FOREWORD TO BEN WIKER'S BOOK
By William A. Dembski
According to John Maynard Keynes, great intellectual and cultural movements frequently trace back to thinkers who worked in obscurity and are now long forgotten. Of course, the converse also holds. Great intellectual and cultural movements are often also associated with thinkers who worked in the public eye and remain wildly popular. Some thinkers are both famous and influential. Others are only influential.
This book focuses on two such thinkers, one largely forgotten, the other a household name. The largely forgotten thinker is the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. The household name is Charles Darwin. The two are related: Epicurus set in motion an intellectual movement that Charles Darwin brought to completion.
Understanding this movement is absolutely key to understanding the current culture war. Believers in God often scratch their heads about western culture's continual moral decline. What was unacceptable just a few years ago is today's alternative lifestyle and tomorrow's preferred lifestyle. Abortion, euthanasia, divorce, sexual preference, and drug abuse are just a few of the moral issues that have undergone massive changes in public perception.
Too often believers in God take a reactive approach to the culture war and throw their energies into combatting what they perceive as the most compelling evil of the moment. In the back to their minds, however, is an awareness that something deeper and more fundamental is amiss, and that the evils they are combatting are but symptoms of a more underlying and pervasive evil.
Several authors have attempted to get at the roots of the current culture war. James Davison Hunter has traced its sociological roots. Robert Bork has traced its political roots. Phillip Johnson has traced its Darwinian roots. But none of them has traced the historical roots of the culture war back to its metaphysical foundation. Ben Wiker does that brilliantly in the present book.
Insofar as traditional theists sense an underlying cause for the moral decline of western culture, all roads lead to Epicurus and the train of thought he set in motion. Though hardly a household name, Epicurus is best remembered for making pleasure humanity's chief good. What is largely neglected these days is how he conceived of pleasure and why he gave pleasure such a high status.
For Epicurus, pleasure consisted in freedom from disturbance. Two forms of disturbance stood out for Epicurus: the disturbance of God intervening in nature and the disturbance of an afterlife. For Epicurus, to allow that God might intervene in the natural world and to take seriously the possibility of an afterlife (with the moral accountability and judgment it implies) were incompatible with the good life.
Although religious believers tend to think of belief in God and the promise of an afterlife as a comfort, Epicurus and his disciples (ancient and contemporary) held precisely the opposite. A God who intervenes in the natural world and thus in human affairs is a God who can derail our plans and mess up our day. Moreover, an afterlife in which accounts from the present life get settled places undue restrictions on how we live this present life. Thus, for Epicurus, belief in a God who is actively involved in the affairs of this world and who judges us in the next is a surefire way to destroy one's personal peace and happiness.
To shortcircuit belief in such a God, Epicurus proposed a mechanistic understanding of the nature. Accordingly, Epicurus conceived of nature as an aggregate of material entities operating by blind, unbroken natural laws. God or the gods might exist, but they took no interest in the world, played no role in human affairs, and indeed could play no role in human affairs since a material world operating according to mechanistic principles leaves no place for meaningful divine interaction. Moreover, since humans belonged to nature and consisted entirely of material entities, death amounted to a dissolution of a material state and thus precluded any sort of ongoing conscious existence.
All of this has, of course, a very modern ring to it. Typically we identify it with the "modern scientific world view." What Ben Wiker is at pains to help us realize, however, is that the materialism or naturalism of Epicurus is nothing other than an ideologically driven metaphysics that masquerades as science but in fact serves as a stick with which to beat religious believers and disenfranchise them in the square of public discourse. Phillip Johnson (see his Wedge of Truth) has argued this point in the context of Darwinism. Wiker traces it to its fountainhead and then draws out its moral implications to the present.
Epicurus's most prominent disciple is without question Charles Darwin. Darwinism is not only the most recent incarnation of Epicurean philosophy but also the most potent formulation of that philosophy to date. Darwinism's significance consists in the purported scientific justification it brings to the Epicurean philosophy. But the science itself is weak and ad hoc. As Wiker shows, Darwinism is essentially a moral and metaphysical crusade that fuels our contemporary moral debates. Furthermore, Wiker argues that the motivation behind Darwinism today is its alternative moral and metaphysical vision rather than the promotion of science.
Wiker's project has nothing to do with scapegoating Epicurus, Darwin, or anyone else for that matter. To be sure, it is a temptation to find a target and blame all evils on it. There's even an old joke about Satan standing outside a congregation Sunday morning weeping. Asked why he is weeping, Satan responds, "They blame me for everything." Ultimately the problem is not Epicurus, Darwin, or their contemporary disciples. Ultimately the problem is whether reality at its base is purposive and intelligent or mindless and material.
This is the great divide. All the ancient creation stories come down on one or the other side of this question, making either blind natural forces or a transcendent purposive intelligence the fundamental reality. Wiker brilliantly traces this divide to its metaphysical foundations. In so doing, he shows how the challenge of Intelligent Design to the evolutionary naturalism of Darwin is not the latest flash in the pan of the culture war but in fact constitutes ground zero of the culture war.
Intelligent Design is a moral and metaphysical threat to Darwinism. That is why Darwinian critics of Intelligent Design are so quick to conflate it with theology. But Intelligent Design is a legitimate form of scientific inquiry that already subsumes many special sciences (like archeology, forensic science, cryptography, and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). Still, Darwinists like Kenneth Miller and Robert Pennock, who write full-length books against Intelligent Design, lament that it is theology masquerading science. To this theologians like John Haught and Ian Barbour add that Intelligent Design doesn't even succeed as theology.
Why is that? The problem isn't that Intelligent Design doesn't raise legitimate topics for scientific research. The key question that Intelligent Design raises for science is this: Are there natural systems that are inherently incapable of being explained in terms of blind natural causes and do such systems exhibit features that in any other circumstance we would attribute to intelligence? This is a legitimate scientific question. Moreover, its answer cannot be decided on philosophical or ideological grounds, but must be decided through careful scientific investigation. Nonetheless, Darwinian critics of Intelligent Design remain adamant that Intelligent Design is a misbegotten form of theology.
A little reflection shows why Darwinists take this stance. Indeed, why does Kenneth Miller write a book titled Finding Darwin's God and why does John Haught write a book titled God after Darwin? The juxtaposition of God and Darwin here is not coincidental. As Wiker shows, this preoccupation with theology results from critics of Intelligent Design having built their own theology (or anti-theology as the case may be) on a foundation of Darwinism. Moreover, because Intelligent Design challenges that foundation, critics reflexively assume that Intelligent Design must be inherently theological and have a theological agenda.
Freud, if it were not for his own virulent Darwinism, would have instantly seen this move by critics as a projection. Critics of Intelligent Design resort to a classic defense mechanism in which they project onto Intelligent Design the very thing that Intelligent Design is unmasking in their own views, namely, the extent to which Darwinism, especially as it has been taken up by today's intellectual elite, has itself become a project in theology, metaphysics, and moral philosophy.
Consequently, the fundamental divide between Intelligent Design and Darwinism is this: Is reality fundamentally mindful and purposive or mindless and material? Wiker shows that how we answer this question undergirds all our moral decisions. Moreover, insofar as the moral decline around us is systemic, it is because we have answered this question incorrectly. Thou shalt have no other gods before me reads the First Commandment. Naturalism substitutes Nature (writ large) for the true God and in so doing distorts all our moral judgments.
This book is above all a call to clarity, clarifying the moral structure that God has placed in the world as well as the distorting power of naturalism to undermine that moral structure. If you really want to understand why our culture is in its current state, you must read this book.