Jenkins 17: Epistemology and Nihilism

Jenkins 17: Epistemology and Nihilism July 3, 2015

I have read your recent post on epistemology, which genuinely took me aback: 

I can’t believe you wrote that. I will take very serious issue with your views.

In previous dealings with Mormon apologists, who are basically very conservative individuals, I have been amused to see them resort so often to radical post-modern approaches, to suggest that, in effect, we should not be constrained by Enlightenment rationality. Because all scholarly attempts to prove aspects of the Book of Mormon fail so egregiously, they then assume that the fault must lie in History and scholarship, rather than the Book itself. That is when we start hearing the plaintive post-modern yelps. History and philosophy have moved on since then! Subjective approaches matter! History is consensus illusion! Oh, how naïve you are to accept historical “facts” and “objectivity”! Always watch for those damning po-mo quotation marks.

I had hoped that you would not advance any such silly arguments in this cause. But then I groan to see you writing these words: 

“Whenever anyone demands “objective evidence” for historical questions you know your [sic] dealing with a hermeneutical and epistemological misunderstanding or naiveté. History–in the sense of the actual human past–does not exist. It cannot be directly observed.  You cannot experiment upon it by giving Napoleon an extra division of infantry to see if he could win the battle of Waterloo. History is a non-empirical discipline. And anything that is non-empirical cannot be objective. … History, clearly, is not empirical.  Thus, the demand for “objective evidence” represents a fundamental misunderstanding of both the nature of the human past, and our ability today to understand it.”

So you can’t observe it, therefore it is not objective reality? If anyone wrote this in my graduate history seminar, they would receive an instant F.

And yes indeed, there are those po-mo quotation marks!

There is lots more in this vein, including your staggering assertion that Meso-American/Pre-Columbian studies is likewise entirely subjective rather than scientific in nature, and that includes archaeology. In case my summary seems grotesquely improbable, I will quote you precisely: “We must correctly understand and interpret Mesoamerican evidence.  None of this is objective.” I’ll discuss that gem in a separate post. As a bonus, you then proceed, “We must correctly understand and interpret ancient Near Eastern evidence.  Essentially the same issue as #2 above, but with a different data set.” So, we learn to our surprise, Ancient Near Eastern evidence is likewise not objective – neither the history nor the archaeology.

Does that ever take me back! You and I should get together sometime and hold a theme party for intellectual fads of the late 1980s. I think I can dig out my old Milli Vanilli albums. This is déjà vu all over again. Um, you do know that Michel Foucault has been dead since 1984, right? 

As you express it here, yout approach, your epistemology, is the antithesis of science or scholarship. It is the antithesis of the approaches to learning that the Western world has made central to the world-view since the Enlightenment. Your views really are that radical, or if you prefer, that reactionary.

Let me give a concrete example. Imagine someone arguing today about the removal of the Confederate flag, and making a stupid, obnoxious, argument that, hey, most of the slave owners were actually African-American themselves! (You might not believe it, but yes, some people really do say that). No, say the historians, that is bunk, and we can prove it. We have a huge array of documents and texts that prove that there might have been a few such Black slave-owners, but they were a tiny minority among the overwhelmingly White master class. 

In other words, let’s reconstruct the objective reality of the past, and let’s do it by empirical means. We’ll form a hypothesis and test it. Let’s actually count the numbers and give percentages! And let’s do it in a way that our methods are reproducible, falsifiable and verifiable – as if we might ever neglect such a fundamental step in a major social science. 

Oops, did I go and demand “objective evidence”? Did I forget that “History is a non-empirical discipline. And anything that is non-empirical cannot be objective.” What a naïve fool I am! History, after all, does not exist. If you want slavery never to have existed, then poof! it never did. We make up the past as we go.

Does not the example of the “Black slave-owners” make nonsense of your arguments? And here’s another instance. You are teaching a class, and some anti-Semitic idiot pipes up to deny the existence of the Holocaust. You, personally, know he is totally wrong (Why? Because you really believe in objective historical fact) and you try and give him evidence that it really happened. But suppose he says this. Gee, Dr. Hamblin, it was you that said that “History–in the sense of the actual human past–does not exist. It cannot be directly observed.  … History is a non-empirical discipline. And anything that is non-empirical cannot be objective. … History, clearly, is not empirical.  Thus, the demand for “objective evidence” represents a fundamental misunderstanding of both the nature of the human past, and our ability today to understand it.” How do you answer him?

Back on Planet Earth, in reality, “Whenever anyone demands objective evidence for historical questions” – you know you are dealing with an intelligent working historian.

This story would all be funny if it were not so tragic.

The only good news is that you don’t really believe this guff either. At least, you assuredly do not manifest any such post-modern attitudes or methodologies in the (admirable and intelligent) writings of yours that I am currently reading on the history of the Ancient Near East, where you emerge as so endearingly traditional, conservative and old-fashioned in your approaches. In those writings at least, you clearly accept conventional beliefs about objective historical fact, and you consistently demand high standards of evidence, defined in the most mainstream and conventional manner. 

You are not allowed to abandon all those exacting standards the moment you land in Yucatán. You can’t just put on a radical post-modernist hat when all your other arguments fail (as they universally have).

I should add one thing by way of a pre-emptive strike. In debates over cultural theory, I sometimes hear a disparaging remark on the lines of “Ah, you must be afraid of such radical and subversive ideas, which is why you won’t understand or accept them,” which seeks to disarm the opponent or critic. Before you are tempted to utter such words, do please read my several books on the topic of social theory, social constructionism and the social construction of reality, especially my 1994 title Using Murder and my 1998 book Moral Panic (Yale University Press). I have worked and published in these areas a great deal more than you ever have. Actually, I have several significant publications using and analyzing such post-modern methodologies. You have none. You will notice that these are older titles of mine. In my view, these po-mo debates are now passé, and really no longer of interest. The world has moved on. 

I would ask people reading this blog to consider something carefully. You may agree with Dr. Hamblin on many things. You might believe in the Book of Mormon as a historical text. But do you realize the sheer weirdness and far out nihilism of the views he is presenting – on the nature of reality, the character of history, and the non-existence of objective truth? There is no real world! It’s all an illusion. History does not exist! Take a moment to read again that paragraph above beginning “Whenever anyone demands objective evidence…” Do you agree with a word of that, insofar as it is intelligible? In my view, the ideas he expresses represent intellectual suicide. 

If this idea that the past does not exist, that everything is subjective illusion, is situated in any religious tradition, the only one I can think of is mystical Buddhism.

Do you realize how totally – in theory – Dr. Hamblin is prepared to reject all science and scholarship in order to support his views about the Book of Mormon? Are you prepared to follow him along that particular road? That doesn’t bother you? Does he speak for you?

Critically, I must also explain something for people who don’t know the academic world at first hand. You may think from his “Everybody knows this” tone that Dr. Hamblin is reflecting some kind of new consensus or orthodoxy among academic historians, leaving me as a “naïve” and ill informed reactionary floundering amidst this brave new intellectual world. To say he isn’t in any kind of consensus would be a cosmic understatement. In any standard History department in the US, his views (as expressed here) would sound just as reckless, flaky and eccentric as they do an ordinary lay person. His views are so far removed from the academic mainstream that you can only see them on a clear day. 

Let’s make this clear: these are his quirky ideas, and virtually nobody else’s.

I can’t speak for the approaches of the BYU History department specifically, but I have always assumed that it was strictly mainstream and highly reputable. They even have people there who believe in objective reality! Would any BYU historians or archaeologists reading this care to comment on his denigration of their disciplines?

On a non-academic point, I do get tired of Dr. Hamblin’s refusal to answer straight questions, notionally on the basis of his woolly theoretical framework. I have always aimed to follow a “Say what you mean and mean what you say” approach, and I believe in answering direct questions frankly and simply, without shilly-shallying. I suppose that is also “naïve.”

People sometimes advance a methodology with the hope of establishing common ground for discussion. What rational person would agree to share the fantasy world that Dr. Hamblin portrays here? No scholar would ever accept these assumptions as ground rules for a debate. This would be like trying to debate a young earth Creationist, who insists that I must first agree that the solar system is ten thousand years old, and then we can proceed from there.

Dr. Hamblin: The good news for me in all this is that you are situating yourself so far outside the known academic universe as to destroy any credibility that might, theoretically, attach to any of your observations or propositions. If I want to discredit your arguments, all I really need to say is “Just read what he wrote!” 

This is too easy. 

By the way, in all future exchanges, whenever Dr. Hamblin uses the word “naïve,” I will assume he mans “competent, rigorous, professional historian.” I will take it as a high tribute.

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