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An Acceptable "Intelligent Design"

mjs_foix.jpgUniversity of Washington physicists have set out a path to scientifically testing whether the universe is intelligently designed. They're getting lots of interested, sympathetic attention, in the media and academia, for the plan. They say if the test were to come up positive, it might explain a lot that otherwise, in a more conventional naturalistic framework, seems inexplicable about reality.

Scientists can say all these things and get away with it -- so long as their own notion of ID holds out the possibility that the world around us is nothing more than an elaborate computer simulation. Sounds like the premise of a creepy science-fiction movie. The designers, in this scheme, would be our distant descendants living in a society far more advanced in its technology than our own.

UW physicist Martin Savage (pictured) and his colleagues wrote a paper theorizing on how the computer-simulation idea could be tested by looking for peculiarities in the behavior of cosmic rays.

The Seattle Times explains:

You, me, this newspaper, the room you're sitting in -- everything we think of as reality is actually being generated by vast, powerful supercomputers of the future.

If that sounds mind-blowing, Savage and his colleagues think they've come up with a way to test whether it's true.

Their paper, "Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation," has kindled a lively international discussion about the simulation argument, which was first put forth in 2003 by University of Oxford philosophy professor Nick Bostrom.


[I]t was a worthy question because "there are lots of things about our universe we don't fully understand," Savage said. "This is certainly a different scenario for how our universe works -- but nonetheless, it's quite plausible."

In the paper, the physicists propose looking for a "signature," or pattern, in our universe that also occurs in current small-scale computer simulations. One such pattern might be a limitation in the energy of cosmic rays.

"Quite plausible," huh? An intelligently designed universe -- what else would you call a computer simulation -- is scientifically testable, you say? We'll keep that in mind.

But wait, you have to understand that ID is plausible and testable only where it excludes a designer that overlaps with any theistic conception. The simulators are just humans, albeit possessing a level of technical sophistication greatly exceeding ours.

For a sense of the pedigree of this idea, the view of the world that it springs from, meet the guy who came up with it to begin with: Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, a leading figure in the spooky Transhumanist movement. See Chapter 10 in John West's book The Magician's Twin, "C. S. Lewis and the Advent of the Posthuman."

The thesis of Transhumanism holds that it's possible and desirable to speed up and direct human evolution to advance the finest in life. And never mind the cringing protests that are sure to greet such an attempt:

"This vision, in broad strokes," affirms Oxford's Bostrom, "is to create the opportunity to live much longer and healthier lives, to enhance our memory and other intellectual faculties, to refine our emotional experiences and increase our subjective sense of well-being, and generally to achieve a greater degree of control over our own lives." According to Bostrom, the aggressive pursuit of biotechnology is a radical reaction against current convention, "an alternative to customary injunctions against playing God, messing with nature, tampering with our human essence, or displaying punishable hubris."
So here you get a general sense of the moral, intellectual and spiritual orientation of a version of "intelligent design" that could meet with contemporary academic acceptance.

It has to begin with premises that exclude theism. There would be no limits placed on the wildness of it speculations, even as theorists and the media assure us it is entirely "plausible." It would share affinities with a scary sci-fi version of eugenics that dispensed with traditional moral sensitivities.

In short, it would be a bit of a nightmare.