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Books: The poetry of science

Books | Recovering the beauty of objective truth

Issue: "Clinton's great escape," Feb. 6, 1999

An Irish politician once said of socialism, "I agree with everything about it except its first principles." And that's exactly what can be said of Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder by arch-evolutionist Richard Dawkins. It's a fine book, though fatally flawed. There is much in it we can agree with and even applaud-except its foundational premise, materialism (the belief that nothing exists outside the material world-no supernatural, no heaven, and no God). The title comes from the charge made against Isaac Newton by various Romantic poets (Keats among them) that by "unweaving the rainbow" (refracting light to prismatic colors), science had taken the wonder and poetry out of the world. Mr. Dawkins (author of The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker) ably defends our man Newton (and he is our man, a reverent Christian) and the pursuit of scientific knowledge. "Science is, or ought to be, the inspiration for great poetry, but I do not have the talent to clinch the argument by demonstration and must depend, instead, on more prosaic persuasion," he writes. "Newton's unweaving of the rainbow led on to spectroscopy, which has proved the key to much of what we know today about the cosmos. And the heart of any poet worthy of the title Romantic could not fail to leap up if he beheld the universe of Einstein, Hubble, and Hawking." Amen! And the more we know about those heavens, the more they declare the glory of God. But here, inevitably, is where Mr. Dawkins is blinded by pseudo-science. "The great eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume seems to me ... unassailable: no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish." And Mr. Dawkins has decided for himself that no such testimony could exist. He is wrong, of course; his notion of order spontaneously arising from chaos is far more miraculous than the idea of a creative God. Nevertheless, he makes the very valid point that there is wonder in science-and that's something some Christians seem to have forgotten. Mr. Dawkins takes a cheap shot at the "know-nothing fundamentalist religious right," but believers clearly should be more active and more vocal in the scientific fields: Is this universe not our God's handiwork? We should stand with Mr. Dawkins, "in favor of good poetic science ... science inspired by a sense of wonder." Much of Unweaving the Rainbow is a treatise against postmoderns in academia who distrust science; again, this is a battle we should be waging alongside him. And, in what must have been a difficult passage for him to write, Mr. Dawkins admits that his "favorite of all poets is that confused Irish mystic, William Butler Yeats." There is hope for Mr. Dawkins yet.

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