Posts Tagged ‘reality’

Greetings, people of Earth. I am no longer in Scotland.

Posting is still going to be a bit irregular for a while, but there’s a lot to discuss when I find the time. Here’s Richard Dawkins talking about magic.



The title of his new book, The Magic Of Reality, is an excellent summation of an approach that deserves to be pushed more by skeptics, scientists, atheists, and reality-based thinkers generally. It’s an important myth to bust, that of the skeptic as the humourless spoiler of all things fun. We might insist on pointing out the non-existence of things which don’t exist, but there’s so much that’s really going on in the world, which is thrilling for all the same reasons.

In the above video, he’s discussing what he means by the word “magic”, by breaking it down into three separate categories of event to which the word usually refers. Because of how I’m such a wild and unrestrained free spirit, I’m going to characterise his point as outlined in the title of this post.

Harry Potter. Actual witches and wizards doing actual spells, subverting natural laws and invoking supernatural forces. This kind of magic doesn’t exist. (Boo, party-pooper, etc.) If it did, it would be fascinating – but mostly in the context of a rigorous scientific study of it. Everyone would be dying to know how it works. What are the factors that affect how the magic actually functions? Can certain potion ingredients be substituted while maintaining the effect? Do you get more power if you shout the magic words louder?

Fiction can explore hundreds of questions like this in fascinating detail, and weave wonderful worlds around such ideas. I don’t know of any skeptics who are against the idea of enjoying made-up stories. But they are made-up.

Paul Daniels. Tricks, conjuring, illusions. Stage magic. Rabbits out of hats, coins behind ears. It clearly exists, but only creates a fa├žade of the Harry Potter kind of magic by means of deception. This can also be very entertaining and uncontroversial, so long as you don’t get the two kinds confused. You don’t have to believe that David Copperfield can really fly in order to have a good time being fooled.

Scotland. It might not seem obvious why I’m bringing this up for the third example. But have a look at this.

I’ve just spent a week on the Isle of Skye, looking at stuff like that.

Now, I’m sure you’re all worldly people. You’re more well travelled than me, and have no doubt basked personally in such glorious vistas that my holiday snaps seem dull and meagre. But I’d never been before, so let me revel a bit.

The point is, there are things in the world which can be experienced, and which are just amazing. Scotland is gorgeous, and you don’t need to sit through my slide show to remember or imagine views of the world that fill you with awe and which are worth trekking across the globe to experience.

That right there is the magic of reality.

And one of many reasons why it’s superior to Expecto Patronum is that there are extra layers of wonder beneath the experience itself. There are some views of nature which people almost universally find pleasing to look at – and science can tell us why.

With reality, you get to delve further and find out about things like the evolutionary pressures that have led our species to feel a sense of pleasure or comfort from the presence of bodies of water, which historically has been a positive sign for our survival. You get to find out so much about what’s going on in the magical world around you, and so much of it is truly extraordinary.

…This totally isn’t just a post about how amazing and life-changing my trip to a secluded and unblemished part of the countryside was. It’s totally not. I’m making a serious point here. Shut up.

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Here’s something that’s annoyed me for a while. It came up again in a couple of places in quick succession lately – once in an episode of Bones, I forget the other – so I thought it was about time to try explaining what exactly it is that pisses me off so much.

It’s about the assertion that life, or fate, or God, or whatever, “never gives us more than we can handle”.

I think it’s a phrase that’s supposed to be comforting to someone going through hard times, to reassure them that life is still beautiful and magical and worth living despite the pain and suffering of, say, losing a loved one. It’s often argued further that pain and suffering is what gives life the capacity to be beautiful and magical in the first place. So there’s no need to be scared. There’s a purpose to it all.

And the finding of beauty and magic and purpose to life isn’t something I have a big problem with. When it comes to life, broadly speaking, I’m in favour; and there’s plenty of wonder in my own world to make it an amazing journey, even for someone as atheistic and materialistic as I am.

The problem is in how far some people insist on taking this idea. They sometimes want to apply this to everyone’s life, all the time. They start to assume that everything anyone ever goes through is a part of some beautiful and complex narrative structure, and all the suffering which ever occurs inevitably adds to the rich tapestry of human experience in a way that benefits us and helps us grow as people.

They might begin over-extending helpful, optimistic, empowering ideas – that there is beauty in life, that the pain of loss tends to ease over time, that people can show remarkable resilience, courage, and kindness, and that any average person can really make a meaningful difference in the lives of the people they meet – into inane, self-serving, unrealistic, unhelpful, demonstrably untrue banalities.

And perhaps the worst of these (or perhaps just the one that happens to be grinding my gears at present) is that life (or fate, or God, etc.) “never gives us more than we can handle”. However much it might suck that your whole family burned to death in your uninsured house, leaving you to cover their mafia debts amounting to $400,000 and three human kidneys due next Thursday, it’s never that bad. You can cope. Look inside yourself and find the strength to carry on. This too shall pass. The universe would never allow the hardships that befall you to be more than you can handle. Your life will be a lovely story with a happy ending, you special beautiful snowflake.

This is fucking idiotic.

I’m not just being cynical in calling this kind of “positive thinking” a naive and moronically over-simplified fantasy. I have nothing against feeling good about the future, or even finding comfort in the notion that our pain makes us more rounded human beings and should be accepted and embraced as an integral part of life. But if you take that too far, you end up a deluded denialist, totally detached from reality as you prance around happy-fairy-la-la-land where unicorns blow everyone chocolate kisses from atop beautiful rainbows and nothing really bad ever happens, ever.

Life never gives us more than we can handle? What an adorable thought. Aren’t you just precious. Best not go outside and actually see the world you live in, your head might explode.

Seriously, how does anyone actually think this? How do you blithely disregard all the many, many people who clearly do get a shittier deal than they’re equipped to deal with, have their lives completely fucked up, and never, ever get resolution or closure or justice or anything that would make a satisfying end to their story?

Thousands of people die tragically young. Thousands of people are permanently injured, debilitated, and disabled, and never get their lives back on track. Thousands of people suffer such loss and hardship that they’re compelled to end it all, taking their own lives because they simply don’t feel that they can “handle” the crap that life has lumped them with. Thousands of people starve to death in Africa every fucking day.

In short, a lot of people’s lives really fucking suck, and they don’t get helped through it by a series of conveniently placed life lessons arranged as if by a guardian angel, watching benevolently over their every move and making sure things never get too rough.

Life never gives us more than we can handle? That’s a very exclusive, discriminatory use of the word “us” there. That’s a very sizeable chunk of the population who apparently don’t really count, because they don’t fit with your ideas of how life ought to play out. Maybe what you mean is “Life’s never given me more than I can handle, so anyone else who can’t handle it just needs to suck it up and stop being a wuss.”

I know this is turning into a rather vitriolic screed now, and probably boils down to little more than “Life isn’t fair”. But you know what? Life isn’t fucking fair, and twee aphorisms like this only serve to patronisingly diminish quite how unfair it sometimes is to other people.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive against injustice wherever possible. Humans have a wonderful, unprecedented opportunity to shape our world to our liking, to organise ourselves and institute systems of behaviour to try and give everyone an equal chance to make the best use of their rights and freedoms. This is an important thing to work for, but don’t forget that it does take work. It’s something we have to try really hard to accomplish. We can’t just expect the world to provide justice and narrative convenience at our say-so.

And, if and when I come to grieve the death of my parents, or go through some other instance of profound mourning and sadness, don’t fucking tell me what life is giving me and how well I can handle it.

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