The reincarnation of a WW2 pilot?

Summary

The case of the alleged reincarnation of James Houston Junior, an American pilot being shot down in Japan during WWII, is often seen as the strongest evidence for reincarnation. In this long article, I investigated this claim. While many putative pieces of evidence can have come about through foreknowledge or leading questions, there are a number of inconvenient facts that remain. Whilst they aren’t sufficient for proving reincarnation, they certainly make this case anomalous.

Introduction

 

If any alleged case of reincarnation proved to be genuine, both Christianity and Naturalism might be gravely undermined.

In what follows, I sought to investigate one famous such incident with the mind of an open sceptic, i.e. someone who carefully investigates the evidence without having a prior belief in the plausibility or implausibility of the phenomenon.

 

A good summary of the peculiar story involving James Leininger and his parents Bruce and Andrea can be found here.

This is an interview of the parents.

I base my analysis of the facts on the book “Soul Survivor: The Reincarnation of a World War II Fighter Pilot” written by Bruce and Andrea Leininger, while, of course, considering the possibility they might misremember some things or get certain facts wrong.

I’ll start by quoting the “explanation” of two naturalistic philosophers John Martin Fischer and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin in their book “Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Our Visions of the Afterlife

Unlike Internet Sceptics, they are moderate and respectful and their text is a pleasant read.

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They start by summarising the case:

 

“At the age of two, James Leininger began having frightening dreams that caused him to yell out and to kick, and claw in his sleep.
He’d dream that he crashed in an air-plane and was trying to escape. The details James shared about these dreams were astonishing. He demonstrated encyclopaedic knowledge about World War II aircraft, and he recounted facts about a particular aircraft carrier, the Natoma Bay, and its flight crew, including naming a fellow pilot, Jack Larsen.
Jame’s fascination with these aircraft and events in the war was not confined to his dreams. He drew pictures, acted out scenes, and talked frankly and in great detail about the battle of Iwo Jima. He signed his pictures “James 3” because he was, in his words, “the third James.”
As Jame’s parents began looking more deeply into their son’s behaviour and interest in the war, they noticed some astonishing coincidences. The details young James was relating matched historical facts. The Natoma Bay was an actual ship that fought in the battle of Iwo Jima. The names of people James talked about in his dreams were members of the flight crew on that ship. One of the pilot shot down had been named James. They began to suspect that their son might be the reincarnation of that pilot. With the help of Carol Bowman, a therapist known for her work on cases of reincarnation in young children, the Leiningers began to listen empathetically to their son. What they saw and heard in his words and behaviour only further supported their suspicion. They became convinced, even if reluctantly in the case of Jame’s father, that their son had lived a past life as James Huston, who was shot down in his plane over the Pacific during the battle of Iwo Jima.
This brief synopsis should be enough to give you a sense of why many have thought that the best explanation of Jame Leninger’s dreams and behaviour is that his is a case of reincarnation. This was a very young child demonstrating a fascination with certain kinds of aircraft and an apparent knowledge of particular historical people and events in ways that suggested that he was personally and deeply attached to them. It will come as no surprise, we’re sure, to learn that we are not convinced by the reincarnation hypothesis. It may be one possible explanation of things, but it is not an especially compelling explanation. This becomes clear once we take account of the full range of factors, including both details of James Leininger’s life and the overall explanatory context.

First of all, a young boy’s fascination with airplanes, even airplanes of a very particular make and model, should strike no one as remarkable in the least.
In general, and as every parent knows, young children become obsessed with people, places, and things. Often, these obsessions are often explained by exposure to the person or things…But sometimes, these obsessions should seem to come out of the blue. It would be rash, however, to claim that just because one cannot understand how a child came to be fixated on something, the explanation must be supernatural. It is better to think, instead, that one has simply missed or forgotten something relevant to explaining how the obsession began.
Jame Leininger’s obsession with WWII airplanes may strike one as an outlier, perhaps, because it is coupled with extensive knowledge of facts about both the aircraft and historical people and events. But before we jump to the conclusion that the best way to explain what is going on here is to appeal to reincarnation, we should consider whether there are any promising avenues for explaining things by more conventional means. And there does seem to be some possibilities here.

Consider the fact that the Leiningers visited a flight museum when James was eighteen months old. During their visit, James walked around the very type of planes he later claimed to have been flying in his dreams, Corsairs. His parents have even claimed that he looked like he was conducting a flight check. Noting this detail about Jame’s life seems like a promising start for provinding an explanation of his obsession with ww2 aircraft, and his fixation on Corsairs in particular. By all accounts, James was a very bright child. It is possible that a bright 18-month-old could absorb many details at the air museum, especially in conjunction with listening to his parents or tour guides or others discussing the displays. James may not have had the ability at 18 months to put these experiences into words and express them verbally, but many of the details might have registered. Later, when he developed the capacity to verbalise, James would have been able to express the information that had registered earlier. We can thus begin to make sense of why James Leininger was so obsessed with World War II aircraft and how he knew what seemed like an uncanny amount about them. And we can do so without appealing to anything supernatural.

Even if James Leininger’s detailed knowledge of WW2 aircraft were to be explained in this way, it may still seem as though the case presents a serious puzzle. How could James have known the names of the people he recounted as being there with in his dreams?

We are not at all sure how the explanation of these facts is supposed to go.
But it does seem possible to explain them without invoking reincarnation. Perhaps James heard these names somewhere. Maybe they were mentioned in a television program he saw (the Leiningers admit to conversing with James about a television program on World War II aircraft on the History Channel) or a book or museum panel someone (perhaps his parents) read to him. Perhaps his parents mentioned them in conversations at home. Children are incredibly perceptive, and their memories often outstrip those of adults. Given that he was obsessed with WWII aircraft, it’d be no surprise if James soaked up titbits of information that went in one ear and out the other for those less intent on the subject.

Once his parents and other adults began to ask him about these things, it would not be surprising if Jame’s interest in them increased. He may even have begun to seek out more information about these matters out of a desire to please his parents or other authority figures, such as Carol Bowman and Jim Tucker (another expert on reincarnation), who interviewed him in relation to the possibility that he was reincarnated.
The presence and interests of these people would be powerful influences on a young person at an age when the desire to please an adult authority figure is great. So there might have been a symbiosis between young Jame’s desire to please and his parents’ and certain researchers’ beliefs and prior assumptions about what was happening in his case. This could have led to Jame’s telling a story that suggested he was reincarnated, when in fact he was not.
Indeed, it would not be surprising if James Leininger came to “remember” events from a past life due to repeated, and possibly leading, questioning from his parents and other adults. It is a commonplace that the testimony of children is quite suggestible, and three- and four-year-olds have been shown to be more suggestible than even five- and six-year-olds.
Among the factors thought to explain the phenomenon of suggestibility in children are, first, that their memories are not as firmly implanted as those in older people and, second, that the mechanism for protecting and monitoring memories against suggestive intrusions are not as robust in young children as in older people. If James was repeatedly questioned about his dreams and his claims about a past life, especially by people who were themselves of the opinion that he had a past life, it would be consistent with psychologists’ understanding of how memory works in young children to suppose that he came to falsely remember and report various facts and events..

We stress that we do not take ourselves to have provided adequate explanation of the Leininger case. That is not our aim. What we hope to have done is to have shown how the approach we’ve been sketching in this book may be applied to this case.
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Now, the authors themselves admit it is hard to account for the specific details given by James.

 

Systematic investigation of the case

In what follows, I shall examine different elements that have been claimed to show that James had memories of a past life.

 

 

At two-year of age, James was described as being “the centrepiece of a loving family of three living on the soft coastal plane of southern Louisiana” and Andrea’s “first and only child”.

But Bruce Leininger had four children from a previous marriage.
They didn’t live with James’ half-siblings so that the latter could hardly have contaminated their little brother’s memories.

 

Natoma’s bay

 

How likely is that little James took in the name “Natoma Bay” while visiting the Cavanaugh Flight Museum as he was 18 months-old?

USS_Natoma_Bay_(CVE-62)_at_Tulagi_on_8_April_1944_(80-G-235018)

Before 2001, there is only one obscure book “USS Natoma Bay (CVE 62), VC 63, VC 81, VC9” written by the “Natoma Bay Association” dedicated to the plane carrier.

Otherwise, the boat is only mentioned in one or two lines of books dealing with WW2 planes.

In the great scheme of things, the Natoma Bay was really insignificant.

Given the fact that the Cavanaugh Flight Museum is an aviation museum for the general public and not for WW2 aviation specialists, it seems very unlikely they would have mentioned the word “Natoma Bay” and it seems even dubious they would have known that name by heart.

It seems also very unlikely that a knowledgeable visitor would have been present at the right moment and would have said the words.

 

What is more, while little James might have been very astute, he was only 18-months of age!
It seems implausible (albeit not impossible) he would have picked up a funny name and have correctly identified it conceptually in order to retrieve it later on.

Could “Natoma Bay” have been mentioned in a TV show James listened to?

As the carrier wasn’t significant, this is  implausible. I am open to challenges if some reader can found documentaries where it is mentioned.

 

Given all of that, it appears unlikely that little James would have found the name “Natoma Bay”.

 

Jack Larsen

The next puzzle concerns “Jack Larsen”. Of course, James had no idea that there was a “Jack Larsen” on the “Natoma Bay”.

And in comparison to “John Brown” or “Bill Smith”, “Jack Larsen” wasn’t such an usual name for a 2 years-old to come up with.

So it seems again very unlikely he would find by chance the name of a “Jack Larsen”who happened to have been a comrade of James Huston Jr. on the Natoma Bay.

 

James’ GI Joes.

 

Jamees had three GI Joes with peculiar names.
“Hey, how come you named your GI Joes, Billy and Leon and Walter?”

Bruce’s parents knew no Leon and Walter.

“Because that’s who met me when I got to heaven.” James answered.

Then he turned and went back to play.

Bruce snatched a piece of paper and read it. He read it again but couldn’t bring himself to say what was on his mind.

He was holding the list of names of the men who were killed aboard Natoma Bay. He handled it to Andrea. On the list were James M. Huston Jr., Billy Peeler, Leon Conner, and Walter Devlin. Bruce gave her a flat look, then started shuffling and tossing papers around again. He had files with dates and details and could conjure up the records in a flash.
“They were all in the same squadron”, Bruce said. “VC-81.”

The three men were already dead when James Huston was killed.

Leon had blond hair exactly like James’ namesake GI Joe according to his cousin Gwen.
“He was an ideal boy: six feet tall, blond, blue-eyed, a football star who also played the violin.”

 

The final action figure [Walter] had auburn, almost red hair.

He was described as “Irish, with all that big red hair.”

The action Figure Billy himself was Brown-haired as Billy Peeler based on his photo.

 

Little James had no plausible way to find these names and these pieces information.

 

Given that, it is very unlikely he would have, by chance, found the right names of his deceased comrades (two of which aren’t that common) and able to associate them to the right hair colour.

 

James Huston Junior’s sister Annie

 

James’ place in the family

James correctly called James Huston Junior’s sister “Annie”, as only her brother called her that way.

He told Andrea that he had another sister, Ruth. Only he pronounced it “Roof”. She was four years older than Annie and Annie was four years older than James. When Andrea checked with Anne Barron, she said it was all accurate. Ruth was the oldest by four years, James the youngest by four years”.

Of course, this relies on Anne’s memory but the year of birth of one’s sibling is something almost all of us remembers very well.
It is at least remarkable he knew the name of the oldest sister and it seems unlikely he would have guessed it or sneak into his dad’s newspapers to find it.

 

Personal detail about the Huston’s family life

Things get a bit more ambiguous here.

We read: “Five-year-old James knew about their father’s alcoholism. He knew all the family secrets with a familiar intimacy.”

Here, we might envision that “Annie” asked leading questions to James.

“For instance, James recalled in surprising detail when his father’s alcoholism got so bad that he smashed things and had to go into rehab, he knew all about that”.

On the other hand, it also seems unlikely that Anne would herself take the initiative to mention such traumatising details to a five-year-old boy.

According to Jim Tucker, James already spoke of the alcoholism of his “father” when his real mother Andrea entered into his room with a glass of wine.

Given that, it appears likely that James did recall such details on his own, but this isn’t very evidential as this cannot be strictly shown.

James 3

James signed some of his drawing “James 3”. When he was asked why he signed them “James 3”, he said simply “Because I am the third James. I am James 3”.

If the parents recalled correctly, this would be a remarkable coincidence as the other James was James Houston Jr.

However, they might also have unconsciously put this into their son’s mouth in hindsight but that doesn’t seem likely.

According to Jim Tucker, James continued to produce the same drawing even when he was four-years-old.

Bob Greenwalt

 

Bruce brought James to a meeting of the veterans of the Natoma Bay.

 

The man looked down at James and asked in a hearty, robust voice,
“Do you know who I am?”
James looked him in the eye, thought for a second, and replied,
“You’re Bob Greenwalt.”

“How did you know that?” asked Bruce.
“I recognised his voice,” he told his father.

 

Now, if James had never heard the name “Bob Greenwalt”, this fact alone would strongly point toward a paranormal phenomenon.
But is this the case?

No.

One night, Andrea received a call from Bob Greenwalt she transferred to Bruce.
“A Bob Greenwalt want to talk with you” she said.
“I know who Bob Greenwalt was…” answered Bruce.

 

It cannot be conclusively ruled out that James heard half-consciously the name and some strong features of the voice because the mother might have activated the loud speaker.

 

Prenatal choice of his parents

 

One of the most puzzling episode concerns little James “choosing” his parents shortly before his birth.

“One day, after raking leaves together, Bruce told James how happy he was to have him as a son. James replied, “That’s why I picked you; I know you would be a good daddy.” Bruce did not understand. James continued:

When I found you and Mommy, I knew you would be good to me.”

“Where did you find us?”

“Hawaii. . . . I found you at the big pink hotel. . . . I found you on the beach. You were eating dinner at night.”

Bruce was dumbfounded. In 1977, Bruce and Andrew indeed went to Hawaii and stayed at the Royal Hawaii, a pink hotel on Waikiki beach. On the last evening, they had a moonlight dinner at the beach. Five weeks later, Andrea became pregnant with James.”

Unfortunately, we cannot entirely rule out the possibility that James saw the picture of the pink hotel and of the dinner at the beach somewhere in the house.

This doesn’t appear particularly likely because the parents would have remembered the pictures but this cannot be dismissed out of hand either.

Misidentification of the corsair

We now finally come to the only argument AGAINST the reincarnation hypothesis.

An exception was that Huston was shot down in a FM2 Wildcat, not a Corsair: veterans could recall no Corsairs on Natoma Bay. Nor could the details of James’s account of the plane being shot down be confirmed. However, a visit to Huston’s sister Anne Barron uncovered a photograph of Huston standing in front of a Corsair, confirming that at one time he flew this aircraft.

But even if James Leininger was really the reincarnation of James Huston Jr., we don’t have to expect that his memories would always be clear and precise.

What is more, Tucker contacted the Cavanaugh Flight Museum and learned that it had no Corsair on display between 1999 and 2003, the time period of James’s first two visits, so that this description cannot come from his early visit to the museum.

Under the hypothesis of reincarnation, it is not unreasonable to believe that James could confuse the plane he died in with a plane he was also familiar with.

Battle of Iwo Jima

Iwo-Jima

As the battle of Iwo Jima was very famous, it is not astounding that James Leiniger would be exposed to it or claimed he had died there.

That said, it is certainly curious that the only member of the Natoma Bay who died there was James Huston Jr.

Conclusion

The James Leininger’s putative reincarnation case is a complex one.

Many elements can be well explained through foreknowledge, suggestion and false memories.

It is, for example, conceivable that James was able to correctly identify Bob Greenwalt’s voice and describe his parents’ evening at Hawaii before his birth thanks to sensory clues and foreknowledge.

Nevertheless, it is unlikely that little James would have come up with “Natoma” as that ship was rather insignificant and hardly mentioned to the general public. It is very unlikely he would, by chance, utter the uncommon name “Jack Larsen” who appears to be a member of that very ship’s crew. It is very unlikely he would have christened his three GI Joes according to the names and appearances of his real colleagues Billy, Walter and Leon while remembering having seen them in Heaven and it is really dubious he could have gleaned that information by sneaking into his father’s documents.

In light of this, other less evidential elements (such as James’s mentioning the alcoholism of his former “father” to Annie, “James 3”, his death at the battle of Iwo Jima and his seeing his parent before his birth ) reinforce the credibility of the case.

Does that mean we must believe in the reality of reincarnation?
The answer is a resounding NO.

Very unlikely combinations of events are bound to happen.

 

I do think, however, that sceptics need to recognise that this case is highly anomalous.

 

Thematic list of ALL posts on this blog (regularly updated)

My other blog on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Myth of the Good Alien: on Skeptical Wishful Thinking

Deutsche Version: Der Mythos des guten Außerirdischen: über das Skeptische Wunschdenken

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We all know that: while the thinking of religious people is dominated by all sorts of irrational processes like confirmation bias, wishful thinking, personalization and so forth,  self-professed Skeptics are (almost) always thinking rationally whereby their emotional states have only a very small influence on their reasoning abilities. Almost all conclusions they reach are well-grounded and it is Reason and evidence alone which lead them to conclude that reductive materialism is true and that one ought to mock and ridicule everyone disagreeing.

However to an outsider like me, it appears obvious that Skeptics are as prone to cognitive and psychological biases as everyone else.

The whole idea that the overwhelming majority of intelligent space aliens are beings full of empathy and love is a very representative example. Whilst it is certainly not a belief held by all Skeptics, it is extremely popular among many Skeptical circles around the worlds, especially those actively supporting the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project.

Michael Shermer’s influential article The myth of Evil Aliens should always be used as a case study for this type of self-deception.

I will let the FERMI-paradox (if there are so many alien civilizations out there, why don’t we see them?) aside and grant for the sake of the discussion that there are actually countless extraterrestrial races in the universe.

The great astrophysicist Stephen Hawking expressed worries about one possible consequence of contact with another intelligent race. As Shermer reported it:

“According to Stephen Hawking, we should keep our mouths shut. “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet,” he explained in his 2010 Discovery Channel documentary series. “I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach.” Given the history of encounters between earthly civilizations in which the more advanced enslave or destroy the less developed, Hawk­ing concluded: “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”

While Hawking certainly does not think that every extraterrestrial civilization would act in this way, his concerns sound quite reasonable to my mind. How does Shermer dismiss it?

“I am skeptical. Although we can only represent the subject of an N of 1 trial, and our species does have an unenviable track rec­ord of first contact between civilizations, the data trends for the past half millennium are encouraging: colonialism is dead, slavery is dying, the percentage of populations that perish in wars has decreased, crime and violence are down, civil liberties are up, and, as we are witnessing in Egypt and other Arab countries, the desire for representative democracies is spreading, along with education, science and technology. These trends have made our civilization more inclusive and less exploitative. If we extrapolate that 500-year trend out for 5,000 or 500,000 years, we get a sense of what an ETI might be like.

In fact, any civilization capable of extensive space travel will have moved far beyond exploitative colonialism and unsustainable energy sources. Enslaving the natives and harvesting their resources may be profitable in the short term for terrestrial civilizations, but such a strategy would be unsustainable for the tens of thousands of years needed for interstellar space travel.

In this sense, thinking about extraterrestrial civilizations forces us to consider the nature and progress of our terrestrial civilization and offers hope that, when we do make contact, it will mean that at least one other intelligence managed to reach the level where harnessing new technologies displaces controlling fellow beings and where exploring space trumps conquering land. Ad astra!”

 Now I believe that Shermer’s wishful thinking already begins with his enumeration of the alleged current progresses of our own kind.

He leaves aside the harmful consequences of the wild capitalism and neocolonialism he actively supports.

This will be the topic of future posts. For the sake of this discussion I will just assume that he is completely right with respect to human moral progresses.

At face value, his reasoning seems compelling and reassuring. Shermer grants the obvious point we cannot answer this question empirically since we’re the only one subject in the sample, but we can, on logical grounds, conclude that any such advanced species would have reached high moral standards in the same way mankind is heading towards that goal. So, we’ve good grounds for thinking that interstellar traveling aliens are peaceful and loving.

Yet a closer examination shows that such an argumentation lacks an important step.

In order to get an advanced alien civilization full of love and empathy, the following conditions must be successively satisfied:

1)      On an ideal planet, an intelligent species emerges through evolutionary processes

2)      This species evolves a strong propensity for love, empathy and altruism (LEA) besides other instincts

3)      Through a technological and cultural evolution, this species designs social, political and ethical structures which allow LEA to be optimally expressed

I tend to agree with Shermer’s optimism that given enough time, the extraterrestrial civilization is going to develop structures and ethical principles leading its basic moral instincts to be expressed in a maximal way.

But this is the sticking point: what if the species lacks LEA and has evolved other ways to become a powerful intelligent race?

Given the extraordinarily high number of possible places where intelligent life could evolve in the universe (let alone in the multiverse!), it seems almost certain there will be countless worlds with intelligent beings having moral intuitions radically different from ours.

And I’ve never read or heard any reason to think otherwise which does not beg the question in one way or the other.

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And this clearly greatly undermines atheistic attempts to define an objective morality. If our moral intuitions are evolutionary contingent, we cannot assume they are true in an absolute sense any more than another intelligent species with conflicting intuitions could do.

And if evolution (or more generally nature) does not define what is right and wrong, how can a worldview denying the existence of any kind of transcendence provide us with a grounding for morality?

Should a materialist be an eliminativist?

In a previous post (which newcomers should read), I went into the problem of subjective awareness (or consciousness).

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Like the great philosopher Thomas Nagel, I considered what a bat subjectively feels when it is sending out ultrasounds.
Try to imagine this for a few minutes.
I suppose that the large majority of my readers will acknowledge the fact they don’t have a clue what it feels like to be a bat in that particular situation.
But why is it the case, if this subjective feeling is nothing more than a complex physical phenomenon?

Nagel’s thought experiment consists in imagining a scientist of the future knowing absolutely all chemical and physical processes taking place in brain of the animal as it is emitting the ultrasound.

Would he know what the creature is experiencing?

Most people think intuitively it is obvious that a knowledge about the movements of the electrons in the brain would NOT bring him a knowledge about the subjective perceptions of the living thing.

But why is it so?

In the post I linked to I explain why this cannot lie in the fact that our brains are too different. To (modestly) quote myself:

“I’ve never understood how one can make sense of that in a materialist framework.
If the subjective experience is as material as the atoms of the chair I’m sitting on and the electrical processes of the computer I’m using, then why would a complete knowledge of physics allows me to know everything about both objects but not about the feelings of the animal?

Let us suppose that species A and species B dispose of brains enabling them to perfectly understand physics and chemistry while being radically different in other respects. It makes only sense to say that species A cannot know what species B feels if these very feelings are something MORE than physics and chemistry, that is if one form of dualism is true.”

Now materialists have answered me that no human scientist knowing everything could figure out what the bat feels because the human brain is not capable of processing such an amount of complex information.
Other materialists were more optimistic but seemed to recognize that there will always be a gap owing to the extreme complexity of the phenomenon and our own mental limitation.

At face value, such a response has a certain degree of plausibility

It is entirely true that the brain of living things are the most complex structure in the whole universe, far more complicated than a cluster of black holes taking over stars could ever be.

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But there is a huge problem here. How on earth can a stupid bat be perfectly aware of its subjective experience, if it is something that our most brilliant scientists cannot (yet?) figure out?

I think that the following argument can be considered,

1) If the subjective experience of a bat is identical to a ensemble of brain processes, it is going to be extremely complex.

2) Our scientists could only be (partially) aware of this very complex processes if they disposed of much more knowledge than they currently do.

3) School children or anyone lacking the education, competence and physical knowledge cannot be aware of the experience.

4) A bat lacks all these attributes.

5) Yet a bat is perfectly aware of what it is feeling as it is sending out the ultrasound.

6) Thus this subjective experience cannot be identical to extremely complex physical processes.

6) logically follows from all the steps.

How can a materialist react to this?

1) and 2) are the excuses they came up with for explaining away our utter lack of knowledge of the bat’s experience as it emits the ultrasound.

3) logically follows from  1) and 2).

4) is obviously true.

Therefore I think it is fair to say that materialists will have to deny 5): the bat is not perfectly aware of its subjective experience.

But given the definition of subjective consciousness, this amounts to asserting that the bat is not perfectly aware of what it is aware of. Therefore this would mean embracing eliminative materialism, which is the belief that there is no such thing as phenomenal consciousness.

There is no such thing as being a bat or a bee. Or, to use the phrase of the great materialist neurophilosopher Thomas Metzinger, we should accept “being nobody”.

(I’ve used “conscious” and “aware” as synonyms in the entire post).

Some people will certainly quibble with my use of the word “perfectly”. I think it is justified in this context, given the nature of our experienced feelings.
If I am in pain, I know perfectly well what I am experiencing, feeling or sensing.
If there are bodily processes I am not aware of, they don’t belong (by their very nature) to my subjective conscious experience.

Nevertheless, I think that if you replaced 5) by “Yet a bat knows much better what it is feeling as it is sending out the ultrasound than what our best current scientists can figure out”,  the argument and its conclusion would remain largely unchanged.

I have used the example of a bat, but any extraterrestrial creature being radically different from us in the some way would do the job too.

I have just realized that my argument could be stronger if one were to consider a self-conscious bat-like creature possessing the intelligence of a seven-years old average human (and presumably living on another planet).

Although it won’t probably convince everyone, I think that what I have outlined here is a decent philosophical argument.

Addition: saying that the conscious experience of the bat is a representation produced by its brain does not seem to solve the problem since a representation itself is an ensemble of extremely complex physical processes (according to materialists).

 

Is John Loftus a consistent biological robot? Can he avoid redefinitions?

Alex from the website http://www.skeptiko.com

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dealing with paranormal topics interviewed the militant atheist John Loftus.

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I am going to offer my random thoughts as the dialog went forward.

John is a former conservative Christian who has been emotionally abused by Christian fundamentalism which taught him he had to worship an evil God along with an inerrant Bible.

He became a resentful atheist and now seek to destroy the whole Christendom at all costs.

The topic of the interview was the so-called Outsider Test of Faith (OTF) which aims at pushing Christians to evaluate their religion in the same they critically considered other religions.

As a progressive Christian, I completely agree with that!
Actually, when conservative Evangelicals from the website “AnsweringMuslims.com” point out that the Koran is false because it includes immoral stuff, I evoke worse atrocities in the Bible and tell them with love that they ought to treat Muslims as they themselves would like to be treated by Antitheists. Alas I have never gotten any kind of response from them.

I believe that the Biblical Canon is not MORE inspired than book outside the Canon and when discussing with fundamentalists, I often get answers from folks wanting to prove the Bible by assuming (without any reason) that other parts of the Bible is true.

So progressive Christian do the same experience as non-Christians when dealing with fundamentalists trying to prove their very specific worldview.

That said I believe a valid OTF should mean we are agnostic about every worldview for avoiding biases. I am not sure this is possible to do that while still being able to consider evidence and thinking logically.

Alex agrees with John that Christianity ought to be debunked and dismissed some Christian miracles such as the virgin birth and the empty tomb as nonsensical.
For someone open to the serious investigation of anomalous data, this is strange, to say the least. The empty tomb is a well attested fact accepted by most critical scholars. It is its explanation which is uncertain and heavily depends on worldview commitments.

Alex did not contest any of John’s argument against Christianity (and most of them are actually aimed at Conservative Evangelical Christianity and are very weak against other forms of Christianity) but focused on the problem of materialism and biological determinism.

This is certainly the weakest point in John’s worldview and one he is not well equipped to deal with, since his specialization is in theology, anti-theology, and a bit of philosophical theology.

He was humble enough to recognize this and referred to other naturalism defenders such as Victor Stenger and Keith Pearson. Exposing some fallacies of these authors will be the topic of future posts here…

Alex is a non-Christian theist strongly rejecting materialism and wanting John to defend his own worldview, namely Reductive Materialism (RM) to an outsider like himself.

John is misleading as he said that atheism makes no positive claim at all. This is even worse for Reductive Materialism (RM).

Saying that everything which is real is IDENTICAL to material processes is clearly a positive claim, which not only (given the existence of countless unknown parallel worlds) cannot be reasonably proven but is also probably inconsistent.

John agreed that in one million years (let alone in one trillion years) nothing humans can do matters.

But he emphasized that his actions and his love matter now.

But is John really capable to love, act morally, combat injustices if he thinks at the same time that his love is IDENTICAL to a bunch of molecules, atoms and more elementary particles moving within his brain?

Is that compatible with the way humans over the centuries in the entire world have felt about love?

Would it be not more honest for John to accept the fact that love is an illusion, just a bunch of physical processes leading a self-reproducing chemical system to produce offspring?

John is persuaded that an objective morality exists, and that many stuff described in the Old Testament are wrong (and I partially agree with him about that).

But if everything which is real is identical to particles, and the proposition “Genocide is always wrong” is real, then to what neutrons, atoms, molecules, currents is it IDENTICAL to?

The overwhelming majority of humans would find it absurd to reduce the moral wrongness of an atrocity to a bunch of particles without completely redefining the word.

And when John speaks of making a choice, he is just expressing the fact that his brain molecules are going to push his body to act in a certain way, according to purely physical causes which can be traced back ultimately to the big-bang.

Is that not a striking redefinition of a “free choice”?  How can it be freer than a choice predetermined by God?

John rightly pointed out that fundamentalist and many conservative Christians have a harmful influence on them and others and ought to lose their faith.

I agree and interact a lot with such folks as a blogger. But why should progressive Christians like myself worshiping a God who is perfectly good and loving and rejecting any kind of human dogmas (both outside and inside the Bible) give up their faiths?

And anyone taking a look at my blog, at those of Randal Rauser, James McGrath, the Naked Pastor, Rachel Held Evans, Kimberly Knight and many others won’t fail to see that the antitheistic meme (Liberals and Progressives legitimize fundamentalism) is completely wrong.  We constantly oppose fundamentalism.

John thinks apparently that deism and the belief we live in a very complex computer simulation are not irrational. Great, but if that’s the case, he should view himself as an agnostic rejecting traditional religions.

Considering this whole debate, I regret that Alex did not show slightly more respect to John who was very polite. But I understand it is very hard not getting emotionally involved during such discussions  and I am unfortunately no exception.

I don’t agree with Alex’s final claim that science shows us that consciousness survives death. While sometimes very intriguing, the results of parapsychology and NDE researches are far from being conclusive.

I am much more convinced by philosophical arguments showing that consciousness is not the same thing as material processes studied by science.

Now I am looking forward to receive critical and approving comments!

 

 

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On the Compatibility of Materialism and Moral Realism

Deutsche Version: Von der Kompatibilität des Materialismus und des moralischen Realismus.

 

Moral realism is the view, held by most humans, that there exists a certain number of objective moral facts which human beings ought to fulfill, like “Don’t steal!”, “Don’t murder!, “Be honest at work!” and so on and so forth.

I believe there is a serious problem trying to reconcile the existence of objective moral facts with God’s will, called the Euthyphro dilemma: is something good because God tells it (in which case morality is arbitrary) or does God say that something is good because it is good (in which case morality is independant of God).

However, there are also two problems concerning a materialist, evolved morality.

The first is ontological and concerns the nature of the things we’re talking about.

I define Reductive Materialism (which I’ll refer to as RM) as the belief that everything which is real is identical with the sum of an ensemble of physical objects and processes involving the interaction of matter and energy.

It is certainly no problem for RM to state that the chair I’m sitting on is reducible to a heap of cellulose and lignite molecule occupying a certain shape in space.

KAUSTBY Stuhl  Massive Kiefer ist ein Naturmaterial, das in Würde altert.

Likewise, I can believe that the computer I’m currently using is identical to a bunch of electrons moving through an appropriate material (Okay, my knowledge of informatics is not particularly good 🙂 )

Cartoon angry laptop - vector illustration. Stockfoto - 9353091

But what about the fact: “It is always wrong to rape a woman”. It clearly exists, therefore it should be reducible to a bunch of particles.

But I fail completely to see the candidates. Someone might mention the chemicals within her brain associated with pain. I see two problems with that:

  1. this distorts the meaning of the moral imperative: “you ought not to rape a woman” becomes an ensemble of chemicals and electrical currents going on inside her particular brain.
  2. You cannot deduce from that pain that you ought to act against it or avoid it, this is the famous naturalist fallacy described by the Scottish philosopher David Hume
  3. Since for materialism, pain itself is identical to particles in interaction with energy, why ought we to allow certain reactions to happen while avoiding others?
    Remember, a materialist cannot say “because they’re meaningful” or “because they’re painful” for in this case he would either be hopelessly circular or 
    become a dualist, recognizing the difference between the neural processes and the subjective experience.

Materialists like to embarrass theists with the Euthyphro dilemma, which is in fact a problem for believers in God. But they tend to overlook the formidable difficulties facing the grounding of their own morality. Moral facts seem much more at a home in a world where mental facts exist besides matter.

My conclusions are by no means absolute and I welcome all challenges!

 

 

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On the feeling of a lonesome bat / Von den Gefühlen einer einsamen Fledermaus / Des sentiments d’une chauve-souris solitaire

To my mind, the existence of consciousness, of a subjective experience is one of the greatest mysteries of the entire universe.

I remember very well my feelings as I followed a course about the origin of life as a high-school student. I was a young atheist and I had no problem to believe there were (and still are) various plausible theories explaining how self-replicating systems can come into being.

Yet, I was deeply puzzled by the very existence of conscious experiences, which I associated at that time with every living things including bacteria.

So I was wondering: “how can a bunch of chemicals lacking any kind of subjectivity become a being with inner experiences and sensations?“

This was for me a startling but awe-inspiring unanswered and probably unanswerable question.

I believe that the intuitions I had then as a teenager are still largely valid, and that what has been called the “hard problem of consciousness“ is unanswerable within a reductive materialist framework.

I define Reductive Materialism (which I’ll refer to as RM) as the belief that everything which is real is identical with the sum of an ensemble of physical objects and processes involving the interaction of matter and energy.

It is certainly no problem for RM to state that the chair I’m sitting on is reducible to a heap of cellulose and lignite molecule occupying a certain shape in space.

But what about the following situation: a neuroscientist of the future has isolated a bat in a very complex machine which allows him to know exactly all chemical and electrical processes taking place within the brain of the poor animal. Suddenly, the bad emits an ultrasound and the researcher measures absolutely everything going on in its body.

Would he know what the bat subjectively felt as it sent out the ultrasound?

This is a question which the great philosopher Thomas Nagel famously raised in his groundbreaking article: „What is it lile to be a bat?“ which is freely available on the internet. I recommend readers unfamiliar with this line of arguments to first take a look at the groundwork.

The argument against RM one might derive from his ideas is as follows:

  1. if RM is true, someone knowing all the physical processes making up the subjective experience of a creature would know that experience

  2. a brilliant neuroscientist in such a position couldn’t know what the above bat experiences

  3. therefore RM is false

While examining the philosophical literature on this topic, I was astounded to see that most reductive materialists don’t contest the validity of 2). Intuitively, it seems to be obviously true.
Our current scientists are already capable of knowing a lot about the physics and chemistry of what’s going on in a bat’s brain, and I fail to see how any increase in our understanding of the synaptic impulses could provide us with a knowledge of the inner experience of our evolutionary distant fellow mammal.

This is probably the reason why it is premise 1) which is generally denied.
Many reductive materialists would say that even if we knew everything about the neurology of such a brain, we would not know what the being experiences because the structure of our own brain is too different.

I’ve never understood how one can make sense of that in a materialist framework.
If the subjective experience is as material as the atoms of the chair I’m sitting on and the electrical processes of the computer I’m using, then why would a complete knowledge of physics allows me to know everything about both objects but not about the feelings of the animal?

Let us suppose that species A and species B dispose of brains enabling them to perfectly understand physics and chemistry while being radically different in other respects. It makes only sense to say that species A cannot know what species B feels if these very feelings are something MORE than physics and chemistry, that is if one form of dualism is true.

So to my mind a reductive materialist has no other choice than to deny premise 2).
In spite of our strong intuitions an exhaustive knowledge of the brain’s physics of the animal would allow the scientist to know subjectively what the bat is experiencing.

But this seems very close to if not indistinguishable from eliminativism, the belief that what we refer to as our subjective experience is an illusion, probably spawned by evolution.

An obvious epistemological problem of this position is that the existence of our conscious experience is immediate and much more certain than complicated physical, chemical and biological theories.

In such a context, dualism (which I define as the belief that mental and physical processes are not identical) appears to be the most reasonable position.

 

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Meiner Meinung nach ist die Existenz des Bewustseins, einer subjektiven Erfahrung, ein der größten Geheimnisse des ganzen Universums.

Ich errinerre mich sehr gut an meine Gefühle, als ich als Gymnasiumschüler einen Unterricht über den Ursprung des Lebens hatte. Ich war ein junger Atheist und hatte kein Problem, zu glauben, dass es vielfältige plausible Theorien gab und immer noch gibt, die die Entstehung von selbstreplizierenden Systemen erklären.

Dennoch war ich über die Existenz von bewussten Erfahrungen sehr erstaunt, die ich zu dieser Zeit mit jedem lebendem Wesen (einschliesslich Bakterien) verband.

So fragte ich mich: “wie kann ein Haufen von Chemikalien ohne irgendwelche Art von Subjektivität ein Wesen mit inneren Erfahrungen und Empfindungen werden?”.

Dies war für mich eine verblüffende aber ehrfurchtgebietende unbeantwortete und wahrscheinlich unbeantwortbare Frage.

Ich glaube, dass meine Intuitionen als Teenager weitaus gültig sind, und dass was das “schwierige Problem des Bewustseins” benannt wurde in einem reduktiv materialistischem Rahmen unbehandelbar ist.

Ich definiere den reduktiven Materialismus (die ich fortan als RM bezeichnen werde) als den Glauben, dass alles was real ist mit der Summe eines Satzes von physikalischen Objekten und Prozessen identisch ist, die die Wechselwirkung von Materie und Energie involvieren.

Es ist ganz bestimmt kein Problem für RM auszusagen, dass der Stuhl, worauf ich sitze, reduzierbar auf ein Haufen von Zellulose- und Lignitmolekülen ist, die eine gewisse Form im Raum besetzten.

Aber wie sollte man die folgende Situation betrachten: ein Neurowissenschaftler der Zukunft hat eine Fledermaus in einer sehr komplexen Machine isoliert, die ihm erlaubt, genau alle chemischen und elektrischen Prozesse zu kennen, die innerhalb des Gehirns des armen Tieres stattfinden.

Plötzlich emittiert die Fledermaus einen Ultraschall und der Forscher misst wirklich alles, was in ihrem Körper vorgeht.

Würde er wissen, was die Fledermaus subjektiv fühlte, als sie den Ultraschall aussandt?

Dies ist eine Frage, die der große Philosoph Thomas Nagel in seinem bahnmbrechenden Artikel „What is it lile to be a bat?“ aufwarf, der auf Internet freilich verfügbar ist. Ich empfehle Lesern, die mit dieser Art von Argumenten nicht vertraut sind, zuerst einen Blick auf das Grundwerk zu werfen.

Das Argument gegen RM, das man aus seinen Ideen ableiten kann, sieht folgendermaßen aus:

  1. wenn RM wahr ist, würde jemand, der all die eine subjektive Erfahrung eines Geschöpfs ausmachenden physikalischen Prozesse kennt, diese Erfahrung kennen
  2. ein brillanter Wissenschaftler in einer solchen Position könnte die Erfahrung der Fledermaus nicht kennen
  3. deswegen ist RM falsch

Als ich die philosophische Literatur über dieses Thema untersuchte, war ich verblüfft, festzustellen, dass die meisten reduktiven Materialisten die Gültigkeit von 2) nicht bestreiten. Intuitiv scheint es, selstverständlich wahr zu sein.

Unsere gegenwärtige Wissenschaftler sind schon fähig, viel über die Physik und Chemie der Vorgänge in einem Fledermausgehirn zu wissen, und es gelingt mir nicht, einzusehen, wie irgendwelche Verbesserung unseres Verständnisses der synaptischen Impulsen uns die Kenntnis der inneren Erfahrung des evolutionär entfernten Säugetiers liefern würde.

Dies ist vermutlich der Grund, warum die Prämisse 1) generell verleugnet wird.

Viele reduktive Materialisten würden sagen, dass sogar alles über die Neurologie eines solchen Gehirns wissen würden, würden wir nicht wissen, was das Wesen erlebt, weil die Struktur unseres eigenen Gehirns zu anders ist.

Ich habe nie verstanden, wie das in einem materialistischen Rahmen Sinn machen kann.

Wenn die subjektive Erfahrung genauso material wie die Atome meines Stuhls und die elektrischen Prozesse meines Computers ist, warum würde dann eine vollständige Kenntnisse von Physik mir erlauben, alles über beide Objekte zu wissen, obwohl es für die Gefühle des Tiers nicht der Fall ist?


Lasst uns annehmen, dass die Art A und die Art B über Gehirne verfügen, die ihnen erlauben, vollkommen Physik und Chemie zu verstehen, obwohl sie in anderen Hinsichten extrem unterschiedlich sind. Es macht nur Sinn, zu sagen, dass die Art A nicht wissen kann, was die Art B fühlt, wenn diese Gefühle MEHR als Physik und Chemie sind, d.h. wenn eine Form von Dualismus wahr ist.

So meiner Meinung nach haben reduktive Materialisten keine andere Wahl, als Prämise 2) zu verleugnen.

Trotz unserer starken Intuitionen würde eine vollständige Kenntnis der Gehirnsphysik vom Tier dem Wissenschaftler erlauben, subjektiv zu wissen, was das Tier erlebt.

Aber dies scheint, dem Eliminativismus sehr nahe oder sogar damit identisch zu sein. Der Eliminativismus ist der Glaube, dass was wir als unsere subjektive Erfahrung bezeichnen eine Illusion ist, die vermutlich durch die Evolution hervorgerufen wird.

Ein offensichtliches Problem dieser Position ist, dass die Existenz unserer bewussten Erfahrung unmittelbar und viel gewisser als komplizierte physikalische, chemische und biologische Theorien ist.

In einem solchen Kontext scheint der Dualismus (den ich als den Glauben definiere, dass mentale und physikalische nicht identisch sind), die vernünfigste Position zu sein. 


Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

https://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com