Jenkins 21: The Empirical Past?

Jenkins 21: The Empirical Past? July 17, 2015

Below is Jenkins comments.  My response comes first in blue.


For the purposes of argumentation I will broadly accept Jenkins’ definitions, given below.  He then claims:

The key is observation.  …

Exactly.  Since we cannot directly observe the past, the study of the past is necessarily non-empirical.  

The past does not currently exist. As you rightly say, though, it has left traces that do – in the form of archaeological remains, documents, inscriptions, whatever – and those traces can be subjected to empirical research. They can be observed, collected and analyzed, commonly through quantitative techniques. Any such research is empirical.

This is exactly my point.  The remains from the past–objects which existed or were made in the past and still exist in the present–can sometimes be studied in some empirical ways, e.g. a pot from an archaeological site can be weighed, measured, etc.    

But that is not empirically studying the past!  That is empirically observing the pot in the present.  It is not empirically observing the past.  It is studying objects from the past that survive empirically in the present.  These are two entirely different issues.  

But beyond that, all art and texts require interpretation.  They do not lend themselves to empirical objective observation.  Period.  We can agree that a sequence of words appear in a certain order on a surviving manuscript–that can be empirically observed.  But who wrote it, and when?  Why was it written?  Was it fiction or history?  Accurate, or mistaken, or a lie?  

The study of the New Testament is a classic example.  Lower textual criticism is a semi-empirical disciple to the extent you can empirically examine the manuscripts and determine what different readings there are.  But we must acknowledge that we have only a fraction of the manuscripts that once existed, and none of the originals.  So even to that extent we cannot empirically study the original Gospel of Matthew.  We only indirectly observe the textual effects (i.e. manuscript copying and mistakes) of an original historical event–the writing of the gospel, and its original manuscript.  So that aspect is semi-empirical, to the extent we can directly observe and read words on a manuscript.  

But beyond that, empiricism vanishes from New Testament studies. When considering the vast array of interpretations and opinions that exist–theological as well as secular–New Testament studies can in no way be considered either empirical or objective?  Do you agree?  Interpreting a text is not an act of empirical observation.  And since history is fundamentally dependent on interpreting text, this means history is not empirical.  

My final point.  Philip, do you believe we can empirically know the resurrection of Jesus by reading accounts describing that resurrection which survive complete only in manuscripts dating to several centuries after the event?  I maintain that this is indirect knowledge of the past, not direct nor empirical.  I maintain that only those who directly observed the resurrection have empirical knowledge of that event.  Thus modern historians can only have indirect knowledge of the resurrection because we cannot directly empirically observe the resurrection.  That is the distinction I am trying to draw.  Seeing the resurrection = empirical knowledge.  Reading an account by someone who claims to have seen the resurrection = indirect non-empirical knowledge.   Do you agree?  Can you understand the difference I’m talking about?  It is crucial to the epistemological questions we are discussing.  

As for your example given below, it describes empirically studying surviving evidence from the past, not empirically observing the past itself.  I believe those are two entirely different things.  


Hi Bill,

You have written some comments about the nature of historical methodology at:

You view as expressed here is unsustainable, contradictory and, I would say, indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of historical and archaeological methodologies.

You are obviously and undeniably correct in saying that the past does not presently exist. You are also right to say that “our only capacity to interact with the past is inherently indirect.  We interact with the Past by studying the evidence left by past people–texts, inscriptions, art, artifacts, monuments, tools, tombs, etc.  We can understand the past only by studying those things, which were made or done in the Past, but which still exist in the present.” No less obviously, “data from the Past needs to be interpreted precisely because the Past no longer exists.” Amen and amen. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

It is flagrantly wrong, though, to say that “Hence, the study of history is not empirical–that is, we cannot directly observe with our senses or experiment on the Past.  History is a non-empirical discipline. “ This is completely false, and I can’t think of a competent historian (other than yourself) who would accept that final statement. Nor would it be accepted by any scientist who understands the meaning of the word “empirical.” From your subsequent remarks in your original post, about “This is not objective,” I understand you to take the same wildly incorrect approach to archaeology.

You are in a minority of one.

Let me define my terms. I am taking these from general dictionaries, and they seem adequate for the purposes of discussion: will you accept these?

Objective evidence is data that shows or proves that something exists or is true. Objective evidence can be collected by performing observations, measurements, tests, or using other suitable methods.”

Alternatively, objective evidence is “Information based on facts that can be proved through analysis, measurement, observation, and other such means of research.”

“Empirical evidence is information acquired by observation or experimentation. This data is recorded and analyzed by scientists and is a central process as part of the scientific method.”

Empirical means “based on, concerned with, or verifiable by observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic.”

Will you accept those? None of these definitions necessarily involves experimentation (although that might feature) and that point is critical. The key is observation. That experimentation requirement is one that you have added, idiosyncratically and unnecessarily. It is a distinction for you and nobody else. 

The past does not currently exist. As you rightly say, though, it has left traces that do – in the form of archaeological remains, documents, inscriptions, whatever – and those traces can be subjected to empirical research. They can be observed, collected and analyzed, commonly through quantitative techniques. Any such research is empirical. 

Of course we can observe and analyze the surviving traces of the past. We can look at documentary records of the battle of Gettysburg, we can collect and examine official documents, we can explore material remains on the battlefield. Just because the observation is not taking place in 1863 does not mean such work is not (or might not be) empirical. 

Any historical study that involves quantification of any kind is of necessity empirical. It means collecting and presenting data in a way that they can be tested and replicated by other scholars. That is empirical study.  Other forms of history might also be empirical, but this assuredly is.

You accuse me of ignoring or understanding your words. What about your lack of response to the pointed reference I gave you of African-American slave owners, which is a perfect reference of an empirical study of the past? Is that not empirical? Answer, please?

Let me give you another example, which (I hasten to say) does not bear directly on the Book of Mormon. It is by Tim Beach, with several co-authors, and it is entitled “Ancient Maya impacts on the Earth’s surface: An Early Anthropocene analog?” Quaternary Science Reviews 124 (2015): 1-30. I note that one of the co-authors, Richard Terry, is BYU faculty. If you cannot access the article, I will be happy to send you a copy.

This fine article describes how the Maya transformed the landscapes in which they lived, with a major focus on the Classic Maya. “Highlights” of the findings include the following: “The Ancient Maya left a richly variegated landscape of the Early Anthropocene.  … Ancient erosion truncated soils and buried sinks, leaving golden spikes in strata…. They left positive impacts or landesque capital such in terraces and wetland fields.  …They lived through pluvials and droughts, perhaps exacerbating Late Classic drought. ….They left myriad adaptive features such as reservoirs and useful species still extant.”

I am not qualified to assess the methodologies used here, but the article seems to me thoroughly convincing, indeed revelatory, and it is a highly significant contribution to the archaeological literature. It also has enormous implications for future historians studying the ancient Maya. The scholars observe the surviving traces of the past in order to reconstruct that past, and they do so richly. They are telling us about how people lived and worked, how they organized themselves,  and how they reshaped their world. What could be more fundamental historical questions?

This study is one of a couple of thousand I could offer you to show modern scholars using objective evidence, and clearly empirical evidence, to be assessed through empirical techniques in order to form a picture of the past – in this case, the past of more than a millennium ago.

With that in mind, let us return to your statement:

“Hence, the study of history is not empirical–that is, we cannot directly observe with our senses or experiment on the Past.  History is a non-empirical discipline.”

So is the “Ancient Maya impacts on the Earth’s surface” article empirical or not? If not why not? Do you believe the authors constructed a time machine to go and observe the ancient Maya directly, in 1000AD?

Your statement about “non-empirical” is inaccurate, and indeed absurd.

Or am I misunderstanding you again? I have only your plain words to go on. If I am misquoting you, please clarify.

Oh, and on one other point. I complained about your statement that, “Neal Rappleye has posted a bibliography of non-LDS academic publications dealing favorably with ancient Book of Mormon studies.”  You reply: “None of these “publications” (i.e. journals or publishers) are LDS.  Some of the authors are LDS.” Oh my, what a total night and day difference!

So in other words, we have a list of 24 publications, of which twelve are by Givens, Sorenson, Hardy, Tvedtnes, Bushman and Nibley, and you think it is legitimate to describe that as a list of “non-LDS academic publications” (I have no idea how many of the other writers are also LDS). And you think any reader is going to pick up that piece of casuistry?

Are you kidding?

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