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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Who in This Bowling Alley Bowled the Sun? 

Call him a contrarian, but science-fiction writer Wil McCarthy happens to believe that the notion of Intelligent Design should be taken seriously -- mainly because it could prove a gold mine for him and other science-fiction writers. First, of course, I.D. advocates would have to settle on a coherent argument:
Now, properly speaking, Intelligent Design is a hypothesis rather than a theory, because a theory makes testable predictions about the world, which are then borne out by the evidence. A hypothesis tells us where to look, and a theory tells what we found when we did so, and what we think about it. Can Intelligent Design rise to this challenge? If so, we need to start asking hard questions, which (coincidentally enough) also make excellent fodder for science fiction. To wit:
1) Who are the intelligent designers?
2) How many are there?
3) Where are they?
4) What is the purpose of their tinkering and periodic re-speciation campaigns?
5) What are their design criteria, and why?
6) What physical mechanism permits them to introduce new living things onto the Earth and/or remove old ones?
7) Does this process leave any traces behind? If so, what form might they take?
8) When is the next model year for Earthly life, and what would we see if we could observe the rollout in progress?
9) Are the designers doing anything else to the Earth while they're at it?
If the only permissible answers are "God, one, Heaven, mysterious, mysterious, miracles, no, never, and answering prayers," then the hypothesis can never be examined critically, and can never become a real theory. If, on the other hand, we remain open to other possibilities, we might just find some surprising new evidence (or reinterpret some old evidence) that would rewrite the history of life on Earth in a truly amazing—and truly scientific—way.

What if life didn't originate here at all, but arrived on a comet or meteor? What if this happens more than once across the history of a habitable planet? What if the Earth really has been visited by ancient astronauts, who've engaged in terraforming or genetic engineering for some purpose of their own? Weirder still, what if the laws of quantum mechanics can be twisted to affect the course of events on a distant planet? What if this is happening all around us, all the time? How could we tell? Could we do anything about it if we wanted to?

Feel free to barrage me with angry e-mail; it wouldn't be the first time, and I'm sure it won't be the last. But first, please do think about these questions a bit. If Intelligent Design is legitimate science, it's also legitimate grounds for science-fictional speculation, and I'm guessing we can squeeze some brilliant, fascinating, thought-provoking stories out of it if we try. Who knows? We might even find God.

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