Ls&Cs: Religion vs Science; Freedom; Feudalism

Plain speaking about the obvious conflict between science and religion; about the idea of freedom without responsibility; about the odd attraction of feudalism in fantasy and science fiction.

The NYT in recent weeks has been running opinion pieces by an Anglican Church priest named Tish Harrison Warren, most recently How Covid Raised the Stakes of the War Between Faith and Science (7 Nov 21).

She takes Christianity for granted, which might work for US readers but not for many others around the world. My favorite science blogger, Jerry Coyne, calls her kind of writing “lucubrations” and criticizes it on the same grounds as he wrote about in his book Faith vs. Fact, and which rationalists have criticized such religious presumptions for centuries.

The theme of Warren’s latest column is the supposed debate about the “conflict” between science and religion. (Of course there’s a conflict.) Warren of course downplays this conflict, because her side cannot win in fair competition. Without belaboring this, I will just quote these several paragraphs from Coyne’s reply, Lame compatibilism from the NYT’s resident Anglican priest (8 Nov 21):

The problem, which should be obvious, is that yes, science and religion are both ways of finding out the truth about the universe, but only science has a reliable way to find those truths. If religion does tell us the truth about God (or nature), what is it? If there is a truth about God, every religion has a different take on it, so in fact there is no consensus truth. That’s why there are so many religions, for crying out loud! Is there one God, like Warren believes, or many, as Hindus and other polytheists believe? What’s the answer, Reverend Warren? And how do you know the answer?

Wanting to know what is true is not the same as having the ability to find truth. Science does have that ability, and religion doesn’t.  Warren may feel that the tenets of her Anglican faith and its claims about God and Jesus are “true”, but can she then tell us why the Muslims, Hindus, and Scientologists are wrong?

At least in science, something doesn’t become provisional truth—the only kind we have—until it’s repeatedly confirmed. Likewise, repeated failure to confirm, or direct falsification, means a scientific hypothesis cannot be taken as true. We have a toolkit for determining truth: observation, testing, experimentation, replication, consensus, and so on. Religion has only authority, propaganda, and scripture, which conflict with other faiths’ authority, propaganda and scripture.

And that is why science and religion are in conflict. If Warren really thinks that religion can answer life’s biggest questions, then let us by all means have the answers!


Sean Illing, Vox, 8 Nov 21: The paradox of American freedom.

Subtitle: “The idea that we can enjoy the benefits of society while owing nothing in return is literally infantile. Only children owe nothing.” —Sebastian Junger

America is uniquely obsessed with “freedom.” You can see it in our politics. You can hear it in our discourse. But we’re also, strangely, a country full of fortunate people who are constantly fretting about their lack of freedom.

Haven’t read entire article, but I’ll probably read the book; it’s short, which gives it points, and I read and liked Junger’s previous book, Tribe, reviewed here.


About feudalism, Dune, and sf & f:

David Brin’s blog, 3 Nov 21: Dune the movie: Lynch vs Villeneuve vs Frank Herbert… and us.

Again though, it is vital that someone remind you all that the Dune universe – just like Game of Thrones – is a morality tale against feudalism, which dominated and oppressed 99% of our ancestors for 6000 years! A beastly, horrid form of governance that rewarded the very worst males, that trashed freedom and justice and progress and that made most of those centuries a living hell. A system that will do all the same things to our heirs, if we let it return.

It’s commonly noted that most fantasy is rooted in the past, especially in feudalistic pasts, and so is some faux-science fiction (Like Star Wars and McCaffrey’s Pern series.)

A comment on a Fb thread about Dune makes the same basic point. From one Sandy Michaud (about whom I know nothing):

I find the trend of people seeming to gravitate toward Feudalism in books and movies very disturbing. Star Wars, Dune, Game of Thrones and any number of Teotwawki books have “heroes” who adopt a feudalistic way of life. We’re even seeing this in modern politics where a significant number of Americans seem to want a strong-man leader and top-down government. Do they not realize that under these systems most of them will be serfs and slaves? I prefer a Star Trek future, TOS, not the Abrams “re-imagined” movies.

I agree.

Of course, this is the tip of the iceberg of a huge topic that I don’t entirely understand, but for which a simplistic answer is apparent. The topic is why fantasy is generally backward looking, and science fiction forward looking. The alliances of themes are obvious: fantasy appeals to intuitive human knowledge, to the idea that magic works, the naive idea that human thought affects objects at a distance; and so to earlier forms of social organization, the feudal society in which authoritarians are in charge and common people don’t need to think, just follow their orders. Whereas science fiction appeals to rational knowledge about the perceivable and verifiable universe, the idea that “laws” of physics work everywhere, that human thoughts cannot affects objects at a distance (because the evidence shows they do not); and progressive forms of government, where “freedom” and “equality,” however much in conflict they might seem, can both be aspired to, via democracy.

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