Friday, 20 November 2015


This is a slightly enhanced text of the talk I gave at the November 14 Philosophers’ Café.

It’s hard to know what to think about reincarnation.  The Dalai Lama says he does not remember his previous lives.  Shirley MacLaine says she remembers all of hers.  So did the Buddha, according to the legend, although he advised his disciples not to think about the afterlife – they weren’t going to find out anything about it.  His Tibetan disciples of later times thought a great deal about reincarnation and still do.  They think the most urgent task of life is to strive for moral perfection so as to escape the seemingly endless cycle of birth and rebirth that humans are fated to endure.  Not exactly a recommendation.

Reincarnation is the religious or philosophical belief that a human life does not end at death, that in some manner an essential aspect of a person survives and is born into a new body with a whole new life to live.  We have to define the term rather abstractly because different traditions hold different notions about what it is exactly that reincarnates. 

Reincarnation is not a mainstream belief in western cultures, but it is well established in many others:  the ancient Greeks (Plato), Hindus, Buddhists, West Africans, North American natives, even early Christians.  Some modern esoteric philosophies embrace the doctrine as well.
Mainstream philosophy these days tends to be materialistic and oriented towards science, math, and logic as the only reliable sources of knowledge.  Most mainstream thinkers, therefore, are dismissive or even contemptuous of all supernaturalistic beliefs.  Hence, there is not much literature on the subject of reincarnation.

I had not taken much of an interest in reincarnation before starting work on this talk.  Frankly, the thought of this life being only one of an interminable series of existences I found rather depressing.  But philosophers must face music of all kinds, so I started to find out what current (and respectable) literature is available.  In addition to the ever-helpful Wikipedia, I read three recent books on the subject, each approaching the subject from a different point of view.  Robert Thurman’s Infinite Life was written from the standpoint of an expert on Tibetan Buddhism and spirituality.  Ervin Laszlo and Anthony Peake’s The Immortal Mind aims for a synthesis of empirical research and quantum physics in search of a paradigm shift in how we should think about human life and afterlife.  Life Before Life by Jim B. Tucker is a strictly scientific study of children’s stories about their previous existences.

Does it surprise you to learn of scientific interest in reincarnation?  A considerable body of serious research into the subject has accumulated over nearly 50 years. There are many books that contain the stories of people who remember their past lives, but I have confined my attention to the work of two researchers at the University of Virginia, Dr. Ian Stevenson and Dr. Jim B. Tucker.  Together they have compiled and evaluated over 2500 cases of children's memories of previous lives. Dr. Stevenson, who wrote the introduction to Life Before Life, is the preeminent expert in the field, having specialized in this type of research for over 40 years.

Time does not allow for recounting even one of the stories, which tend to be lengthy and detailed, so I will restrict my remarks to the scientists' methods and their conclusions. Researchers in this field are working in the domain of social psychology. That means the data they are interested in are the reports or stories they are told by their subjects, in this case children who have or had memories of previous existences. The research requires travel to the homes of the children, detailed interviews with the children, their parents, and other adults who may be familiar with the stories, and careful checking of the stories by interviewing anyone who might have known or known of the previous person.

The researchers adopted a strictly open-minded, analytical approach, as required by any scientific investigation. The goal of the project is “to determine the best explanation for the statements by the children and to see if science should consider reincarnation as a possibility.” The broad approach is that of systematic skepticism: reject any case as unsolved that could possibly be accounted for by normal explanations; resort to paranormal explanations as a last resort.

The subjects of the research were usually children, who began to tell their stories between 2 and 4 years of age. The basic pattern of the stories is that a young child repeatedly claims to have memories of a previous life and gives enough details to identify a deceased individual whose life matches the child's statements. The remembered lives tend to be recent, the median time between death and the new life being only 15 – 16 months. Almost always only one life is described. Physical marks, behaviors, and emotions seem to carry over as well as memories. The children always speak from the viewpoint of the previous person, e.g. “I was your grandmother.” “You are not my parents; I need to get back to my real parents.” “This is my house.”

Most of the children stop talking about their previous lives at 6 or 7 years of age. Some even deny remembering, which is not surprising. At this age many childhood memories are lost,  (“early childhood amnesia”).  They almost never talk about what happened between the lives, and rarely offer any words of wisdom. The focus is on people and events.

After confirming the statements that could be confirmed, the scientists were faced with the question of how to explain these bizarre stories. They considered two types of explanation: normal and paranormal:
  • Normal: fraud (intentional lying by adults), fantasy, coincidence, knowledge acquired through normal means, faulty memory, and genetic memory (not generally accepted by scientists).
  • Paranormal: telepathy, clairvoyance, spirit possession, and reincarnation.
In Life Before Life, Prof. Tucker describes in detail the meticulous process of ruling out normal explanations for the cases the researchers categorize as “strong.” No single explanation applies to all the features of a given case. Birthmarks and birth defects; childrens' statements; past-life behaviors; and children's recognitions of persons still alive may call for different normal explanations to be applied. All the normal explanations failed in the strongest cases. For those the researchers were forced to consider the paranormal.

Overall conclusion

Tucker, Stevenson and others working in the field have become convinced “that reincarnation is the best - even though not the only - explanation for the stronger cases we have investigated.” As Prof. Stevenson put it, “Memories, emotions, and even physical injuries can sometimes carry over from one life to the next.” However, they insist, the evidence does not warrant postulating a soul as the vehicle of reincarnation. Exactly how the personal characteristics move from one life to the next remains a mystery.

Tucker admits this is an astounding conclusion but insists it is not more so than some currently accepted in theories in physics (“weird science”). Therefore, he says, as required by good science, we must be willing to consider reincarnation as a possibility. He is careful to point out that this conclusion requires the assumption that (non-physical) consciousness is a fundamental part of the universe.

In my opinion Tucker's conclusion is somewhat too conservative. Since there is no scientific law that precludes reincarnation as defined in the studies, philosophers have known all along that reincarnation is a possibility. There is no contradiction in the notion that consciousness can exist independently of the body, which partly explains why people throughout history have found it easy to imagine a soul going to heaven or hell, ghosts returning to haunt the living, spirits taking over a person's mind, and so on. What the modern studies have added to the tradition is empirical evidence that reincarnation is a fact. Again, the claim is about evidence, not proof. Proof of the sort found in mathematics and physics is not attainable in this domain. But it seems to me that the evidence contained in the researches we have been examining warrant the conclusion that reincarnation is to some degree probable, not merely possible.

All scientific conclusions and predictions are more or less probable.  Well established theories in physics and chemistry enjoy a high degree of probability.  Social sciences have to settle for a lower standard, but the best results in those domains nevertheless qualify as knowledge.  There is no reason to expect less from a scientific study of stories of past lives.  Here is the basic argument of the reincarnation project:
  1. We have lots of data - stories told by children in all regions of the world about past lives they remember.
  2. Working hypothesis: at least some of these stories may not be explainable through normal means; a paranormal explanation may have to be employed. 
  3. Investigation and analysis have revealed a number of cases (deemed 'strong') that cannot plausibly be explained through normal means.
  4. Other paranormal explanations are useless (unverifiable, unfalsifiable).
Therefore, reincarnation is the best explanation for the strong cases.  I contend that if Tucker and company want their investigations to be regarded as advancing the cause of science, that is, as new knowledge, they should be willing to say that reincarnation is probably real.

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