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.

,

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.
*******************

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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Was this tragedy caused by anti-black racism?

I just stumbled across an article about a tragedy which recently took place in the United States.
(There is  a short video to be watched there).
Ryan_Descha

(By Shaun King)

White man runs red light, causes accident, shoots and kills black woman with her hands up

Early Saturday morning, Deborah Pearl, a 53-year-old African-American mother and employee of a Cleveland area Harley Davidson Diner in Northeast Ohio, was on her to way work.

At 7:20 a.m., as she was driving her Ford Taurus, she had no idea that she was living her very last moments on this earth. Matthew Ryan Desha, a 29-year-old white man, ran a red light at an intersection and hit Pearl’s car with his Jeep.

After his car flipped many times and hers was pushed into the intersection, what happened next was like something out of a horror movie.

As Deborah Pearl got out of her car to assess the situation, Matthew Desha did as well. Except he also grabbed his 5.56-millimeter high powered assault rifle. According to witnesses, Pearl then proceeded to put her hands in the air in attempt to save her life from the armed stranger who had narrowly avoided killing them both in the crash just seconds earlier.

It mattered not to Matthew Desha. A witness who called 911 reported hearing him fire off at least 12 shots. At first, the appeared to be random. The 911 caller heard Deborah Pearl, who was a sitting duck at that point, begin screaming. Desha then began aiming and firing at her. While it has not yet been released how many times she was hit, when police arrived the scene, Deborah Pearl was found there on pavement mortally wounded and bleeding out.

Devastated and shocked, her husband and other family members came to the scene, and, understandably so, could not even muster up the words to explain how they were feeling.

Matthew Desha was arrested near the scene. Early Monday morning he was charged with the murder of Deborah Pearl. Police have not mentioned a motive for the brutal murder, but the entire scene is riddled with awful implications.

Just this past June, “police charged 29-year-old Matthew R. Desha with one felony count of carrying a concealed weapon and one misdemeanor count of possession of drug paraphernalia. A search of the North Ridgeville, Ohio, man’s car turned up a loaded 9 mm handgun and three additional loaded magazines, along with straws with suspected drug residue and other contraband.”

Clearly, that arrest wasn’t enough to have this man fully disarmed.

My mind immediately goes to Kalief Browder, who was arrested on suspicion of stealing a backpack. Kalief spent three years in jail awaiting trial for that charge before simply being released when the case was dismissed.

Desha, though, was arrested on a felony gun charge and was suspected of having drugs in his car as well, but was released in plenty of time to murder Deborah Pearl in cold blood.

I don’t know Matthew Desha, but I know cold-blooded bigotry and violence. I know that what Matthew Desha did to Deborah Pearl reminds me a great deal of what Dylann Roof, another heavily armed white man who had been previously arrested multiple times for drug and other charges, did to a group of unarmed African-Americans in Charleston, South Carolina.

Either way, a family just lost their wife and mother in a senseless act of American violence and we don’t have a single sign that anybody in power is close to doing a thing about it.

*************************
I cannot imagine either what her family must have felt.
 
But I have several remarks concerning the article itself.
 
1) Was this really motivated by racial hatred? Could it be that under the same circumstances, the man would have killed a white woman standing in his way?
We need to know more about his background before concluding this hideous crime was driven by anti-black racism.
 
For all we know, he might as well be a psychopath or suffer from delusions.
 
So at the moment, we cannot positively assert that he murdered her for the same reason Dylann Roof cowardly killed black Christian ministers.
 
2) What about situations where the role are reversed and it is a black man who kills a white woman?
 
Would it be right to title an article “Black man causes car crash, shoots and kills white woman”?
If a black man did that to a black woman, would it be right to write “Black man causes car crash, shoots and kills black woman”?
 
I think not, because this would unjustly stigmatise all black men.
 
But the same can be said about the stigmatisation of “white” men which is so widespread among the wealthy liberal establishment.
If it turns out his crime was truly driven by bigotry, an appropriate title would be “Racist white man causes car crash, shoots and kills black woman”.
 
3) Given the absence of evidence this act was motivated by racial hatred, all we can say is that a human being committed an atrocity against another human being.
In such a situation, we should sympathise with the afflicted family and pray for them if we are religious believers.
4) This article shows one of the main problems I have with “Black Lives Matter”, namely their failure to consider alternative explanations before concluding something was due to anti-black racism.
To his credit, Shaun King did not draw this conclusion but he strongly suggested this is the case.
If we are really interested in truth, we should only conclude something was caused by racism if we have concrete evidence pointing in that direction.
To give you an example, it is entirely true that there are disproportionately more Africo-Americans in prison than whites.
But before shouting that this huge disparity is due to racism occurring in the here and now, you must show that poverty plays no significant role.
Don’t get me wrong.
Besides, the appalling rise of Donald Trump makes it abundantly clear that there are still many Americans of Europeans descent who hate, resent or disdain Afro-Americans.
So a significant part of the problem is caused by racism.
But another significant part is caused by an unjust economical system plaguing poor blacks AND poor whites alike.
The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.
Martin Luther King on the “curse of poverty”.
“Black Lives Matter” activists almost always ignore this and pretend that everything is a consequence of skin colour.
It is a divisive movement which despises the rules of rationality and evidence-based thinking.
5) I wrote what I honestly believe at the moment.
If you think that makes me a “racist”, then so be it.
My thoughts are constantly evolving and I am ready to reconsider my opinion if you can identify flaws in my reasoning.

Invisible burden of proof

Progressive Evangelical apologist Randal Rauser has just written a fascinating post about the way professional Skeptics systematically deny a claim they deem extraordinary.

 

I’ve talked about God and the burden of proof in the past. (See, for example, “God’s existence: where does the burden of proof lie?” and “Atheist, meet Burden of Proof. Burden of Proof, meet Atheist.”) Today we’ll return to the question beginning with a humorous cartoon.

Religion cartoon

This cartoon appears to be doing several things. But the point I want to focus on is a particular assumption about the nature of burden of proof. The assumption seems to be this:

Burden of Proof Assumption (BoPA): The person who makes a positive existential claim (i.e. who makes a claim that some thing exists) has a burden of proof to provide evidence to sustain that positive existential claim.

Two Types of Burden of Proof

Admittedly, it isn’t entirely clear how exactly BoPA is to be  understood. So far as I can see, there are two immediate interpretations which we can call the strong and weak interpretations. According to the strong interpretation, BoPA claims that assent to a positive existential claim is only rational if it is based on evidence. In other words, for a person to believe rationally that anything at all exists, one must have evidence for that claim. I call this a “strong” interpretation because it proposes a very high evidential demand on rational belief.

The “weak” interpretation of BoPA refrains from extending the evidential demand to every positive existential claim a person accepts. Instead, it restricts it to every positive existential claim a person proposes to another person.

To illustrate the difference, let’s call the stickmen in the cartoon Jones and Chan. Jones claims he has the baseball, and Chan is enquiring into his evidence for believing this. A strong interpretation of BoPA would render the issue like this: for Jones to be rational in believing that he has a baseball (i.e. that a baseball exists in his possession), Jones must have evidence of this claim.

A weak interpretation of BoPA shifts the focus away from Jones’ internal rationality for believing he has a baseball and on to the rationality that Chan has for accepting Jones’ claim. According to this reading, Chan cannot rationally accept Jones’ testimony unless Jones can provide evidence for it, irrespective of whether Jones himself is rational to believe the claim.

So it seems to me that the cartoon is ambiguous between the weak and strong claims. Moreover, it is clear that each claim carries different epistemological issues in its train.

Does a theist have a special burden of proof?

Regardless, let’s set that aside and focus in on the core claim shared by both the weak and strong interpretations which is stated above in BoPA. In the cartoon a leap is made from belief about baseballs to belief about religious doctrines. The assumption is thus that BoPA is a claim that extends to any positive existential claim.

I have two reasons for rejecting BoPA as stated. First, there are innumerable examples where rational people recognize that it is not the acceptance of an existential claim which requires evidence. Indeed, in many cases the opposite is the case: it is the denial of an existential claim which requires evidence.

Consider, for example, belief in a physical world which exists external to and independent of human minds. This view (often called “realism”) makes a positive existential claim above and beyond the alternative of idealism. (Idealism is the view that only minds and their experiences exist.) Regardless, when presented with the two positions of realism and idealism, the vast majority of people will recognize that if there is a burden of proof in this question, it is borne by the idealist who denies a positive existential claim.

Second, BoPA runs afoul of the fact that one person’s existential denial is another person’s existential affirmation. The idealist may deny the existence of a world external to the mind. But by doing so, the idealist affirms the existence of a wholly mental world. So while the idealist may seem at first blush to be making a mere denial, from another perspective she is making a positive existential claim.

With that in mind, think about the famous mid-twentieth century debate between Father Copleston (Christian theist) and Lord Russell (atheist) on the existence of God. Copleston defended a cosmological argument according to which God was invoked to explain the origin of the universe. Russell retorted: “I should say that the universe is just there, and that’s all.” With that claim, Russell is not simply denying a positive existential claim (i.e. “God exists”), but he is also making a positive existential claim not made by Copleston (i.e. “the universe is just there, and that’s all”).

In conclusion, the atheist makes novel positive existential claims as surely as the theist. And so it  follows that if the latter has a burden to defend her positive existential claim that God does exist, then the former has an equal burden to defend her positive existential claim that the universe is just there and that’s all.

Here is was my response.
This is another of your excellent posts, Randal!

Unlike most Evangelical apologists, you’re a true philosopher of religion and don’t seem to be ideology driven like John Loftus (for instance) obviously is. This makes it always a delight to read your new insights,

I think that when one is confronted with an uncertain claim, there are three possible attitudes:

1) believing it (beyond any reasonable doubt)
2) believing its negation (without the shadow of a doubt).
3) not knowing what to think.

Most professional Skeptics automatically assume that if your opponent cannot prove his position (1), he or she is automatically wrong (2), thereby utterly disregarding option 3).

skeptik

All these stances can be moderated by probabilities, but since I believe that only events have probabilities, I don’t think one can apply a probabilistic reasoning to God’s existence and to the reality of moral values.

While assessing a worldview, my method consists of comparing its predictions with the data of the real world. And if it makes no prediction at all (such as Deism), agnosticism is the most reasonable position unless you can develop cogent reasons for favoring another worldview.

Anyway, the complexity of reality and the tremendous influence of one’s cultural and personal presuppositions on reality make it very unlikely to know the truth with a rational warrant, and should force us to adopt a profound intellectual humility.

This is why I define faith as HOPE in the face of insufficient evidence.
I believe we have normal, decent (albeit not extraordinarily) evidence for the existence of transcendent beings. These clues would be deemed conclusive in mundane domain of inquiries such as drug trafficking or military espionage.
But many people consider the existence of a realm (or beings) out of the ordinary to be extremely unlikely to begin with.
This is why debates between true believers and hardcore deniers tend to be extraordinarily counter-productive and loveless.

The evidence are the same but Skeptics consider a coincidence of hallucinations, illusions and radar deficits to be astronomical more plausible than visitors from another planet, universe, realm, or something else completely unknown.

magonia

In the future, I’ll argue that there are really a SMALL number of UFOs out there (if you stick to the definition “UNKNOWN Flying Objects” instead of a starship populated by gray aliens)

Of course, the same thing can be said about (a little number of) miraculous miracles.

 

Knowledge-dependent frequentist probabilities

 

This is going to be a (relatively) geeky post which I tried to make understandable for lay people.

Given the important role than epistemological assumptions play in debate between theists and atheists, I deemed it necessary to first write a groundwork upon which more interesting discussions (about the existence of God, the historicity of Jesus, miracles, the paranormal…) will lie.

Bayesianism, Degrees of belief

In other posts I explained why I am skeptical about the Bayesian interpretation of probabilities as degrees of belief. I see no need to adjust the intensity of our belief in string theory (which is a subjective feeling) in order to do good science or to avoid irrationality.

Many Bayesians complain that if we don’t consider subjective probabilities, a great number of fields  such as economy, biology, geography or even history would collapse.
This is a strong pragmatic ground for being a Bayesian I hear over and over again.

Central limit theorem and frequencies

I don’t think this is warranted for I believe that the incredible successes brought about by probabilistic calculations concern events which are (in principle) repeatable and therefore open to a frequentist interpretation of the related likelihoods.

According to a knowledge-dependent interpretation of frequentism I rely on the probability of an event is its frequency if the known circumstances were to be repeated an infinite number of times.

Let us consider an ideal dice which is thrown in a perfectly random way. Obviously we can only find approximations of this situation in the real world, but a computer can reasonably do the job.

In the following graphics, I plotted the results for five series of trials.

FrequencyNormal

FrequencyLog

The frequentist probability of the event is defined as

formel1

,

that is the limit of the frequency of “3” when the number of trials becomes close to infinity.

This is a mathematical abstraction which never exists in the real world, but from the 6000-th trial onward the frequency is a very good approximation of the probability which will converge to the probability according to the central limit theorem.

Actually my knowledge-dependent frequentist interpretation allows me to consider the probability of unique events which have not yet occurred.

For example, a Bayesian wrote that “the advantage of this view over the frequency interpretation is that it can deal with cases where there is no relative frequency to draw on: for example, Gigerenzer mentions the first ever heart transplant patient who was given a 70% chance of survival by the surgeon. Under the frequency interpretation that statement made no sense, because there had never actually been any similar operations by then.“

HeartTransplant

I think there are many confusions going on here.
Let us call K the total knowledge of the physician which might include the different bodily features of the patient, the state of his organs and the hazard of the novel procedure.

The frequentist probability would be defined as the ratio of surviving patients divided by the total number of patients undergoing the operation if the known circumstances underlying K were to be repeated a very great (actually infinite) number of times.formel2Granted, for many people this does not seem as intuitive as the previous example with the dice.
And it is obvious there existed for the physician no frequency he could have used to directly approximate the probability.
Nevertheless, this frequentist interpretation is by no means absurd.

The physician could very well have used Bayes’s theorem to approximate the probability while having only used other frequentist probabilities, such as the probability that the body reacting in a certain way would be followed by death or the probability that introducing a device in some organs could have lethal consequences.

Another example is the estimation of the probability it is going to rain tomorrow morning as you will wake up.

Wetter
While the situation you are confronted with might very well be unique in the whole history of mankind, the probability is well defined by the frequency of rain if all the circumstances you know of were to be repeated an extremely high number of times.

Given this extended, knowledge-dependent variant of frequentism, the probabilities of single events are meaningful and many fields considered as Bayesian (such as economical simulations, history or evolutionary biology) could be as well interpreted according to this version of frequentism.

It has a great advantage: it allows us to bypass completely subjective degrees of belief and to focus on an objective concept of probability.

Now, some Bayesians could come up and tell me that it is possible that the frequentist probabilities of the survival of the first heart transplant patient or of the weather does not exist: in other words, if the known circumstances were to be repeated an infinite number of times, the frequency would keep oscillating instead of converging to a fixed value (such as 1/6 for the dice).

Fluctuations

This is a fair objection, but such a situation would not only show that the frequentist probability does not exist but that the Bayesian interpretation is meaningless as well.

It seems utterly nonsensical to my mind to say that every rational agent ought to have a degree of belief of (say) 0.45 or 0.87 if the frequency of the event (given all known circumstances) would keep fluctuating between 0.01 and 0.99.
For in this case the event is completely unpredictable and it seems entirely misguided to associate a probability to it.

Another related problem is that in such a situation a degree of belief could be no nothing more than a pure mind state with no relation to the objective world whatsoever.

As professor Jon Williamson wrote:
Since Bayesian methods for estimating physical probabilities depend on a given prior probability function, and it is precisely the prior that is in question here, this leaves classical (frequentist) estimation methods—in particular confidence interval estimation methods—as the natural candidate for determining physical probabilities. Hence the Bayesian needs the frequentist for calibration.”

But if this frequentist probability does not exist, the Bayesian has absolutely no way to relate his degree of  belief to reality since no prior can be defined and evaluated.

Fortunately, the incredible success of the mathematical treatment of uncertain phenomenons (in biology, evolution, geology, history, economics and politics to name only a few) show that we are justified in believing in the meaningfulness of the probability of the underlying events, even if they might be quite unique.

In this way, I believe that many examples Bayesians use to argue for the indispensability of their subjectivist probabilistic concept ultimately fail because the same cases could have been handled using the frequentist concept I have outlined here.

However this still leaves out an important aspect: what are we to do about theories such as the universal gravitation, string theory or the existence of a multiverse?
It is obvious no frequentist interpretation of their truth can be given.
Does that mean that without Bayesianism we would have no way to evaluate the relative merits of such competing models in these situations?
Fortunately no, but this will be the topic of a future post.
At the moment I would hate to kill the suspense 🙂

Wann hat Gott seine Frau herausgepickt?

English version: when did God pick up His wife?

Image

Der berühmte Archäologe William Dever hat für Kontroverse gesorgt, nachdem er sein Buch “Did God Have a Wife” veröffentlicht hat, wo er (unter anderem) argumentiert, dass die Archäologie uns klar gezeigt habe, dass am Anfang der israelitischen Geschichte Jahwe nicht allein sondern neben anderen Gottheiten angebetet wurde, deren prominenteste Vertreterin die Göttin Asherah war, mit der er häufig dargestellt ist.

Grundsätzlich gibt es drei Möglichkeiten:

1)   Die Isrealiten begannen, nur Jahwe anzubeten, die Anbetung der Asherah als seine Frau war eine heidnische Korruption (Evangelikale Sicht)

2)  Die Isrealiten begannen, Jahwe und Asherah zusammen mit anderen Gottheiten anzubeten. Der Monotheismus war eine spätere Erfindung (Mainstream Sicht).

3) Am Anfang hat die überwiegende Mehrheit der Israeliten Jahwe und Asherah zusammen mit anderen Gottheiten angebetet aber einige von einigen dachten, dass Jahwe ein viel größerer Gott war.

Während es Fälle gibt, wo die Archäologie ganz klar der Bibel widersprochen hat, bin ich mir nicht sicher, dass es hier passieren wird.

Von Natur aus fassen archäologische Befunde nur einen kleinen Bruchteil der Vergangenheit um. Wenn die Israeliten, die allein (oder hauptsächlich) Jahwe angebetet haben, eine kleine Minderheit bildeten (die vielleicht schon glaubte, dass Darstellungen ihres Stammgottes keine gute Sache war) würden wir nicht zu hoch erwarten, Archäologische Spuren davon zu finden.

So glaube ich, dass in diesem besonderen Fall die archäologischen Ergebnisse manche Formen von 3) oder sogar 1) nicht unterminieren.

Meiner Meinung nach kann der beste Beweis von heidnischen Einflüssen auf die Theologie der frühen biblischen Schreiber in den in den Büchern von Josua und Samuel beschriebenen göttlichen Genoziden gefunden werden, wenn man davon ausgeht, dass sie nicht zuerst als mythologische Geschichten beabsichtigt wurden.

Wir haben starke Gründe, anzunehmen, dass die (angeblich) von Jahwe erforderte Herem-Vernichtungskriegsführung eine Art von menschlichem Massenopfer war, das denen von heidnischen Gottheiten angeordneten Massenopfern sehr ähnlich war.

 

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

My other blog on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP)

 

War Jesus nur ein Durchschnittsmensch?

English version

Image

Viele Menschen, die dem christlichen Glauben gegenüber skeptisch sind, halten an der Idee fest, dass Jesus von Nazareth nur ein gewöhnlicher Mann unter vielen anderen war.

Ihrer Meinung nach kann der Ursprung des christlichen Glaubens wie folgt verstanden werden:

       1) Nach dem Tod von Jesus erlebten die Jünger wunderbare Halluzinationen, die in ihnen den Glauben erweckten, er wäre von den Toten auferstanden

          2) Sie glaubten nicht an ein leeres Grab, dieser Aspekt war für sie völlig irrelevant

3) Paulus hatte den selben Glauben

4) Spätere Schreiber erfunden Geschichten über das Ehrenbegräbnis von Jesus und das leere Grab

Es gibt viele nicht unplausible, widersprüchliche Theorien über den historischen Jesus,  die aufgrund des Mangels an festen historischen Daten schwer einzuschätzen sind.

Aber ich glaube, dass diese Art von Szenarien als unwahrscheinlich ausgeschlossen werden kann.

Es gab nach und vor der Zeit von Jesus viele apokalyptische Propheten, die unter einem gruseligen Leiden als Märtyrer starben. Warum hat keiner ihrer Nachfolger einen Glauben an die Auferstehung ihres Meisters entwickelt? Warum hat keiner von ihnen den Glauben entwickelt, dass ihr Meister Gott selber wäre?

Beide Aspekte waren sehr  früh nach dem Tod von Jesus innerhalb der frühen Kirche anwesend.

So denke ich, dass zumindest der Schluss berechtigt ist, dass es an Jesus etwas Besonderes lag.

Weitere Schlussfolgerungen werden sehr stark von den Denkvoraussetzungen der eigenen Weltanschauung abhängen.

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

My other blog on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP)

 

A merciless fight / Een schonungslose Kompf

A merciless fight / Een schonungslose Kompf

Vernon (a godless atheist from the Caribbean also known as Xon-Xoff) and I had a confrontation which was aimed at honoring the praiseworthy American culture war.
Since this is the very first time I recorded such an event, the quality of the sound is terrible.

I believe it is no exaggeration to say I utterly destroyed him.
So if you still read comments of Xon-Xoff, you should conclude it is most likely Vernon’s ghost.

Image

**************************************

Lorraine Franconian – Lothringisch

Vernon (een gottlos Atheist us de Karibik, de aach Xon-Xoff hess) un ich hon eeni Konfrontation gehon, die druf abzielte, de preiswürdige amerikanische Kulturkompf de Ehre ze gewe.
Do es de eerste Mol isch, wu ich solch een Ereignis gespeichert hon, isch de Qualität des Tons fuaschtba.

Ich glawe, dass es keeni Iwertriewung isch, ze behaupte, dass ich ihn total vernichtet hon.
So wenn ihr immer noch Kommentare von Xon-Xoff liest, sollt ihr schliesse, dass es sich höchst wahrschäinlich um seen Gespenst hondelt.

Image

Link: https://soundcloud.com/lothar-lorraine/fighttodeath

 

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

My other blog on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP)