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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