Reincarnation and the Limits of Science

Reincarnation and the Limits of Science January 16, 2014

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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