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Saturday, September 10, 2005

Intelligent design in pop culture: Movie review muffs design theory

In a review of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, yet another pitchfork opera, reviewer A.O. Scott weighs in on the question of whether Emily Rose could in fact have been dancing with the devil, so to speak, prior to her death during an exorcism:

[Exorcist] Father Moore insists that Emily was in the grip of the Devil's minions, even as the prosecution presents an array of expert witnesses arguing that she suffered from a medical rather than a spiritual condition. Erin, in turn, unearths an anthropologist (Shohreh Aghdashloo) who studies demonic possession and is studiously noncommital as to whether it really exists.

The movie pretends to take the same tolerant, anything's-possible position. While not especially good - judged strictly on its cinematic merits, it ranges from O.K. to god-awful - it is still a fascinating cultural document in the age of intelligent design. Its point of view suggests an improbable alliance of postmodern relativism and absolute religious faith against the supposed tyranny of scientific empiricism, which is depicted as narrow and dogmatic.

The sincerity of a believer - Father Moore, in this case - is conflated with the plausibility of his beliefs. The doctors, meanwhile, seem so sure of themselves. But of course, the movie says, no one can ever be completely sure, and thus superstition becomes a matter of reasonable doubt. Meanwhile the clocks stop, the wind howls, and we are encouraged to believe - or at least not to disbelieve - our own eyes. Father Moore knows what he saw. So do I: propaganda disguised as entertainment.

Scott is clearly seriously confused about the nature of the intelligent design hypothesis. The ID theorists do not see design as a form of supernaturalism but simply as part of the nature of the existing universe. In other words, design is not a mere illusion, as materialists and naturalists would insist.

In fact, the universe could be intelligently designed without exhibiting any supernatural or spiritual forces at all. Obviously, the source of the design must be outside the universe in that case, but a design model without supernaturalism within the universe is quite plausible. A person who accepted such a model would be in conflict with the teachings of most Western religions, because they insist that some truly supernatural events have occurred. But the conflict is not with ID theory.

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