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By ToKTutor, Dec 15 2018 01:18PM

Example for Question 5:

Malagasy funeral rites

The Malagasy people accept a conclusion that seems to go beyond the evidence for it: that dancing with the exhumed bodies of their dead ancestors sustains the communal connection between the living and the spirits of the deceased which linger on earth until their buried bodies are fully decomposed. Only after this do those spirits pass over into the realm of ancestors forever. How do they KNOW? Isn’t this just a form of magical or mythical thinking irrelevant to the world of 21st century knowledge? A distraction from the progress of technological know-how that promises, amongst many things, a mission to Mars?

Famadihana or ‘the turning of the bones’ is a festival, celebrating the continuation of the family bond of love with the added knowledge that spirits can still enjoy the material pleasures of life until they fully pass over to the afterlife. Such ritualistic behaviour has many components and many explanations. For example, at the end of the celebration, the bodies of the deceased are carefully reburied and money and gifts are placed with them. The reason is to afford the spirits safe and secure passage into the realm of ancestors. However, the detail that the bodies are reburied upside down suggests a more nuanced explanation of what drives the Malagasy to think this way (and what drives such mythical thinking in general). The idea is that such reburial symbolises the closing of the cycle of life and death – a final acceptance of human mortality and a belief in a higher supernatural force at work in the universe. In this case, the supernatural force is the power of the collective wisdom of dead ancestors.

Such thinking may be the source of religious faith and religious systems of knowledge, but why do humans feel the need for this? One explanation is that the world in which such rituals originated was a world of chaos and randomness; its very unpredictability made indigenous people feel uncertain and unsafe. Thus they evolved rituals as a way of coping with the vast unknown. Accepting conclusions about this world and the afterlife ensured some level of control over their environment and personal insecurities as a way of making sense of it; as a way of imposing some sort of order and routine in a universe that otherwise appeared to them not to care one bit about who they were and whether they lived or died. The assumption underlying such ritualistic forms of thought about death and the afterlife is that there must be some meaning to our mortality, otherwise what’s the point of life? What’s the purpose of living? It’s hard to accept the conclusion that there might not BE a purpose to our existence at all. So we accept the conclusion that there is some meaning and purpose, the source of which is NOT in this world, even though this conclusion seems to go beyond any available physical evidence for the existence of a supernatural source...

By ToKTutor, Oct 8 2018 05:02PM

Example for Question 5:

Knowledge about Reincarnation

The case of the 3-year-old James Leininger is celebrated amongst believers in reincarnation as providing strong evidence to support the conclusion that souls or the individual consciousness of dead people can live on in other bodies. What sort of ‘evidence’ is this? And in reality, don’t such conclusions go ‘beyond the evidence for them’? In Natural Science, experts deal in empirical evidence; that is, evidence generated by means of experiment or observation based on measurable facts or data: quantitative evidence. In Ethics and Human Science, experts deal more in evidence such as eye witness accounts or surveys and polls; that is, evidence generated through human sources based on subjective responses: qualitative evidence. Where does the ‘evidence’ for knowledge about reincarnation or other paranormal events fit? Leininger’s parents initially offered evidence of the boy’s fascination with war planes and recurring nightmares about plane crashes for the conclusion that he was the reincarnation of a WW2 fighter pilot. Clearly, such evidence is hardly measurable beyond an anecdotal interest in a child’s early development. Subsequently, they researched books about children who had lived ‘past lives’ and built up a profile of James’s own past life. This hints at the possibility of the confirmation bias – searching for data to support one’s already preconceived idea of a situation. This was reinforced by the fact that also in their book, Leininger’s parents explain how they took advice from a past life regression specialist to make sense of their son’s situation: keep reassuring the boy that he was indeed a reincarnated WW2 fighter pilot. Now, when you apply the skeptical dictum ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’, you’re saying that you’re willing to accept strange conclusions like Leininger’s but that you want something more concrete than the qualitative evidence provided by the parents. How am I to KNOW that the soul of a WW2 fighter pilot has been reborn in this child? Presumably, the boy should know how to fly a WW2 plane, so let’s test this by putting him in a flight simulator. But this raises some serious philosophical issues like how and when do inanimate souls actually find the right body to reincarnate themselves? Or, to what extent do such souls retain their original memories and experiences? The strange thing about the Leininger case is that, as the parent’s later explained, after the short period in which James’s case had caught the public’s eye, James’s memories of ‘past life’ experiences seemed to disappear altogether…

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