Friday, August 29, 2008

INTELLIGENT DESIGN IS TRUTH (in Science fiction anyway)...

A new crop of science fiction novels focus on what it would mean if Intelligent Design turned out to be the truth. Jay Lake's Escapement is a perfect example, as is Walter Jon Williams' Implied Spaces — both are novels about people in clockwork worlds designed by some kind of higher power associated with spiritual realms. Other recent tales, such as Charles Stross' Saturn's Children and Iain M. Banks' Matter, flirt with the idea of an Intelligent Designer by suggesting that under some circumstances it is the most logical explanation for reality: For instance, if you are a creature who lives in a synthetic world (or body) designed by sophisticated engineers, your existence has been literally created for you rather than randomly evolved. Are these scifi authors carving out a pro-science version of Intelligent Design theory?

In some ways, no. Consider Jay Lake's novels Mainspring and Escapement, which are about a kind of alternate Earth where it's obvious somebody (whom they call "God") has created their universe. After all, the sky is filled with gears and their world is run literally by a massive clockwork mechanism. When I talked to Lake about his novels recently, he said that they were explicitly a response to Intelligent Design. He thinks of them as a critique of the belief that our world was built rather than evolved. "By making ID into something that was clearly fiction, I wanted to show that the idea itself was fictional," Lake said.

When you try to create a world that is believably the product of ID, Lake seems to be saying, you get something that looks nothing like our Earth. That it's designed is completely obvious, and is not difficult to prove. So this is a thought experiment in ID that in some sense proves that our Earth was not created by a Designer.

Interestingly, however, Lake's critique of ID has not freaked out religious people nearly as much as Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. (Sure, it's true that more people have probably been exposed to Pullman's work, but let's assume that isn't the only reason why it's gotten more negative attention from religious groups.) In Pullman's universe, which is also a parallel Earth, there is a God and there are angels. But it turns out that God is just a senile old white dude, and his angels are fighting to seize his throne and control the Kingdom of Heaven.

Pullman's critique, like Lake's, works by saying, "OK let's assume that Christianity is real — what would that mean, logically?" For Pullman, that means God and His henchmen are a bunch of power-hungry politicians. And for Lake, that means that the universe is a giant clock. Both series, in a way, argue with Christianity on its own terms. They don't attempt to say, "Well hey, look at the world from the perspective of science — see how that's better?" Instead they say, "When you really think about what Christianity implies, this is what you get." And that's a powerful critique, though Pullman's is ultimately much darker. I believe Pullman has irked Christians for saying that their beliefs are in some ways downright evil, whereas Lake simply calls them the fantasy backdrops for rollicking adventure tales. This alone may account for the novels' different receptions among Christians.

As I said earlier, however, there is another way that this ID scenario is being tweaked by scifi authors. In Stross' Saturn's Children, there's a great subplot about robot religions. The robots, who have taken over our solar system after the extinction of humans, have to believe in a Designer — they were, after all, literally designed by humans. So a belief in ID, for robots, is the equivalent of believing in evolution for humans: It is the scientific truth. And yet there are certain religious zealots among the robots who insist on believing that they have evolved, and go through bizarre rhetorical gymnastics to prove it.

What Stross is saying is that as our planetary and bodily infrastructures become more synthetic, more "designed," we approach a state where ID begins to verge on scientific truth. This idea is echoed in novels like Iain M. Banks' Matter and Karl Schroeder's Pirate Sun, where our characters live inside massive synthetic worlds — a huge nested sphere in the former, and a giant blob of atmosphere floating in space in the latter.

What these authors are doing is even more tricky, if you look at their work as a sneaky critique of ID theory. Essentially they're saying, "Let's invent a universe where ID is truth. Oh, that would be the universe that science will build for us." And ultimately, in these novels, the Designer is not a God or even gods, but instead a whole bunch of sentient creatures harnessing the power of science and technology to design worlds and bodies intelligently.

This is the truly proscience version of ID theory: The notion that humans will eventually live in an ID universe, where our bodies and everything around us is designed. Only it will have been designed by us, in the service (hopefully) of bettering humanity. We won't be the playthings of some third party entity whose motivations are unclear. In the end, we will become our own intelligent designers.

Top image by Jasper Morello.

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