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