Saturday, November 07, 2015

Socially Approved Superstitions

Ben Carson has been collecting a few liberal sneers for claiming that the pyramids were built by Joseph to store grain (for the seven lean years, I guess), but Tyler Cowen and others have noted that this belief is really more consistent with the laws of physics than some of the Christian and Jewish superstitions that virtually every presidential candidate has signed up for in some way or another.

I have to say, well, sort of, but there is a significant difference. Using the pyramids to store grain doesn't violate any laws of physics, but it does violate common sense. The pyramids still exist, and people can examine them and check their suitability for grain storage. The miracles of the Bible are hidden behind the veil of time, and that's true even of the far more recent miracles like Joseph Smith's golden tablets. There aren't any physical artifacts to check. Moreover, they are all explicitly miracles, which means they are supposed to violate the laws of physics.

That doesn't mean that I subscribe to any of the aforementioned superstitions or even their more contemporary modern versions, but I do think that Cowen et. al. miss an important subtlety. Believing in ancient miracles may be silly, but it's not as silly as believing that the Walmart down the street is an alien spaceship when you can easily check that it sure doesn't seem like one. The notion that God parted the Red Sea for Moses and a bunch of Hebrew troublemakers may be implausible, but really, how are you going to check?