richard dawkins

The Big Picture: Sean Carroll Explains It All

I recently completed Sean Carroll's most recent book, The Big Picture: On the Origin of Life, Meaning and the Universe ItselfIt is, undeniably, one of the best books I've read in the past few years and one that I will start recommending to everyone forthwith. 9780525954828

It's a book written entirely about physics which somehow manages to be a book about religion in spirituality. The closest comparison I can think of is Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker. It demolished a large number of rather deeply held religious beliefs, not by attacking them, per say, but simply by explaining what we actually knew about science.

Carroll is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist that works at Caltech. (I found out in one of the interviews that the desk in his office used to belong to one of my other heroes, the late Richard Feynman.) What Watchmaker did for biology, this book does for physics and cosmology and it's been long overdue.

Most people who stop learning about science in high school simply don't know just how much we actually know about the universe. It's very easy to make the (fallacious) leap from "I don't know" to "nobody knows" without skipping a beat. But the information is out there, and has been for a very long time.

Spirituality and religion survives largely by leveraging the unknown. Narratives about how the universe began and what happens after we die survive because very few people are willing to put in the years it takes to learn the science to prove them wrong. And for the most part, science stays politely silent in what is usually called "tolerance". But — as is extremely well explained in the book — the science that definitely disproves notions like the existence of the soul, the afterlife, and an anthropomorphic deity that takes an interest in our lives is really well understood.

It's gotten slightly worse in recent years because of the magical-sounding properties of quantum mechanics. They're only magical when they're poorly understood, so it's nice to have someone who actually understands them and their predictions explain them.

But establishing what we know is only part of the book. In the latter sections, he outlines the consequences of these scientific facts for more philosophical matters like meaning, purpose, free will and morality. It's a wonderful resource to have all of this addressed in one place.

If you don't want to splurge for the whole book, the author gives a fantastic interview at Inquiring Minds that's worth checking out. The interviewer, Indre Viskontas, says that some of the later sections actually made her cry. I didn't go quite that far, even though I cry at mostly anything, but I still definitely recommend the book, more or less to everyone.

The Greatest Compliment to a Profession

Earlier this week, I received an invitation from the Centre for Inquiry to attend a special brunch with Professors Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss. To say I couldn't register fast enough was an understatement. For a bit of background, I discovered Richard Dawkins' work when he was mentioned in The Salmon of Doubtwhich was compiled by Stephen Fry from the contents of Douglas Adams' many Mac computers after his untimely death in 2001. Douglas Adams was the beginning for my love of all things British, but certainly not the end. In high school, I was also deeply interested in the writings of Richard Feynman, and came across Lawrence Krauss when he wrote a biography of Feynman in 2011.

At the meeting, I was thrilled  to get my copy of The Selfish Gene signed (I had the issue of Playboy[1] Dawkins appeared in in my bag, but chickened out) and I also got to perform for him very briefly.

During the question and answer period, I asked him something which interested me as a magician about the evolutionary nature of curiosity. Of course he did what all public intellectuals do and ignored my question and spoke about whatever he felt like at the moment. But not without throwing in something deeply flattering and interesting:

He said that magic (or conjuring as he preferred to call it) had deep philosophical implications because it awakened us to the fact that we are very easy to deceive. If we see something which is contrary to the way we understand the world to work, we should be very suspicious and avoid jumping to conclusions. He was referring, of course, to the tendency the species has to invoke supernatural agents and mystical forces when boring and natural explanations will suffice.

As a magician, I have been wrestling with this for a few years. On the one hand, I love science and want to encourage curiosity and rational inquiry wherever I can. On the other hand, I would prefer it if my audiences did not look to Google to try and find explanations for how my tricks work.

With this bit of insight from Dawkins, I'm hoping that I can find a better way to balance the two than I have been. Unfortunately, it's difficult to create a strong feeling of magic while simultaneously reminding people that you don't have supernatural powers and that deep down you're a lying cheating bastard.

Hope I can find a way.

James Alan Richard Dawkins

[1] Always the teacher! Thanks to Dawkins, I had to learn at the age of 27, not only how to purchase pornography in print, but pornography with women in it... much harder than I thought.

Reality Based Magic - Notes

Last night, I did a special lecture for magicians at the Joan Caesar Hat & Wand Club in Kitchener, Ontario. To go along with the lecture, I prepared a 50-page booklet describing some of the tricks I taught. I have a few copies of the booklet left over for any magicians that might be interested. The trick includes one piece from Lies, Damn Lies & Magic Tricks, an item from my family shows (yes, I perform for children when asked politely) and from my close up repertoire as well as some smaller card items and three essays.

The booklet was originally going to be titled The Magic of Reality, but before I had a chance, Richard Dawkins stole the title and used it for his book for children. (The book is superb, if you don't have it already.) The theme that draws the pieces (mostly) together is that according to certain systems of magic theory, they are all bad tricks, and yet they work. When I say bad, they're time tested in front of audiences but they violate tenets of standard magic theory about how the methods should work. For me they underscore that "rules" in magic are really just guidelines and that reality is the ultimate arbiter of what works and what doesn't.

To match the spirit of the title, the cover image and chapter titles are images from the Hubble Space Telescope, which are easily more impressive than everything in the book.

If anyone is interested, I have a handful of the books left. I may also re-release them in an electronic format at some point.

The booklet is $20, available from the Ring 17 online store



It's a coincidence, I swear

I recently acquired a scarlet Atheist lapel pin from the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science in the US. To date, it's the best symbol for secularism I've seen which is appropriate for grownups (not that I don't love Flying Spaghetti Monster cufflinks and Darwin Fish car emblems). I look forward to wearing it in public performances, TV appearances and anywhere else I can sneak it in. What it took me a few days to realize was that both the scarlet  and my letterhead both seemed to use the same font. Lucky me!

James Alan Website   Scarlett Letter

Although it's a good step forward, I think some work needs to be done on branding. Atheism remains a non-position and is very vague, so it would be nice to have something which made a bit more of a positive statement. Nevertheless, it's a pretty little thing and I'm happy to have one.

A strange lesson

Sometimes something which appears ordinary is not so ordinary after all. I learned this recently when I had to buy a magazine. Now I have thousands of magic magazines in my library, but buying mainstream magazines is not something I have a lot of experience. I'm used to being able to get all of my news and current events through the interwebs. I probably haven't bought a normal human magazine in over a decade. But all that changed when I discovered that my favourite evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, had agreed to do a rather unusual interview for a mainstream magazine. I thought at first this would be easy, since Indigo Books & Music always has a giant magazine section. Unfortunately, it seems that doesn't include Playboy. So for the first time in my life, I was forced to learn, not only how to buy pornography in print, but pornography in print with women in it... Who knew?

Of course I succeeded and the interview was delightful, as you can see below.

Photo by Matt DiSero