long ago ideas

“When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago." - Friedrich Nietzsche. Long ago, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery conquered false claims that the Book of Mormon was fiction or that it came through a stone in a hat. But these old claims have resurfaced in recent years. To conquer them again, we have to return to what Joseph and Oliver taught.

Monday, July 6, 2015

the methodologically proper response

The ongoing debate between Dr. Hamblin (BYU Mesoamerican supporter) and Dr. Jenkins (Christian skeptic) recently produced this:

In his #13, Jenkins writes:
So if the great Book of Mormon civilization is there, why is it not producing hundreds and thousands more inscriptions, in Hebrew, Reformed Egyptian, etc? It sort of suggests that civilization isn’t there, right?
Notice that this is a question of expectation, not evidence.  Again it is an epistemological and methodological questions, not an empirical one.  The problem here is that a book shouldn’t be evaluated on what you expect, hope, or wish the evidence for or against it should be, but on what the evidence actually is.  If there is insufficient evidence for one particular line of analysis, the methodologically proper response is to take another approach, not to declare the case closed.
I’ve already explained why a civilization might not either produce inscriptions, or have its inscriptions survive.

Hamblin proceeds to give five reasons why there are no inscriptions in Mesoamerica related to the Book of Mormon. Then he concludes with this:

Thus, while Jenkins might “expect” us to find lots of inscriptions to provide us the information we need to make a judgement on the historicity of the BOM, the reality is, we find what we find–no more, no less.  Alas, the evidence is what it is, not what Jenkins expects or wants it to be.  Jenkins appears to think this is irrational special pleading on my part to explain away lack of evidence for the Book of Mormon.  I think it is simply the methodologically sound approach to the data.

I propose that Hamblin take his own advice; i.e., "If there is insufficient evidence for one particular line of analysis (in this case, the Mesoamerican theory of Book of Mormon geography), the methodologically proper response is to take another approach." 

The other approach, of course, is to look at North America as the setting for the Book of Mormon.

Somehow I suspect Hamblin will not do so. The absence of evidence in Mesoamerica is startling, but never "insufficient" for Mesoamerican proponents, apparently. The Mesoamerican theory provides plenty of fodder for critics such as Jenkins.

In fact, Jenkins addresses a response of Hamblin's regarding falsifiability. In my view, Jenkins' reliance on peer-reviews publications is problematic: any archaeologist who dared to publish something that would support the Book of Mormon would never get his/her work through peer review. The example of ancient smelting in Indiana is just one example. Peer reviewers are notorious for maintaining the status quo, or at least consensus views; and despite Jenkins' insistence that archaeology is an objective science comparable to physics, in reality is it highly subjective, or at least relies on subjective inferences to interpret the meanings of physical findings.

And yet, I think Jenkins makes a good point about Mesoamerica:

“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 utterly 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 “na├»ve” (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.
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. 
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.”
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 response, Hamblin finally gives his first example of actual evidence from Mesoamerica of the Book of Mormon--only to have Mark Allen Wright correct him! Hamblin's evidence consisted of a possible phonetic connection between a 7th century glyph in Palenque and king Akish in Ether 8-9. Wright notes that the glyph is now interpreted differently. But even the old pronunciation that Hamblin cited is far more likely a coincidence than a connection; as he admits the dating is vague and the "correspondence" between the glyph and the Book of Mormon king is quite vague.

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