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The Universe is Meaning-full : An interview with Dr. Benjamin Wiker, co-author of A Meaningful World | Carl E. Olson | December 5, 2006

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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?

Dr. Wiker: I have read Dawkins' God Delusion. I always find that reading Dawkins actually strengthens my faith. He's a very good writer, and picking through and finding the fallacies in his arguments is good intellectual exercise. But that having been said, I found his arguments against the existence of God to be howlingly weak.

IgnatiusInsight.com: You are a senior fellow of Discovery Institute, which is known for arguing for "intelligent design" (ID). What is the most misunderstood aspect of the ID movement? What is its biggest challenge or weakness?

Dr. Wiker: The problem with ID movement has from the outside, is that there really is a conspiracy to paint them as fundamentalists with Ph.D.'s. Secular intellectuals can deal with challenges to Darwinism when they come from fundamentalism. But ID folk have Ph.D.'s in every intellectual area, from biology, physics, and chemistry, to literature, philosophy, and theology. But to make their case, secular intellectuals (and hence the media) continue to tar ID with the fundamentalist brush.

I think the biggest weakness--which we address in our book--is that the ID movement has tended to grant too much to Darwinists. To be exact, they tend to assume the same mechanistic account of nature as the proper battle ground. So, we think the biggest challenge is for the ID movement to go beyond mechanism to a more sophisticated natural philosophy.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Why does my copy of A Meaningful World have a periodic table in it? Don't you know how much I dislike chemistry? Is that some sort of marketing ploy?

Dr. Wiker: We flatter ourselves to think that we just might make people who had a bad experience in chemistry class as high school sophomores, fall in love with chemistry as adults!

As you've seen, we approach arguments for the existence of a Creator Genius of nature from a number of angles: literature, philosophy, mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology, and the history of science. We believe this makes the argument for the existence of God much stronger.

In regard to chemistry, we have presented what might be called the "romance of chemistry," the story of the slow but fascinating discovery of the chemical elements, and in particular, of their place on the Periodic Table of Elements. Our larger point, which we make through this historical treatment of scientific discovery, is that the genius of the many scientists who contributed to the discovery of this masterpiece--the Periodic Table--is only possible because nature itself seems to be quite ingeniously ordered, not just in itself, but ingeniously ordered for our discovery.

We are making much the same that Pope Benedict XVI recently did about the Logos of the Creator being manifest in creation, and in fact, being that which makes scientific discovery possible. So, as a good Catholic, you are therefore obliged not only to like chemistry, but to be absolutely romantic about it!

IgnatiusInsight.com: Speaking of Pope Benedict, he recently received much attention for his (quite short) remarks at Regensburg about Islam. But he also gave a homily there--to which I think you are referring--that focused on reason, meaning, and creation, and does sound, in many ways, just like your book. In it, he stated: "When God is subtracted, something doesn't add up for man, the world, the whole vast universe. So we end up with two alternatives. What came first? Creative Reason, the Spirit who makes all things and gives them growth, or Unreason, which, lacking any meaning, yet somehow brings forth a mathematically ordered cosmos, as well as man and his reason. The latter, however, would then be nothing more than a chance result of evolution and thus, in the end, equally meaningless." What do you make of that?

Dr. Wiker: Well, first, Jonathan and I were quite surprised and pleased. Bruce Chapman, president of Discovery Institute (and a fairly recent Catholic convert, by the way) contacted us as soon as he read the homily online. He was quite excited about the Pope's remarks because of the great degree of overlap with the arguments of Meaningful World.

Obviously, from the last sentence, he clearly recognizes that the reductive account of science generally accepted in the west yields a stunted view of the universe, in fact, one that (as we mentioned above) supports nihilism. He adds to this, a point that we cover in our chapter on mathematics. Mathematics has proven to be a surprisingly powerful too in unlocking some of the aspects of nature. That in itself should be enough to convince us that a Designing Genius contrived nature to be amenable to mathematical analysis.

But the problem is that the very success of applying mathematics to nature has tended to constrict our idea both of nature and of human reason. We have come to believe, over the last two or three centuries, that both reason and nature are essentially mathematical. It's one thing to say that mathematics is a surprisingly effective tool used by human reason to decipher the order of nature, and quite another to declare that reason is limited to mathematical analysis and nature itself is mathematical. When we simply identify mathematics, reason, and reality, we obviously have to cut out a lot of things that can't be described, even accidentally, in mathematical terms.

As the Pope states in his Regensburg lecture, this identity of mathematics, reason, and reality yields a false view of reality and a very constricted view of reason. This constricted view of reason and reality leads to nihilism for two reasons. First, as beautiful as mathematics is, there is no inner purpose to it. Equations are like machines: they churn through numbers; they don't have any inner teleology or goal. Second, if reality is mathematical, then everything we do is as determined as a mathematical formula or figure. There is no freedom, and hence our belief that we are freely acting is meaningless. We are merely law-governed creatures determined by impersonal mathematical relationships.

Against this reduction or constriction of reason and reality, the Pope offers a critique of this "modern self-limitation of reason." He argues for a "broadening [of] our concept of reason" to "disclose its vast horizons." The same is true, we argue, for our understanding of nature: it needs to be broadened to disclose its vast horizons too. When we broaden both, we find that the world is indeed meaning-full.

IgnatiusInsight.com: The blurbs for the book use adjectives such as "witty," "wise", and "charming." Are those reasonable descriptions, or merely random, blind comments?

Dr. Wiker: We'll let the readers judge how accurate the praises of the reviewers are! But I will say that Jonathan and I worked very hard to make the book not only very clear and convincing, but a joy to read. We wanted it to be a good argument and good literature.

IgnatiusInsight.com: You are having a conversation with someone and they say: "I'm a nihilist. Life is meaningless. There is no reason to live." How do you respond?

Dr. Wiker: That's a difficult question. There are people who are genuinely depressed, who've had a rough time, and life seems to have no meaning for them. They are "nihilists," not out of some kind of philosophical conviction, but as a reaction to their circumstances. Of course, they are to be treated with all due charity.

But there are the glib nihilists--philosophy professors, literature professors, pop intellectuals--who preach nihilism either out of genuine intellectual conviction, or more likely out of a desire to appear intellectually fashionable. To them we say, "The latest science doesn't support nihilism. You are decidedly behind the times. Here, read a copy of Meaningful Universe."

Do you have comments or questions about this article? Share them on the Insight Scoop blog.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:

The Mythological Conflict Between Christianity and Science | An interview with physicist Dr. Stephen Barr | Mark Brumley
Deadly Architects | An Interview with Donald De Marco & Benjamin Wiker | Carl E. Olson
Kinsey: Dedicated Scientist or Sexual Deviant? | Benjamin Wiker
The Mystery of Human Origins | Mark Brumley
Designed Beauty and Evolutionary Theory | Thomas Dubay, S.M.
Deadly Architects | An Interview with Donald De Marco and Benjamin Wiker

Related Ignatius Press Resources:

The Architects of Death | Donald De Marco and Benjamin Wiker
Science and Belief in a Nuclear Age | Peter Hodgson
Science and Evidence For Design in the Universe | Michael Behe, William Dembski, Stephen Meyer
The Evidential Power of Beauty | Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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