Monday, January 14, 2013

Was Pharaoh a climate-change denier?

Howard Curzer recently published an article in the Huffington Post:

He’s a philosophy prof. at Texas Tech. He and I then had an amicable exchange of views. I’m posting my side of the email correspondence.

Dr. Curzer,

I read your article “Exodus 6:2-9:35: Pharaoh, the Climate Change Skeptic” with interest. You said:

How do we maintain a healthy skepticism without straying toward bull-headedness or naiveté?

Through a careful study, we may come to more clearly see the difference between healthy skepticism toward new theories and the unhealthy denial of evidence exhibited by many contemporary climate change skeptics.

Will we avert climactic disaster or acknowledge the vast and rapidly growing evidence before us?

Coming from a philosophy prof., I find your position oddly unphilosophical. Isn’t it your job to foster critical thinking among your students?

From what I’ve read, “climate change” is not a single claim, but a variety of claims. So, at a minimum, don’t you need to break that down and then examine the evidence and/or counterevidence for each separable claim? For instance:

i) Is there global warming?

ii) Is global warming anthropogenic?

iii) If global warming is anthropogenic, is the trend reversible?

iv) Are global warming projections accurate?

v) If global warming exists, is that harmful? Harmful to whom or what? Is that a humanitarian crisis? An environmental disaster? Those aren’t interchangeable claims. What might be good for the environment might be bad for some humans, or vice versa?

I myself am a “climate change” sceptic. Here are some of my reasons. As a philosophy prof., perhaps you can explain to me why my reasons are “bullheaded” or reflect “unhealthy denial of the evidence.”

i) Environmentalists use to warn us about “global warming.” Now they warn us about “climate change.” How did that come about? “Global warming” is a specific prediction. By contrast, “climate change” is vague and nondirectional. Did environmentalists switch from “global warming” to “climate change” because the evidence did not, in fact, support global warming?

ii) From what I’ve read, crucial source data on which projections were based was “lost.”

At best, that means the projections are now untestable. All we now have is “value-added” evidence.

Moreover, isn’t it dubious that the evidence was “lost”? Doesn’t that sound like a euphemistic way of describing the destruction of evidence? Destroyed because it was embarrassing? Maybe that’s just a huge accident, but is it unreasonable to be suspicious?

iii) Environmentalism is highly politicized. A cause that many environmentalists live for. It gives their lives a sense of purpose, meaning, direction. Just look at the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

Moses, seeking freedom for his people, conveys warnings to Pharaoh about what God will do if he does not allow the Israelites to be free. Each time, Pharaoh's heart is "hardened." (In English, "hard-hearted" means unsympathetic, but the Hebrew idiom means unimpressed and unyielding rather than uncaring. At no point in the story is sympathy for the Israelites at issue.) But assigning responsibility for Pharaoh's posture of stubbornness raises a troubling theological problem.

Pharaoh hardens his own heart in response to the earlier plagues, but God hardens Pharaoh's heart in response to the later plagues. The theological problem is that when God hardens Pharaoh's heart, Pharaoh's responses to the plagues do not seem to be free choices. It would seem unjust for God to force stubbornness upon Pharaoh and then punish him for his stubbornness.

In some ancient texts, divine intervention can be read as a metaphor for surprising actions. "Athena guided Achilles' spear" may mean that Achilles made an extraordinary throw.

Similarly, I suggest that "God hardened Pharaoh's heart" is a metaphorical way of describing unreasonable skepticism. This interpretive maneuver eliminates the unfairness problem and further provides a lesson on dealing with the prediction of natural disasters.

The obvious problem with your “interpretive maneuver” is that it doesn’t matter whether you think divine hardening is unfair. The only relevant interpretive consideration is whether the narrator thought that was unfair. You’re not entitled to eliminate something in the ancient text just because you find it personally objectionable. It wasn’t written to you. It wasn’t written to meet with your approval. Do you imagine the narrator had to share your scruples? If so, that’s awfully provincial of you. The world isn’t made in your image.

Like Pharaoh in Exodus 6:2-9:35, we in the modern world are faced with predictions of natural disasters and costly proposals for avoiding them.

I see. So Pharaoh should have averted the plague of frogs by installing a filtration system in the Nile? Or averted the plague of hail by having transparent aluminum domes placed over Egyptian farmlands? Would that stop Yahweh dead in his tracks?


Thanks for taking time to reply.

First you raise a series of challenges concerning the existence and nature of climate change. I am not going to try to respond to these in detail. I am a philosopher, not a scientist. My view is that (a) when the overwhelming majority of the scientific community says X, then we ought to believe X. And (b) the overwhelming majority of the scientific community says that climate change is happening and is primarily caused by human activities. I am not saying that the overwhelming majority of the scientific community is always right; just that siding with them is the way to bet. If you agree with (a) and (b), then you and I are on the same page about climate change. If you want to discuss further details, you will have to talk to someone who is more familiar with the issues; someone other than me. This is as far as I go.

Sorry, but I don’t think that’s a rational standard. It’s far too crude.

i) Do I think there are scientific issues where we should defer to expert opinion? Sure. But I’m not going to turn that into a general maximum, for not all scientific issues are equal.

ii) Scientists sometimes give the public reasons for believing their theory is true. Indeed, “climate change” is one such example.

When they publicly state their reasons, that suggests the reasoning is accessible to a nonspecialist. In that event, I’m entitled to scrutinize the reasoning.

iii) Appealing to consensus can easily become circular and coercive.

iv) Scientific progress is often made by brilliant mavericks who buck the system. They are fiercely opposed by the establishment, but eventually they win the argument.

Scientists can be very “bullheaded” about their commitment to a theory they learned in college. Take the pre-Clovis/Topper controversy. Take the opposition Cantor faced, which literally drove him crazy. Take Thor Heyerdahl’s theory of cross-Pacific migration, which encountered ferocious resistance from the scientific establishment. Take scientific opposition to ball lightning. Take scientific opposition to neurogenesis.

v) The overwhelming majority of the scientific community isn’t qualified to judge climate change theory. Most scientists can’t render an informed opinion on that issue. They lack training in a relevant branch of science.

vi) Take one more example. Consider FDA approved drugs. Do I think that counts for something? Yes. I have more confidence in an FDA approved drug than a naturopathic “cure” at a Mexican clinic.

Yet you also have FDA drug recalls. Recalling some of the very drugs the same agency previously approved.

How does that happen? I can only guess. For one thing, once a drug goes to market, the sample group expands exponentially, as does the number of physicians administering the drug. Far more patients, far more feedback, far more medical observers.

In addition, there’s the use of control groups, during the experimental phase, to eliminate random variables. But once the drug goes to market, you no longer have carefully-screened test subjects. Side effects that were not detected during clinical trials now surface. Suddenly, the random variables which were assumed to be extraneous become relevant after all.

If a drug has been in use for, say, 10 years, then taking a headcount of physicians is quite reliable.

So my claim could be put this way. I think that there is good textual evidence to support the claim that God-hardened-Pharaoh’s heart means (c) Pharaoh acted uncharacteristically stubbornly. And there is textual evidence against the claim that it means (d) God made Pharaoh more stubborn. The evidence is this. Interpretation (c) is consistent with the rest of the Bible which generally assumes that people have free will and are held responsible only for their free choices.

For two reasons, I disagree:

i) If you define freewill as the freedom to do otherwise, then it would be nonsensical for God to give Pharaoh the freedom to thwart God’s intentions. For on that view, God intended to give Pharaoh the freedom to thwart God’s intentions. Thus God intends to frustrate God’s intentions, which is incoherent.

The purpose of the ten plagues was to demonstrate that Yahweh was the true God, in contrast to the impotent idol-gods of Egypt. To say that Pharaoh had the freedom to scuttle God’s plan, thereby interrupting the ten plagues at any stage of the process, cuts against the grain of the narrative.

ii) There are many passages in the Tanakh which portray God orchestrating human events from behind-the-scenes, viz.,

For it was the Lord's doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed, just as the Lord commanded Moses (Josh 11:20).

If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the Lord, who can intercede for him?” But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the Lord to put them to death (1 Sam 2:25).

But Amaziah would not listen, for it was of God, in order that he might give them into the hand of their enemies, because they had sought the gods of Edom (2 Chron 25:20).

He turned their hearts to hate his people, to deal craftily with his servants (Ps 105:25).

10 Make the heart of this people dull,
    and their ears heavy,
    and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
    and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
    and turn and be healed.”
(Isa 6:10)

For the Lord has poured out upon you
    a spirit of deep sleep,
and has closed your eyes (the prophets),
    and covered your heads (the seers).
(Isa 29:10)

O Lord, why do you make us wander from your ways
    and harden our heart, so that we fear you not?
Return for the sake of your servants,
    the tribes of your heritage.
(Isa 63:17).

Thus says the Lord God: On that day, thoughts will come into your mind, and you will devise an evil scheme (Ezk 38:10).

And God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem, and the leaders of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech (Judges 9:23).

His father and mother did not know that it was from the Lord, for he was seeking an opportunity against the Philistines. At that time the Philistines ruled over Israel (Judges 14:4).

Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the Lord tormented him (1 Sam 16:14).

And Absalom and all the men of Israel said, “The counsel of Hushai the Archite is better than the counsel of Ahithophel.” For the Lord had ordained to defeat the good counsel of Ahithophel, so that the Lord might bring harm upon Absalom (2 Sam 17:14).

So the king did not listen to the people, for it was a turn of affairs brought about by the Lord that he might fulfill his word, which the Lord spoke by Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam the son of Nebat (1 Kgs 12:15).

20 and the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. 21 Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ 22 And the Lord said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.’ 23 Now therefore behold, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has declared disaster for you” (1 Kgs 22:20-23).

5 When the servants of King Hezekiah came to Isaiah, 6 Isaiah said to them, “Say to your master, ‘Thus says the Lord: Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have reviled me. 7 Behold, I will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land, and I will make him fall by the sword in his own land’” (2 Kings 19:5-7).

Now therefore behold, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of these your prophets. The Lord has declared disaster concerning you (2 Chron 18:22).

And if the prophet is deceived and speaks a word, I, the Lord, have deceived that prophet, and I will stretch out my hand against him and will destroy him from the midst of my people Israel (Ezk 14:9).

Thanks for your time. Two or three quick final points:

i) One pillar of your argument was climate change. Another pillar of your argument was Pharaoh as a paradigm-case of a climate change skeptic. When challenged, you confess yourself unqualified to defend either pillar of your argument. Although I appreciate your intellectual modesty, which is in short supply, that leaves your argument in shambles.

ii) Second, we need to have the critical detachment to distinguish what we think the Bible says from our perspective on the Bible. In the interpretive process, you can’t reasonably begin with what you’re prepared to believe is true, then use that to leverage your interpretation. For what the Pentateuchal narrator believed is independent of what you happen to believe. And it’s quite possible that what he believed is at variance with what you would write if you were the author of the Pentateuch. What if the Pentateuchal narrator did, in fact, believe that God is guiding some people (i.e. Pharaoh) with a “heavy hand” to bring about a grand plan? Are you denying to the narrator the freedom to assume a viewpoint at odds with your own? Isn’t that terribly parochial on your part?

iii) And to the extent that you believe in the authority of the Bible, then that would obligate you to accept the viewpoint of the narrator, even if it clashes with your preconceptions.

But thanks for your time. And I look forward to reading your sequel article (or blog post).

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