visions and actual miracles are spoken about. But Dawkins has no time for such subtleties or the defining of terms. And, unfortunately, Dawkins failure to define a miracle also leads him to believe that science, by its legitimate methods, can do away with the miraculous.

God of the Gaps

Isn’t continuing to insist in the reality of miracles simply another adventure in obfuscating the true nature of reality, a ‘god of the gaps’ fallacy where we plug in God’s activity to shore up the holes in our knowledge, that is until science inevitably figures out what is really going on and God is left unemployed and relegated to irrelevance? Good question.

Here is another relevant inquiry: what mischievous superstitions have science done away with? Many, I am sure. But has science advanced in such a way that the miracles in the New Testament are no longer believable? Dawkins certainly wants us to believe so.

But a moment of unbiased reflection will expose the superficiality of that rhetoric. In order for that criticism to be correct we would have to believe that the 1st Christians, or the people of the ancient world, did not realize that water was not to be walked on, that virgins don’t wake up pregnant, or that water does not, on its own accord, instantaneously transfigure into good wine. We didn’t, of course, need modern science to tell us such things.

In dismissing Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine, Dawkins makes much of the respective chemical compositions of water and wine. He writes, “ Molecules of pure water would have to have been transformed into a complex mixture of molecules, including alcohol, tannins, sugars of various kinds and lots of others.” (p. 253) Therefore, we don’t need to, “trouble ourselves to think about a conjuring trick, still less about real miracles that violate the laws of science and overturn everything we know and understand about how the universe works.” (p. 253)

The ancients, of course, didn’t know the molecular structure of water or wine, but that ignorance doesn’t matter a wit when it comes to the miraculous, for they knew enough to realize that an event of this nature was a stupendous oddity.

Now, Dawkins wants us to think that it is incredible that this would naturally happen! That would violate our natural laws overturning everything we know! But, would it? Perhaps, it would overturn everything the atheist knows! The truth is, left to itself, nature will be left to itself; it will run its natural course, behave in predictable patterns, evidence natural causes and natural effects that can be anticipated by the scientist. In fact, this assumption of regularity was birthed out of theism and contributed to the establishment of western science in Europe. But Dawkins forgets to mention that natural laws describe what naturally occurs, provided there is no supernatural intervention, and that is the very thing in question when discussing miracles. 1I sometimes feel as though, what Dawkins is basically assuming, with an appropriate measure of incredulity, is that, ‘if miracles can’t happen, miracles don’t happen.’ Well, I for one, think that this is very likely true. But this is not an argument; it is an assumption dressed up as an argument to convince the unsuspecting reader.

Two Pictures

Think of it this way: if I drop an apple the law of gravity will lead us to expect that the apple will fall. But if I intervene by catching the apple, the law of Gravity has not been broken an additional factor has been added, a rational agent intervening for the purpose of this illustration. In a similar manner, miracles don’t break natural laws, they assume natural laws and add one additional factor, a supernatural agent intervening for His purposes.

Or we can change the picture: Imagine two envelopes containing important documents detailing all that we think we know about the cosmos. One envelope is sealed and the other is open. The sealed envelope represents the atheist’s worldview, which doesn’t allow the meddling of the documents from an outside force. The open envelope, however, represents the theistic worldview, which is vulnerable to an outside force shuffling through the documents and making a change here or there by providing new information or upsetting paradigms etc. Now, Science can tell us progressively more about what is in the envelope, but science (though it may assume nature is closed for methodological purposes) can’t tell us whether or not this is actually the case and, therefore, it cannot tell us whether or not a miracle can occur.

Not to beat this point to death, but it is worth quoting C.S. Lewis at length here because he helps us think clearly on this matter:

If the miracles were offered us as events that normally occurred, then the progress of science, whose business is to tell us what normally occurs, would render belief in them gradually hard and finally impossible. The progress of science has in just this way…made all sorts of things incredible which our ancestors believed; man-eating ants and gryphons in Scythia, men with one single gigantic foot, magnetic islands that draw all ships towards them, mermaids and fire-breathing dragons. But those things were never put forward as supernatural interruptions of the course of nature. They were put forward as items within her ordinary course…Later and better science has therefore rightly removed them. Miracles are in a wholly different position….When a thing professes from the very outset to be a unique invasion of nature by something outside, increasing knowledge of nature can never make it either more or less credible than it was at the beginning. In this sense it is mere confusion of thought to suppose that advancing science has made it harder for us to accept miracles. (Miracles, p. 76)

The advance of science will continue to unravel many natural mysteries. Applied sciences will continue to benefit us with technological advancements. Historical sciences will continue in their attempt to reconstruct the distant past, hopefully with the appropriate degree of certainty warranted by this endeavor. But, as Lewis shows and Dawkins forgets, this has no impact on whether or not miracles can or do occur. Yet, still Dawkins opines:

The more you think about it, the more you realize that the very idea of a supernatural miracles is nonsense. If something happens that appears inexplicable by science, you can safely conclude one of two things. Either it didn’t really happen (the observer was mistaken, or was lying, or was tricked); or we have exposed a shortcoming in present-day science. (p. 257)

Umm, why is the very idea of miracles nonsense, again? Science can’t and won’t explain everything. It certainly can’t explain or support the philosophical principle that ‘science can explain everything or it didn’t happen.’ This type of reductionism is brought to science, not read out of science. This is worth reiterating, ‘to say that science can explain everything’ is NOT a scientific statement, it is a philosophical commitment, which means that science can’t explain why I should accept this very principle as an accurate guide to reality; in other words, the epistemological position presupposed in the above paragraph represents what philosophers call a self-referentially incoherent (or a self-defeating, throat slitting) position to advocate.

The above paragraph, and the majority of Dawkins chapter in my opinion, is simply the faith of an atheist foisting itself on the reader. Science will never explain a man walking on water, or the resurrection of Jesus. To state, ‘if science can’t explain something, either in principle or in actuality, then it can’t occur’ is the non-believer throwing an arbitrary net over the entire nature of reality to catch and keep out any unwanted ontological furniture from cluttering their closed system of casual events; a universal negative is being affirmed, an act of the will is being asserted, and an unacknowledged leap of faith is being undertaken.


In the end, many of Dawkins comments quoted above only fly if there is no God, something that Dawkins has failed to address in this chapter and certainly hasn’t shown successfully in his other works (See. The God Delusion & God is Good, God is Great for a response). Miracles would be completely absurd, ridiculous and nonsensical to me too, if I didn’t believe in God. But I do believe in God, for good reasons I might add, so I remain open to be surprised and delighted by science and the supernatural.

Notes   [ + ]

1. I sometimes feel as though, what Dawkins is basically assuming, with an appropriate measure of incredulity, is that, ‘if miracles can’t happen, miracles don’t happen.’ Well, I for one, think that this is very likely true. But this is not an argument; it is an assumption dressed up as an argument to convince the unsuspecting reader.

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