A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature 

Book Review

The subtitle to this marvelous book by Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt recalls that of Richard Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. Dawkins's book was a highly influential polemic (though deeply flawed, as we'll see--once again--in a moment) against design in the cosmos. Wiker and Witt's book deserves equal or greater attention, as a thoughtful and most original argument in favor of design. 

Meaningful World
Wiker and Witt play a number of variations on the contrasting themes of meaninglessness and meaningfull-ness, introduced in the first chapter with a quote from physicist Steven Weinberg. The key phrases of the quote are taken from the last two paragraphs of Weinberg's book, The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe:

"The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless . . . . The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that gives human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy."

The authors quite sensibly ask how a pointless universe could also be comprehensible and attain a measure of grace. But the tenor of our age is so uniformly bent toward missing the contradiction there, so as they play their variations, Wiker and Witt show what they mean by the question and why it is such a telling one.

Their first variation comes from an unusual source for this topic: human genius as embodied by William Shakespeare. Richard Dawkins, in The Blind Watchmaker, had claimed to show that a computer program analogous to evolution could, after a few generations of trial and error, produce a line from Shakespeare's Hamlet: "Methinks it is like a weasel." Wiker and Witt pause briefly to point out how far that program really is from the reality of what evolution is supposed to be; it is for one thing intelligently guided, and for another thing, very dependent on a host of pre-built structures in which it is processed. But for them that is low-hanging fruit, easy to point out and then move on.

They focus instead on what "Methinks it is like a weasel" really means. In isolation, in fact, it means almost nothing. Who said it? Why? What does the "it" refer to? What does it reveal about the characters? How does it advance the plot? In the context of the entire play, and of Elizabethan culture, this brief line takes on significance of surprising depth. The whole is required to give meaning to the part.

Freud, Marx, and hundreds of literary theorists looking for something original to say about Shakespeare have taken the meaning of his plays apart, down to the nuts and screws, reducing them to nothing. Freud pronounced Hamlet to be nothing but Oedipal and death-wish drives in disguise. Wiker and Witt return repeatedly to this matter of reductionism, which C. S. Lewis called "nothing-buttery:" Hamlet is nothing but . . . (fill in the blank). Indeed, Hamlet can be viewed as nothing but a long collocation of letters in a particular order. But as these authors point out, also illustrating with Shakespeare's The Tempest, that is nothing but a complete and total misreading of the plays, in which everything that is really there is lost.

Speaking of The Tempest and its poetic language, they write (page 63),

"The temptation at this stage of the reading is to think, 'Just give me the point.' But our contemporary rage for 'the point' is just reductionism in a business suit, materialism's urge to boil everything down to its simplest parts. . . . At the altar of reductionism we tend to accept grand and abstract conclusions about something without having attended to the thing in question. It is easy to believe the reduction of butterflies to atoms and energy if we have never attended to a butterfly in the theater of the fields. Likewise, it's possible to believe reductionist treatments of Shakespeare if all one has read is the reductionist treatments themselves, avoiding the very theater within which we might be delivered from such misreading."

Their next variation begins to cross a boundary between art and science, through the wonder of mathematics--in particular, mathematical beauty, as epitomized in the work of Euclid and expanded in the surprising usefulness of mathematics in understanding our world. They write on page 103,

"It is interesting that as biologists (following Darwin) have become more reductionist in regard to beauty, physicists have come to a new appreciation of the centrality of beauty in regard to the relationship of mathematical equations to reality."

They play the theme still further towards science as they describe the genius of the discovery of the periodic table of the elements, a story of chemical science and its progress through the centuries. It's not a mere story of cold laboratory science, but a matter of great wonder that the universe is designed--they use the word quite intentionally--to allow for human discovery of scientific truths. Their retelling of that story of discovery shows how graciously the world allows for knowledge to accumulate gradually, through ever closer approximations to truth. They dwell at length on the uniqueness of the element carbon and the compound water, and their incredible suitability for life. Why would it be so? Is this not a surprising thing? Why would evolution have blindly thrown up a creature like us that can see into the very center of an atom, or discover the composition of stars light-years away?

Some scientists have dealt with that surprise by means of an anthropic principle explanation, or a multiverse theory, both of which Wiker and Witt address effectively. They proceed to take the next variation in the most pressing realm of interest, that of biology. The reductionism by which scholars have eliminated Shakespeare's genius is writ large in biology. The authors quote Brian Goodwin (page 195),

"A striking paradox that has emerged from Darwin's way of approaching biological questions is that organisms, which he took to be primary examples of living nature, have faded away to the point where they no longer exist as fundamental and irreducible units of life. Organisms have been replaced by genes and their products as the basic units of biological reality."

The matter looms large as the authors move on to the next variation, the question of whether the origin of life can be explained in reductionist terms of just chemistry. The answer, of course, is that the entire scientific world is absolutely flummoxed by the question; and Wiker and Witt convincingly make a case that no answer could conceivably be forthcoming. Their argument is in terms of the kinds of conditions that prevailed on the early earth, and the immense improbabilities of organismic functions building up on it by chance or by any unintelligently guided process. They point out, for example (page 214), that to believe that amino acids could have arisen on their own in any useful form is just naive:

"As Sean Taylor and his colleagues have calculated in regard to a protein one hundred amino acids long, 'Even a library [of amino acid chains] with the mass of the Earth itself--5.98 x 10^27g--would comprise at most 3.3 x 10^47 different sequences,' representing only a 'miniscule fraction' of the full number of possible amino acid chains of 20^100."

This is but one of many similar probabilistic absurdities that origin-of-life researchers must overcome to make a case for a materialist explanation.

The penultimate chapter is entitled, "The Restoration of the Living Organism." Wiker and Witt have gone through their variations and are in fact saying one thing: reductionism fails. We are not mere collocations of chemical events. Here's another way to look at it: Michael Behe made a strong point with his arguments for irreducible complexity on the microscopic level, but irreducible complexity exists on every level. A line of Shakespeare is meaningless, pointless, functionless (therefore if viewed in Darwinian terms, bound to be selected out), apart from the whole play. The genius of a Euclid or a Mendeleev is vain, lost, impossible in fact, outside of its context. A universe must be designed with fine-tuning on the macro scale, as ours is for both life and discovery, in order for the micro scale to be functional and meaningful. Irreducible complexity is not just for a Behe, it is also for an ecologist, an astronomer, an artist, for any human. It all shouts the genius of nature.

A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature by Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006. 252 pages plus index; $18.00 List. 

Posted: Mon - August 21, 2006 at 08:24 PM           |

© 2004-2007 by Tom Gilson. Permission is granted to quote up to two paragraphs of any blog entry, provided that a link back to the original is included or (in print) the website address is provided. Please email me regarding longer quotes. All other rights reserved.

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