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"A Meaningful World" Seen from Castel Gandolfo

Jonathan Witt understates the significance of his new book, "A Meaningful World," for the meeting Pope Benedict XVI is holding this weekend at Castel Gandolfo outside Rome. Like George Gilder's fine treatment of intelligent design in relation to information theory and technology, the new book by Witt and Benjamin Wiker, a Catholic philosopher and science writer, expands the scope of ID and effectively opens it to an examination of genius as evidenced in nature and art, in addition to science. This approach doesn't negate or replace the scientific claims of ID, obviously, but enlarges the lens for looking at them, so to speak. This makes the topic especially inviting for Thomists and other natural philosophers in the Catholic Church and various other Christian traditions, as well as theists generally

Tom Gilson reviews the book here . He begins:

"The subtitle to this marvelous book by Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt recalls that of Richard Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. Dawkins's book was a highly influential polemic (though deeply flawed, as we'll see--once again--in a moment) against design in the cosmos. Wiker and Witt's book deserves equal or greater attention, as a thoughtful and most original argument in favor of design.

"Wiker and Witt play a number of variations on the contrasting themes of meaninglessness and meaningfull-ness, introduced in the first chapter with a quote from physicist Steven Weinberg. The key phrases of the quote are taken from the last two paragraphs of Weinberg's book, The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe:

"'The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless . . . . The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that gives human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.'

"The authors quite sensibly ask how a pointless universe could also be comprehensible and attain a measure of grace. But the tenor of our age is so uniformly bent toward missing the contradiction there, so as they play their variations, Wiker and Witt show what they mean by the question and why it is such a telling one.

"Their first variation comes from an unusual source for this topic: human genius as embodied by William Shakespeare. Richard Dawkins, in The Blind Watchmaker, had claimed to show that a computer program analogous to evolution could, after a few generations of trial and error, produce a line from Shakespeare's Hamlet: "Methinks it is like a weasel." Wiker and Witt pause briefly to point out how far that program really is from the reality of what evolution is supposed to be; it is for one thing intelligently guided, and for another thing, very dependent on a host of pre-built structures in which it is processed. But for them that is low-hanging fruit, easy to point out and then move on.

"They focus instead on what "Methinks it is like a weasel" really means. In isolation, in fact, it means almost nothing. Who said it? Why? What does the "it" refer to? What does it reveal about the characters? How does it advance the plot? In the context of the entire play, and of Elizabethan culture, this brief line takes on significance of surprising depth. The whole is required to give meaning to the part.

"Freud, Marx, and hundreds of literary theorists looking for something original to say about Shakespeare have taken the meaning of his plays apart, down to the nuts and screws, reducing them to nothing. Freud pronounced Hamlet to be nothing but Oedipal and death-wish drives in disguise. Wiker and Witt return repeatedly to this matter of reductionism, which C. S. Lewis called "nothing-buttery:" Hamlet is nothing but . . . (fill in the blank)."

Read the full review here.