AN ARGUMENT TURNED UPSIDE DOWN

Philip Jenkins

 

Dr. Hamblin has specified his grounds rules for any debate over Book of Mormon historicity, in terms that I view as irresponsible and unacceptable.

 

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/enigmaticmirror/2015/06/30/hamblin-20-centrality-of-hermeneutics/

 

In response, I will present my own assumptions about methodology. This is a substantial post that touches on a number of issues that are critical to any debate. Unless otherwise stated, I will be addressing my comments to Dr. Hamblin, the “you” of what follows.

 

I initially base this discussion on something you said in our debate concerning falsifiability. You wrote, “Jenkins asks about the question of falsifiability. I’ll set aside the problem that this is really a methodology issue for empirical experimental science, which doesn’t really work with non-empirical historical questions.”

 

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/enigmaticmirror/2015/06/27/hamblin-18-quantity-of-evidence/

 

I will return to that very significant quotation from you shortly.

 

You then proceed to apply the issue to one limited and very specific topic in the area of personal names. “But, the best test of “falsifiability” for the Book of Mormon would be the absence of BOM names in the corpus of Preclassic inscriptions.  If we had, say, phonetic readings for several thousand personal and place names in Preclassic Mesoamerica, and found no BOM names there, that would be problematic for the BOM.” However, we have no such lists, so no problem. So that’s all right then.

 

This statement is revealing in multiple ways. Primarily, it shows that you are completely ignoring the far more critical question, namely whether there is any evidence whatever for the existence of any of the peoples mentioned in the Book of Mormon in the New World, at any place, at any time. Throughout, you are assuming that presence, and then working to discredit any form of disproof that might be offered. I did not initially recognize that rhetorical technique because it is so completely odd to me and, I would say, to any standard form of argumentation.

 

You are, so to speak, going to stage twelve of an argument without passing through the prior eleven steps that constitute the essential foundation for that conclusion. To you, questions and arguments about testing and verifying might seem inappropriate, irrelevant and “naēve” (your pet word). They are absolutely not so to anyone who is not already a thoroughgoing believer in the historicity of the Book of Mormon.

 

Throughout, you are assuming rather than testing or proving, or indeed thinking that testing and proving might be worthwhile or necessary activities. You are making that assumption of truth – assuming that the Book of Mormon scenario is correct - which is extremely far-fetched for anyone not already convinced of the religious views that you espouse. Those religious views, moreover, are the sole and solitary ground for believing that historical and archaeological hypothesis. Because you do not acknowledge that point, and don’t even appear to understand it, you are left concluding that anyone who disputes your position must either be ignorant or suffering from religious bigotry.

 

I will return to these points. But just as damaging to any case Dr. Hamblin may make are his comments on falsifiability and the nature of evidence. There are several points, which strike me as critically important. I will divide this discussion into six major headings:

 

1. What archaeologists do

2. Testing and proving

3. Making and testing extraordinary claims

4. Deal-breakers

5. Does any objective evidence support your case?

6. Why you will not, and cannot, produce any objective, verifiable evidence

 

1.WHAT ARCHAEOLOGISTS DO

 

It greatly disturbs me that you do not acknowledge that falsifiability must be a basic element of any argument about these matters, and that you dismiss the question so peremptorily. It really suggests to me that you do not begin to understand the issues at stake. Nor, again, do you understand how academic disciplines work.

 

You say that falsifiability is “a methodology issue for empirical experimental science, which doesn’t really work with non-empirical historical questions.” If you talk to your friends in Archaeology, they will tell you firmly and definitively that theirs is indeed a true science that practices empirical and experimental methodologies, and knows the concept of falsifiability very well indeed. I would confidently expect no less of the gaggle of first-rate scholars based at BYU, and certainly the Meso-Americanists.

 

Given the absence or paucity of written texts, any discussion of the Book of Mormon’s New World scenarios is necessarily archaeological rather than historical. How can anyone dispute that? Therefore, falsifiability is an essential component of any claim or argument. If it does not meet the most stringent scientific criteria, then such a claim need not be considered in this context.

 

In one of your recent posts you make some startling remarks on matters of methodology and academic study:

 

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/enigmaticmirror/2015/06/30/hamblin-20-centrality-of-hermeneutics/

 

Specifically, you sayWe must correctly understand and interpret Mesoamerican evidence. None of this is objective.” This is absolutely at odds with anything taught or practiced in any Meso-American studies or archaeological unit. It is insulting to anyone who practices that highly credible and reputable discipline. In the same post, you also apply that principle to Ancient Near East Archaeology and History. That is at least what I understand from your remark that “We must correctly understand and interpret ancient Near Eastern evidence.  Essentially the same issue as #2 above, but with a different data set.”

 

You also say, “History is a non-empirical discipline. And anything that is non-empirical cannot be objective.” That is, as I say, absurd. But assume for the sake of argument the point about history is true. In contrast, archaeology, clearly and emphatically, is an empirical discipline. And any attempt to understand the Book of Mormon scenario must be archaeological. That is, empirical and experimental.

 

Seriously, I would love to hear a response to your comments about the disciplines from one of the skilled archaeologists who hold the LDS faith, whether at BYU or elsewhere – and whether they work on Meso-America or the Ancient Near East. Do they believe that they are practicing a humanities discipline based entirely on subjective and individual perceptions, devoid of any scientific content? (Answer: they don’t, or if they do, they are in the wrong profession).

 

If you want to see the kind of authentically empirical and experimental research I am referring to, I would point to the extensive and thoroughly credible work done on establishing the origins of a nation or people called “Israel” in the Judean highlands of the Late Bronze/Early Iron Age, by fine scholars like Israel Finkelstein. That is an excellent analogy for anything potentially relating to the Book of Mormon, because these scholars were likewise trying to trace and identify an ethnic group in a particular landscape. To use a phrase I shall explain shortly, that Judean research was incontestably “falsifiable, refutable, and/or testable.”

 

I also refer to splendid work done in recent decades in the US Southwest among the communities and networks of what were once called the Anasazi, the Ancestral Puebloans. As in the Judean case, one major focus is on the identification of ethnic and linguistic groups in particular landscapes, and how they have changed and developed over time. Who were these people, what were their social and cultural arrangements, what can we say about their political structures, and how do those historic groups relate to modern day peoples in the region? In no case can we draw on any contemporary written texts, and thus our methodologies are wholly archaeological.

 

Southwestern archaeologists form hypotheses about the nature of those bygone communities, they go off and test them, and then formulate new and more precise hypotheses in light of the new findings. In the best scientific mode, the work here is very definitely empirical and experimental in nature, and it is founded in that holy scholarly trinity: falsifiable, refutable, and/or testable.”

 

That is what scientists do. That is what archaeologists do. And that is, unquestionably, what archaeologists who profess the LDS faith do.  They would all be awfully surprised to know that what they are dealing with is “not objective.”

 

If we ever were to have a region or a series of archaeological sites that anyone was to claim as related to the Book of Mormon’s accounts, these are the methodologies and approaches that would be used to examine and verify them. Those methodologies must of necessity be falsifiable, refutable, and/or testable.” As I have said, we never have had any such vaguely plausible candidates, and in my view, we never will, but those are the criteria that must be employed.

 

The total absence of any such potential sites is your problem, not mine. It is indeed a fatal problem for any argument you might make on this subject.

 

2.TESTING AND PROVING

 

As a social historian, I do a LOT of expert witness work in courts. The reason lawyers are able to use my expertise is that I treat history as a social science fulfilling the so-called Daubert standard, which I describe here:

 

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2015/05/outliers-and-iconoclasts/

 

The first and indispensable criterion in this list is “1.Empirical testing: whether the theory or technique is falsifiable, refutable, and/or testable.” The second is “2.Whether it has been subjected to peer review and publication.” As you imagine, a great deal of case law exists on these matters, which are thoroughly familiar not just within the legal world, but within the realm of science of all kinds.

 

If you object that peer review in and of itself does not guarantee quality or accuracy, I would entirely agree with you. But it does establish a minimal floor of credibility and plausibility, below which we should never descend.

 

These are the standards I have all along insisted that we should and must use in our debates, and which I would apply to any and all potential claims or statements that are advanced in support of the Book of Mormon’s historicity.

 

The existence of the alleged peoples in the Book of Mormon scenario is emphatically not a “non-empirical historical question.” If they are to pass muster as scholarship, any statements concerning this matter must be “falsifiable, refutable, and/or testable.”

 

To witness these best practices in operation, one book I admire in matters of Old Testament historicity is Lester L. Grabbe, Ancient Israel: What Do We Know And How Do We Know It? (London/New York: T & T Clark, 2007). The book is far from unique in this way, as such extremely high critical standards are so familiar a part of that discipline, but it happens to be a title I have been reading recently. On every page, you see how demanding are Grabbe’s critical standards, his zeal to test and verify every morsel of potential data according to the most rigorous scientific standards. He assesses the history by means of the archaeology, and vice versa. Archaeology for him is, par excellence, an empirical discipline. If Grabbe had three sons, I imagine they would be named Falsifiable, Refutable, and Testable. Or perhaps his daughters.

 

Obviously, Grabbe is highly critical of conventional assumptions about the history reported in the Bible. Even so, you cannot read his book without being overwhelmed by the incredible array of data that we have to play with in that region, as against the total black hole that is the story of the Book of Mormon peoples in the New World. Somehow, all sorts of evidence – inscriptions, pottery, metalwork, texts - survived to be examined in the Southern Levant, while they evidently did not in the Book of Mormon’s New World. Work all you want to account for the difference, there is only one credible explanation, namely that the supposed Book of Mormon peoples never existed. If you want to see the difference between real scholarship and “Ancient Book of Mormon Studies,” there is no finer starting place.

 

To the best of my knowledge, I have never seen apologist work in “Ancient Book of Mormon Studies” that comes close to meeting these criteria, or indeed shows any awareness of them. In my view again, such rigor is totally and conspicuously absent from Sorenson’s monumental MORMON’S CODEX, which is pervasively anecdotal and impressionistic. As the phrase goes, the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.”

 

If you believe that comment is unfair or inaccurate, then I assume you will cite examples that challenge my statements. If you further believe that a particular apologist work meets those standards, then I would ask to know what it is.

 

I stress these criteria and particularly their origins, so that you (and your readers) can see that I am not inventing them out of whole cloth. I am in no sense trying to invent special rules to apply to the Book of Mormon that I would not apply to other topics or eras. These are fundamental principles of science in general, and of social science in particular.

 

3. MAKING AND TESTING EXTRAORDINARY CLAIMS

 

The point about standards of evidence is so important for this reason.

 

I have said that the account of the New World in the Book of Mormon is “a view that is utterly at odds with the views of pretty much the entire academic profession dealing with New World history and archaeology, American history, Biblical studies, genetics, linguistics, and so on.” You might not like the fact, but I hope you will agree that, for better or worse, “mainstream” academe has no time whatever for the approaches of Ancient Book of Mormon Studies.

 

You yourself have written that the Book of Mormon “receives almost no serious attention by Pre-Columbian scholars,” and you are largely right about that. I would rather say, “receives absolutely no attention from Pre-Columbian scholars.” The scholarly consensus is not just overwhelming, it is total, and it is totally opposed to your world-view.

 

That observation has two implications.

 

First, and this is almost too obvious to be worth stating, the burden of proof is entirely and wholly on you, or anyone wishing to challenge that consensus. You cannot sit there and hold your extraordinary and (by most standards) bizarre view and wait for outsiders to come and undermine it. You must make the positive case. You must advance the proofs, claims and arguments.

 

Let me be more specific. The crucial point – I would say, the only point worth discussing – is whether the peoples described in the Book of Mormon scenario were actually present in the New World at roughly the right time and place. The scholarly and academic consensus on this is rock solid: they were not, and that must be the default assumption. I have zero obligation to disprove the existence of those peoples, still less anything particular about them. You have an absolute,100 percent, obligation to prove their existence, if you can. If you choose not even to make the attempt, that is your choice, but it means that you have no argument, and no credibility in anything you say about the issue. It’s your call. You cannot just assume.

 

To take an analogy, nobody wishing to be taken seriously could stand there and proclaim “Tolkien was an inspired prophet! Middle Earth is real! Disprove it if you dare!” If that analogy seems farcical or trivializing to you, it contains a very serious point. From the point of view of virtually all academics, and certainly those dealing with New World history or archaeology, the Book of Mormon carries precisely as much, or as little, credibility as objective fact as does the Lord of the Rings. To reiterate, you might not like that fact, but fact it is. If you want to change that reality, then you must make the case.

 

Second, any arguments or points supporting the Book of Mormon’s historicity constitute extraordinary claims, which are so to speak from the furthest far left field. Of course, then, they demand extraordinary evidence, but more important, that evidence must be assessed by the most rigorous and indeed impregnable standards of plausibility.

 

I think something like the Daubert criteria outlined above provide those standards. If you disagree with that argument, I ask to know your reasons.

 

4. DEAL-BREAKERS

 

On a personal level, I ask once again: for you personally, what is the point that would make you lose faith in the case you make supporting the historicity of the Book of Mormon? (I certainly do not ask anything concerning your own religious faith, but specifically your belief in the Book’s literal historicity). How, in theory, could your own view be falsified? That ultimate breaking point might be extremely hypothetical, and you are pretty sure that it could never occur, but there must be one, however remote you think it might be.

 

As I remarked at the beginning, you already gave one answer to that question, but do you want to stick to that? As we are dealing with archaeology – which is as I say an empirical, experimental discipline – then we have to confront that falsifiability theme more directly.

 

As I have asked previously, “If you reply that no piece of external evidence could shake your belief, however overwhelming it might seem, then you are stating explicitly that your view is a matter of faith, and not of science, scholarship or history. If that is so, then there is no point in trying to argue the issue in such terms. It is purely internal to you. Just don’t pretend that you have any claim in the realm of science, scholarship or history.”

 

These are matters that demand debate.

 

5. DOES ANY OBJECTIVE EVIDENCE SUPPORT YOUR CASE?

 

With those comments and criteria in mind, I next advance to the question I raised earlier:

 

* Do you believe that any or all claims about the New World in the Book of Mormon are supported by any form of objective, verifiable evidence?

* If so, what is that evidence?

* If you believe that a great deal of such evidence exists, please just give a couple of specific examples.

 

I can’t believe that anyone could consider these questions unreasonable in the context of this debate.

 

6. WHY YOU WILL NOT, AND CANNOT, PRODUCE ANY OBJECTIVE, VERIFIABLE EVIDENCE

 

You will never be able or willing to adduce any evidence whatever of any aspect of the Book of Mormon’s claims about the New World that meets the standards laid out here. (Do note that I am talking about testing and verifying particular claims about the Book and its scenarios, rather than the futile project of “proving the Book” as such.)

 

To take a purely hypothetical example, and I do not suggest that you are proposing such, you might cite evidence that a newly discovered temple in the Yucatán contains a Semitic inscription that can plausibly be dated to the fourth or third century BC, and that the text even included a name recognizable from the Book of Mormon. That would be a sensational find, literally the find of the century, but HOW the story is presented matters crucially. If a few people just discussed it at a conference, or if it featured in some newspaper stories and a privately printed pamphlet, it would remain in the realm of anecdote. Only if it is properly reported in a peer-reviewed journal will and should the claim receive the attention that will bring detailed testing and verification – in short, the test of falsifiability. Perhaps it would prove genuine, perhaps not.

 

But that is clearly moot, because you are not going to produce such an example. If you had access to such a thing, you would have assuredly have flourished it in my face long before now. Nor do I think that you are willing or able to produce far less spectacular and more quotidian “proofs,” because you don’t even have those. I have asked repeatedly for credible evidence in the form of “One sherd of pottery? One tool of bronze or iron? One carved stone? One piece of genetic data?” But you don’t have any of the above, or they would already be on the table. What you do have is many, many reasons (in my view, of varying degrees of plausibility) why we are never going to find such. Am I wrong?

 

In my view, it is pointless for you to argue at length why certain kinds of evidence could not be available, as in your recent contributions at

 

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/enigmaticmirror/2015/06/29/hamblin-19-place-names-emblem-glyphs/

 

or

 

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/enigmaticmirror/2015/06/30/hamblin-21-maya-king-lists/

 

I might agree with your view or not, but that is immaterial. As I have said, it is wholly up to you to produce positive evidence that the Book of Mormon peoples existed. So why are you just constantly and obsessively telling me why evidence does not exist, as opposed to pointing to what does – if indeed it does? Why are you wasting your time like this?

 

To me, it is utterly inconceivable that a great and long-lasting civilization like that postulated by the Book of Mormon (over a thousand years!) should have vanished without leaving a trace, whether archaeological, genetic, textual or linguistic. You, on the other hand, feel you have plenty of valid reasons why such a total obliteration could or should have occurred, so that such evidence is not forthcoming, and perhaps never could be. You have already argued that we should never expect to find any relevant pottery or inscription evidence.

 

But our difference of approach is, perhaps, irrelevant. Where you and I are completely at one, I think, is in agreeing that no such observable, verifiable, remains or vestiges of that supposed civilization exist for scholars to examine.

 

Without such positive, objective, verifiable evidence – evidence subject to the rules and conditions that I have laid out here – then you have zero grounds to support or advocate the historicity of the Book of Mormon other than religious faith, which is not susceptible to academic discussion or examination. I cannot, must not, and never will discuss your personal faith in any way, positive or negative. My one complaint is that you represent your views as a matter of objective scholarship rather than the devout faith of an individual.

 

In that case, what do we have left to talk about?

 

 

Such, at least, is my perspective. You are in no sense a shrinking violet (any more than I am), and you assuredly will tell me if you believe I am mis-stating your stance. I certainly don’t intend any conscious distortion.