Hacker irked by reincarnation

2010/08/16 § 20 Comments

Today I chose a rather peculiar topic for a technology blog: the history of reincarnation research and its implications on science. This might seem a bit awkward or even off-topic, I think it’s neither (and I make up the rules here). Before we begin, I gather I should say that I’m a sceptic, I’ve always been a sceptic and I never saw myself much as a very spiritual or new-age kind of person. When my wife and I entered a 10-day course about Buddhism about a month ago, you can imagine I arrived with hefty sacks full of various grains of salt to take everything with.

I didn’t know much about Buddhism before the course, and I’m not any kind of an expert about it now, either. This post isn’t about Buddhism at all, actually – just about a small thing I ran into during the course. As it happened the course material mentioned a certain research by a Dr. Ian Stevenson from the University of Virginia, who dedicated much of his career to research of reincarnation. I don’t recall precisely how the wording went, but as best as I can recall the course material took his research to show that reincarnation is scientifically proven. Naturally, that was my queue for the Grand Entrance of the Grains of Salt.

So as soon as we left the course I spent a while Googling the late Dr. Stevenson, his work, and the work of others in the field. What I found was very disturbing: Dr. Stevenson seems, to the best of my ability to assess, as a reasonable researcher with reasonable methods who was never properly refuted. And he found some ‘disturbing’ (i.e., unexplainable, ‘supernatural’) results in his research. However, hardly anyone seems to have noticed or cared and hardly anyone continues his research today (I know Jim Tucker continues his work directly and that other researchers in the past and present also looked at the topic, but overall it seems to me like awfully too little).

OK, fine, so we have established evidence of reincarnation and we’re ignoring them. Uhm, what?! Hello? Am I missing something? Did a respectable member of the scientific community say (for several decades) that he found thousands of cases that are impossible to explain by modern science, cases that should shake our understanding of physics and/or biology and/or psychology and/or whatnot, and the collective response is to ignore this guy? How can the relevant scientific community look itself in the eye? Isn’t this an interesting and important subject? You think proof that actually P=NP would be big? How about friggin’ reincarnation!

I’ve read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything lately; it has been rather sad to realize so many amazing discoveries and theories in history have been ignored for several decades (sometimes centuries) before anyone caught on to the fact that they’re actually true and significant, often yielding further discoveries and further results. I’m not at all saying the fact that many true discoveries were ignored means that reincarnation is true only on the basis of it being ignored. But whatever evidence Dr. Stevenson (and others) have found should be refuted seriously, not merely shrugged off.

To some extent, things like this undermine my (otherwise very strong) belief in science as a whole. What other grand truths are already known to a few, and we just didn’t hear of them because we are all collectively waiting for a bunch of old Professors to die or for someone to pick up where a deceased researcher left off? What kind of price might humanity be paying because this avenue of research is ‘weird’ or ‘unsexy’? What if rebirthing is possible, and the obvious logical reservations1 are somehow solvable, and we’re just ignoring it?

Call me naive, but I don’t get why people like you and me don’t demand from our governments and universities that this issue be cleared sooner rather than later (and the issues of other, similarly odd scientific observations, while we’re at it; the hairs on the back of my neck still stand when I recall a lecture from Prof. Shulamith Kreitler of TAU’s department of Psychology about long-range sub-awareness and super-awareness phenomena, which to a layman like me it sounded a lot like bloody Telepathy and I think were never thoroughly researched by a Neurologist/Physicist combo, as I think it should have). I can list a ton of reasons why understanding of reincarnation may be important, but above all else – we’re humans, aren’t we? Isn’t curiosity reason enough?


1 Where do new souls come from as the population is expanding? What would happen if we nuke every living being on Earth, where would all these souls go? Do we share souls with aliens? How do the physics of rebirthing work, that is, what kind of particles pass from the dead being to the newborn one? Why is rebirthing evidence so much more common in the East, where it is far more commonly believed to be true?

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§ 20 Responses to Hacker irked by reincarnation

  • lorg says:

    Hi
    Following your blog post, I read a little bit in Wikipedia & in the skeptic’s dictionary regarding reincarnation and Ian Stevenson.
    My thoughts:
    1. Reincarnation is not falsifiable.
    2. Obviously, you can’t experiment with it (but that doesn’t make it false).
    3. Even if it is true, so what? How does that change the way we act? It seems to me that “evidence for reincarnation” is extremely rare, and even when it exists, it does not affect decisions that we would make. (At least, not in a significant manner).

    These thoughts lead me to conclude: “meh”, or in other words: I have better things to do with my time, and “my tax money”.

    • Yaniv Aknin says:

      The reason I think proof of reincarnation would be interesting is that any kind of potential mechanics under which reincarnation would work imply fantastical things that ought to change science quite a lot. If (a big if) it’s real.

    • Arnab says:

      I would be very happy if reincarnation was true — as it would be one way in which life wouldn’t end when I die. Here I wouldn’t agree with your 3rd point – since this can really through serious floodlight on the nature of consciousness.

      However, having said that, I do not have the remotest inclination to believe that it is true. There may be 1000s of case, but based on my understanding of current science, I would wager these cases to be not fruitful. Chances of all these cases being bogus is a lot lot more than even one of them being right.

      That leads to the question that even if they are bogus, should scientists actively ignore them? To which I would say I don’t think that that is what is happening. As a scientist I would have strong curiosity towards these cases. And I am sure most other respectable scientists will. What would happen though, that after reviewing first 100 cases, you get a sense of what’s to come – and you as a scientist then set your priorities right on other projects needing your attention. Just because you are a scientist you cannot go following every fantastic claim – especially when your estimate of truth in these claims are fairly limited – while being fantastic, these kind of claims have a tendency of rapidly originating themselves.

      Lastly I’d say that this seems very similar to the beginning of creation claims… I just hope that this doesn’t again get to that level of hype where it takes a lot of good scientists to devote considerable amount of their time in the short life that they get, to just disprove what they understand to be false based on much smaller expenditure of resources.

    • dusan burian says:

      Just a short note to point 3. In my opinion it could have cataclysmic effect if reincarntation is proved true.

      1. People can start to take seriously their personal development (intellecutal, spiritual, ..), because every one wants to be born with better mental abilities

      2. People could become more sensitive towards our enviroment (nature, society structure, …), because after death they will have to return to the same world (or to improved and better one).

  • Progress1928 says:

    Add Stanton T. Friedman to your list, who has impeccable credentials and masses of data yet is ignored by the scientific community due to the “unsexyness” of his field.

  • mentalist says:

    Obviously this “evidence” is not accepted by the wide scientific community.

    Quoting from wikipedia:
    Stevenson’s work has drawn criticism from skeptical groups and individuals such as The Skeptics Society[6] and Robert Todd Carroll, while philosopher Paul Edwards included a lengthy criticism of Stevenson’s work in his book Reincarnation: A Critical Examination. In each of these critiques, the authors question both the methods used and the evidence gathered by Stevenson, and offer alternative, more mainstream, explanations for the types of cases Stevenson argued were suggestive of reincarnation. Philosopher Paul Kurtz, founder of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, has gone further and suggested Stevenson’s reincarnation research is pseudoscience.

    There are whole bunch of scientists clamming crazy stuff (watch few episodes of penn & teller’s bullshit to see some).

    • Yaniv Aknin says:

      (this reply is for Nick Coghlan below, as well)

      In the original draft of this post I had these paragraphs, and removed them for brevity:

      I still remember rather vividly that about 5 years ago that a friend took me to a lecture of a Prof. Shulamith Kreitler, who spoke about (forgive my possibly horrible botching of this) “super-sensory and sub-sensory perception”, including, and I remember this for sure, an experiment which strongly suggested emotional telepathy among groups of children in different cities (I’ll provide everything I remember about what I believe she said if you ask me to, but alas I can’t find a hyperlink to a paper about the experiment on the web). Uhm… what?

      This was told to me, not by some random participant in a Rainbow Gathering holding a joint, but rather by a Prof. in TAU’s (respectable, I believe) Department of Psychology! Would someone please explain to me why ‘supernatural’ things like Dr. Stevenson’s and Prof. Kreitler’s experiments aren’t promptly further researched ad-finitum[sic], and decent conclusions are published? Either they refute Stevenson’s work properly or they don’t, and if they don’t, they damn better research it more!

      I’m not happy with the ‘bunch of scientists claiming crazy stuff’ bit. I’m especially unhappy about these scientists still teaching classes, or worse, leading sections of hospitals.

      If they are correct, let’s research this more. If they are not, let’s have a proper refute and be done with it. If their research and methodology are ‘so flawed as not to be worthy of a proper refute’, why does anyone publish their papers and why aren’t they promptly thrown out of their respective academic organizations?

      meh. I guess I should get back to Pythoneering.

  • Nick Coghlan says:

    Precisely *because* people feel so strongly about these topics, it’s close to impossible to conduct an appropriately neutral study into them. There are also so many potential observational biases in play that the question isn’t so much “Can we find an alternate explanation?” but rather, “We have so many to choose from, which one should we pick to try to defend?”.

    The Skeptic’s Dictionary [1] does suggest to me that serious consideration *has* been given to rebutting Stevenson, but his reincarnation work is so rife with methodological issues that it really isn’t worth the time for current researchers to rebutt explicitly. According to that article, even Stevenson himself didn’t consider his results particularly compelling (merely more evidence than the none that existed before him).

    In reading up on this, I did come across a book review [2] in Skeptical Inquirer that looks like it may be the in depth rebuttal you were hoping for.

    For a more general overview as to the problems associated with scientific investigations into religious beliefs and practices in modern Western culture, I recommend Daniel Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell”, which discusses that exact issue. (Unsurprisingly, people get defensive when beliefs they see as part of their self identity are questioned. Many, perhaps even most, scientists are naturally wary of annoying the people that may control their funding).

    If you’re interested in the difficulties researchers can encounter when trying to make accurate assessments of cultures they don’t understand (as Stevenson was), the stories around Margaret Mead’s research into Pacific Islander behaviour are well worth looking at. (A sincere, earnest investigation, where the findings are still seriously in doubt because we can’t conclusively tell how well or poorly her interviews were conducted).

    [1] http://www.skepdic.com/stevenson.html

    [2] http://www.csicop.org/si/show/a_cogent_consideration_of_the_case_for_karma_and_reincarnation/

  • Nick Coghlan says:

    The most important thing to remember in maintaining healthy skepticism is this: Humans are masters of deception, and the person they deceive most often is themselves.

    When a proposed explanation is more fantastic than unconscious self-deception, bet on the latter. Or, as the saying goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence (like, say, the Sun’s gravity well bending light to render an occluded star visible to confirm general relativity).

  • Brian says:

    This is very interesting. Personally I feel that what they are calling reincarnation seems very non-mystical. When we die our energy that is stored in our body as consciousness has to go someplace right? I would imagine the most natural place for it to go would be to an unborn person somewhere.

    • Yaniv Aknin says:

      Thanks for the comment Brian, though I feel it’s rather contrary to the gist of this post. I was taken back by what seemed like academically substantiated claims of reincarnation that remained unchallenged (thought some of the commenters here shown I didn’t search for the challenges enough). Your closing lines suggest something that doesn’t sit well with, about some ‘magical’ energy that must ‘go’ someplace.

      A battery stores energy, but when it’s recycled I don’t think the energy naturally goes to a newly manufactured battery someplace. My laptop becomes warm when I use it, but I don’t think when I turn it off this heat goes to a newly powered laptop someplace. Much in the same way, I don’t think my body’s heat or ATP (or whatever form of ‘energy’) would go to anyone after I die. It’ll just dissipate to the immediate environment.

      • tomcpp says:

        What “energy” ?

        The brain does not store energy in the way alluded to. The only “stored energy” is a small potential difference along the axons.

        And when we die the renewal cycle of that energy simply terminates. After that, it simply fires one last time (can be months after death, but that only happens for a few neurons. Most will deplete in seconds)

        May I advice a book by the title of “sex and the origin of death”. Which is a very neutral and absurdly insightful dissertation on death and what death entails.

        The question is simply very vague. What happens “at death” ? Well that depends a great deal on which exact part of “you” we’re talking about. In a very real way, all humans, and even all life, descend from a single cell line. If you consider cells don’t die when they divide, that means that the original cell it all began with 4 billion years ago is still alive and kicking, and we are all part of that cell.

        If you’re talking about humans, there’s a division between reproductive cells and others. One the one hand reproductive cells barely ever die at all, even the unsuccessfull ones. Every other celltype dies all the time. More than 1% of your body will die between now and next week, even if you are very much alive. Some cells, like your blood, are dead from the moment they are born by the accepted definition.

        If you’re talking about the software, the answer is different still.

  • ramigb says:

    It’s funny people are asking “What is it good for”, ok folks, it’s VERY SIMPLE.

    1. Understand it.
    2. Recreate/Control it.
    3. Clone your self, optionally modify your self genetically if you desire a better nose for example :P.
    4. Live another X years in your new body.
    5. GOTO 3.

  • kgu says:

    “where does new souls come from”

    One possibility is that the nature of souls is not restricted by linear time and there may be multiple incarnations of the same souls existing now.

  • miguel Ping says:

    I was once very concerned about these topics, always wondering why people wouldn’t at least be more mindful of all of these intersections between science and spirituality, with all of these scientific experiments that seemed to point that these things are real.

    Gradually, I started my own journey to practice what seemed a good spiritual art, and at the same time my doubts about these topics began to fade away. Although I believe science and spirituality can go hand to hand, I prefer to focus on the benefits that my own practice can bring me. At least for now, I think that the onus of discovering if eg. reincarnation is true is on each individual, and I have accepted that some persons may not be ready to this kind of discoveries, whether it’s true or not.

    I think this is the norm for some people, they prefer to focus on the benefits of buddhism/yoga/acupuncture/meditation or any other system instead of focusing on serious “scientific” research, so they end up staying aside of these kind of discussions.

  • Thedude says:

    I looked to see if it was April, my next thought was to wonder if the author had been smoking something. Frankly if it’s worth investigating and there are no public funds, then there are more than enough private groups who would if there is possible value. If your worried there isn’t, start your own research fund and crowd source the money. Don’t just lament the ‘if only’.

    • Yaniv Aknin says:

      Yes, you’re right. If I’m not willing to do it myself, I shouldn’t talk about it at all. If it were to work that way, then we won’t have the pill, or superhighways, or space shuttles, or sliced bread. You know why? Cuz I can’t work on all of them. I think doing is better than “lamenting”, but to some extent and in decent form, lamenting is better than nothing.

  • Willy Wonka says:

    In general, smart and creative people can produce arguments that will appear to prove claims that are actually false. One then needs to find a smarter and more creative person to spend the time to rebut the false claims. This is not always practical. So various actually false claims reportedly proven true will always be in circulation.

    For example, pit me against a biblical scholar and he’ll win the debate every time. But he’s still wrong.

  • rufff says:

    Kreitler is my thesis instructor, so I know the story and the whole psych department in TAU. Kreitler was always somewhat of an odd bird in the scientific community. Her research regarding super-awareness came under heavy fire. So much so, that she almost got fired from the department. Up till this date her name hasn’t recovered, but luckily she is old enough to not care one bit.
    I don’t know about the truth of the experiment, and it very well may be nonsense, but the fact is that no one bothered to refute the claims in real research, as you won’t get any grants to do so (and your name might get tarnished as well).
    In the scientific community this stuff is poison, and everyone who deals with it can kiss his career goodbye.

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