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Deciphering Fact from Fiction

In which we avoid obvious jokes regarding intelligent design thinkers

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The metaphysical mythology of intelligent design can make for some genuinely lovely poetic language regarding the beauty of butterfly wings, the complexity of the eye that lets us appreciate butterfly wings and the subtleties of consciousness that compel us to strap super-sized butterfly wings to the backs of grade-school thespians.

But to rely on that admirable, aesthetic sense of wonder to topple well-established scientific theory is to make "the argument from personal incredulity." So writes evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, one of 16 renowned scientists and philosophers who contributed essays to Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement, edited by John Brockman.

Though biology and, more specifically, evolution grab the most attention in the intelligent design debate, the scope of the anti-materialist, stealthily pro-theistic intelligent design claim is much broader. Physicists discover that the universe is remarkably well-tuned to the emergence of intelligent life? Neurologists can't seem to point to the seat of consciousness in our brain? Angelina Jolie is just too perfect for it to be an accident? The ID movement -- which pretends not to be the resurrection of the creationists -- finds in all of this evidence of an omnipotent Artist who, without a dime from the NEA, drew up at least the sketches for all life, the universe and everything.

But if there is a designer, it's "a bungling consistent evolver (BCE). Or maybe an adaptive changer (AC)," according to physicist Lisa Randall, a designer who works through all the messy mechanisms explicated by evolution. There are too many examples in nature of demonstrably bad design, and far too many examples of failed (i.e. extinct) designs. So if there is a designer, it's one who makes a lot of mistakes. Call these just the unknowable purposes of divinity, if you like, but then get back to me on how that's any kind of science.

This is not a book attempting to "teach the debate." There is no debate, several of the authors say, because the ID crowd is not, despite all the PR to the contrary, arguing within the framework of science. Several acknowledge the limits of science, the questions science can never answer. ("Why is there something and not nothing?" physicist Leonard Susskind once asked me during an interview.) They only ask that religion show science the same restraint.

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