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.

 

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Can materialism be true at all?

Materialism is the belief that matter is the ultimate reality, that is to say that everything is material so that there are no such things as souls or numbers.

materialism-cosmos.jpg

In a previous post, I argued that materialism seems to be self-contradictory because the concept of “everything” appears to be irreducible to anything more fundamental.

In the following blog post, I want to reformulate my argument in a way that makes it easier to be analysed and criticised.

It basically goes like this:

1) According to materialism, every truth corresponds to a material state of affairs independent of human language, i.e. a combination of interacting particles located in space and time.

2) But the truth of materialism itself cannot correspond to any such combination of spatially and temporally located interacting particles.

3) Hence materialism cannot be true.

3) is entailed by 1) and 2).

Consequently, you have to reject at least one of these to avoid the conclusion.

Can the truth of materialism correspond to a material state of affairs?

First of all, readers might be astounded by my assertion in 2). I shall try to lay out here what I mean by it.

The truth of materialism means that ALL things are material. This in itself consists of two conditions.

A) Entity 1, entity 2…entity n (whereby n can be infinite) are material, that is to say combinations of interacting particles located in time and space.

B) Entity 1, entity 2…entity n (whereby n can be infinite) are everything that exists.

This is illustrated in the following figure.

Cosmos-materialism

Materialism cannot just depend on condition A). For it not only entails that the entities in the circle are material but also that they are ALL THERE IS, so that there is NOTHING outside the circle.

And that very property can neither be located in space nor in time. Nor can it consist of 100,00; 10E+34 or any other number of particles.

What are truths under materialism?

This naturally leads us to examine claim 1).

All materialists are nominalists which means that they reject the existence of abstract objects (such as numbers) that they view as useful human conventions aiming at describing the natural world.

They also believe that truths such as “It is dangerous to drive after having drunk a bottle of Vodka in five minutes” are ultimately nothing more than the product of human language describing material states of affairs, i.e. a representation in our brains of facts of the external world.

vodka

In that particular case, there is nothing over and above the fact that almost every actual human being having ever been in that state is totally incapable of coordinating a complex activity such as steering a car.

Now, what would it mean to reject claim 1)?

A first option would be to reject my assertion that a material state of affairs has to be a combination of particles located in time and space. It is certainly true that materialism itself isn’t well defined. But all materialists I know believe there are no objects outside of time and space and I think that any view denying this would deserve another name altogether.

Finally, you can reject my claim that materialism implies that every truth corresponds to a material state of affairs. That might perhaps be the best way to defeat my argument.
But at the moment, I fail to see how this could make any sense. Basically, this would amount to saying: “Everything is material but certain truths go beyond the material world” which sounds self-contradictory to me.

So I am under the impression that materialism cannot possibly be true.

I’d certainly be glad to learn where you think my reasoning is mistaken.

Objections

Could material facts account for the non-existence of any immaterial realms?

Someone objected that I haven’t proven that “there exists no immaterial realms” cannot correspond to a complex set of material states of affairs.

For materialism to be true, there must not be any immaterial parallel realm which has never been and will never be connected with our universe and has no common origin with it.

Could the particles in our universe along with their physical properties render the existence of such a realm impossible ?

Now, the state of the elementary particles making up our universe can have no logical consequence on a realm of existence that has never interacted and will never interact with them and that does not share any common origin with them.

This just isn’t possible unless the particles have some metaphysical power and would, thus, cease to be physical particles.

So I think that premise 2) is the safest part of my reasoning. Regardless of their spatial distribution and energy levels, the elementary particles our universe (or multiverse) is composed of cannot account for the fact of there not being anything else.

 

Why can’t “everything is material” just be such a material fact?

Someone said that my argument is fundamentally flawed because “everything is material” is a perfectly fine material fact.

At this point, it is important to reflect on the role of language and truth. For a materialist, concepts such as numbers, triangles, everything or nothing are only useful human conventions aiming at describing the empirical world. According to materialism, every truth corresponds to a material state of affairs independent on human language such as the temperature distribution on the surface of the sun.

So the sentences “there are no immaterial realms“, “The material multiverse is all there is” etc. aren’t physical facts as explained in premise 2).

Instead, if they were true they would be metaphysical facts as they would go beyond the physical world.

Whenever we imagine that the universe (or multiverse) is all that there is, we consider “everything” and “nothing” to be real features of the external reality rather than mere human conventions.

 

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Can we define the truth of materialism?

In a previous post, I explained why I believe that materialism (the belief that matter is the only reality) cannot make sense of the truth of materialism.

The Red Spider Nebula: Surfing in Sagittarius - not for the faint-hearted!

My reasoning was hard to follow and this prompted me to try to reformulate my argument.

Platonism and Nominalism

According to Platonism, abstract objects not existing in space and time (such as numbers, mathematical operations, concepts such as “everything“, “nothing” etc.) are real and  necessary to talk about the world.

For instance, while considering the sentence

All roses in my garden are red

rosengarten-seppenrade

a Platonist will consider the words “all” and “red” as examples of abstract objects (or universals) which determine its truth or falsehood.

A Nominalist rejects the existence of abstract objects which are considered to be useful human conventions.

According to them, the above sentence can be rephrased as

“Rose number 1, 2, 3…. and N have roughly the same colour as tomatoes”

thereby seemingly doing away with the indispensability of abstract concepts.

It is important to realise that the plausibility of Nominalism stands and falls with its ability to reformulate such statements without the use of any abstract objects.

If abstract objects can be shown to be indispensable to give a meaning to a true sentence describing the real world, Nominalism is false.

What is the truth of materialism?

Materialists MUST be Nominalists as they reject the existence of anything not located in space and time.

At face value, the truth of materialism can be expressed in different equivalent ways:
Everything is material
There is nothing immaterial
If (any object)* A exists, A is material

If (any object)* A is real, A is material“.
…………..
But is there a way to formulate this proposition without (explicitly and implicitly) appealing to any abstract entities?

It seems to me that in that specific context, all words I have underlined are abstract entities or require the meaning of abstract entities such as existence.

The sentences “there exists no such thing as the concept of existence” or “the concept of reality is not real” appear self-contradictory to me.

Note that I am not saying that the underlined words cannot be interpreted nominallistically in other situations.

But here it seems impossible to me to express the truth of materialism while only appealing to material entities.

If I’m right about that, whenever we assert the truth of materialism, we must resort to non-material concepts. In other words, if the truth of materialism is meaningful, non-material concepts must be meaningful as well.

Conversely, if non-material concepts are meaningless, so is the truth of materialism.

Another way of looking at this is to consider the  truth-value of  materialism, that is to say the state of affairs of the world that would make it true.

Suppose that 2 billions years later, our highly advanced descendants feel confident that they know everything that exists.

Would the state of affairs corresponding to materialism simply be: “Object 1 is material, object 2 is material…object N is material“?

No, for it must also include “And objects 1 to N are everything that exists” or ‘”there is nothing else than objects 1 to N”.

It thus appears that as an ensemble, objects 1 to N must have a non-material property (namely that of exhaustiveness) that is not localised in time and space and cannot be identified with any set of interacting primary particles.

Therefore, the impossibility of defining materialism without relying on immaterial concepts goes hand in hand with the impossibility of it being true.

The Cosmos of materialists
The cosmos in a nutshell. Materialism implies BOTH that the entities in the oval are material and that the oval is all there is. This property of the oval is non-physical in that it cannot be localised in time and space.

I’d be interested to learn if you think I’m wrong and that you know such formulations which do not merely shift the problem. Of course, one solution of the issue might be to use more modest definitions of materialism that do not try to convey the idea of “nothing else”.

Footnotes

*Some might object that the sentence

If (any object) A is real, A is material

can simply be formulated as

If A is real, A is material.

This clearly raises questions about the implicit meaning of A.

The sentences

If love exists, love is material

If telepathy exists, telepathy is material

can obviously  not serve as the definition of materialism, although they naturally follow from its truth.

Nor can this role be played by the sentence

If Lyurmur exists, it is material

which concerns a specific entity called “Lyurmur“.

It is because of mathematical conventions and our use to them that we automatically assume that “A” in the original sentence means “any object having that property“.

It thus follows that we cannot do away with that concept in such a manner.

Objections

A creation of human brains

Someone answered that this isn’t a problem as “everything” can be viewed as an abstraction created by human brains.

If that is the case, without conscious lives in the cosmos, materialism couldn’t be true! Materialism would be a fact of the external world that would not be true if there were no consciousness. That’s certainly a very odd position to hold. Many would say it is plainly absurd as one of the main claims of materialism is the denial that consciousness is anything fundamental.
Moreover, if the concept of “everything” is only a useful convention to simplify our daily talks and theory building, then what does it mean in such a situation where it cannot be reduced to anything else?
I think that the following argument can be developed:
***********************************************************************************************
1) If the sentence M “everything is material” is true, then the concept of “everything” must exist either as such or as something reducible to other concepts or objects and not *merely* as a creation of the brain.
2) In that specific context, “everything” cannot be reduced to more fundamental objects.
3) Hence, if M (materialism) is true, “everything” exists as a fundamental object.
***********************************************************************************************
I have argued for 2) above and believe it is very implausible that anyone could reduce “everything” to something more fundamental and do away with abstract objects.
I shall thus take it for granted.
Denying 1) would mean that “A is…” can be true even though A does not carry any external meaning and is only correlated to a bunch of neurons. That too seems very implausible as the proposition “The fountain of youth is material” and “The fountain of youth is immaterial” are both false if the fountain of youth does not refer to a putative object.
Consequently, it is very hard to see how a materialist can consider that “everything” is nothing more than neural currents without meaning while believing that the sentence “everything is material” is true.
Not a noun?
Another person asserted that “everything is material” is perfectly fine for a materialist as “everything” is a pronoun and not a noun. I don’t think this is the case.

For an abstract object not existing in time and space does not have to be a noun in a specific language.
Consider for example the sentences:
0 roses are red
3 roses are red
7 roses are red
9 roses are red
NO rose is red.
ALL roses are red
EVERY roses are red.

“No”,”All” and “every” are as much abstract objects as “3”, “7” and “9” are.
If “0”, “3”, “7”, “9” have no meaning, neither do the four first sentences.
If “no”, “all” and “every” have no meaning, neither do the three last sentences.

“all” and “every” depend on the concepts of everything in the same way as “something” depends on the concept of something.

The sentence “Fijhfhdfgx is blue” is meaningless without a concept of “Fijhfhdfgx“.

What is more, everything in that context can only mean “every OBJECT” as opposed to “every pineapple or “every wild bears”.

So, I still don’t see how “everything” (every thing) can have a meaning here without the concept of everything and the concept of object.

Replacing “every” by an enumeration
Someone suggested I could just replace “every” by an enumeration of all elements making up reality.

I also first thought of “everything” as a summation (U).
If all the materialist was claiming were that the objects KNOWN TO US are material, an enumeration such as
– This laptop is material
– This rose is material
– Donald Trump’s brain is material
….
would indeed be perfectly correct.
The problem is that most materialists also include all potentially unknown object.And as such, the summation (U) will also have to explicitly mention
and all potential objects we know nothing about are material

so that the problem does remain the same.

This seems to be inevitable. Our descendants in 200 000 000 million years would also face the same problem as they too could not rule out the existence of unknown objects in, say, parallel universes.

So I remain convinced that phrases such as “and nothing else exists” cannot be replaced by any combinations of concrete objects.

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 Actually, in order to avoid a tautology (such as ‘all material things are material’), it appears to me that you must allow for the possibility that the object A could be non-material. And as such, A cannot be considered a physical thing of our universe from the outset without begging the question.

On Dawkins, God, ET and the nature of reality

I just listened to a talk given by Richard Dawkins.

For those who do not know him, he is the most influential “new atheist” (anti-theist) whose deepest wish would be to rid the world of all religions. Besides that, he is a very gifted evolutionary biologist and writer.

Given his track record and his habit of constantly lumping together all Christians and Muslims and his failure to appreciate the historical and religious contexts in which the Bible and the Koran were written, I expected a highly biased presentation of the facts.
I was pleasantly surprised by his (relatively) moderate tone and even ended up enjoying his show.
The same cannot be said of his followers and the person who titled the video. As we shall see, Dawkins did not “debunk” deism and the “simulation hypothesis”.
At best, he only showed that some arguments for these views are flawed.
In what follows, I want to offer my thoughts about several things he said, albeit not necessarily in a chronological order.

The origin of life and intelligent design

origin-life
Dawkins recognises that at the moment, we don’t know how life originated. There are several theories out there but they all have their problems and no consensus has been reached.
Of course, our current ignorance cannot be used to argue that no natural phenomena could have been responsible for the appearance of the first self-replicating system.
Dawkins is ready to seriously consider the possibility that life has been seeded on earth by space aliens, which shows a certain mind-openness.
But he is adamant that such creatures could only have evolved through a slow process because the probability of their being formed spontaneously is extremely low.
This begs the question against people holding a religious world view who would say that the creator(s) of life are God(s) who always existed.
This also doesn’t fit in with his beliefs about the origin of the universe, as we will see later on.

Extraterrestrial intelligences and  Fermi’s paradox

Dawkins endorses the principle of mediocrity which stipulates that we shouldn’t suppose there is anything special about us.

Thus, since we know there is (advanced) life on earth, we should assume it is widespread across the whole universe.

While being still popular among mainstream scientists, the Principle Of Mediocrity (POM= has grown more controversial over the last years.
Philosopher of science John Norton wrote an article entitled “Cosmic Confusions: Not Supporting versus Supporting Not” where he shows the problems related to the POM.
Basically, the principle of mediocrity is justified through the principle of indifference (POI), according to which if we know nothing about a situation, we should attribute the same probability to each possibility.
I explained what I consider to be fatal objections to the POI here and here.
As Norton demonstrated, the principle of indifference conflates the difference between knowledge and ignorance and very often leads to arbitrary results (depending on the prior probability distribution one uses).
There is a fundamental distinction between
Situation A) We know that life on earth wasn’t the result of a fluke but that of non-random natural processes
and
Situation B) We know (almost) nothing about this.
Dawkins went into a paradox mentioned by nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi.
If advanced life is so common in the cosmos, why don’t we see any trace of it?
Several explanations (such as the near impossibility of interstellar travel, the short duration of technological civilisations or their reluctance to interact with such primitive beings as we) have been offered to solve the paradox.
To my mind, while these may be plausible reasons why ten or even hundred extraterrestrial races never approached the earth, they seem extremely far-fetched when applied to millions (let alone billions) of civilisations.
Therefore, I believe that Fermi’s paradox strongly calls in question the conviction that the universe is teeming with advanced life forms.

The fine-tuning argument and the multiverse

fine-tuning

Physicists have long since been puzzled by the fact that the constants of nature must lie in a very narrow domain in order to allow for advanced life to exist.

Many theistic philosophers reason like this

  1. All sets of parameter values must have the same probability of being true (applying the Principle Of Indifference mentioned above)
  2. Therefore, the probability of their belonging to a small region is extremely (if not infinitely) small.
  3. It is very unlikely that we are the products of purely natural processes not involving God.

While mainstream cosmologists agree with steps 1 and 2, they then go on to postulate the existence of a (nearly) infinite number of parallel universes covering all intervals of parameter values. A natural consequence of this is that the appearance of a universe such as ours is bound to happen even if no supernatural creator intervenes.

Dawkins considers this the most plausible explanation of the problem.

I have come to the realisation that the whole concept of a fine-tuning problem is misguided because of its reliance on the principle of difference.

The fallacy of doing so has been demonstrated by Norton.

Miracles in an infinite multiverse

According to Clarke’s law, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Dawkins believes there are probably creatures out there who are so superior to us that we could only regard them as gods if they were to visit us. But he insists that they would have been created through evolutionary processes and would not be supernatural beings.

But this means that in order for him to dismiss out of hand the testimonies of witnesses of paranormal events and miracles, he would have to either show that they violate the laws of physics or give us plausible reasons as to why such creatures would not visit us.

He also faces another problem stemming from his belief in an infinite number of parallel universes.

In an infinite space, any event which is physically possible is bound to happen somewhere.

This has led physicists to consider the possibility of so-called Boltzmann’s brains which would pop into existence because of random fluctuations.

Bolzmann-brain
Bolzmann’s brain

While physicists disagree about the frequency of their appearances in a vast multiverse, they all think they will at least exist somewhere.

Actually, to the best of my knowledge, nobody has been able to convincingly demonstrate they would be very rare.

Anti-theists like to mock Christians by comparing their belief in God to the belief in a flying spaghetti monster. flying-spaghetti-monster

But if we truly live in an infinite multiverse, flying spaghetti monsters too will necessarily exist somewhere.

What is more, physically very improbable events (such as the resurrection of a man from the dead) are also going to happen somewhere through random processes.

 

As a consequence, the atheist can no longer say “your belief in the miracles of the New Testament is silly because they violate the law of physics”.

The best he could say would be: “While such events really occur somewhere, their relative frequency is so low that it is unreasonable for you to believe they really took place.”

This is no doubt a weaker position which has its own problems.

 

The simulation argument

Actually, Dawkins discussed the so-called simulation argument elsewhere.

According to it, it is more likely we live in the simulation of a universe than in a real one.

Far from “debunking” this possibility, Dawkins recognises he cannot show it to be very unlikely in the same way he thinks he can reject the existence of God.

I think another interesting thesis can be formulated.

Consider the following proposition:

“We live in a simulation run by unknown beings who created everything five minutes ago and gave us false memories of the past.”

Brain in the vat: "I'm walking outside in the sun!"
Brain in a vat. My thought experiment here is far broader than that and includes the possibility of being part of a simulation of beings radically different from everything we can conceive of. Or being fooled by a deceitful demon about whose abilities and psychology we know almost nothing.

I don’t doubt that this idea sounds emotionally absurd to most of us.

But can you show it is very unlikely to be true WITHOUT smuggling in assumptions about the real world?

I have searched the philosophical literature but could not find any demonstration which does not beg the question.

I think that you can only reject it pragmatically through a leap of faith that does not rely on reason and evidence.

Consequently, I also think it is impossible to justify all our beliefs through evidence and logics.

We all walk by faith.

 

The atheist in front of God’s throne

Finally, I want to go into how Dawkins considers the possibility of being judged by a God he didn’t believe in.

Dawkins says he would react like the late British philosopher Bertrand Russel:

“Confronted with the Almighty, [Russell] would ask, ‘Sir, why did you not give me better evidence?’

This assumes that God would be mostly offended by Dawkins’ and Russel’s unbelief.

I have argued elsewhere against the notion (held by fundamentalist Christians) that atheism is immoral and that people dying as atheists will be punished because of their unbelief.

I think it is incompatible with the existence of a supreme being which would necessarily be more loving, just and gracious than any human.

But what if the dialogue between God and Dawkins went like that:

Dawkins: So, you really exist after all! I did not believe in you because I couldn’t see enough evidence.

God: Fair enough. The universe I created is ambiguous and it leaves people the choice to  develop a solid moral character or not. I won’t condemn you because you did not believe in me. Yet, we do have a score to settle.

Dawkins: What do you mean then?

God:I gave you a conscience and the knowledge of good and evil. You knew in your heart that you ought to treat your neighbour as you would like to be treated. But you often disregarded this principle. You and your followers have frequently bullied, mocked and ridiculed respectful opponents. You even loudly proclaimed this was the right thing to do.

Of course, this conversation is completely fictional. I don’t know the content of Dawkins’ heart and cannot rule out the possibility he will be in heaven.

Conclusion

I find that this video of Dawkins is really intellectually stimulating.

I did not feel challenged in my faith/hope there is a supreme being.

On the contrary, this strengthened my belief that atheists cannot confidently assert that “there are probably no gods and miracles.”

Of course, I must recognise there are many atheistic philosophers who are far more sophisticated than Dawkins out there.

But it is worth noting that Dawkins’ books (especially the God delusion) caused many people to lose their faith.

I think that their conversions to atheism are due to his rhetorical skills and not to the strength of his arguments.

 

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Did Jesus leave his grave behind? An interview with Mike Licona.

There can be little doubt that the Christian faith stands and falls with the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth who claimed this would be the Way His heavenly father would defeat evil forever.

He is Risen

For many people having grown up in post-Christian Europe, this alleged event is nothing more than one of the numerous legends the ancient world was littered with.

SanktClausIn what follows, I had the immense privilege of interviewing Mike Licona, an amazing Biblical scholar and historian who thinks that an intellectual honest man of the twenty-first century can and even should believe that the Son of Man truly rose from the dead.

mike-licona-for-web

In our conversation we touched upon many topics and also wondered if it’s really the case that materialism (the worldview according to which everything is material) is almost certainly true.

 

 

 

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Intelligent design, eternal torment and the restoration of everything: an interview with Kevin Miller

I had the immense privilege to interview the great and incredibly gifted movie maker Kevin Miller. He is a unique person in many respects and an outstanding Christian having left behind a great part of his conservative Evangelical baggage.

Bild

Leaving Conservative Evangelicalism

Lotharson: Hello Kevin, I’m very glad you accepted to give me this interview. Could you please sum up your personal and religious background for the benefit of our readers?

Kevin Miller: I was raised in a theologically liberal but morally conservative home. My grandfather was actually a minister in the United Church of Canada, which is probably one of the most liberal Christian denominations in the country. However, at age 9, I had a “born again” experience at an evangelical Christian Bible camp. I pretty much kept that experience a secret though b/c my parents were pretty antagonistic toward that way of thinking. In my teens though, both of my parents underwent a similar experience, and we wound up attending an evangelical Mennonite Church. From there, I attended a Bible College, eventually earning a degree in youth ministry. After college, I spent 8 months in Kenya doing missionary work. Then I came back to Canada and went to university. That’s when my life and faith sort of imploded. I didn’t have any real Christian community around me, and all of the stuff I had been suppressing all those years came out. So I spent a few years wrestling with a lot of demons before finally emerging from the wilderness due to a reencounter with some friend from Bible college–and also a powerful reencounter with God. I felt like the prodigal son who had finally come home. But I still only had one foot inside the circle, so to speak, b/c I felt that somehow I’d been brainwashed or indoctrinated during my time spent in the evangelical world, and I didn’t know how to move forward. Thankfully, some good mentors came into my life around that time and started to provide me with a framework in which to analyze my experience.
Kevin Miller: I’ve always been a pretty analytical person, constantly questioning things. It’s probably some sort of unhealthy coping mechanism, b/c it makes it pretty difficult to buy into a particular theological system or faith community. I always tend to find myself on the boundary. I think that’s where I feel most comfortable.

Academic persecutions against intelligent design?

Lotharson: This is quite a fascinating story and helps better understanding your works and creations. My next question would be about your thoughts on intelligent design (ID). You wrote the script for the movie “Expelled” describing the academic intolerance towards ID. What did motivate you to do this?

220px-Expelled_logo

Kevin Miller: I was recruited for that project following the release of my first film, “After…,” a psychological thriller that takes place in the subterranean world beneath Moscow. How that goes together with the battle between Darwinian evolution and Intelligent Design I’ll never know. Originally, I was called in to attend some development meetings about what was then a hypothetical film about Intelligent design starring Ben Stein. I was really passionate about the topic (it appeals to the frustrated academic in me). But I actually told the producers not to hire me, b/c I didn’t think I had the sense of humor the project required. However, a few days later I got the call, and I was on the job. I had never worked on a documentary before and I had no idea what I was doing. Thankfully some of the other people around me did. So what motivated me? An intense interest in the topic as well as the opportunity to work on another film and to stretch myself creatively. Oddly enough, that set me on a path I had never anticipated in terms of documentary films, to the point where that’s what I’m best known for now.

Lotharson: Okay. Do you personally believe there’s a real academic persecution against ID?

Kevin Miller: I would call it more of a bias against Intelligent Design as a viable explanation for the origin, complexity and diversity of life and the origin of the universe. One one level, many people see ID as merely a Trojan Horse for some form of biblical creationism. I disagree. While most proponents of ID are people of faith, the brightest lights amongst them are truly seeking to engage in a scientific enterprise, particularly in the area of information theory, for example. The question is, what is the best explanation for the information we find in DNA? Ideally, scientists will always infer to the best explanation, follow the evidence wherever it leads. However, how do we define “best”? This is where the rule of parsimony kicks in. The best explanation is always the simplest explanation, the one that requires the fewest number of unverifiable assumptions. As Richard Dawkins likes to point out, God is pretty must the most complicated explanation someone can offer, because now you have to explain where God comes from. Even so, as Dawkins admits in the film, the idea that some form of intelligence may be responsible for the universe and everything in it is neither inherently religious nor unscientific, even though it may be friendly to a theistic worldview. But scientists are not philosophers. They are observing, measuring, experimenting, etc. If you watch Sean Carroll ‘s recent debate with William Lane Craig, for example, you can see that many non-scientist ID proponents are simply speaking a completely different language than cosmologists, biologists, and other scientists who are on the front lines running the numbers. They’re trying to solve complex equations, to explain mechanisms according to physical laws, not philosophize about how those mechanisms and laws came to be.
All that to say, I don’t think there is any more persecution against ID than there is against astrology or leprechauns. If anyone from any of these communities came to the table with a viable model to explain a natural phenomenon, people would pay attention.
I remember asking Michael Behe how science would be different if ID was the prevalent theoretical model. He had no answer. That troubled me. No surprise his interview didn’t make it into the film.

IntelligentDesign

Universal salvation

Lotharson: Thanks! I agree to a large extent with what you’ve said. Ironically enough, you were yourself “expelled” by the same conservative Evangelicals complaining about this alleged state of affairs. Could you please tell us more about this?

Kevin Miller: I wasn’t exactly expelled. I was just prohibited from teaching a course on documentary filmmaking at Trinity Western University (located in Langley, BC, Canada) due to my views on hell. Ironically, I was allowed to screen “Hellbound?” there several months earlier, and a few months after being barred from teaching on campus, I was invited to present a paper at a philosophy event DEFENDING my views on hell. So go figure. It’s a strange world. I will say, however, that my views on many subjects have shifted substantially over the past decade, thanks in large part to my extensive interaction with the atheist community re: “Expelled.”

Lotharson: How did your views evolve?

Kevin Miller: Well, you can’t undergo the sort of scathing criticism I faced as a result of “Expelled” without it affecting you. I made a point of trying to engage our critics in a meaningful way, and I took their criticisms of our film and my own views seriously. Through discussion and debate, you get to see things from a number of different sides. And I came to see many of the things I felt quite certain about didn’t quite merit that level of certainty. I guess you could say that’s when the serious deconstruction of my belief system began, and it’s been an ongoing project ever since. My departure from traditional evangelical beliefs about hell is just a small part of that process.

Culture war and bigotry

Lotharson: I guess that criticism from atheists and other non-Christians can be quite a help for reaching more reasonable views. The problem I have with ANTI-atheists is that they constantly resort to mockery and emotional bullying, in an useless and oftentimes counter-productive way. Did you experience that too?

religionisrape

Kevin Miller: Mockery and bullying is present on all sides. That’s something that disillusioned me during “Expelled.” I found that many people on all sides were more concerned with scoring points against their opponents than seeking the truth through meaningful dialogue. It’s an understandable occupational hazard though, b/c you can only go around the Mulberry bush so many times before you get frustrated at your opponents’ seeming inability to grasp the obvious truth to which you have committed your life. However, as Jonathan Haidt points out in “The Righteous Mind,” most of us arrive at our philosophical/theological positions via an emotional rather than a rational process. So until we have some kind of transformational emotional experience, we remain rather impervious to rational arguments launched against our views. So we shouldn’t be surprised to see emotions running high. Emotion is at the heart of everything. So is identity. We don’t respond well when our identity is threatened.

Lotharson: Precisely! Jon Haidt is quite an outstanding scholar and I greatly appreciate his efforts to overcome the culture war. Now I’d be interested to know more about your views of hell.
Who were the authors who influenced you the most as you were considering the possibility of universal reconciliation?

Defense of Christian universalism

Kevin Miller: It all started with Brad Jersak, author of “Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell and the New Jerusalem.” I edited the book for him back in the fall of 2008. That experience is what convinced me I had to make a documentary on this topic, although I wasn’t in a position to begin pursuing it until nearly three years later.

The thing that struck me about Brad’s book was how little what I was taught about hell was actually in the Bible. He also introduced me to the various streams of interpretation regarding final things throughout the history of the church. I should have known this stuff (I’d been to seminary after all) but it was all new to me. I should also note that I was well prepped for this mind-shift due to another book I had edited for Wayne Northey. It’s a novel called “Chrysalis Crucible.” It really got me questioning the connection between God and violence.

Another book, coedited by Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin, called “Stricken by God?” faced this question head-on, arguing that the atonement and nothing to do with God punishing Jesus for our sins. Once you start to think along those lines, the idea of hell as a place of eternal, conscious torment pretty much falls to the wayside. In terms of universalism, some key influences were Thomas Talbott, Robin Parry, Richard Beck, Brian McLaren, Eric Reitan, Sharon Baker and Julie Ferwerda. They showed me that a viable case could be made for a non-retributive view of God and hell. Of course, Michael Hardin is also front and center throughout. So is his “rabbi,” Rene Girard.

Lotharson: The following passage is widely seen as extremely problematic for universal reconciliation. Matthew 25:46 (NET) “And these will depart into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Most Conservative Evangelicals use the following syllogism:
1. We know that the saved will live eternally in bliss
2. The damned will be punished in the same way the elects are rewarded
3. Thus the damned will suffer eternally.
What’s your take on this text?

sHEEPGoats
Kevin Miller: This isn’t nearly as problematic as it appears. It all comes down to the word translated as “eternal.” In Greek, the term is “aionios,” an adjective that means “of an age” or “age-long” rather than “never-ending.” So it can be interpreted as either qualitative or quantitative, or perhaps both. At any rate, in this parable, the righteous will receive a reward in keeping with the age to come and the wicked will receive a punishment in keeping with the age to come.

There is no reason to assume the reward or punishment will last forever. Furthermore, the intent of this parable isn’t to provide a systematic theology of the afterlife but to emphasize how strongly Jesus identifies with “the least of these.”

The other thing I chuckle at when people try to use this to establish a belief in hell as eternal torment is that the qualification for avoiding hell has nothing to do with faith. In fact, the sheep had no idea they were doing anything that merited a reward. Works is the deciding factor here, in particular how we treat the poor. So if proponents of eternal torment want to use this parable to bolster their case, they’ll also have to concede that faith doesn’t enter the equation.

The only thing that matters is righteous action–at least if you read this parable in isolation. And if you want to combine it with other parables and verses that emphasize faith, you’re sort of stuck in a contradiction. Unless, of course, you want to say the good works are the fruit of faith. But then I’ll remind you that the sheep had no idea they were serving God by helping the poor. So once again, it’s problematic.

sheep-goat-salvation-works

On inerrancy and picking and choosing

Lotharson: These are good points! I also find it quite stunning that Evangelicals PICK and CHOOSE which parts of the passage they take at face value and which parts they allegorize for avoiding “salvation by work”. Do you agree with me that there are conflicting voices in the Bible, so that inerrantists INEVITABLY have to cherry-pick things?

CherryPicking
Kevin Miller: Everyone cherry-picks. You have to. Even Paul and, dare I say it, Jesus cherry-picked! If you look at how Paul uses the Old Testament, for example, he pays virtually no attention to the original context of many of the verses he quotes.

Peter Enns does a great job in “The Evolution of Adam” of explaining how Paul’s view of Adam’s role in human sinfulness is completely absent from the Old Testament. He adapts Scriptures and theological ideas for his own purposes. In doing so, he was merely in keeping with his times. Many of his contemporaries did exactly the same thing. And how often does Jesus pluck a verse here or there and then completely revolutionize the traditional interpretation?

All that to say, circumstances shift constantly. Therefore, so does our perspective on the Bible. All of us suffer from confirmation bias–the tendency or perhaps the temptation to pick and choose passage of Scripture that support what we already believe. That’s the thing that struck me about Jersak’s book when I edited it. Speaking back to the evangelical world in which he had spent most of his career, he said if we are going to be biblical about hell, let’s be biblical.

That is, let’s listen to everything the Bible says about final things, not just the parts that support what we already believe. That’s a highly problematic approach for someone who desires a hermetically sealed theology, but it’s the only approach that is in keeping with integrity. All that to say, we all tend to take parts of the Bible literally and allegorize other parts as it suits us. The key is to be aware of this tendency and to work consciously against it. This is where peer review can play a key role–as long as the entire peer review process isn’t biased in the same direction!
Speaking of which, I have a bit of a pet peeve re: peer review. Academics like to hold it up as the golden standard, an almost infallible means of achieving truth. The thing we often fail to consider is how the entire peer review process can be just as biased–perhaps more heavily invested in a bias–than individual academics. So if the peer review process holds individuals in check, what holds the process in check? I’m sure you wouldn’t put much stock in an astrologist’s insistence that his or her conclusions were correct because they had been peer-reviewed by other astrologists. 🙂

 

Hell and cognitive dissonances

Lotharson: Yeah, this is why Conservative Evangelicals and militant atheists peer-reviewing their own community are truly laughable 🙂
Conservative Evangelicals often argue that atheists cannot live consistently with their assumption that they and their loved ones are insignificant molecular machines. While I largely agree with this, I am convinced that the cognitive dissonances they are facing are FAR WORSE.
For they believe that most people will eternally suffer as a punishment for sins they could not have avoided, having been cursed with a sinful nature by the almighty Himself. Do you agree with this assessment?

hell2
Kevin Miller: Here’s the thing: Theists argue that unless there’s a creator, everything is meaningless, and our attempts to create meaning absurd, because if God or some sort of equivalent being (or race of beings) doesn’t exist, the only determining factors in the universe (or multiverse) are chance and necessity. We are nothing but stardust come to life for a brief moment, so to speak. Atheists counter this assertion by saying we don’t need an ultimate being to give our lives mean. We can assign our own proximate meaning to other people, objects, events, locations, rituals, etc. If theists are completely honest, they’ll have to admit that’s pretty much what they’re doing anyway.

As Richard Dawkins points out, challenge a Christian with horrific commands from the Old Testament (such as the stoning of adulterers), and they’ll say those rules don’t apply anymore. As we noted above, we all pick and choose which parts of the Bible to take literally and which to ignore. So as Dawkins points out, even though people like to say the Bible or God is the ultimate authority, we are still applying some sort of standard that actually supersedes the Bible. In fact, the only reason we believe the Bible has any authority in our lives is because we have become convinced of his validity or inspiration. And even in this case, it’s the arguments in favour of the Bible’s authenticity that are our true authority. So when it comes to ultimate meaning versus proximate meaning, I think the atheists are onto something.
As for cognitive dissonance, this is certainly one of the key problems facing Christians who believe in a God who violently punished his son on the cross and then threatens to punish the wicked forever in hell. This runs smack into cherished beliefs about God loving his enemies, love keeping no record of wrongs, etc.

Think about it: If God is perfectly loving, and if our own love is perfected in heaven, how could we possibly tolerate people suffering forever in hell? Our compassion would grow in proportion to our awareness of their suffering. Therefore, if anyone winds up in hell, I can’t see how we all wouldn’t be there, with the “righteous” ministering to those who are suffering. The only way around this is for God to either render us unaware of the suffering of our loved ones or for God’s love to be revealed as something completely different than what Christ taught.

 

Fundamentalism and child abuse?

Lotharson: I once stated that folks STRESSING the doctrine of eternal torment too much to their kids are abusing them. This made many of my readers angry and I regretted having written the sentence since it gives the impression that all people teaching Eternal Conscious Torment are abusive. This is not what I meant since my secular Catholic parents taught me that (concerning evildoers) and I never felt abused at all.
That said, I still believe that fundamentalists terrorizing their children in the hope they will “make a decision for Christ” are abusing them. Do you think this is the case and that this can really cause them deep psychological wounds?

hell_forever_and_ever_thumb
Kevin Miller: If it’s abuse, it’s unintentional. I was “saved” through a gospel presentation that included a threat of hell. And I believe it affected me psychologically in such a way that it essentially derailed the next two decades of my life. But the people who presented that version of the gospel to me were some of the most loving people you will ever meet. Years later I was at a function where I witnessed a kindly old Mennonite lady making a similar presentation to my own young children–who had never heard of hell–and I was horrified. I didn’t want to see them inflicted with such a horrific view of God. There’s a meme going around where God or Jesus says, “Let me save you… from what I’m going to do if you don’t let me save you.” I think that gets right to the bedrock on this one. Think of a parent saying that about him or herself to a young child. It would be considered abusive or at the very least highly coercive.

Calvinism and predestination to eternal torment

Lotharson: I agree it is almost always unintentional. Calvinists are arguably the most vocal opponents of universalism. They believe that God created evil and caused Adam and Eve to fall because He needs to SHOW OFF his punitive wrath. Without eternal torments, he would be unable to maximize his glory and his undeserved grace. What’s your opinion on this?
Kevin Miller: I have to quote Michael Hardin here and say that Calvinism or Reformed Christianity is nothing but paganism dressed up in Christian clothing. The God who would do such a think in no way resembles the Jesus of the gospels, who was a friend–not an enemy–of sinners.
When I say “paganism,” BTW, I mean no affront to modern day pagans. What I mean is they have basically taken the old, sacrificial view of God of pre-Christian religions and made him the center of the Christian faith–which I see as an apologetic against exactly this sort of God. Jesus never demanded sacrifice. Rather, he sacrificed himself. So I would say Calvinism is 180 degrees away from Christ.
At least my interpretation of Jesus. 🙂

calvinism
Lotharson: 🙂 Some Calvinists I talked too agree that (according to all criterion of human justice and love) the god they worship is a fiend. But they went on saying that we cannot judge God by our own morality and that He defines what is good and bad. What is your response to this?
Kevin Miller: I would agree. God does define morality. And, playing by their own rules, if Jesus is God, he defines morality in ways that utterly defy their theological system. So it seems to me they have two choices:

1) admit that Jesus was lying or

2) admit that God has a double standard–one form of morality for humans, another for himself. Either way, the results aren’t pretty. Either love never fails, never keeps a record of wrongs, always hopes, always perseveres (cf. 1 Corinthians 13) or it doesn’t. Calvinists are saying it doesn’t. So not only are they contradicting Jesus’ teaching that what makes us perfect like God is love of enemy (Matthew 5), they are also contradicting the clear teaching of Paul.
Lotharson: Most Calvinists I know are nice people. But what could occur if they began imitating the behavior and attitude of the God they profess to believe and trust upon?
Kevin Miller: Exactly. As Frank Schaeffer likes to point out, most people who believe in such a punitive view of God live above their theology. They’re far nicer than the God they worship. And thank God for that! But on a meta-level, I believe our entire society reflects a version of the Calvinist God, b/c our entire justice system is based primarily on retribution. Not only our justice system but our prison system, our economic system, our theological systems, our war machines, even the way many people discipline their children is a shadow version of the punitive God who demands sacrifice in order to achieve peace. This is one of the key insights of Rene Girard and Michael Hardin, who have had a huge influence on me over the past few years. Our entire society is based on scapegoating and sacrifice. It’s how we create culture. This is why Michael says toward the end of “Hellbound?” that the entire church is missing the gospel. That’s because the gospel isn’t divine sanctification of our sacrificial machinery; it’s the antidote to it, it’s the foundation for a new kind of community–call it he Kingdom of God–based on self-sacrifice instead. In this regard, I think we have completely missed the radically subversive message of Christ. It undercuts everything.

 

Libertarian free will?

Lotharson: It seems to me that you agree with Calvinists that there is no such thing as libertarian free will, am I right? Is everything determined by God?
Kevin Miller: Wrong. I believe we are co-determining–at our core, humans are imitators. We look to others to see what we should desire. And then we compete with each other for these objects of desire or states of being, thinking it will give us the sense of identity or immortality we seek, anything to transcend the fear of death that gnaws at our insides, the feeling that we are insignificant. I tend not to look at people as individuals but as members of a herd. The “self illusion” is one of the most problematic illusions we face right now. Alongside it is the notion of free will. We are pack animals for the most part, and our powers of volition are much weaker than we imagine. I’ll go back to Jonathan Haidt (“The Righteous Mind“) on this one. Also Bruce Hood (“The Self Illusion”), Ernest Becker (“The Denial of Death”), Richard Beck (“The Slaver of Death”) and Rene Girard (“Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World”) on this one. All of these writers and many others point to a similar conclusion.
Lotharson: Okay, thanks for the correction. I didn’t know you believe in libertarian freedom. You once said that freedom is just a mean to the end of our salvation. But what if freedom is an end in itself? What if God’s main purpose in creating us was that we develop a good personality naturally desiring Him, so that those lacking it won’t inherit eternal life but BE NO MORE? Is it not conceivable as well?
Kevin Miller: I would hope the end game is self-actualization, that we all become the ultimate fulfillment of our potential. Exactly how that is achieved doesn’t concern me all that much.

 

Palestine and Christian sionism

Lotharson: Okay. I have a last question. Many Evangelicals support unconditionally the state of Israel. A young pastor once told me that the modern Palestinians are the descendants of a people that Israel refused to annihilate during Joshua’s conquest, and that the struggles of modern Israelis can be traced back to this ancestral “sin”: they should have left nothing which breathes alive. What are your thoughts on this issue?

PalestiniansKids
Kevin Miller: Despite having co-written “With God on Our Side,” which criticizes extreme forms of Christian Zionism, I’m not sure if I know enough about the situation to comment on it. However, I will say this: I don’t believe God ever told the Israelites to annihilate anyone in the Old Testament. Second, many evangelicals fail to distinguish between the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Israel is a secular state created in 1948. Within that state are Jews, Palestinians and all sorts of other people. No Christian should ever support any secular state uncritically. So how the State of Israel treats the Palestinians living within its territory (as well as the Gaza Strip and the West Bank) is a completely separate issue in my mind from historical/theological concerns going back to Joshua’s purported conquests of Canaan.
What we can say for sure is that treating anyone as a second-class citizen is wrong. So are acts of terrorism. Whenever theological ideas are used to justify either action, they go against the clear teachings of Christ.

Lotharson: Okay Kevin, this marks the end of our discussion.Thank you for all the time you’ve granted me! I wish you all the best for your ongoing projects.

 

 

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

My other blog on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP)

 

Becoming a new Atheist?

Jonny Scaramanga (whom I once interviewed) is a former Christian fundamentalist who left behind his faith after having realized that the “education” he had received was nothing more than a brain washing.

First of all, I want to say I really like him and his generally respectful attitude towards people not sharing his current worldview.

So I was somewhat troubled after having read his last blog post.

Some of my Christian readers like me because, they say, I am an atheist but not a New Atheist. I appreciate their support, but I think I might actually be one of those nasty Gnu Atheists. I think I should clarify my position.

I’m thinking about all this because I’ve been asked to review a book called Godbuster: Banishes all known gods. I haven’t read it yet, and I’ll reserve judgement until I have, but at first glance, I’m not sure how a book like this is going to be useful.

When I stopped being a Christian, I was not happy about it. There are a great many Christian tropes about atheists: they’re just too proud to submit to God; they’re just angry at God; they’re just too selfish to stop sinning; they hate God. None of those were true of me at the time. My heart was not “hardened against God”. I really wanted to believe. I just couldn’t.

Photo by David Shankbone. Source: Wikimedia Commons

That’s not the case anymore. I like the universe without God in it a lot more than I liked it when I thought there was an Almighty watching over it. I don’t think there is a God (or gods, or godesses), and I’m glad about that. The idea of worship now seems servile and unpleasant to me. But I’m happy for those who want to engage in it to do so.

 

Overall, I think religion is a net source of harm in the world. If religion were wiped from the planet, it would be no loss. If there are good reasons to be moral (and I think there are) then we don’t need religion to tell us what to do. There are thousands of people who find meaning in life without religion, and I do not think that’s because we are better or more intelligent than religious people. I’m confident anyone can find meaning without religion. I think the truth claims of religion are false, and that the benefits of religion can also be achieved without a religious framework. Religion is unnecessary.

I freely concede, however, that for many individual adherents faith is a net positive. Here I disagree with those atheists who think that religion is bad for everybody, and those who consider their private faith a positive thing are simply delusional. I think there are many people of faith who gain a great deal from their religion without it doing them or those around them much harm. The atheist counter-argument is that belief in God is necessarily irrational, and behaving irrationally is always harmful. I’m not so sure about this.  One of the lessons of psychology is that we pretty much all hold some irrational beliefs, and some of them do us some good. For another, I’m not sure all religious belief is irrational. The kind of religion criticised on this blog is irrational, and to the extent that religion is irrational, it must be opposed. But there are religious believers who accept the findings of science, who behave logically and rationally, and who simply think that religion and science are non-overlapping magisteria. I don’t accept their arguments, but that’s fine. They’re not forcing me to share their faith. Fundamentalism, of course, makes empirical, scientifically testable truth claims all the time: miracles happen; prayers are answered; the universe is <10,000 years old; a catastrophic flood ca. 4,000 years ago destroyed almost all life. These empirical falsehoods are used to bolster a belief system which does harm to its adherents and those around them. But that’s not true of all Christianity, much less all religion.

Indeed, Dawkins and Sam Harris, et al, don’t really take on these more intellectually defensible forms of Christianity in their books, partly because their arguments are much less easy to dismiss than the ludicrous claims of fundamentalists. Sam Harris comes closest, by arguing that liberal Christians don’t do enough to oppose fundamentalists, and that by sharing some beliefs with the fundamentalists, they lend some legitimacy to the harmful beliefs of the extremists. This is a pretty lousy argument. It’s true that far too many Christians and Muslims are too quiet about the extremists in their midst, but it’s not true of all of them. In an epic post called “Why young-Earth creationism needs to be killed with fire“, the Christian Fred Clark absolutely storms into the problems of fundamentalism. The best feminist blogs I read are written by Christians too.

As for the latter part of the argument (that liberal religion shares beliefs with fundamentalism), well, I too share many beliefs with fundamentalists. I think that the world is round, that drinking water is a good idea, that North America is a continent, and that murder is bad. Sure, these aren’t religious beliefs, but I have significant overlap with the crazies on matters of reality, of philosophy, and even morality, and this does not make it difficult for me to part ways with them where they head off into the land of the unbelievable. The fact that the mainstream believers share some beliefs with the dangerous ones is not necessarily a problem.

So while at the moment I think religion does more harm than good, I don’t think that’s a necessary truth. And, obviously, a world with no religion in it could easily be a terrible place. I think religion can be reformed so the harmful parts are removed. This is where I part ways with many New Atheists. I also think this is much more likely to succeed (especially in the short term) than getting rid of religion altogether. Asking people to reject religion wholesale is asking them to make a radical transformation in their worldview and identity. Not many people are willing to do this. On the other hand, convincing them that it’s perfectly possible to be a believer who accepts science, embraces LGBT people, and actively pursues social justice is comparatively realistic (lots of people already do it).

So why Godbuster? I suspect I’ll agree with it, because I don’t find the gods of any religion plausible. But so what? I don’t care what people think about Allah, Yahweh, Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, or any other deity. I care that all humans have equal rights, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, or geographical location. I care that we pursue policies that reduce social inequality. I care that we do everything we can to halt climate change. I care that children have the access to education that will empower them to make good, informed choices about how to live their lives. If people feel inspired to pursue these things because of their faith, that’s fine by me.

Do you disagree with this post? Good, I’m still working out my thoughts on this subject. I composed it last week, and re-reading it before posting, I find that I’m already mentally writing a counter-argument. I think I’ll add to these thoughts next time.

 

The horrors of a fundamentalist universe

 

To begin my response by something positive, I must say I admire Jonny’s humility and his acceptance of being possibly wrong.

I completely share Jonny’s indignation against Christians despising atheists and homosexuals, and this is what pushed me to write the parable of the “Good Godless Gay” where I used pretty much the same picture he showed towards the top of his post.

I agree that there are many atheists who leave Conservative Evangelical Christianity because they are basically good person and can no longer worship a being who will eternally torture billions of his creatures, for sins he himself bounded to commit, having cursed them with a sinful nature.

So I am sure that a nice and respectful atheist honorably defending his or her intellectual views is far closer to Christ than a nasty fundamentalist defending his “truth” in a heinous way.

 

Likewise, I entirely sympathize with Jonny viewing a godless universe far more optimistic and joyful than a fundamentalist universe where most humans will be eternally tortured for sins the Almighty Himself doomed them to commit.

hell

In another post, I explained why the cognitive dissonance faced by Conservative Evangelicals is far greater than that hardcore materialists are facing.

 

What is the “harmfulness” of religion?

 

Jonny further wrote:

Overall, I think religion is a net source of harm in the world. If religion were wiped from the planet, it would be no loss. If there are good reasons to be moral (and I think there are) then we don’t need religion to tell us what to do. There are thousands of people who find meaning in life without religion, and I do not think that’s because we are better or more intelligent than religious people. I’m confident anyone can find meaning without religion. I think the truth claims of religion are false, and that the benefits of religion can also be achieved without a religious framework. Religion is unnecessary.

 

But what is this sentence supposed to mean? That 100% of all religions are harmful and ought to disappear? I’m sure this is certainly not what Jonny thinks about that matter. What he probably means is that the majority (perhaps more than 80%) of religious movements have (by and large) a harmful influence of society and if ALL religious were to be blotted out, the world would be a better place.

But if it WERE true, and social engineering were morally permissible, why should we not just combat the 80% harmful religions and leave the remaining 20% alone?

 

The only argument of the New Atheists is that tolerating them would inevitably lead to condone heinous fundamentalism. But Jonny himself doesn’t buy this argument:

Sam Harris comes closest, by arguing that liberal Christians don’t do enough to oppose fundamentalists, and that by sharing some beliefs with the fundamentalists, they lend some legitimacy to the harmful beliefs of the extremists. This is a pretty lousy argument. It’s true that far too many Christians and Muslims are too quiet about the extremists in their midst, but it’s not true of all of them. In an epic post called “Why young-Earth creationism needs to be killed with fire“, the Christian Fred Clark absolutely storms into the problems of fundamentalism. The best feminist blogs I read are written by Christians too.

So it would be great if Jonny and his fellow secularists (I am not employing this word in a negative sense) began to distinguish between the diverse religious movements with respect to their harm and benefits.

Perhaps the world would be better off with NO religion at all, but it would be EVEN better off with only tolerant and progressive religions preaching a compassion grounded in transcendence.

 

The grounding of morality in a purely material cosmos

 

The following sentence is particularly interesting.

I think the truth claims of religion are false, and that the benefits of religion can also be achieved without a religious framework. Religion is unnecessary.

IF we already know that there are basic moral values such as “maximizing the pleasure and minimizing the pain of the greatest number”, I agree we don’t necessarily need religion for achieving this, even though I believe that humanist and humanitarian religions (yes, this is not an oxymoron 🙂 ) can achieve an enormous contribution to this goal.

But why should we believe in the existence of objective moral facts identical to increasing happiness and diminishing suffering?
To paraphrase the great enlightenment philosopher David Hume, how can we derive the moral “ought” from the factual “is” without begging the question?
Of course, theism has also problems regarding the foundation of morality, such as the famous Euthyphron-Dilemma: “is rape bad because the gods disapprove of it, or do they disapprove of it because it is wrong?”.

While it would be foolish for me to try to answer this age-old problem in some sentences, I think that Reductive Materialism (RM) faces an even more formidable challenge. According to RM, everything which exists is identical to a bunch of energetic particles in interaction. But to what clusters of atoms or molecules with a precise location in space and time the moral value “It is always wrong to rape a woman.” can be identified to?

306_DNA

I don’t see how you can do that without completely distorting the meaning of the moral sentence. Thus yes, you don’t need to be a theist to be a good person striving for the Good. But you can run into serious problems if you try to justify this moral goodness in an objectively mindless universe.

Even if they have their own sets of problems, worldviews such as Theism and Platonism provide us with a world where objective morality (moral laws not followed by “if…”) are much more at home than in a thoughtless clump of stuff.

 

None of my arguments are uncontroversial, of course, but they should lead the New Atheists to a much deeper intellectual humility while criticizing the opinions of their opponents.

 

Progressing religion

Finally, Jonny wrote a fantastic sentence I want to emphasize.

So while at the moment I think religion does more harm than good, I don’t think that’s a necessary truth. And, obviously, a world with no religion in it could easily be a terrible place. I think religion can be reformed so the harmful parts are removed. This is where I part ways with many New Atheists.

 

Actually, progressive Catholic theologian Hans Küng wrote something very similar several years ago: religion can cause violence, injustice and oppression but it DOES not have to.

As a Christian, I certainly believe that a religion grounded on the message of Jesus can only have positive repercussions on society, if you seriously take the thought that every human being is unconditionally loved by a Heavenly Father.

jesus-social-justice2

While the Religious Right is utterly obsessed by homosexuality, they completely lose of sight that it was only condemned by very few verses in the Bible, so even by presupposing Biblical inerrancy, their priorities are inexcusable.

 

Conclusion: upholding a tolerant and open society.

 

I am well aware that by having written what I did, I am going to infuriate quite a few Conservatives and liberals alike.

Yet my intention is not to provoke a heroic battle of epic proportions, but to push people in both camps to reflect more profoundly about their own assumptions and start realizing that the others are not as crazy as they thought, to paraphrase the title of a great book of progressive Evagelical theologian Randal Rauser.

Evolutionary psychologist Jonathan Haidt gave us also important insights into why and how the culture war is maintained, along with its lovelessness.

It is my true hope we could all (a bit) contribute to build up a society where one’s political opponents are no longer view as loathsome foes but as people we happen to disagree with on various grounds.

I’m infinitely far from being inerrant and know all too well that many of my ideas are worthy of being criticized. But if I can only positively inspire four persons reading that, I would have achieved my goal.