High school students and college students could benefit from studying the creation/evolution debate, because this could show them how debating science ultimately raises questions in morality, politics, philosophy, and religion. Isn't this the purpose of liberal education--to see how the deepest questions of life cross all of the intellectual disciplines?
One can see this rich interdisciplinary thought in the creation/evolution debate by looking at Mark Isaak's The Counter-Creationism Handbook, which was published first by Greenwood Press in 2005 and then reprinted by the University of California Press in 2007. The book is the printed version of Isaak's online text--"An Index to Creationist Claims," which has helpful internet links.
Isaak's book is a meticulous collection of the over 400 most common claims made by creationists, along with brief answers to these claims. The creationist claims range over the full spectrum of creationism, including Biblical creationism and intelligent design theory. A point-by-point rebuttal from the Biblical creationists can be found at the "Creation Wiki", which is the online "Encyclopedia of Creation Science." Rebuttals from the proponents of intelligent design theory can be found at various sites, including the website for the Discovery Institute's "Center for Science & Culture."
Looking over Isaak's collection of creationist claims and his responses, one can see how the creation/evolution debate touches on many of the biggest questions in ethics, epistemology, psychology, mythology, religion, and history, as well as the life sciences, anthropology, geology, astronomy, cosmology, physics, and mathematics. One can almost imagine devising an entire curriculum in the liberal arts and sciences organized around this creation/evolution debate.
From my experience in debating creationists, Isaak is remarkably acute in stating their claims and in recognizing the flaws in their reasoning. Generalizing from Isaak's work, I see five fundamental flaws: (1) the implausibility of Biblical science, (2) the equivocation between human design and divine design, (3) negative argumentation, (4) the problem of ultimate explanation, and (5) the yearning for a Platonic cosmology of Mind and Purpose.
(1) The Implausibility of Biblical Science.
The Biblical creationists treat the Bible--and particularly the opening chapters of Genesis--as a science textbook. So, for example, they take the story of Noah and the flood as a literal account of a world-wide flood. Consequently, they explain geology and the fossil record as showing the effects of that flood; and they even look for Noah's Ark in Turkey. They also assume that the creation story of six days is a literal account of origins over six days that occur ed about 4,000 years ago.
Isaak is meticulous and rigorous in responding to the hundreds of scientific claims that come from this literal reading of the Bible as a science textbook and in showing how scientifically implausible they are.
The fundamental mistake is the failure of the creationists to see that the Bible is a book about the relationship of human beings to God, for which the natural history of the Earth is largely irrelevant.
One can see this in the creationist assumption that the Bible shows us everything being created in 4,004 BC. In fact, this date is nowhere to be found in the text of the Bible. This date was calculated in the seventeenth century by Bishop James Ussher based on some dubious assumptions about the dating of Biblical history. Creationists have to read this into the Bible.
(2) Equivocation Between Human Design and Divine Design.
Proponents of intelligent design theory--like William Dembski and Michael Behe--try to escape the implausibility of Biblical creationism by setting aside Biblical arguments and appealing to a logic of design inference as truly scientific reasoning that does not depend on the Bible.
Dembski claims that "intelligent design is detectable; we do in fact detect it; we have reliable methods for detecting it; and its detection involves no recourse to the supernatural. Design is common, rational, and objectifiable." (Here I am drawing from my chapter on intelligent design in Darwinian Conservatism.) The problem with Dembski's logic of detecting design, however, is that it depends on equivocation in the use of the term "intelligent design."
Both Dembski and Behe speak of "intelligent design" without clearly distinguishing human "intelligent design" from divine "intelligent design." We have all observed how the human mind can cause effects that are humanly designed, and from such observable effects, we can infer the existence of human intelligent designers. We might also infer that some nonhuman animals are intelligent designers. And we might search for extraterrestrial intelligence by looking for evidence of some human-like intelligent design. But insofar as we have never directly observed a disembodied, omniscient, and omnipotent intelligence causing effects that are divinely designed, we cannot infer a divine intelligent designer from our common human experience.
(3) Negative Argumentation.
Creationists and intelligent design proponents employ a rhetoric of negative argumentation, in which they point to gaps or difficulties in evolutionary science and then assume that any such incompleteness or uncertainty in evolutionary explanation must demonstrate the truth of creationist intelligent design. Of course, this doesn't follow. Scientific knowledge will always be incomplete or uncertain, but this by itself does not prove that the proper explanation must be supernatural design. "The Intelligent Designer did it" is not an explanation. It's a confession of ignorance.
To substantiate their position, creationists and intelligent design proponents would have to explain exactly when, where, and how the intelligent designer intervened to create the irreducibly complex forms of life that we see in the world. But they generally don't do that, because that would be a burden of proof that they could not satisfy, and they benefit from enforcing standards of proof for evolutionary scientists that they themselves can never satisfy. Actually, the Biblical creationists are better than the intelligent design theorists in offering specific causal explanations--such as Noah's Flood--but then they expose themselves to refutation when the empirical evidence doesn't support such claims.
(4) The Problem of Ultimate Explanation.
In Scientific Creationism (1985), Henry Morris defends the creationist view of God as First Cause. "An omnipotent Creator is an adequate First Cause for all observable effects in the universe, whereas evolution is not an adequate cause. The universe could not be its own cause" (20). Of course, the evolutionist could ask, "But, then, who made God?" Morris answers:
Such a question of course begs the question. If the evolutionist prefers not to believe in God, he must still believe in some kind of uncaused First Cause. He must either postulate matter coming into existence out of nothing or else matter having always existed in some primitive form. In either case, matter itself becomes its own Cause, and the creationist may well ask, "But, then, who made Matter?"
In either case, therefore, one must simply believe--either in eternal, omnipotent Matter or else in an eternal, omnipotent, Creator God. The individual may decide which he considers more reasonable, but he should recognize this is not completely a scientific decision either way. (19)
Here's how Isaak answers this argument:
1. The assumption that every event has a cause, although common in our experience, is not necessarily universal. The apparent lack of cause for some events, such as radioactive decay, suggests that there might be exceptions. There are also hypotheses, such as alternate dimensions of time or an eternally oscillating universe, that allow a universe without a first cause.
2. By definition, a cause comes before an event. If time began with the universe, "before" does not even apply to it, and it is logically impossible that the universe be caused.
3. This claim raises the question of what caused God. If, as some claim, God does not need a cause, then by the same reasoning, neither does the universe. (262-63)
This debate over how to understand the First Cause of everything, including the laws of nature, points to the deepest problem for human understanding--the problem of ultimate explanation. All explanation depends on some ultimate reality that is unexplained. To the question of why nature has the kind of order that it has, we might answer that we must just accept this as a brute fact of our experience. That's just the way it is!
The response of the creationist is that it is very unlikely that the universe would exist uncaused, and it is more likely that God would exist as the uncaused cause of everything.
In our search for ultimate explanations, we must appeal either to nature or to God as the unexplained ground of all explanation. Thus does the natural desire to understand lead us to this most fundamental of choices--nature or God, reason or revelation. Philosophy cannot refute revelation, and theology cannot refute philosophy, because any attempted refutation would have to beg the question at issue. As Leo Strauss observed: "All alleged refutations of revelation presuppose unbelief in revelation, and all alleged refutations of philosophy presuppose already faith in revelation. There seems to be no ground common to both, and therefore superior to both."
(5) The Yearning for a Platonic Cosmology of Mind and Purpose.
One of the most common arguments from Biblical creationists and intelligent design theorists is the appeal to the "anthropic principle": the cosmos is fine-tuned to permit human life, because if any of several fundamental constants in the universe were slightly different, human life would be impossible. The claim is that this shows that the cosmos has been intelligently and benevolently designed by a cosmic Mind to sustain human life.
According to Plato's Phaedo (97c-99b), Socrates was attracted to this kind of intelligent-design cosmology in which a cosmic Mind orders all things for the best. In the Laws and the Timaeus, Plato elaborated the intelligent-design cosmology that came to dominate Western culture for almost two thousand years. A fundamental claim of this Platonic cosmology was that the supremacy of the contemplative life could be sustained by the thought that the human mind could participate in the intelligible order of the universe as designed by a cosmic Mind. Biblical religious believers could infer that this cosmic Mind was the Creator God of the Bible. The anthropic principle seems to offer modern scientific support for this Platonic/Biblical cosmology.
But rather than refuting evolution, the anthropic principle can be understood in a way that supports evolutionary reasoning. As Isaak suggests, evolutionary thinking proposes not that the cosmos is fine-turned to life, but that life is fine-tuned to the cosmos, because life has evolved in adaptation to the cosmos, which includes the adaptation of the human mind for understanding the cosmos. Of course, this evolutionary adaptation is imperfect, and therefore we have no reason to think that this is the best of all possible worlds. The human mind is fallible in ways that we can explain as a product of evolutionary history. But even with its fallibility, the human mind is capable of endless exploration in striving to satisfy the natural human desire for understanding.
So even if the natural world was not made for us, we were made for it, because we are adapted to live in it. We come from nature. It is our home.
Or, as Strauss once wrote: "Becoming aware of the dignity of the mind, we realize the true ground of the dignity of man and therewith of the goodness of the world, whether we understand it as created or uncreated, which is the home of man because it is the home of the human mind."
A few of the many related posts can be found here, here, here, here, here,here, and here.