From the time in our childhood when we first learn about death, that most unsettling truth of life, the question and curiosity of the afterlife arises; what has happened to the person who has died? Does anything of that person survive in one form or another?
A lot of people believe the truth to be undiscoverable, and feel that speculation about any afterlife is futile.
Two extremes of the human mind in belief about life after death are unquestioning (or a more negative word could be “blind”) belief in the teachings of a religion on one hand and the absolute equally dogmatic denial of the possibility of an afterlife on the other.
Less extreme positions are people who either believe in a particular theory of life after death because it makes most sense to them or people who feel that there is probably no afterlife, but that it is not possible to ever know either way.
Looking for hard evidence
There are extremely few people who have ever set out to examine whether any scientific evidence could be gathered that could justify a believe in reincarnation or any other form of life after death.
The most extensive research that I believe that has ever been conducted into potentially identifiable evidence for reincarnation was conducted by one Dr Ian Stevenson (1918 – 2007).
It is surprising that very few people have heard of Dr Stevenson or his research, given that he attempted such a large scope and detailed study which has an important bearing on one of the great unknown mysteries of human existence namely is there anything in us that makes us who we are, excepting matter, which survives death.
Ian Stevenson (1918-2007) was a psychiatrist by training, at the age of 38, which is remarkably young in the world of acadmia, he became Chair of the Department of Psychiatry for the University of Virginia School of Medicine, a position which he remained in for the next 10 years. He went on the hold a post as the Carlson Professor of Psychiatry from 1967 to 2001, and a Research Professor of Psychiatry from 2002 until his death.
He had an interest in the paranormal, which according to a fellow acadmic, arose from his wish to be able to help understand disease and the human mind more completely. He was wanted to understand why person would develop a given disease and another would develop a different disease, given the same set of circumstances. He also sought better explanations for the development of phobias and special abilities. In his view, environment and genetics alone were not capable of accounting for many illnesses, phobias, personality traits and special abilities.
Stevenson heard of cases where children demonstrated past life memories, and and took an interest in analysing such cases. An essay of his “The Evidence for Survival from Claimed Memories of Former Incarnations” (1960), reviewed forty-four published cases of people, mostly children, who claimed to remember past lives. The essay resulted in him receiving a grant from a person who shared an interest in paranormal research to travel to India to interview a child who claimed was having past-life memories. While in India, Stevenson conducted further resarch, finding a number of other cases over the next few weeks. This research led to him producing his first book on the subject, “Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation” (1966).
Chester Carlson, one of the pioneers of photocopying who obtained the first patent on the technology, was supportive of the research and offered financial help. When Chester Carlson died of a heart attack he left $1 million to further the research, which allowed Dr Stevenson to step down as chair of the psychiatry department and set up a separate division within the department.
Over the course of the next 40 years Stevenson personally investigated over 3000 cases of children remembering past lives. The following is one of thousands of examples:
In Sri Lanka, a toddler one day overheard her mother mentioning the name of an obscure town (“Kataragama”) that the girl had never been to. The girl informed the mother that she drowned there when her “dumb” (mentally challenged) brother pushed her in the river, that she had a bald father named “Herath” who sold flowers in a market near the Buddhist stupa, that she lived in a house that had a glass window in the roof (a skylight), dogs in the backyard that were tied up and fed meat, that the house was next door to a big Hindu temple, outside of which people smashed coconuts on the ground. Stevenson was able to confirm that there was, indeed, a flower vendor in Kataragama who ran a stall near the Buddhist stupa whose two-year-old daughter had drowned in the river while the girl played with her mentally challenged brother. The man lived in a house where the neighbors threw meat to dogs tied up in their backyard, and it was adjacent to the main temple where devotees practiced a religious ritual of smashing coconuts on the ground. The little girl did get a few items wrong, however. For instance, the dead girl’s dad wasn’t bald (but her grandfather and uncle were) and his name wasn’t “Herath”—that was the name, rather, of the dead girl’s cousin. Otherwise, 27 of the 30 idiosyncratic, verifiable statements she made panned out. The two families never met, nor did they have any friends, coworkers, or other acquaintances in common, so if you take it all at face value, the details couldn’t have been acquired in any obvious way.
His major work, published in 1997, was a 2,268-page, two-volume work called Reincarnation and Biology. He investigated and documented individuals who had unusual birthmarks and birth defects, which could not be explained by genetics, which the subjects had explained due to remembered past life events pertaining to those unusual characteristics. The types of physical features included finger deformities, underdeveloped ears, or being born without a lower leg. There were scar-like, hypopigmented birthmarks and port-wine stains, and some awfully strange-looking moles in areas where you almost never find moles, like on the soles of the feet. Reincarnation and Biology contained numerous case reports of children who remembered previous lives and who also had physical anomalies that matched those previous lives, details that could in some cases be confirmed by the dead person’s autopsy record and photos.
A Turkish boy whose face was congenitally underdeveloped on the right side said he remembered the life of a man who died from a shotgun blast at point-blank range. A Burmese girl born without her lower right leg had talked about the life of a girl run over by a train. On the back of the head of a little boy in Thailand was a small, round puckered birthmark, and at the front was a larger, irregular birthmark, resembling the entry and exit wounds of a bullet; Stevenson had already confirmed the details of the boy’s statements about the life of a man who’d been shot in the head from behind with a rifle, so that seemed to fit. And a child in India who said he remembered the life of boy who’d lost the fingers of his right hand in a fodder-chopping machine mishap was born with boneless stubs for fingers on his right hand only. This type of “unilateral brachydactyly” is so rare, Stevenson pointed out, that he couldn’t find a single medical publication of another case.
More than a few erstwhicle sceptics have accepted over the years that Stevenson’s research was rigorous and compelling. In the words of one such scientific reviewer, who grudglingly accepted the importance of Stevenson’s research:
many [of the cases recorded] are exceedingly difficult to explain away by rational, non-paranormal means. Much of this is due to Stevenson’s own exhaustive efforts o disconfirm the paranormal account. “We can strive toward objectivity by exposing as fully as possible all observations that tend to weaken our preferred interpretation of the data,” he wrote. “If adversaries fire at us, let them use ammunition that we have given them.” And if truth be told, he excelled at debunking the debunkers.
I’d be happy to say it’s all complete and utter nonsense—a moldering cesspool of irredeemable, anti-scientific drivel. The trouble is, it’s not entirely apparent to me that it is. So why aren’t scientists taking Stevenson’s data more seriously? The data don’t “fit” our working model of materialistic brain science, surely. But does our refusal to even look at his findings, let alone to debate them, come down to our fear of being wrong? “The wish not to believe,” Stevenson once said, “can influence as strongly as the wish to believe.”
Dr Ian Stevenson was careful to not use the word “soul”, or reference any eastern metaphysical concepts in his work. He was careful to state that his work “permits” rather than “compells” a belief in reincarnation. His resarch postulated a “minalistic” belief in reincarnation, which can be explained as follows:
There is something essential to some human personalities … which we cannot plausibly construe solely in terms of either brain states, or properties of brain states … and, further, after biological death this non-reducible essential trait sometimes persists for some time, in some way, in some place, and for some reason or other, existing independently of the person’s former brain and body. Moreover, after some time, some of these irreducible essential traits of human personality, for some reason or other, and by some mechanism or other, come to reside in other human bodies either some time during the gestation period, at birth, or shortly after birth.
Despite the fact that he adhered to high standards of academic practice in his work it is unfortunate that his work is pretty much shunned by the scientific community. He has painstakingle collected over 3000 cases. To at least postulate other reasons which could be behind the phenomena observed by Dr Ian Stevenson would be an approach which is consistent with scientific spirit, but just to ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist is the treatment metted out to Stevenson’s eork, and such an approach is far from scientific.
It should be noted too that this extensive research into reincarnation does not inlcude any moral speculation, and therefore neither validates not invalidated a belief in karma.
It should be noted also, that there is evidence here to permit a belief in reincarnation, but it does not necesarily mean that recincarnation takes place immediately upon death – it could very well be a significant amount of time for some “souls” to reincarnate, or it could be instantaneous. There is nothing to say that some “souls” do not reincarnate and either remain in a transitionary state or maybe some are perfected and therefore do not come back, instead merge with a universal consciousness. All of this is outside of the realm of Stevenson’s research.
Personally, I have at times been skeptical of the possibility of reincarnation, and at other times I have believed in it. However encountering Dr Ian Stevenson’s work has personally left me with the conviction that life after death is a reality. We could call it a “soul”or “personality” or “essence” or something else, but to my mind, the evidence for reincarnation is there.
Image credit: http://isoulscience.com/2015/07/scientific-proof-of-reincarnation-consciousness-is-eternal/