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Intelligent Design: Science, Faith or Neither?

The debate on teaching intelligent design theory in science classrooms hits close to the heart for Catherine McHugh '07. As a Christian biology major interested in becoming a nurse practitioner, McHugh encounters the debate often.

"Growing up in the church, I guess intelligent design was something I embraced," says McHugh, who goes by Cassie. "When I'm doing science, it's a very spiritual experience for me. I try to bring more of a reflective judgment to that."

With her personal beliefs and the public's increased focus on intelligent design theory, McHugh had no trouble choosing a topic when assigned to write an essay for her religious studies class about German philosopher Immanuel Kant. "I wanted to look at the debate from a critical perspective, to find a way to reconcile the two," she says. McHugh's analysis resulted in a paper titled "God and Science: A Kantian Analysis of Intelligent Design Theory as Science."

McHugh's work won her first place this spring in the Undergraduate Student Paper Contest sponsored by the Pacific Northwest Region of AAR/SBL/ASOR, a consortium of academic groups devoted to religious and Oriental research. McHugh used Kant's "Critique of Judgment," otherwise known as his third critique, to examine the issue. Her surprising conclusion? That any literal use of intelligent design is destructive to both science and certain types of faith.

McHugh's paper and her explanation of Kant's theories might make any non-philosophic scholar's eyes glaze over. She understands that. She insists she's not usually the type to debate complex philosophical theories, although she is minoring in religious studies and formed a group with several of her friends and religious studies professor Doug McGaughey to tackle the task of better understanding Kant's writings.

"Philosophy is really not my forte," she says. "I was really scared when I came into that class. When I first started reading the critiques, I think I took an hour to read each page."

The basis of her conclusions is that it is destructive to both science and non-epistemic faith -- which says there is order within nature -- to say determinately an intelligent designer is the creator of the universe.

In his third critique, Kant discusses an idea called teleology, the concept that there is design in nature. McHugh concludes from Kant's writing that intelligent design does not work as a science because it urges people to make inferences about the causes for things in nature -- attributing them to an intelligent being.

However, science studies phenomenon in nature and makes connections between what people see happening and existing scientific laws or theories. People aren't able to experience the actual laws -- such as gravity, for instance; instead they observe the effects the laws have in nature. In other words, McHugh writes, people don't have the capacity to experience the causes of things.

"To do so for intelligent design oversteps our limits in science," she says. "But we do have to assume there is an order in nature to make discoveries and continue our scientific work."

As for intelligent design's relation to faith, McHugh writes that non-epistemic faith means people trust in the idea that there is a God, and are OK with not knowing for sure, according to Kant. By determinatively judging that a higher being created Earth, faith is destroyed, she writes. If faith was based on absolute knowledge, people's lives would be determined, and they would simply be marionettes, McHugh says.

Despite McHugh's conclusions in her paper, she says her work did not sway her strong Christian faith. She is involved in two local Christian organizations for college students, Campus Ambassadors and Ethos. "If anything, the conversations we had in the Kant class actually enhanced my understanding of God," she says.