Carl Olson recommends A Meaningful World by Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt.
How the Arts and Sciences
Reveal the Genius of Nature
by Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt
InterVarsity Press, 2006
257 pages, $18
To order: ivpress.com
What do William Shakespeare, geometry, the periodic table and microbiology have in common? Well, they might be subjects that caused a few headaches in high school or college.
But, as Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt demonstrate with good-humored verve and rigorous logic, they are also shining examples of genius, design and meaning.
“This book’s central claim is simply stated,” say Wiker and Witt in the opening chapter, “the universe is meaning-full.” We live in an age when the meaninglessness of the universe has been accepted so readily that many people now take it for granted. The authors set out to show that “the assumption of meaninglessness is only an assumption, a dogma that keeps many from seeing what should be obvious: The universe, rather than being devoid of meaning, is, like a great work of art, full to overflowing with meaning: complex, integrated and intelligible order, rather than senseless piles of gibberish.”
To accomplish the daunting task of dismantling “the dogma of reductionist materialism,” they start not with nature or science, but with human genius, specifically the literary genius of Shakespeare. Why? In part to show that a great play such as Hamlet does not come into being in a random sequential manner, but that every sentence, scene and act of that play has a complex and “goal-related relationship” with the other sentences, scenes and acts.
In the end, this means that not only could monkeys randomly pounding typewriters never create a single sentence of Shakespeare, very few other humans could come close to replicating his genius. It is a genius that demonstrates depth, clarity, communication and elegance.
Those same traits are found in abundance in nature. Wiker and Witt examine the orderly world of mathematics, showing how the “highly abstract, formal relationships of numbers and figures” help humans make sense of both the vastness of the universe and the invisible bonds within atoms.
If there is no meaning to anything, why does geometry, which the authors consider in a chapter titled, “The Geometry of Genius,” make so much sense and display such an amazing inner harmony?
Likewise, the discipline of chemistry is filled with order and precision, pointing toward life — and a purposeful life at that. And biology, a field many materialists claim is their turf, contains endless layers of complexity, beauty and design, all integrated for the purpose of producing and sustaining life. Echoing comments made by such great scientists as Einstein, Wiker and Witt write: “Science is a meaningful activity precisely because the universe itself is meaningful and human beings have a strange capacity to understand it.”
Because both authors are senior fellows of Discovery Institute, which is known for advocating and defending intelligent design, the absence of any discussion of intelligent design and the controversies surrounding it is surprising.
A Meaningful World may have benefited from a chapter about intelligent design, especially how the arguments expressed so well throughout the book fit into the scholarly and popular debates over intelligent design, evolution, faith and reason.
A Meaningful World is an intelligent, even ingenious, defense of what it means to be human. Humanity is certainly capable of great acts of literary and scientific genius. But our abilities and knowledge must also be kept in a proper perspective.
Carl Olson is the editor of the online magazine Ignatius Insight.
- December 2-8, 2007