Book Review: A Meaningful World by Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt

In A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature, Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt argue that, contrary to the nihilism spawned by reductionist materialism, meaning virtually pervades the cosmos. They demonstrate how meaning is evident, not only in the biological realm, but also in chemistry, mathematics, and astrophysics. Wiker and Witt go beyond offering an argument for intelligent design; they set out to prove that the universe is a work of genius intelligence; it is “meaning-full” rather than meaningless. They postulate that, akin to the elaborate, multi-layered works of the literary mastermind William Shakespeare, the universe and the life it contains cannot simply be reduced to their smallest parts; they must be taken as ingeniously contrived, integrated wholes whose parts are often interdependent and viable only within their appropriate context. They liken reductionism to an acid that damages everything it touches, be it man’s brilliant creative expressions or the   scientific endeavor to discover the truth about the nature of life and the universe.

 

The Authors

Benjamin Wiker earned his Ph.D. in Theological Ethics from Vanderbilt University and taught at the university level before becoming a freelance writer. He has contributed to various journals such as Catholic World Report and New Oxford Review. A Senior Fellow at the Center for Science and Culture (Discovery Institute), Wiker has an interest in challenging the current scientific paradigm and has authored and co-authored books discussing atheism, Darwinism, literature, and their social ramifications. He is also a regular contributor for the National Catholic Register.[1]

Jonathan Witt is a research fellow and writer in residence at the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids where he researches and writes about the intersection of theology, culture, and economics. He received his M.A. in English Creative Writing from Texas A&M University and his Ph.D. in English and Literary Theory from the University of Kansas, both with highest honors. He has written on the subject of aesthetics for journals such as The Princeton Theological Review and Literature and Theology. Witt is a senior fellow at the Center for Science and Culture, and has a particular interest in critiquing the faulty aesthetic presuppositions employed by Darwinists when arguing against a creator. In addition to co-authoring Traipsing into Evolution, he has written essays on Darwinism and intelligent design that have appeared in publications such as The Seattle Times, The Kansas City Star, and Philosophia Christi. He co-wrote the screenplay for the intelligent design documentary, The Privileged Planet, which discusses some of the same scientific material as A Meaningful World.[2]

Based on their scholarly credentials and the inclusion of their writing on similar subjects in reputable publications, Wiker and Witt are qualified to author this type of text. While they do not have degrees in the sciences, they have previously demonstrated their ability to accurately communicate the concepts involved with their thesis in A Meaningful World.

 

Scope and Sequence

Wiker and Witt build their case for the genius of nature over the course of ten chapters. After an introductory chapter that presents their thesis, a discussion of Shakespeare ensues. The authors endeavor to show, by literary analogy, that human genius cannot be reduced to mere chemistry or biology. Works such as Hamlet and The Tempest are used to illustrate the elements of genius, specified as depth, clarity, harmony, and elegance. The plays are also used as literary examples of the irreducibility and complexity of whole entities. These points are contrary to materialist reductionism’s view of the natural world.

Following the literary analysis is a discussion of geometry that demonstrates how the human capacity for this spatial-mathematical discipline defies the Darwinian idea that only characteristics beneficial to survival and reproduction endure. The Pythagorean theorem from Euclid’s Elements is set forth as an example of the mathematical meaning and order inherent to the universe even before human minds were around to decipher it. The authors also discuss the implications of the fact that man seeks comprehension of such abstractions. According to Wiker and Witt, “There clearly exists intrinsic elegance that cannot be reduced to natural and sexual selection…What right have we to expect that our human capacity for mathematical abstraction and our human appreciation of elegance would yield any knowledge of nature?”[3]

Next is a recounting of the history of the discovery of the earth’s elements and their ordering as depicted by the periodic table. “The chemistry of life,” according to the authors, “is like an unknown alphabet and language rapidly spoken to us.”[4] The reasons for the birth and development of chemistry are explored, going back to the quasi-science of alchemy through the critical work of Lavoisier, Newland, and Mendeleev. Even beyond showing the meaning and order in the earth’s elements, the history of chemistry shows another startling fact: that nature actually guides mankind’s discovery in a step-by-step fashion, from simple principles to the complexity of the big picture, as if it were all designed with intelligent observers in mind.

The text then turns to a discussion of the fine-tuning of the universe and the rare characteristics of the earth and its elements that make intelligent life possible. This fine-tuning goes all the way back to the initial conditions of the big bang event and include parameters such as the density of matter and the narrow margins of magnitude the initial explosion had to be within. It also includes particulars such as the location of the earth and its orbital eccentricity. Descriptions of the unique properties of water and the life-sustaining elements that are accessible to living organisms thanks to other characteristics of the planet are offered as further support for the anthropic principle.

In the final chapters of the book, the authors’ argument culminates in an examination of the living cell and organisms as whole entities. Problems facing the reductionist approach to an explanation of life and its most basic living unit are discussed, along with the necessity of intelligence and the marks of genius in biological design. The authors explain the virtual impossibility of life coming from non-living matter through any kind of cumulative process.

 

Evaluation

The fluid, engaging prose of A Meaningful World make it as pleasurable as it is informative and thought-provoking. The thesis of the book is explained clearly, and from the opening chapter the reader has an understanding of the issues and their importance. As a whole, the text possesses a depth and breadth that more than adequately support the thesis. The material presented demonstrates the utter failure of materialist reductionism by showing how order pervades the cosmos; how depth, clarity, harmony, and elegance (the hallmarks of genius) are present in the works of human masters such as Shakespeare. This works as a beautiful, effective analogy for explaining the presence of those same qualities in cosmology, chemistry, and biology.

Another significant strength of the book is the originality of the argument. Although some of the better-known evidence for fine-tuning and biological design is discussed, it is used in a different manner than in other texts that argue for intelligent design. This makes for an especially interesting and satisfying reading experience for seasoned design advocates; the book offers a unique, perhaps more philosophical perspective on the argument. One comes away with the fresh realization that science is not simply incomplete when it fails to consider design and meaning in the natural world; it is egregiously handicapped and truly dysfunctional as a discipline of discovery.

It is truly difficult to find fault with A Meaningful World. Perhaps the only reasonable critique would be that some sections, such as those on the history of chemistry and Shakespeare literature, are a bit longer and more detailed than necessary for support of the thesis. These are areas of particular interest to the authors, as Witt’s education is in English literature, and Wiker has previously authored an entire book on the history of the periodic table.[5] These sections are fascinating, but could have been shortened without sacrificing their effectiveness.

 

Recommendation

Although the authors discuss highly technical disciplines that would normally be beyond the educational scope of many within a general audience, the material is handled with accessible language and by explaining concepts in an easy-to-grasp manner. This is not to say that A Meaningful World is not somewhat challenging at times; those without college-level science and literature classes under their belt might become mired down in some portions. The optimal audience would be those with an understanding of basic philosophy of science concepts and some general knowledge of the scientific fields discussed. A Meaningful World is an especially valuable library addition for Intelligent Design advocates and students of Christian theology and philosophy.


[1] Author information for Benjamin Wiker found at http://www.ameaningfulworld.com/authors/index.php and http://www.discovery.org/p/40

[2] Author information for Jonathan Witt supplied by Jonathan Witt via email communication, http://www.discovery.org/p/97, and http://www.ameaningfulworld.com/authors/index.php

[3] Wiker and Witt, 99.

[4] Wiker and Witt, 113.

[5] This was noted upon an Amazon.com author search. The book is entitled, The Mystery of the Periodic Table (Bethlehem Books, 2003).

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