The Universe is Meaning-full : An interview with Dr. Benjamin Wiker, co-author of A Meaningful World | Carl E. Olson | December 5, 2006
Benjamin Wiker (Ph.D., Vanderbilt), is lecturer in theology and science at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. He is also a senior fellow of Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington. His work has been published in First Things, National Catholic Register, Crisis, Catholic World Report and the New Oxford Review. He is the author of Moral Darwinism, Architects of the Culture of Death, and the recently published A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature, published by InterVarsity Press and co-authored with Jonathan Witt (click here for reviews, excerpts, and more information).
Carl E. Olson, editor of IgnatiusInsight.com, spoke with Dr. Wiker about his new book, science, religion, evolution, intelligent design, and the meaning of meaning.
IgnatiusInsight.com: First things first: In the battle between superstitious, uneducated fundamentalist creationists and enlightened, rational, and scientifically sophisticated Darwinian evolutionists, where do you stand?
Dr. Wiker: Now that you've put it that way, I'd say that I stand somewhere hovering above the middle. Fundamentalists certainly seem to have good intentions. They seize upon the authority of Scripture with a zeal that puts many of us Catholics to shame. But, if I can say it this way, they fail to take just as seriously the depth of God's revelation in nature. Part of their problem is that while they properly recognize the atheist undertow in the modern reductionist approach to science, they don't have a more profound grasp of science to put in its place. That leaves them with a too simple "science vs. faith" approach where faith either disregards legitimate science, or worse, dismisses science as simply pernicious. Thus, they end up entirely disregarding some of the most interesting work done in relationship to the development of the universe since the Big Bang (which should, incidentally, be called the Big Bloom), and they tend simply to dismiss anything and everything about evolutionary theory, rather than trying to separate the silver from the dross.
As for the scientifically sophisticated Darwinian evolutionists, I find that they suffer from the same problem--that is, they are not very scientifically sophisticated. They hold to a mechanistic and reductionist view of nature which does not adequately account for the depth and complexity of nature, nor does it even offer an adequate account of science itself. Generally, they claim far, far more for evolutionary theory than the known facts allow, and don't admit the glaring defects.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Chapter one of A Meaningful World begins by saying, "This book's central claim is simply stated: the universe is meaning-full." What do you mean by that?
Dr. Wiker: To begin with, it is a denial of a denial; that is, we wish to deny the philosophical, quasi-scientific belief that the universe is meaning-less. Our work is a direct attack on what we call the Flat-land of reductionist materialism, a view that holds the universe to be randomly contrived--that is, not created by an intelligence--and nature to be purposeless. Of course, if nature is purposeless, then human life is pointless and hence meaningless as well.
Nihilism is therefore the direct result of such reductionism. According to this materialistic view, everything is reducible to the lowest common material denominator: atoms acting according to physico-chemical laws. For reductionists, all the rich beauty of existence--from the beauty of flowers, sunsets, and stars, to the glories of Shakespeare and Mozart--is illusory. We might want to think there is beauty and purpose and genius, but they really aren't there. Both the evident genius in nature and the evident genius of someone like Shakespeare can be reduced to the purposeless moiling and meandering of atomic particles.
IgnatiusInsight.com: So what do Shakespeare and Hamlet have to do with reason and design?
Dr. Wiker: Well, we've all heard the canard--that's become a standard gibe of Darwinists--that the genius of Shakespeare is not beyond the reach of the powers of chance to produce. After all, a million monkeys typing on a million typewriters for a million years could and would produce all the works of Shakespeare many times over. The point here, of course, is that the presence of human genius does not argue for the necessity of a Divine Genius as Creator. The chance machinations of evolution can mimic genius many times over. So they say.
We take on that claim right at the beginning of A Meaningful World. We demonstrate--if I might put it with a bit of a nasty edge--that the reason Darwinists believe that monkeys could randomly peck out Shakespeare is that they have never actually plumbed the depths of Shakespeare. To experience the genius of Shakespeare, even in a simple line like Hamlet's "To be or not to be," is to realize that a single sentence of Shakespeare is filled to overflowing with layers of meaning integrated into the larger play. Biological organisms are just like that: they aren't reducible to their smallest chemical parts; the smallest chemical parts are only intelligible and functional as parts of the complex, amazingly integrated living whole. Reductionism fails because it tries to reduce the whole to the parts; we show that the parts can only exist and function as parts of the whole.
Unfortunately, Darwinists tend to have a dangerously simplistic notion of both literature and biology. They think that a line of Shakespeare is merely a string of letters, just as they think that a complex living creature is reducible to a mere "string" of genetic letters on DNA.
IgnatiusInsight.com: There is much talk and controversy over this Charles Darwin fellow. What's the central issue or problem with Darwin? Is there any significant difference between "Darwinism", "evolution", and "Darwinian evolution"?
Dr. Wiker: I would say the central issue with Darwin is that he attempted to build a theory on an entirely wrong-headed materialistic philosophy. At the heart of Darwinism is a very old form of materialism, called Epicurean materialism, named after the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. It was, and still is, anti-theistic at heart. I trace this in a previous book, Moral Darwinism. The materialist presuppositions drive Darwin beyond the facts to far grander claims than the facts support. I certainly believe that there has been evolution. That is undeniable. So in that sense, we must affirm, with John Paul II, that evolution is more than a hypothesis. But when you really spend time looking at the facts and failures of evolutionary theory, you find that it is not at all clear how much more than a hypothesis. But Darwinism, I would say, is the equivalent of fundamentalism in religion, a blind faith in a theory, regardless of the facts.
IgnatiusInsight.com: You write that Darwin "unleashed an explanatory mechanism on the world of biology," referring to "natural selection." Do you think Darwin would be surprised by the influence of that mechanism? How has it been used or misused to undermine a meaningful understanding of reality?
Dr. Wiker: I think Darwin would have been surprised how much has been done with the idea of natural selection, especially since during his life, scientists knew laughably little about the cell and the biology of reproduction. Yet, at the same time, I think he would be surprised to find out that the very problems that he himself pointed out in his theory in the Origin of Species, still remain unresolved, and in some instances, have only gotten worse.
The problem with the principle of natural selection is that is both too simple and too plastic. It explains everything and anything, so it ends up explaining nothing. Darwin was quite happy at "discovering" the principle, and boasted (as have his later adherents) that its beauty and power lay in its grand simplicity. What could be simpler? Why is a cheetah so fast? Because in every litter, there are faster cheetahs and slower cheetahs, and the faster ones will get more gazelle, and hence thrive and pass on their beneficial genes, while the slower ones will be left behind in the struggle for existence. This kind of explanation certainly seems plausible in many instances, but the question is, of course, is it really too simple. Many think so, precisely because it can effortlessly explain anything simply by asserting that it exists because it must have been beneficial for survival or for reproduction. Why, for example, does a particular Mozart piano concerto exist? The capacity to make pleasing noises proved beneficial for survival insofar as pleasing noises made by males were attractive to mates. But does that really explain the existence of the concerto?
IgnatiusInsight.com: Biologist Richard Dawkins, who is mentioned several times in your book, has gotten a lot of attention lately for his new book, The God Delusion. Have you read it? If not, is it because you are afraid you'll lose your faith? If so, did you lose your faith?
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