Consciousness is part of the fabric of the universe


Richard Dawkins has no sense of irony. He rails endlessly against
fundamentalists yet he defends old-fashioned, Thomas Gradgrind-style materialism as zealously as the Mid-West Creationists defend the literal truth of Genesis.

Really? Does he, really?

Colin Tudge says he does, but I don’t believe it. That’s because I don’t believe Dawkins is as crude as Gradgrind or as ignorant as fundamentalists. I think Tudge is exaggerating.

He accuses others of misrepresentation yet he seriously misrepresents religion.
Also, which is irony writ large, he misrepresents science, in whose name he is
assumed to speak. He condemns the Catholics for filling the heads of children
with a particular view of life before they have had a chance to think for
themselves – and now, in The Magic of Reality, written for readers as young as
nine, he has done precisely that. As somebody said of Miss Jean Brodie, it’s
time he was put a stop to.

Does he? Is it “a particular view of life” he objects to? Is it not the dogmatic aspect of the view of life that is the problem?

Thus he tells us that “reality is everything that exists” – and “exists”, he makes clear, means whatever we can see or stub our toes on, albeit with the aid of telescopes and seismographs. Everything else – including things we might think exist, like jealousy and love – derive from that material base and are to a large extent illusory. This, he implies, is what emerges from science, and science is true.

Really? He tells us that jealousy and love are to a large extent illusory, meaning, they don’t “exist”? I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know, but I’m skeptical.

Many philosophers have, like Baruch Spinoza, argued that consciousness is not
just the noise that brains make but part of the fabric of the universe. We do
not generate consciousness in our heads: we partake of what is all around us,
just as our eyes partake of light.

Yes, and the hills are alive with the sound of music.

The other clichés turn up too – Dawkins is an unreformed logical positivist, materialist philosophers like Dan Dennett and AC Grayling, zeal for eugenics, religions do not depend upon their myths, any theologian could have put him right on this, Newton and Descartes were devout, to explore the wonders of the world through science was to glorify God, Dawkins’s ultra-materialist view of life is crude by comparison.

Ho hum.


  1. says


    “Materialist” is a word spouted by the woolly-headed, people who want to cling to religious and spiritual ideas that make them feel warm and fuzzy but have little evidence to back them up. Word-forged manacles prop up any idea these days, and “materialist” is a handy label giving the intellectually dishonest an easy, thought-free way of rejecting ideas that upset them.

  2. Saikat Biswas says

    What an insanely, spectacularly, mind-numbingly stupid review. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I had always assumed that British newspapers have reasonably respectable standards when it comes to selecting book-reviewers even when, in their laodicean zeal, they indiscriminately let airhead writers air their brain-dead opinions. The Guardian did succeed in disabusing me of my faith very early on through Madeleine Bunting and Andrew Brown (who, by the way, has just produced an equally idiotic article on British creationism). And now Independent has followed suit. What a travesty!

  3. TomZ, a miasma of incandescent plasma says

    From the RD website, Prof Dawkins himself stating what is in the book:

    “Does this mean that reality only contains things that can be detected, directly or indirectly, by our senses and by the methods of science? What about things like jealousy and joy, happiness and love? Are these not also real?

    Yes, they are real. But they depend for their existence on brains: human brains, certainly, and probably the brains of other advanced animal species, such as chimpanzees, dogs and whales, too. Rocks don’t feel joy or jealousy, and mountains do not love. These emotions are intensely real to those who experience them, but they didn’t exist before brains did. It is possible that emotions like these – and perhaps other emotions that we can’t begin to dream of – could exist on other planets, but only if those planets also contain brains – or something equivalent to brains: for who knows what weird thinking organs or feeling machines may lurk elsewhere in the universe”

    But why let facts and reality disturb this dood’s perfectly good delusional rant??

  4. says

    Ah – thanks for finding that, TomZ. I was pretty confident that Dawkins would say emotions are real (and that depending on brains doesn’t make them not real ffs), but I decided not to say so since I didn’t have documentation handy or time to find it.

    This shit is what need to be put a stop to – this dishonest crap of pretending people say things they don’t say.

  5. says

    One of the kicking commenters Rosie mentions –

    “I haven’t taken the Independent’s book reviews at all seriously since the widely inaccurate review of “The Kindly Ones” by Jonathan Littell”

    The one of Does God Hate Women? by Sholto Byrnes was pretty damn inaccurate, too – in fact in places it was what we considered outright dishonest.

    Does the Indy do this on purpose?

  6. Bruce Gorton says

    I have a lot of flaws – and I am hardly the perfect worker. But one thing I can say for myself is that when I basically disagree with a book or its author I have the basic level of professionalism necessary to review the damn book.

    Tudge may have read the book – but his review is so littered with irrelevancies and ad hominems against Dawkins that we cannot tell if it is actually any good or not. All we get from his review is that he doesn’t like Dawkins.

    Now that is fine in a blog post – blog posts aren’t professionally produced and aren’t paid for. A blog is there to rant in public, a review is there to inform the public.

  7. Stephen Turner says

    Also, Tudge has been paid to do this (we imagine).

    One current idea about consciousness is that it’s an emergent phenomenon, which (if confirmed) essentially would mean that we do generate it in our heads.

    Surely “reality is everything that exists” is not only true, it’s close to tautological. Does Tudge have insight into some form of reality that you can’t stub your toe on?

  8. Hamilton Jacobi says

    Over the past 90 years or so quantum physicists, beginning with Niels Bohr and Erwin Schrödinger, have shown that the mind of the observer affects, or seems to, the outcome of experiments carried out on fundamental particles.

    Mr Tudge seems to be an adherent of the Deepak Chopra school of quantum physics.

  9. Hamilton Jacobi says

    Religions do not depend upon their myths and miracles. They are there as illustrations.

    Illustrations of what?

  10. jamessweet says

    TomZ, I’m sure that’s probably exactly the passage this joker is referring to. For some people, if emotions come from brains, then they aren’t real. That’s a rather sad, impoverished world view if I may say so… Exactly the sad, impoverished world view Tudge is projecting onto Dawkins, in fact.

    It just hit me as I was typing this… the problem is that the real reductionists are those who rail against materialism. If you have a reductionist view of material reality, then materialism becomes very difficult to accept, because it seems horribly impoverished. But of course that’s a result of the anti-materialists own reductionist viewpoint.

  11. says

    I have read several comments on the Dawkins book, but I have not read the book itself.

    What I am getting from the comments (all from religious sites), is that Dawkins has a pretty good book at just the right level. That’s why the religious groups are wanting to run a smear campaign and to scare people off from buying the book for their children.

  12. says

    To investigate further, I Googled for: “Colin Tudge” religion

    One result was The Pari Dialogues: Essays in Science, Religion, Society and the Arts – Google Books Result

    (I can’t make that a link. I think the URL confuses the commenting system here).

    In the chapter “Science, Religion, and Me Personally” by Colin Tudge, we see:

    “I don’t want to define religion in the usual ways. I don’t want to say as many do that religion is inveterately concerned with the “supernatural”. I certainly don’t want to say that it necessarily involves any particular God who can be named and who must be worshipped via particular rituals and ceremonies.” …..

    “But if you take the view, as I do, that religion is and aspires to be the all-embracing narrative, the complete account of all that is and could and should be, then none of these common positions will do. Religion, the way I see it, embraces all formal disciplines, including science”.

    If this is the same Colin Tudge, perhaps his review of a book about science, which also mentions religion in the context of supernatural myths, would be expected to be incomprehensible to most of us.

  13. Matt Penfold says

    The one of Does God Hate Women? by Sholto Byrnes was pretty damn inaccurate, too – in fact in places it was what we considered outright dishonest.

    I recall you will ill-served by The Observer as well, who got Christine Odone to review it. For some reason she got all confused and complained that all the nasty stuff mentioned in the book was to be blamed on people doing religion wrong, and that God was real and really quite sweet.

  14. says

    Neil Rickert @ 13:

    I have bought the book, and read part of it but not all. I can’t judge the youngest age for which is might be suitable. (I’m childfree and 64, so don’t have the context!)

    But, yes, it is certainly a good book in any plausible sense. The combination of text and graphics (more than just after-the-event illustration – the graphics are part of the message) must surely make it attractive to a wide audience. I haven’t spotted any dumbing-down, although it has a conversational rather than academic tone.

    Chapter 2 alone explains evolution by natural selection in the context of “deep time” in easy to understand form, aided by the graphics. Just that chapter undermines most glib creationist arguments, and would be dangerously subversive to children of creationists if they were ever able to get hold of it. The rest of the book undermines other foolish ideas.

    It does it by simple explanation, not by “militant” attack. Whatever a reviewer’s views about Dawkins, it would be perverse to claim the book is “shrill” (etc). I suspect it will become a “classic”.

  15. says

    jamessweet (12): Interesting point on materialism! People who take is as reductionist do have a reductionistic view of materialism, because they don’t actually understand it. A friend of mine who holds this view took five years to realize that physics actually deals with information theory, and he still brings up quantum physics to argue that the mind is non-deterministic (I made the mistake of loaning him a book by Roger Penrose, where Penrose pedals this nonsense.)

    But the non-materialistic view is also wildly reductionistic, because it reduces the human mind to a simple atomic entity. All of the complexity of the brain and the influence of evolution and biological structure is reduced to a simple point. No need to understand any of that…

  16. gshelley says

    Having read the article, it seems that not only has Tudge not reviewed Dawkins book, he probably hasn’t even read it.

  17. latsot says

    It’s a lovely book and not at all patronising. It’s the first book I’ve bought for a while in old-timey tree format because you definitely need the whole package: the presentation is as much a part of the message as the text.

    I’m pretty confident that I could read parts of the book with my five year old nephew, if we spent a lot of time talking about things rather than his just listening. Some of the ideas would surely be a little beyond him, but the central message – how do we know what’s really real? – comes across very strongly.

    We need more books like this.

  18. says

    John Morales @ 20:

    Thanks John, but the Google search took me right into the text of the book, straight to the chapter by Colin Tudge.

    I’ve since posted to my own blog what I earlier posted here, with that link included, so anyone who wants to see that chapter can easily do so. But I suspect it won’t add much to the discussion beyond the text I quoted above.

    Mary Lupin @ 21:

    Illuminating link! In the context of this book “review”, these extracts may be telling:

    “Science – not science-based, “high” technology such as smart weapons or GM crops, but science itself – is losing its way”.

    “Science cannot decide what is right or wrong but it affects moral decisions in a whole range of ways. It has been entwined with theology since its outset – indeed can be seen as the scion of religion – and the present public spats so often staged between the more dyed-in-the-wool clerics and the more aggressive scientists tend to be crude in the extreme”.

    I’m sure he considers Dawkins to be one of the latter.

  19. submoron says

    Perhaps the music critic Philip Hale explained it the Boston Journal of 14 Jan 1893 when commenting on Hanslick’s damning review of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto ” I think that the violence of Dr Hanslick was as much inspired by the desire to write a readable article as by any just indignation”.
    If the review doesn’t stir controversy it won’t get the attention and people might not be so eager to buy the paper.
    The quotation, by the way, is from Nicolas Slominksy’s ‘Lexicon of Musical Invective, p.33.

  20. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    Looking for something completely different, I came across the following quotation about materialism:

    Some two-and-a-half-thousand years after its debut in Western culture, materialism stands in the final decade of the twentieth century as a complete and well-defined philosophy in many respects. Its core assumption that there is no reality other than the material order exhibiting itself in what exists around and within us distinguishes it from competing philosophies today just as sharply as it did for Lucretius. The notion of supernatural or immaterial states of being that are alien to nature seems just as incoherent to materialists in the 1990s as it did to d’Holbach, who first worked out materialism’s atheistic implications. The conviction not just that the laws of nature are knowable but that human science is capable, at least in principle, of knowing them is no less central now than it was for Buechner. And the assumption that all thought and feeling, human and otherwise, is a material process is still as key an element in materialism as it has been for the mind-brain reductionists of the twentieth century. In these four and many related ways, the materialist vision is what it has always been: the clearest and most consistent effort to comprehend and demystify nature and humanity’s place in it that human intelligence has ever made.

    Richard C. Vitzthum, Materialism: An Affirmative History and Definition. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995, p. 176

  21. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    Many goddists have a sloppy habit of confusing materialism with what’s called greedy reductionism. Dennett, who coined the phrase, described “good” reductionism as explaining a thing as what it reduces to, its parts and their interactions. He describes greedy reductionism as “in their eagerness for a bargain, in their zeal to explain too much too fast, scientists and philosophers…underestimate the complexities, trying to skip whole layers or levels of theory in their rush to fasten everything securely and neatly to the foundation.”¹ As I suspect Tudge sees it, a materialist should expect to open up a person’s brain and have the thoughts fall onto the table. That’s not materialism.

    What is or isn’t supernatural depends on the assumption that mind and mind-products don’t just supervene on the physical, but stand apart from and “above” the physical. Supernaturalism also decrees a central place in the universe to human beings.

    For example, string theory involves multiple non-physical dimensions which may be beyond science’s ability to study but nobody calls it supernatural. That’s because there’s nothing mind-like about it, and hypothetical superstrings don’t somehow make everything meaningful and vibrate love or peace.

    People used to think air, fire and light were supernatural. Once the physical makeup of these substances was understood, the supernatural was relegated to thoughts and feelings. Now with neurology, the supernatural is pushed back to just being vague something or other.

    ¹Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1995, p. 82.

  22. says

    I know that OB is just repeating the ridiculous slanders against the likes of Dawkins to show what silly things his “critics” say, but I feel the urge to react to some of the old carnards …

    How on earth can one be a positivist and a materialist at once??

    Of course, the critics just mean by both “sciency guy who we can’t stand”, so maybe it does work.

  23. Iain Walker says

    Mark Fournier (#18):

    But the non-materialistic view is also wildly reductionistic, because it reduces the human mind to a simple atomic entity. All of the complexity of the brain and the influence of evolution and biological structure is reduced to a simple point. No need to understand any of that…

    It does seem a trifle odd to make the thing with the most complex behaviour the fundamental and indivisible thing in one’s ontology.

    But there’s also something distinctly narcissistic about “mind-first” ontologies. The naturalist asks “How do we fit in with the rest of the universe?” The supernaturalist asks “How does the universe fit in with us?”

  24. says

    I notice on Twitter (etc) that the Colin Tudge “review” is approved by some Christians, partly because they don’t like Dawkins, and partly because they are not in favour of the themes and content of the book.

    Is the Tudge “review” the only major attack on the book so far? I’ve seen several favourable, or mostly favourable, reviews. But anyone’s “hopes” that this book won’t succeed appear to rely on Tudge.

    (I haven’t finished it yet. That will be like completing the last day of a vacation. Nothing to look forward to!)

  25. Tim DeLaney says

    Colin Tudge has not written a book review here, his piece is nothing more than a polemic–and a poor one at that. Now, there is nothing wrong in writing a polemic, just as there is nothing wrong in putting vitamin C tablets in a bottle. But by calling it a book review, the Independent has done the equivalent of putting an aspirin label on that bottle.

    When one writes a book review, it is normal to call attention to things that are actually found in the book, and to comment on those things. Instead, Tudge rails against what he (mis)perceives as the thoughts of Dawkins. It is significant that nowhere in this “book review” does one find words such as “page”, “chapter”, “book” or “illustration”. (I haven’t seen the book yet, but I understand that the illustrations are integral to its theme.)

    As to shredding the polemic itself, the readers of the Independent have done that far above my poor power to add or detract (to plagiarize Lincoln).

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