Chapter 3. Wonder
Richard Dawkins is right about God but not right enough
At Matthew Haydon’s Immortal Dinner in December 1817 Keats and his fellow poets drank to ‘Newton’s health and confusion to mathematics’. Years later Haydon, writing to Wordsworth, explained that Keats had proposed confusion to the memory of Newton ‘because he destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism’. Keats wrote:
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine –
Unweave a rainbow…
Dawkins wrote his book Unweaving the Rainbow to refute Keats.[i] Far from destroying the poetry of the rainbow, Newton’s experiments splitting up the light through his prism opened the way to science’s discovery of more and more of the wonders of light. Science does not diminish our sense of wonder, on the contrary it greatly enhances it. In one of the most marvellous passages in the whole of his writing, Dawkins gives us an example in the wonderful way the eye registers colours in a rainbow. I was enthralled when I first read it and still am. At the boundary of air and water light is refracted. Because the raindrop is spherical, the light it refracts meets the eye at different angles, splitting up the colours just as Newton’s prism had done. As the colours pass through the raindrop back into the air they are refracted for a second time. Each raindrop only passes one colour into the eye because, although it is refracting the light of all the colours of the rainbow, it is convex so only one angle, and therefore one colour, strikes the eye. Thousands of raindrops that happen to be at that angle give you green, thousands more at a different angle red and so on, which is why we see all the colours of the rainbow. Dawkins is absolutely right. Science in no way diminishes our sense of wonder in our contemplation of nature.
But I think Dawkins is wrong too. If Keats misunderstood Newton. Dawkins has misunderstood Keats. Dawkins’s passages describing the wonders of nature that science has revealed – and they are truly wonderful, how a spider spins a web, why radiolaria are so exquisitely symmetrical – are always accounts of mechanical solutions to physical problems. The spider solves most ingeniously what is in effect an engineering problem. Builders of bridges would recognize the solution at once. But Keats is describing another kind of wonder in nature and to this Dawkins seems blind. I think the mechanical explanation for why there are tides is fascinating and truly wonderful. But standing on the seashore I feel another kind of wonder, in no way diminished, indeed enhanced by what my head is telling me about the mechanics of tides but felt deeply in the heart. I feel this sense of an awesome presence everywhere in nature; in my case especially in the many voices of the sea, the cries of wild geese flying overhead, opening a beehive, a most extraordinary peace that seems to well up from the very earth in my garden on an evening in late summer – and indeed in rainbows. This isn’t the kind of thing that science investigates. Is it an illusion? Who knows, but whatever Dawkins thinks I just don’t care. The deep joy and sense of significance that this presence brings, transcending the physical structures that convey it, is just too spellbindingly compelling.
I would perhaps think of myself as some kind of oddity, were it not that all through human history people have testified to their awareness of this numinous presence and have left evidences of their experiences in their art. The art works of primitive people, who were much closer to nature that we are, are universally full of it.[ii] The drastically abstracted Paleolithic Venus figurines, so-called, that have been found ubiquitously from Siberia to Spain, are packed with this sense of numinous awe, as are statuettes of the earth goddess from the early Neolithic figurines from the Balkans. So too with primitive images from the Cyclades, and Greek kouri, Celtic heads and native masks from Pacific islands. Atheists often say that primitive people believed in religion because they didn’t have science. I don’t think that is true for a moment. They believed because they had an immensely strong sense of a numinous presence in the universe. I think that because I too feel at least something of it. In my estimation, this emotional discovery of a realm of being transcending the physical structures that convey it, entirely unknown to classical science, is the feeling equivalent of the further realm escaping data and reason and logic that quantum physics is investigating intellectually.
‘…a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought
And rolls through all things’
Here is an extract from Richard Jefferies’ autobiography The Story of My Heart:
‘With all the intensity of feeling that exalted me, all the intense communion I held with the earth, the sun and the sky, the stars hidden by the light, with the ocean – in no manner can the thrilling depths of these feelings be written – with these I prayed, as if they were the keys of an instrument, of an organ, with which I swelled forth the notes of my soul, redoubling my own voice by their power. The great sun, brimming with light; the strong earth, dear earth; the warm sky; the pure air; the thought of ocean; the inexpressible beauty of all filled me with a rapture, an ecstasy…’ [iii]
And here are the words of a Dakota Indian speaking in 1911;
‘In the life of the Indian there was only one inevitable duty – the duty of prayer – the daily recognition of the Unseen and Eternal. His daily devotions were more necessary to him than his daily food. He wakes at daybreak, puts on his moccasins and steps down to the water’s edge. Here he throws handfuls of clear, cold water into his face, or plunges in bodily. After the bath he stands erect before the advancing dawn, facing the sun as it dances upon the horizon, and offers his unspoken orison. His mate may precede him or follow him in his devotions, but never accompanies him. Each soul must meet the morning sun, the new sweet earth and the Great Silence alone!
Whenever, in the course of the daily hunt the red hunter comes upon a scene that is strikingly beautiful or sublime – a black thundercloud with the rainbow’s glowing arch above the mountain, a white waterfall in the heart of a green gorge; a vast prairie tinged with the blood-red of sunset – he pauses for an instant in the attitude of worship. He sees no need for setting apart one day in seven as a holy day, since for him all days are God’s.’[iv]
Scientists tell us that birds sing to defend their territories, warn off competitors and attract mates. They have even found that birds sing late in the season in the hope of adulterously cheating on their mates and surreptitiously raising a second brood with another. I’m sure all this is true, and fascinatingly it extends our understanding of birds. But Gerard Manley Hopkins writes:
‘Nothing is so beautiful as spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightning to hear him sing…’
Was Hopkins right when he talked of ‘the dearest freshness that dwells deep down things’? I think he was. Dawkins is right too. But not right enough.
[i] R. Dawkins 2006 Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder. ch 3.
[ii][ii] see particularly works by Marija Gimbutas,; A. Marshack 1972 The Roots of Civilization McGraw Hill; A. Leroi-Gourhan 1982 The Dawn of European Art Cambridge University Press; Jean-Marie Chauvet 1998 Dawn of Art: Chauvet Cave Harry N. Abrams; Patrick Masson 2006 Peru: the Chavin to the Incas. Skira Editone; Berenice Geoffroy –Schneider & Douglas Newton 2000 Primal Arts: Africa, Oceania and the South-east Asian Islands Thames and Hudson; Ruth Megaw and J.V.S. Megaw 1989 Celtic Art: from its beginnings to the Book of Kells Thames and Hudson
[iii] Richard Jeffries The Story of My Heart new ed. 2002 Green Books
[iv] T.C. McLuhan 1992 Touch the Earth: a Self-portrait of Indian Existence Promontory