Jonathan Edelmann and William Bernet have made a sterling effort to bring reincarnation within the pale of scientific investigation. Their paper, in the latest JCS, is not directly concerned with the reality of reincarnation, but with the methods which could be adopted to ensure the academic credibility of future research.
They put to one side cases where the recollection of a previous life is induced by hypnosis, because of the obvious difficulties in ensuring that the subject is not led or influenced by the hypnotist, and concentrate instead on ‘spontaneous’ cases – those where a child comes up with memories of a former life without any particular prompting.
I say ‘without any particular prompting’, but the authors recognise that many alleged cases of reincarnation occur within cultures where a belief in the phenomenon is a religious obligation, and where family members are likely to prompt and encourage any signs of recollection displayed by a child. Indeed, one of their main concerns is to establish interview procedures which will eliminate direct family influence, provide an objective assessment, and include a comparison of the household described in the child’s recollections with a control household.
I salute their aspiration to scientific rigour, but their efforts are tragically misplaced. Scientific investigation is wasted if the hypothesis under investigation is incoherent, and I think the notion of reincarnation is pretty much unsalvageable. It rests on a confused conception of identity, and once your ideas about identity are clarified – in any rational way – it becomes absurd. To put the problem at its most general: proponents of reincarnation accept any resemblance between dead and live persons as evidence for reincarnation- it can be personality, memories, tastes, abilities, or even physical characteristics. But if all properties are equally signs of identity, the missing resemblances are as salient as the present ones. If a gift for juggling is claimed as a sign of identity between dead A and live B in one case, I’m entitled to point out that dead X and live Y differ in their juggling abilities, though allegedly Y remembers X’s life. But this is never allowed; only the points of resemblance are ever considered. Frankly, it’s superstition.
I don’t think that’s right. The best evidence for reincarnation isn’t from resemblances of that kind, but the recollection of factual information about previous lives. The ability to produce detailed memories of a former existence is so remarkable that even a few instances constitute striking evidence. The fact that some other details are not recalled does not cancel that evidence out. If I could describe my car and tell you its registration number, that would be good evidence that I really had at least seen it before: the fact that I couldn’t tell you what was inside it or what brand name was on the battery wouldn’t disprove that.
Edelmann and Bernet do seem to countenance a range of different evidence in principle, though: they begin by quoting the four-point SOC (Strength of Case) scale developed at Virginia University. The four points are, briefly:
- birthmarks/defects that correspond to the previous life;
- strength of statements about the previous life;
- relevant behaviours that relate to the previous life; and
- possible connections between present and previous life
See what I mean? Look at that first point. Birthmarks and defects? Look, reincarnation is supposed to be the transfer of a soul into another body, not the transfer of a body into a body. If birthmarks and defects are transferred, why not the disease that killed the original person? Why not the signs of old age? If physical traits are transferred, why don’t babies get reincarnated as old people? In fact, why don’t they come back as corpses?
You’re the last person who should be surprised that mental traits can have a physical expression. I’m not asserting that birthmarks are signs of reincarnation, but if you believe in souls, there’s nothing contradictory in supposing that certain physical characteristics impress themselves on the spirit in a way that others don’t. and that these impressed characteristics can then be echoed in the body when the spirit arrives in a new corporeal host.
Anyway, let me finish the exposition before you start arguing – as I explained, we’re addressing methodological issues here rather than the reality of reincarnation in itself.
Edelmann and Bernet propose four phases of research. In the first, the child is questioned about its earlier life in a videotaped interview conducted by professionals, who seek to draw out clear, specific and verifiable information. A second group of researchers evaluates the data gathered in phase 1, checking on the child’s life and circumstances to eliminate the possibility of their having acquired information about a previous life by normal means. In this respect, the authors note that the best subjects are likely to be young children, since they are least likely to have been able to research earlier lives or pick up data by normal means of communication. The second group of researchers go on to draw up a list of 20 ‘descriptors’ – items about the supposed previous life drawn from the interviews with the child. They also identify the site of the earlier life and another superficially like it. They might, for example, find the house where the child claims to have lived, and then pick a house with the same number in a different street.
On to phase 3. A further group of researchers is now given the two addresses (without being told which is which) and the list of descriptors: they then score both sites according to how many of the descriptors apply. In the final phase, the whole exercise is re-examined for flaws or mistakes, and the results evaluated statistically.
Sadly, no research along these lines has taken place, but it seems to hold out the possibility of opening up reincarnation for proper scientific research.
The trouble is, the research is still going to be tainted, isn’t it? We’re dealing with cultures where reincarnation is accepted; how can they ever eliminate the possibility that Mum and Dad have hit on the idea that Junior is the reincarnation of Great-Uncle Jasper, and told him all sorts of stuff they know about the old man and his life? It seems hopeless to me. Maybe it would work if they could show that Junior was able to remember Uncle Jasper’s bank account password, or something else that no-one else would have known.
But it’s hopeless on a deeper level. What are the criteria for personal identity? Nobody really has an uncontroversial answer, so how can we begin making claims that a particular live person is identical with a certain dead one?
After all, I am not exactly the same as I was a year ago, let alone as I was when I was five: some people would say that my claim to be identical with that five year old is really only a kind of polite or convenient fiction. I wouldn’t go that far: it seems to me that biological continuity is a pretty good indicator of identity. I’d be inclined to make death and birth the ending and beginning of new individuals more or less by definition – so even if you are just like Uncle Jasper, and even share some of his memories, that doesn’t mean you are him.
I accept that there are issues about identity. It might be that reincarnation doesn’t turn out to be what we think it is. Edelmann and Bernet suggest that if reincarnation really happens, we must transform our view of the ontology of consciousness, rule out reductive materialism, and look again at non-physical views. I think they’re only partly right: it seems perfectly feasible to me to come up with a version of reincarnation which is compatible with materialism. Just to take an easy example: suppose consciousness really is a kind of electromagnetic buzz, as people like Pockett and McFadden have supposed. It seems prima facie possible that this buzz could get echoed or stored in some way and have an effect on the emergent buzz of an infant, transferring memories and personality traits – perhaps even some physical ones.
The way I see it, the first step is to establish the reality or otherwise of the transfer of memory – metemmnemonism? – along the lines Edelmann and Bernet have suggested. Then we can have the discussion about whether ‘metemmnemonism’ implies metempsychosis.
Gotta love your idea of rigorous scientific materialism there – no souls, just ‘buzzes’.
I’d be happy with the idea of this research if I didn’t know how it would go. Suppose the research takes place and finds no reliable evidence of reincarnation. Will the researchers then conclude the thing is disproved, case closed? No: they’ll say they failed to find evidence, but someone should have another go. Negative results will not be counted, but when some idiot messes up the procedures and gets an invalid positive result, it’ll be acclaimed and enter the mythology as cast-iron proof. That’s paranormal research for you – we may not get reincarnated, but the discredited theories always come back from the dead.