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 opinion of experts they consider authoritative. Now when it comes to the purpose of the pyramids, I do the same thing, but only because it is the sort of thing that is an easily established fact. If I did check out the evidence, it would be decisive, a matter of fact, and there would be nothing to debate or examine about the matter, so I don’t bother checking out the evidence, since archaeologists and the like have already done so. But all this is a matter of context, not a generalized trust in experts.

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 Genesis break into allegory? I mean, yes, the Garden of Eden, the Flood and so forth, but where does it break back 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. And 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 those in the story recount and interpret them. Playing on people’s dreams is exactly how one does rise to power, so 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.


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)? And, especially since Carson at least hinted at alluding to the way the Big Bang blurs the lines between physics and metaphysics (both by his very accusation that it requires faith, and his mention of the metaphysical theories involving infinite big bangs), shouldn’t an honest explanation at least address this side of things?

For instance, 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. But a real response to Carson would make this point.

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. But we get no discussion of any of this.

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.


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.

But the distinction between mainstream and non-mainstream “implausible beliefs” is different from the distinction between seriously and non-seriously held beliefs, and Cowen seems to conflate the two. As Cowen suggests, 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. This is true, to an extent, even of “mainstream” religious beliefs.

And 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 rather independent of any text or preexisting authority, text or revelation. 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.


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