All of us have known a know-it-all at some point in our lives. I’ve never met any who didn’t embarrass themselves with their own foolishness, though. Every know-it-all I’ve ever met has carried with him or her a boatload of “false facts,” which he or she presented with total assurance and finality.
Nick Cohen at The Observer fits the “know-it-all” description quite nicely when he says “Science has vanquished religion, but not its evils. He is so sure of himself:
Today, you have to be a very ignorant believer to imagine that your religion or any religion can provide comprehensive explanations. When they study beyond a certain level, all believers learn that the most reliable theories of the origins of life have no need for the God of the holy books. The most brilliant scientists and the best thought have moved beyond religion. It is for this reason that religion, which once inspired man’s most sublime creations, no longer produces art, literature or philosophy of any worth; why it is impossible to imagine a new religious high culture.
That’s the core of the argument in this article; the rest of Cohen’s article is mostly emotional screed. If he is wrong here, the remainder collapses. So how did he do?
First, one has to wonder which reliable theories of the origin of life have no need of God or the holy books. I intentionally left the “s” off the end of “origin;” for (unlike the origin of species) no reliable theories of the origin of life have ever been proposed. Science has vanquished nothing on that front, for science has offered nothing. I certainly welcome the best efforts science can bring to the question, for I would love to know more about the origin of the first life. But at this stage Cohen’s claim concerning is just wrong, and obviously so.
Second, how about “comprehensive explanations”? It’s a vague term (vague terms are very useful for making vague arguments). The inability of any knowledge tradition to provide “comprehensive explanations” is meaningless. Science should be able to explain what science can explain, and it’s no knock on science that it can’t do everything. It’s not supposed to do everything. Same with religious explanations.
But let’s follow the trail he proposes anyway. If what Cohen means by it is, “my holy book explains everything within its pages,” then it’s a straw man. No religion makes that claim. But Christianity does make a claim of providing a sub-stratum of explanation, a meta-explanation, for many, many things that science cannot touch. If offering comprehensive explanations is the test, then science also fails. Science cannot explain explanation itself (but Christianity can). It cannot explain why science itself works (Christianity can). Science has so far been unable to explain where we come from, or why there is something rather than nothing. Its answers to vital questions of human experience (consciousness, morality, free will, meaning, subjectivity, etc.) are (a) at least as much philosophical as scientific, and (b) if confined to purely naturalistic answers, terribly unsatisfying to both the mind and the heart. Christianity has real answers to those questions, too.
Third, the most brilliant scientists have “moved beyond religion” only if by “most brilliant scientists” one means “scientists who have moved beyond religion.” Surveys of scientists show that up to half of them believe in God, including stars such as Francis Collins, Owen Gingerich, Kenneth Miller, and many more.
Finally, Protestant Christianity has been admittedly weak in producing art over the past many decades. The same could never be said about its philosophy, however. On this Cohen is either uninformed or biased; or in other words, wrong.
So there are at least four “false facts” smugly situated at the heart Nick Cohen’s article. He is (as far as he presents himself here) the quintessential know-it-all. But I can’t just leave it at that. It’s not just that Cohen is a know-it-all; it’s that he has painted science as the know-it-all approach to (pardon me) life, the universe, and everything. I don’t view science that way: I don’t view science as knowing it all, and I don’t view genuine science as being so smugly stupid as to think that it does. Genuine science is more intelligent than that. If Nick Cohen and a smattering of others make that mistake, there’s no reason for the rest of us to follow them into it.