Thursday, October 26, 2006

Review: A Meaningful World

A Meaningful World by Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt (IVP Academic, 2006) is the best ID book I have read. It deserves a special place in this overcrowded genre, in part because it takes the preferred approach. Recent books have championed ID with a kind of ice-cold sterility, presumably to support the proposition that ID is a bona fide science. Often the result is a sleep-inducing rehash of familiar arguments written in impenetrable, impersonal, and unnecessary technical language.

Wiker and Witt do not focus on ID as primarily a counter to evolution, but as a response to the nihilism that permeates both our culture and our schools. Instead of the standard ID methodology of challenging pure naturalism where it enjoys a home-field advantage, an ill advised tête-à-tête within the domain of philosophic materialism, A Meaningful World couches the dispute not as one "science" against another, but as meaningfulness and beauty versus meaninglessness and inelegance. Oh, the usual cast of factoids are present—biological complexity and cosmological fine-tuning, but here they are but refreshingly deemphasized supporting characters in an adventure that transcends the purely scientific.

The only other ID book that is in this class is The Privileged Planet. But even here we see a difference in approach. While Gonzalez and Richards argue that the purely naturalistic explanation of a life sustaining universe is so implausible as to be ugly, Wiker and Witt turn it around: science's answer is so ugly as to be implausible. Both approaches are reasonable. The former renders The Privileged Planet more of a science book, while the latter gives A Meaningful World a philosophical and even theological flavor.

Although the data point to a designer, Wiker and Witt realize that a sighted watchmaker doesn't necessarily provide any more purpose or hope than a blind one. Indeed, for believers the notion that an alien might have designed terrestrial life is more repulsive than theistic evolution. At least theistic evolution preserves a God in control. An alien designer admits the possibility that we are the science project of a pimply faced, diamond eyed, teenage D-student flunky. An ID that proudly claims the designer need not be God is both bad science and heretical theology. It's a view wherein a secondary cause can ascend to a position of primacy, a view which is guilty of the same degradation it purports to challenge. No consolation that our designer may have been created by God, for that just leaves us, as creations of the creatures, with no special place in God's mind.

A Meaningful World does not evoke the ennui of traditional ID. Here we see the connections are much richer. Not merely data leading us to design, but data, beauty and even human genius leading us to acknowledge both design and meaningfulness. So-called design flaws are not excused as optimization compromises, but are likened to the alleged imperfections in Shakespeare's iambic pentameter which, when viewed through a non-reductionist lens, are seen for what they are: the enhancements of a genius, not the ineptitude of a barely competent and ultimately uninspiring poet.

Wiker and Witt also address the impossibility of meaningfulness or beauty in a world explicable solely on the basis of philosophical materialism. While plausibility arguments for the evolution of morality and altruism may satisfy some, even if they are accepted they would only explain a façade. An evolved morality is a meaningless illusion; it is simply a survival mechanism. It's prettier, perhaps, than bigger teeth or more a deadly venom, but ultimately it's just a variant on the same theme, a theme that offers no purpose beyond procreation.

In A Meaningful World we read that the compulsion for survival is often a poor explanation for human endeavors. Metallurgy first developed not so that we could create harder weapons with which to kill our enemies and ensure the continuation of our genes, but as a means to create more beautiful works of art. In fact, the beauty of gold defies explanation—it has no application in weaponry, it simply appeals to something good within, something innate in our species, something meaningful.

The absurdity of some of the most brilliant atheists is pointed out in A Meaningful World through the example of the renowned physicist Stephen Weinberg. In the penultimate paragraph of his book The First Three Minutes, Weinberg describes human life as farcical, and that scientific advancement only enhances his sense of pointlessness. Yet in the final paragraph Weinberg reverses himself and claims there is something special about the human species: our ability to study the data that, in Weinberg's perspective, prove that it's all about nothing. This is what A Meaningful World challenges, this nihilism writ large, a cosmos whose only meaning is to reveal the absence thereof.

In stark terms, then, Wiker and Witt point out the hideousness of a world without God as its designer. The only meaning it can offer, as Weinberg candidly admits, and as you can find in arguments of Dawkins and his followers, is the pursuit of science that reinforces our meaninglessness. The only sacrament in the church of naturalism is the celebration of the accident of our existence and the worthlessness of our lives, and the only creed is the claim of an ironic noble cause found in the scientific revelation of universal ignobility.

A Meaningful World is a partial antidote to this disease. There is beauty and purpose in this world, some of it even man made. Taken as a whole, along with but not subordinate to the familiar scientific ID data, we see God. It's probably true that only those who have already found God will see Him afresh after reading A Meaningful World, but that's a wonderful and meaningful accomplishment.

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