Reincarnation and the Limits of Science

A short while back an article from the University of Virginia Magazine came across my Facebook feed titled “The Science of Reincarnation.”  It describes the research into past life experiences by Jim B. Tucker, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia.  The article and the responses to it provide an interesting look not just at reincarnation, but also at the popular perceptions of science at the edges.

Professor Tucker has studied over 2500 cases of past life memories.  The article opens with one such story:

When Ryan Hammons was 4 years old, he began directing imaginary movies. Shouts of “Action!” often echoed from his room.

But the play became a concern for Ryan’s parents when he began waking up in the middle of the night screaming and clutching his chest, saying he dreamed his heart exploded when he was in Hollywood. His mother, Cyndi, asked his doctor about the episodes. Night terrors, the doctor said. He’ll outgrow them. Then one night, as Cyndi tucked Ryan into bed, Ryan suddenly took hold of Cyndi’s hand.

“Mama,” he said. “I think I used to be someone else.”

I’ve seen stories like this before – young children with detailed knowledge of events prior to their birth they have no apparent way of knowing.  The memories are intense, often violent, and frequently persuasive to the living relatives of the “someone else” the children claim to be.  They fade as the children get older.

These accounts fit well with popular ideas about reincarnation, an idea that has been around for thousands of years in the West as well as in the East.  One of the few written accounts we have of the ancient Druids says they taught the transmigration of souls – reincarnation.

I’ve had my own past life experiences.  None were this strong and all happened in my adult years.  Some were part of a deliberate attempt to remember, while others came spontaneously.  As far as I know I never had any as a small child, but I was a pretty rational kid – I probably would have explained them away if I had.  I have no way of knowing if these memories are authentic or if they’re imagined, but they feel right, and they go a long way in explaining why I am the way I am.  So as with so much else that can’t be proved one way or the other, I order my life as though the memories are authentic, even though I can’t be sure.

It is that uncertainty that makes me cringe when people say things like “this research proves reincarnation is true.”  No, it doesn’t.  This research has collected a vast amount of data on children who know things about people in the past they shouldn’t be able to know – so much that the idea they’re all being coached in some kind of attention-grabbing fraud seems incredibly unlikely.  And yes, the data fits what we’d expect if reincarnation is real.

But what if these memories, while accurate, don’t belong to the soul having them?  What if the study subjects instead are in some sort of extremely close connection with the spirit of the person whose lives they’re “remembering”?  What if they’re tapped into a stream of disembodied memories?  What if, when we die, our consciousness dissolves just like our bodies, only occasionally some chunk of random consciousness remains and finds its way into a newly born person?

I do not propose that any of those things are true.  To me, reincarnation remains the most likely explanation for these memories.  Believe what you think is most likely, but do not claim something has been proved just because the evidence fits the theory when other possible theories can’t be ruled out.

There is a problem in this article, however.

How exactly the consciousness, or at least memories, of one person might transfer to another is obviously a mystery, but Tucker believes the answers might be found within the foundations of quantum physics.

I’m a degreed engineer and I have just enough math and physics education to understand that I don’t understand quantum physics, and neither does just about anyone else who doesn’t have a Ph.D in the subject.  Quantum physics gets cited over and over again as “proof” for ideas that range from plausible-but-unprovable to too-ridiculous-even-for-fantasy.

Bad science makes bad religion.  When we claim we can prove things that are unprovable, we reinforce the idea that the only worthwhile reality is literal reality.  When we insist on proving the unprovable, we discount the value of our mystical and mythical knowledge.

The comments on the article are also illustrative.  Some are positive, some are skeptical, and some are like this one at the top of the list:

I am appalled that pseudoscience such as this is occurring at UVA and also appalled that the Virginia Magazine would stoop so low as to promote this “research” as a cover story.

For those who complain about the misappropriation of quantum physics, I agree.  But for those who call Tucker’s work pseudoscience and put “research” in quotes, I ask what you propose to do with the 2500 experiences Tucker has cataloged?  Ignore them?  Rationalize them away?  The fact that they don’t fit neatly into scientistic materialism won’t make them disappear.  Claiming this research is appalling is just as wrong as claiming it proves the existence of reincarnation.

In the words of British geneticist J.B.S. Haldane (1892 – 1964) “the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”  If someday we’re able to prove the existence of reincarnation or some other form of life beyond physical death I’ll be there cheering.  If someday we find the explanation for past life experiences and it’s something different I’ll be there cheering.

Until then, let’s admit there are things we don’t know and probably can’t know.

Let’s leave room for mystery.

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About John Beckett

I’m a Druid in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I’m an ordained priest in the Universal Gnostic Fellowship. I’m the Coordinating Officer of the Denton, Texas Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. This year I’m also serving as a member of the Board of Trustees of CUUPS National. I’m a member of the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

I write as a spiritual practice. It helps me organize my thoughts and work through ideas and concepts. It helps me evaluate my beliefs and practices against my core values and against what I know (or at least, what I think I know) to be true. It helps me interpret my experiences (religious and otherwise) in ways that are both meaningful and honest.

  • Steve Caldwell

    If one’s consciousness lived on after the death of the physical brain and body, I suspect we would see messages like the one mentioned in this cartoon from the deceased:

    http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?id=3013

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Maybe not all we’d get, but we’d sure get plenty of those!

  • Sharon Knight

    Yes yes and yes, John! Every time I read your bog, my esteem for you rises. This especially hits the spot:

    “When we claim we can prove things that are unprovable, we reinforce the idea that the only worthwhile reality is literal reality. When we insist on proving the unprovable, we discount the value of our mystical and mythical knowledge”.

    We are not speaking the language of science when we explore our spiritual experiences. It is tempting to take the bait, as we are constantly goaded by our society that if we can’t prove something with scientific method, it isn’t worth considering as a valid reality. But we must remember that science does have its limits. There are all sorts of questions that science, as yet, cannot answer, and may never be able to answer. And yes, for many of us, these questions are still worth asking. Because we have profound experiences that are not satisfactorily explained by science.

    As you say:

    “But for those who call Tucker’s work pseudoscience and put “research” in quotes, I ask what you propose to do with the 2500 experiences Tucker has cataloged? Ignore them? Rationalize them away? The fact that they don’t fit neatly into scientistic materialism won’t make them disappear.”

    I’ve always found it rather annoying to have my spiritual experiences (which do include perception of something like reincarnation) dismissed as if I am some sort of airy fairy idiot in need of a lobotomy. “Because you’re stupid, that’s why” does not a strong argument make. Until the proponents of science can give satisfactory answers to these types of questions, I will continue to look beyond science. There are many ways to view this world, and I suspect the truth of this amazing universe is more than the sum total of ALL our modes of perception.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Thanks for the kind words, Sharon. I love science and I respect science. But like everything else, science has its limits.

    • axelbeingcivil

      I think the reason that many people will look at you strangely is that your claims are ultimately devoid of evidence and have as much weight as any other. Forgive the insult this might inevitably cause, but what makes your claims of past lives any more valid than someone else’s thay might completely and totally contradict yours? Or that your claims must be wrong because a deity created the universe six thousand years ago and does not allow for reincarnation?

      I find the people who most regularly point out that science has limits are the ones who have the most invested in science’s baleful gaze being set upon what they hold dear, for fear that it will turn to smoke.

      If something interacts with the physical universe, however weakly, we can test it. If the souls of the departed arrive in new shells and impart memories, we can test it. For example, if memories are stored in the soul, the hippocampus – a brain section that is heavily involved in recording memory – should demonstrate some sort of anomalous activity, especially in those who make the claims of the strongest memories. This connection must be both ways, as the brain must clearly recall them, too.

      Thus far, no such data has manifested but it’s a testable prediction we can make in regards to these claims; we should see unexplained brain activity in the hippocampus.

      Your claims are not beyond being tested. Anything that interacts with the material universe is not beyond the reach of science. The only excuse, therefore, not to test is if you are afraid of the results.

      • Sharon Knight

        I don’t interpret what you wrote as an insult. However, I’d like to point out that I didn’t make any claims. I said that I have experiences that so far have not been adequately explained, by science or by anyone else. You’ll notice the first thing I said includes praise for John reminding us all not to overstate things by saying threferenced article “proves” reincarnation.

        Also your last sentence suggests that I myself should test these things? And that the only reason I don’t is that I fear the results? Here’s another possible reason: I am not in the position to conduct such tests. Or perhaps you meant “you” as a figure of speech, and were referring to folks in general? The only folks capable of conducting experiments with any meaning will be trained scientists. They likely do not fear the results. So – I don’t get your point here.

        Lastly, neither John nor I said anything about the material universe being beyond the reach of science. He said, and I agreed, that we can’t prove whether the experiences in the article he referenced are in fact instances of reincarnation.

        With all due respect, it seems like you glossed over what I was actually saying , and heard only what you expected to hear.

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

    No one ever claims that thermodynamics or maxwell’s equations hold the same kind of mysterious power to explain everything that quantum mechanics supposedly has. That’s because only quantum mechanics has the necessary level of sexiness. Something similar happened with nonlinear dynamics (aka “chaos theory”) a while back, but it never got as much traction as quantum woo.

    Of course, if one is a quantum physicist, then one will probably be able to see all kinds of meaningful analogies between the specifics of one’s area of expertise and broader spiritual truths. But (1) those analogies are completely meaningless to anyone who can’t even solve the particle in a box problem, and (2) an illiterate peasant farmer will be able to see similar analogies, but dealing with the rhythms of nature, etc, as those forces make themselves felt by anyone directly engaged in agriculture on a daily basis.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      I’ve heard thermodynamics used to “prove” reincarnation – more than one person has claimed that the law of conservation of energy means consciousness can’t end. That’s a misapplication of the law, and even if it isn’t there’s still no reason why consciousness couldn’t just dissipate like every other form of “energy”.

      But you’re right – quantum physics is sexy, so it gets misappropriated by those who don’t have a clue what it really is.

      • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

        Interesting. I do agree that conservation laws are suggestive, but only that, of something like reincarnation. But really the only thing that one can say for sure is that what appears to us as “death” is really only yet another transformation. To say any definite about the nature of that transformation, such as that our consciousness survives it intact, is going much too far.

  • Kaylee Scruggs

    I have seen a fair bit about the limits of materialism and science lately and it always reminds me of the Incompleteness theorem. For those who don’t know it, in short, it says that in every logical language, there are things that cannot be expressed. There is nothing wrong with science, nor with spirituality. They are just two languages we use to explain our world and neither can cover everything. The mistake we make is expecting one way of looking at the universe be able to explain all that there is, was, and will be in minute detail.

    • axelbeingcivil

      I have to say, this rankles with me a little. To say that spirituality is equivalent to science in any way is flat out wrong; by definition, a rigorous system which checks the reality of the universe empirically – in a way that can be verified – is a science. If it does not provide a systematic analysis and has a lack of evidence beyond “feeling” that something must be the way it is, what use is it as a way of understanding the cosmos?

      Science is the means to understand the cosmos. Spirituality is projecting one’s opinions onto it.

  • Y. A. Warren

    “let’s admit there are things we don’t know and probably can’t know.
    Let’s leave room for mystery.”

    Bravo!

  • Roi de Guerre

    I was somewhat familiar with this work previously and the review of the review (see what I did there?) encouraged me to go read the book.

    For those that have not yet read it , the section on quantim mechanics is extremely well grounded and is my opinion once of the best introductions to quantum physics that I have found. It true that quantum physics is frequently and radically misused as an explanation, thankfully this book does not do that.

    You may disagree with the later conclusions that the author draws from a quantum physics approach to the problem. In some ways I did, though it also seems to me that at the end of the book things become a bit muddled not due to the imprecision of the author’s thought process; which is consistently rigorous, rather due to the imprecision of language in expressing thoughts outside of a routine context.

    The first section of this work does an excellent job of capturing verfied-personal- gnosis experiences. The section on quantum phiysics presents the closest thing I have seen to a working scientific theory of magick.

    This book is a welcome addition to my library; just saying’.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      You didn’t tell us what book you’re talking about.

  • axelbeingcivil

    I’ve honestly yet to see evidence of reincarnation, especially in children, that can’t just be explained as a wishful imagination running wild. We have around seven billion people in the world, a sizeable portion of whom are children, and children are observation and imagination super-engines. Inevitably, some, in their imaginative japes, will come up with scenarios that are superficially similar to reality. Of these, some fraction will develop deeper details, which will also match. Eventually, you whittle them down until you get a small percentage that reasonably match.

    Sadly, most people interested in reincarnation don’t really count the misses; the number of kids whose claims of past lives do not match up at all.

    That said, I am all for the idea; I’d love it to be true. If existence does not end, if the friends and family I’ve lost are still here, if we all get a chance at another life… I’d be quite happy, to say the least.

    But I can’t believe it without evidence and I’ve yet to see any.

    I applaud you for your scientific approach, even if we disagree. I also applaud you in your dispute of quantum being invoked like a sorcerer’s sacred words. The sooner people stop treating interactions between subatomic particles like wizardry, the better.

  • http://goddesspriestess.com/ Molly

    Your comment about the “stream of disembodied memories” makes me remember my own musings about dreams as well as that pre-sleep state during which it sometimes seems as if I’m looking into/open to/watching an overall stream-of-memories as opposed to something that originates in my own brain. It is difficult to write coherently about–but I know that other people have the same experience (the string of weird thoughts/images that may run through your mind prior to sleeping). I dismiss it as “weird pre-sleep brain stuff,” but occasionally I wonder if it is possible that I’ve tapped into/accessed some stream of disembodied memories and your post brought that up for me again. I’ve also had extremely realistic and detailed dreams that feel like past life memories, even though I tend to feel skeptical about reincarnation/past life memories (*Especially* how convenient it seems that so many people have past-life memories of being awesome people–while being fairly unremarkable in the present day–it is rare that someone writes effusively about being a slave building the pyramids, instead they always seem to have been Cleopatra or a High Priestess of something! Here, I’m referring to casual bloggers and friends/family, not to the research you mention). Interestingly, given my current tendencies, my own dreams that hold the past life “flavor” have all been about being a male soldier at different points in history (including traveling on a boat and talking to fellow soldier about wanting to meet Copernicus, being in boarding school right before WWII and then joining the military, and so forth. Of course, I also once dreamed I was a warrior mouse [also male] engaged in epic battles in defense of my species, so I take all of these experiences FWIW).

  • Anirudh Kumar Satsangi

    Unaccomplished activities of past lives are also one of the causes for reincarnation. Some of us reincarnate to complete the unfinished tasks of previous birth. The is evident from my own story of reincarnation:
    “My most Revered Guru of my previous life His Holiness Maharaj Sahab, 3rd Spiritual Head of Radhasoami Faith had revealed this secret to me during trance like state of mine. This was sort of REVELATION.
    HE told me, “Tum Sarkar Sahab Ho” (You are Sarkar Sahab). Sarkar Sahab was one of the most beloved disciple of His Holiness Maharj Sahab. Sarkar Sahab later on became Fourth of Spiritual Head Radhasoami Faith.
    Since I don’t have any direct realization of it so I can not claim the extent of its correctness. But it seems to be correct. During my previous birth I wanted to sing the song of ‘Infinite’ (Agam Geet yeh gawan chahoon tumhri mauj nihara, mauj hoi to satguru soami karoon supanth vichara) but I could not do so then since I had to leave the mortal frame at a very early age. But through the unbounded Grace and Mercy of my most Revered Guru that desire of my past birth is being fulfilled now.”
    I am one the chief expounder and supporter of Gravitation Force Theory of God. This is most scientific and secular theory of God. This is the Theory of Universal Religion. I have given Higher Theory of Everything. Sometimes back I posted this as comments to a blog on:
    ‘Fighting of the Cause of Allah by Governing a Smart Mathematics Based on Islamic Teology’
    By Rohedi of Rohedi Laboratories, Indonesia. Rohedi termed my higher theory of everything more wonderful than which has been developed by Stephen Hawking. Some details are quoted below:
    rohedi
    @anirudh kumar satsangi
    Congratulation you have develop the higher theory of everything more wonderful than which has been developed by Stephen Hawking. Hopefully your some views for being considered for Unified Field Theory are recognized by International Science Community, hence I soon read the fundamental aspect proposed by you.
    I have posted my comments to the Blog of Syed K. Mirza on Evolutionary Science vs. Creation Theory, and Intellectual Hypocrisy. Syed Mirza seems to be a very liberal muslim. He responded to my comments as mentioned below.
    “Many thanks for your very high thought explanations of God.
    You said:
    “Hence it can be assumed that the Current of Chaitanya (Consciousness) and Gravitational Wave are the two names of the same Supreme Essence (Seed) which has brought forth the entire creation. Hence it can be assumed that the source of current of consciousness and gravitational wave is the same i.e. God or ultimate creator.
    (i) Gravitation Force is the Ultimate Creator, Source of Gravitational Wave is God”
    Whatever you call it, God is no living God of any religion. Yes, when I call it “Mother Nature” is the God generated from all Natural forces and Gravitational force is the nucleus of all forces or we can presume that Gravitation is the ultimate guiding principle of this Mother Nature we call it non-living God unlike living personal God of religions. I can not believe any personal God would do so much misery created for its creation. Hence, only non-living natural God can explain everything in the Universe. When we think of any living personal God, things do not ad up!”
    I have also discovered the mathematical expression for emotional quotient (E.Q.) and for spiritual quotient (S.Q.).
    Austrian Scientist Rudolf Steiner says,
    “Just as an age was once ready to receive the Copernican theory of the universe, so is our age ready for the idea of reincarnation to be brought into the general consciousness of humanity”.

  • Laura J.

    Hi John, I enjoyed your essay. While I haven’t read the article in the UVA magazine, I have read Jim Tucker’s book “Life Before Life”, and I think he’s more in line with your way of thinking than you seem to give him credit for. He didn’t say that proof of reincarnation can be found in quantam physics, he said “the answers MIGHT be found [at some point in the future] in the foundations of quantam physics.” He clearly states in his book (and I assume in the UVA article) that his research does not prove the existence of reincarnation, only that it supports it as a possibility.

    “Might” is an important word, and I just want to make sure he gets credit for using it.

    I like the choices you’ve made in how you interpret your own “past life” experiences, that you order your life as if the experiences are authentic even though you can’t be sure they are. I think that’s the most any of us can do, and it’s a lovely, open way to acknowledge your decision.

  • Anirudh Kumar Satsangi

    ”Unaccomplished activities of past lives are also one of the causes
    for reincarnation. Some of us reincarnate to complete the unfinished
    tasks of previous birth. The is evident from my own story of
    reincarnation:
    “My most Revered Guru of my previous life His Holiness Maharaj Sahab,
    3rd Spiritual Head of Radhasoami Faith had revealed this secret to me
    during trance like state of mine. This was sort of REVELATION.
    HE told me, “Tum Sarkar Sahab Ho” (You are Sarkar Sahab). Sarkar Sahab
    was one of the most beloved disciple of His Holiness Maharj Sahab.
    Sarkar Sahab later on became Fourth of Spiritual Head Radhasoami
    Faith.
    Since I don’t have any direct realization of it so I can not claim the
    extent of its correctness. But it seems to be correct. During my
    previous birth I wanted to sing the song of ‘Infinite’ (Agam Geet yeh
    gawan chahoon tumhri mauj nihara, mauj hoi to satguru soami karoon
    supanth vichara) but I could not do so then since I had to leave the
    mortal frame at a very early age. But through the unbounded Grace and
    Mercy of my most Revered Guru that desire of my past birth is being
    fulfilled now.”
    I am one the chief expounder and supporter of Gravitation Force Theory
    of God. This is most scientific and secular theory of God. This is the
    Theory of Universal Religion. I have given Higher Theory of
    Everything. Sometimes back I posted this as comments to a blog on:
    ‘Fighting of the Cause of Allah by Governing a Smart Mathematics Based
    on Islamic Teology’
    By Rohedi of Rohedi Laboratories, Indonesia. Rohedi termed my higher
    theory of everything more wonderful than which has been developed by
    Stephen Hawking. Some details are quoted below:
    rohedi
    @anirudh kumar satsangi
    Congratulation you have develop the higher theory of everything more
    wonderful than which has been developed by Stephen Hawking. Hopefully
    your some views for being considered for Unified Field Theory are
    recognized by International Science Community, hence I soon read the
    fundamental aspect proposed by you.
    I have posted my comments to the Blog of Syed K. Mirza on Evolutionary
    Science vs. Creation Theory, and Intellectual Hypocrisy. Syed Mirza
    seems to be a very liberal muslim. He responded to my comments as
    mentioned below.
    “Many thanks for your very high thought explanations of God.
    You said:
    “Hence it can be assumed that the Current of Chaitanya (Consciousness)
    and Gravitational Wave are the two names of the same Supreme Essence
    (Seed) which has brought forth the entire creation. Hence it can be
    assumed that the source of current of consciousness and gravitational
    wave is the same i.e. God or ultimate creator.
    (i) Gravitation Force is the Ultimate Creator, Source of Gravitational
    Wave is God”
    Whatever you call it, God is no living God of any religion. Yes, when
    I call it “Mother Nature” is the God generated from all Natural forces
    and Gravitational force is the nucleus of all forces or we can presume
    that Gravitation is the ultimate guiding principle of this Mother
    Nature we call it non-living God unlike living personal God of
    religions. I can not believe any personal God would do so much misery
    created for its creation. Hence, only non-living natural God can
    explain everything in the Universe. When we think of any living
    personal God, things do not ad up!”
    I have also discovered the mathematical expression for emotional
    quotient (E.Q.) and for spiritual quotient (S.Q.).
    Austrian Scientist Rudolf Steiner says,
    “Just as an age was once ready to receive the Copernican theory of the
    universe, so is our age ready for the idea of reincarnation to be
    brought into the general consciousness of humanity”.


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