Ben Carson and the Pyramids

It has come out that Ben Carson believes Joseph built the pyramids to store grain. Vox has an “explainer” article, called “Ben Carson’s bizarre theory about the pyramids, explained.”  It correctly accuses Carson of forcing history into a Biblical context. Vox then itself forces Carson’s remarks into the “religion versus science” narrative. But the matter has nothing to do with science. It does not involve falsification, replicated experiments, laws of nature or anything like that.

What people really mean when they say they favor science over religion isn’t generally that they know even the first thing about science, but that they trust the conclusions of experts they consider authoritative. In the case of the pyramids, the experts would be historians. So “pro-historian” codes as “pro-science.”

So much for the science part of science versus religion. As for the religion part, Vox argues that Carson’s problem is that he interprets the story literally, whereas actually it is “a mere allegory about God’s grace (since God was willing to provide a vision to save so many people.)” There is no further explanation at the internet’s greatest explainer site, which seems to hide all its most provocative and questionable ideas in parenthesis or in passing mentions, while being very earnest and thorough about establishing obvious or incidental matters, such as that experts reject Carson’s theory.

I’m not saying the Joseph story can’t be interpreted as allegory, but I’d like much, much more elaboration on Vox’s interpretiation. At what point does after Abraham does Genesis break into allegory? We have a story that’s moving right along, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and all that, and it seems like Genesis is making historical claims about flesh-and-blood people. They’re the patriarchs, for God’s sake, and really they’re historical figures. They’re acting like real people, not symbols, and doing real people things rather than symbolic things. They have supernatural experiences, of course, but that’s exactly the sort of experiences founders of a religion would be expected to have.

And surely the sons of Jacob don’t suddenly become allegorical figures. We’re talking about the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel. They have to be real people, too, right? We’re getting closer to the present, so don’t we have to keep it more real? And they all end up in Egypt somehow, or else how does Moses get them out? You can’t tell me the Hebrews didn’t think that Egypt thing was real. Joseph’s cruel toying with his brothers when they come for food is very elaborate and realistic.

Of course there’s all the dreams and interpreting. The dreams themselves are heavily allegorical, of course, as the characters in the stories themselves assume. Playing on people’s dreams is exactly how one does rise to power. It seems reasonable to think the story is presenting Joseph’s rise as literal, too. On the other hand, maybe there’s elements of political allegory here.

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Vox goes on to talk about Carson’s rejection of the Big Bang. Carson’s argument was that the big bang theory cannot explain the existence of the ordered universe. Carson holds that, as an explanation of the universe, the big bang requires too much faith. Vox quotes a guy at Slate called Phil Plait who says (to paraphrase) “No! No it doesn’t!”

Shouldn’t an explainy article outline the evidence for the big bang (not just link to a guy who links to Wikipedia and some other stuff)?

More importantly, especially Carson hinted at the way the Big Bang blurs the lines between physics and metaphysics, noting the metaphysical theories involving infinite big bangs. Shouldn’t an explanation address this issue.

Relatedly, the big bang theory doesn’t explain where our universe came from. It just takes us really close to the beginning, is all. Beyond that be dragons. That doesn’t mean the theory is wrong. It isn’t supposed to be an explanation of the existence of the universe, but of other things.

Explanations that go further often take us to an eternal realm outside our universe and, if I understand correctly, outside the laws of physics, and so are metaphysical.

Vox does link to another article by Plait at Slate on the separate but related question of whether science itself is faith-based; in other words, whether it requires any presuppositions. Plait’s answer, to paraphrase: “No! No! NO!!! Absolutely not at all!” And then (now quoting directly): “Science is not faith-based, and here’s why. The scientific method makes one assumption, and one assumption only.”  Well, so much for that!

The “one assumption” behind science is that “the Universe obeys a set of rules. That’s it.” Okay, that’s a start. “There is one corollary, and that is that if the Universe follows these rules, then those rules can be deduced by observing the way the Universe behaves. This follows naturally [oh does it now!]; if it obeys the rules, then the rules must be revealed by that behavior.” Not a corollary at all, but more assumptions: that our brains bear a relationship to the rest of the universe such that 1) observations provide reliable data about the universe 2) our brains can understand the laws of the universe, but cannot deduce them as logical necessities (hence the need for experiment); in other words, our reason is powerful but not too powerful.

And are the rules directly revealed by observation of behavior? Of course not (much less can we conclude this has to be the case merely from the fact that there are rules.) The question is what conditions we have to create for nature to reveal her secrets, or what mental processes we have to apply. Plait’s answer is curiously Aristotelian (observation and deduction), but modern science is a combination of mathematics (so the assumption is that the universe’s laws are largely mathematical) and controlled experiment (so the assumption is observation yields laws of physics only under this sort of condition.)

Elsewhere in his piece, however, Plait takes a completely different approach. He does indicate that he endorses the mathematical and experimental approach. Moreover, he argues that science’s purported presuppositions are in fact themselves confirmed by science: “Science is even subject to itself. If the method didn’t work, we’d see it.” Now, this is a much better argument. If the universe didn’t operate on mathematical laws, we wouldn’t be able to derive any mathematical laws.

On the other hand, Plait tells us “science is provisional.” If that’s the case, and if Plait is right that science itself is the basis for our belief in the scientific method, then we have only provisional knowledge that the scientific method works or that the universe is governed by laws.

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Tyler Cowen, meanwhile, argues against ridiculing Carson’s belief about the pyramids, writing “we do not make fun of those who believe openly in the Trinity, Virgin Brith, ex cathedra, and many other beliefs which are to my mind slightly less plausible claims…What Ben Carson has done is to commit the unpardonable sin of talking about his religion as if he actually takes it seriously.” He rejects “[t]he notion that it is fine to believe something about a deity or deities, or a divine book, as long as you do not take that said belief very seriously and treat it only as a social affiliation or an ornamental badge of honor. Bully for Ben Carson for reminding us that a religion actually consists of beliefs about the world.”

Obviously, the argument is directed at people who share the assumptions that almost all religious claims are implausible, but that we should generally respect religious belief nonetheless. Apply these general rules to Carson, too, is part of what he is saying.

Cowen is right that the more seriously one takes a religious belief, the more likely it is to trouble the sort of atheist or agnostic who generally claims to respect religious belief. But I am not an atheist or an agnostic, and I find Carson’s pyramid theory silly.

While it is true in a sense that Carson’s pyramids theory comes from taking his religion seriously, taking his religion seriously in no way requires that he hold this theory. His interpretation forces the pyramids into a Biblical framework, but there is no need for the two to overlap at all. Really he is making up his own claims, which are independent of any text or authority. But he doesn’t claim divine inspiration for his own theories. So they aren’t really religious, and therefore are fair game.

And if he did claim divine inspiration, if he thought he himself was a prophet, wouldn’t that be all the more reason to reject him as a Presidential candidate? It’s one thing to elect someone who (falsely, let’s say) believes someone else was a prophet, another to elect someone who is himself a false prophet.

I don’t at all agree that the Virgin Birth is more implausible than Carson’s pyramids theory. It requires a miracle is all. It can never be disproven, in the sense that we can’t have direct knowledge that Joseph impregnated Mary with Jesus. On the other hand, Carson’s theory can be disproven; we have direct, physical evidence of when and why the pyramids were built. Carson’s theory would not, however, require a miracle, which is presumably why Cowen finds it “slightly more plausible.” It is in violation of facts, but not general scientific laws.

If you hold that God (if He exists) cannot or will not perform miracles, you are making a theological claim that is difficult to prove; whereas if you hold that the pyramids were built to improve Pharaohs’ prospects in the next world, you are making a factual claim which is rather easy to prove.

And of course the former claim would imply that all Christianity is wrong (God remains detached from the world; he certainly cannot become part of it.) The latter would not. Religion involves truth claims, yes, but not just any random truth claims.

Debate Over Tax Rates

Marco Rubio’s tax cut proposal has led to debate over how to determine whether a tax plan is progressive or regressive. Rubio’s critics hold that any tax cut that benefits the rich more than the poor is regressive; since the rich have more income than the poor, cutting taxes more or less naturally comes out as regressive by this definition.

For example, Rubio’s tax cut benefits someone in the top 1% by $223,000. Clearly, a middle income person cannot get a tax cut this size, because such a person doesn’t have an income of $223,000, much less pays $223,000 in taxes.

Rubio holds that one ought to instead look at the effect of tax cuts as a percentage of income.

Dylan Matthews at Vox holds that “who gets more money ‘numerically’ is actually what matters here. Tax cuts cost money. That money can either go to poor people, or it can go to rich people.” This is a badly underdeveloped argument.* It doesn’t at all follow directly: it matters who gets more money because “that money” can either go to rich people or poor people? We must be skipping steps. Does it matter because of some theory of distributive justice? Does it matter because of some impact it has on the world? If you say one thing is more important than another, it must be with respect to some moral goal or outcome you see as important, or it must be intrinsically important. In any case, it implies you have some larger idea about what is important. “Money can either go to rich people or poor people” really doesn’t get us anywhere.

Nevertheless, we can find clues in Matthews’ rhetoric as to what he must mean.

In the first place, consider his claim that “That money” can either go to the rich and the poor. If we’re talking about tax cuts, it can’t. The poor hardly have any money, and they hardly pay any taxes, so obviously they can’t get a tax cut of $223,000. But if you look at it not as cutting taxes, but as the government giving out money it had all along, it’s a different matter: we have “that money,” and government has to decide how to divvy it up. In that case, it would seem quite unjust to give more of it government to begin with, as does his choice of the phrase “who gets more money,” rather than “who keeps more money.”

Matthews’ assumption that tax cuts are a thing given us by government may simply reflect a status quo bias that treats current tax rates as natural, or it may be based on an unacknowledged assumption that all money ultimately belongs to government. But surely the latter isn’t right. In that case, what justification is there for government to allow some of us more money than others? Perhaps as an incentive to work, but then it is government deciding how much of different kinds of work and products we need, which of course is no good…or else it’s free market exchanges that determine how much people make, in which case the money is no longer coming from the government, after all.

If I am right and taxes are a cost, incurring this cost requires justification of some kind. “Tax cuts for the rich” rhetoric treats high taxes on the rich as a benefit; the tax cut is bad intrinsically because it brings down taxes on the rich, and not (only) because it has the effect of preventing desirable spending.

We should judge the fairness or rightness of a tax policy based on where it leaves tax rates. That’s really all we need to worry about. Thus if we think a steeply progressive tax code is good, and a tax policy leaves the code in a steeply progressive state, well then what’s not to like about it? We don’t need to worry about where the tax code was before, and so don’t need to worry about whether the tax cut is progressive or regressive, even in Rubiovian percentage-of-income terms. Otherwise, again, we are engaging in status quo bias, and/or failing to regard taxes as a cost requiring justification.

* and characteristically Voxian: he spends seven paragraphs and two gigantic charts establishing what we already know, that Rubio’s cuts benefit the rich more than the poor in dollar terms, and only blips an argument on the actual subject of disagreement.

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Ezra Klein, on the other hand, approaches the matter sensibly and argues against Rubio’s tax cuts on the ground that they would require cut or elimination of desirable programs. He seemingly frames this as a defense of the “tax cuts for the rich” argument, but actually it is an independent argument.

Klein’s argument is that Rubio’s tax cuts will force us to cut programs for the poor, especially since he wants to eliminate the deficit and doesn’t want to cut defense spending. Klein says Rubio hasn’t offered spending offsets. It’s always reasonable to criticize a politician for this, though that won’t stop them from all doing it. But there’s no particular reason to assume the cuts will all hit the poor (or that by fiating his tax cut into existence, we have to also fiat his zero deficit aspiration into existence.) Maybe we means test Medicare and social security, or just cut them across the board or otherwise reform them. Maybe we cut the highway budget drastically. Maybe we take 10% off the top of everything.

In fact, one of the difficulties of the whole policy wonk project is that you can never say what the actual opportunity costs are of anything. Say I want to spend $20 billion on curing cancer. There’s really no counterfactual where we can say what we would have done otherwise, and thus “where the money comes from.” Perhaps it means we get rid of farm subsidies, perhaps it means we don’t do universal preschool when we otherwise would, perhaps it means we eventually increase taxes $20 billion.

Of course it would seem that the same problem applies to individual decisions, but there’s a difference: if I spend $10, I don’t know exactly how I “would have spent” the $10 otherwise, but I at least have some idea of my current priorities, and the kind of thing I spend $10 on. In the case of government, there is no one single actor. Some people are lobbying for a cancer cure, some people are lobbying for agriculture subsidies, some people are lobbying for a tax cut. How much power different groups and actors have determines the result. So it is not “let’s get rid of the least important federal spending and use the money to cure cancer,” but “let’s spend money to cure cancer and see where the chips fall.” A perfectly scrupulous Presidential candidate who always offsets everything in his budget proposal will not solve this problem, because Presidents do not unilaterally set budgets.