Life and Afterlife: Does Modern Science Have it Right?
By Navina Syama Dasa
The intellectual community fails to even consider the validity of evidence of reincarnation.
I recently read one of the latest books by Ian Stevenson, entitled European Cases of the Reincarnation Type. Dr. Stevenson is a research professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia, and he has been doing research on the subject of reincarnation for more than thirty years. Over this period, he has accumulated several hundred accounts of young children who consciously remember details of past lives, exhibit birthmarks or phobias connected with a former person’s death, or even speak fluently in languages with which they have had no prior contact.
Stevenson and his team have rigorously investigated and verified many of these accounts through interviews, historical record searches, and visits to the often-remote areas described by these children. And yet few people are familiar with his work, and even fewer scholars in conventional academic circles address it seriously. Why such indifference? What is it about the intellectual community that prevents it from embracing Stevenson’s research and the idea of reincarnation?
I’m a graduate of the Science, Technology and Society program at Stanford University, and this is not the first time I have thought about the nature of the modern scientific establishment and its relationship with mainstream culture. Among the public there is a perception that scientific inquiry is a dispassionate endeavor that uncovers value-neutral truths about reality. As a result, people are expected to regard scientific knowledge as belonging in a different category than knowledge from other sources, such as opinion, intuition, or scripture. This is justified on the grounds that science is supposedly free from the bias, prejudice, and blind faith that may characterize these other sources.
But this distinction is artificial. Science is far from the objective arbiter of truth it is commonly perceived to be; rather, it is routinely affected by all manner of subjective considerations. Not only these more general mundane influences, but a more profound spiritual one as well, have played a part in the low esteem with which scientists hold Stevenson’s body of work and the concept of reincarnation.
The effect of irrational factors on empirical scientific research has been discussed, most notably by Thomas S. Kuhn in his classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Among the issues he highlights that I view as bearing on reincarnation are the theory-laden nature of perception, the role of paradigms in scientific research, and the social nature of such research.
The first influence refers to the unconscious effect of existing attitudes and worldviews on what someone perceives. A popular notion is that scientists collect hard facts and then process them in a straightforward, rational way to come up with a theory. Stevenson points out, however, that “prior beliefs influence judgments about evidence; and they influence even more the primary observations that furnish the evidence.” A researcher’s underlying system of values unwittingly shapes the conclusions he or she comes to. What’s more, even the original facts themselves are subjective in that they may mean different things to different people. In this light, the image of the open-minded scientist transparently studying the world to extract an objective truth rings false. What a researcher believes before beginning an investigation necessarily affects what he or she ultimately discovers.
Kuhn cites an interesting psychology experiment as an example of this phenomenon of perceptual bias. In it, the experimenters asked their subjects to identify a series of playing cards that were shown to them in increasingly lengthy exposures. Mixed in with the normal deck, however, were some anomalous cards, such as a red six of spades and a black four of hearts. When the cards were shown in short flashes, almost all of the subjects correctly identified the normal cards but, without hesitation, misidentified the anomalous ones (i.e., they would identify a black four of hearts conventionally as either a black four of spades or a red four of hearts). As the exposure time increased, the subjects started to hesitate in identifying these anomalous cards, until, often quite suddenly, they were able to identify them correctly without difficulty. At first, the subjects fit the strange cards into one of the normal conceptual categories they had derived from experience. Only with an extremely exaggerated exposure time, perhaps forty times as long as that required to identify normal cards, were they able to correctly identify the anomalous cards. One is almost forced to conclude that, until the end, many of the subjects were actually “seeing” something different than what was actually before their eyes.
In terms of reincarnation, this selectivity of perception has affected the way scientists and scientifically minded people have reacted to the same evidence that convinced Stevenson. What to speak of the specific case studies he catalogues, there must be legions of other similar incidents and individuals. Why haven’t these garnered more widespread notice and study? The answer is likely the predisposition in mainstream Western society, even if unconscious, against a belief in transmigration of the soul. Even though some individuals and groups may be found who accept the concept, two views are predominant: either a strictly secular disbelief in the very existence of a soul, or at most a religious belief that accepts only one earthly lifetime. The educational and cultural norms of Western society simply don’t prepare people to be receptive to the idea of reincarnation. Those who do accept it do so in spite of, rather than because of, the underlying biases of their upbringing. Thus, most people, be they scientist or layperson, are predisposed to overlook evidence suggestive of reincarnation, whereas Stevenson, due to his own idiosyncratic background and experiences, was more open-minded and paid heed to such evidence.
A second common source of subjectivity in the practice of modern science is the function of paradigms. Kuhn writes that paradigms are fundamental to the practice of normal science. A paradigm is a way of viewing the world and its study shared by a scientific community and connected to a set of generally accepted assumptions, rules, methods, and instruments. A paradigm aids detailed and precise study because those working within it don’t have to build their argument from scratch in every investigation but can proceed from a common base of accepted fundamentals. Rather than splaying out their efforts in sundry directions, they can focus on specific areas of new research consistent with the paradigm and develop elaborate tools and techniques appropriate to these areas.
The problem with paradigms is that, because they are so useful, they become firmly entrenched and are displaced only with great difficulty. The same implicit beliefs and specialized methods that make research efficient and make certain types of progress possible become hindrances to the acceptance of novel beliefs, the development of new techniques, and the achievement of a grander type of progress. Thus, problems and phenomena that don’t fall within the parameters of the dominant paradigm are usually rejected, Kuhn writes, as “metaphysical, as the concern of another discipline, or sometimes as just too problematic to be worth the time.”
This obstinate resistance to change reminds me of a book I read as an undergraduate that compared the modern scientific enterprise to the mythical Jewish golem. This zombielike creature, fabricated from clay, was completely subservient to its creator, with no mind of its own. The point made by the authors was that one can no more expect the scientific establishment to be genuinely flexible and responsive to new information than one could expect the dull, lumbering golem to perform a ballet; both have so much unconscious momentum behind their bulk that they tend to simply roll over anything in their way.
The work of Ian Stevenson has been marginalized precisely because it is not in line with most contemporary paradigms. Despite his volumes of convincing evidence, the idea of reincarnation is anathema to traditional disciplines, and Stevenson’s case studies are explained away on other grounds or rejected outright as unscientific. The logic or elegance of reincarnation as an explanation of many of his observations is irrelevant. There is simply no room in the worldviews or approaches of established scientific communities for disembodied living beings who migrate from one body to another. Thus, only a shift in paradigms is likely to raise Stevenson’s studies to greater prominence.
A third influence that colors the practice of science is the social nature of research. Academics are reluctant to embrace ideas that stray too far from established laws and principles because their reputations, and possibly their careers, depend on their credibility and the respect of their peers. At an informal level, scientists usually don’t want to risk being ridiculed or minimized by presenting unconventional theories. At a formal level, researchers may hold prestigious positions or may have been honored with distinctive awards based on work they’ve done related to a particular theory. As a result, they are unlikely to welcome new discoveries that undermine their work.
The temptation to suppress such information by reassigning the “renegade researchers,” cutting their funding, or simply firing them is often too strong to resist. Dr. Richard Thompson and Michael Cremo refer to the effect of this sort of strongly vested interest in maintaining the status quo as a “knowledge filter.” Their work on archaeological anomalies cites several cases in which up and coming scientists were permanently stigmatized for presenting findings that deviated too far from the conventional wisdom (e.g., dating certain types of fossils tens or even hundreds of thousands of years further into the past than was generally accepted at the time).
The scenario is somewhat reminiscent of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” There was once a vain emperor whose only fondness was for extravagant and refined clothing. A couple of clever scoundrels decided to take advantage of this weakness by making a proposal: for a small fortune, they would weave an outfit for the emperor out of a revolutionary new cloth so fine that it appeared invisible to those too foolish to perceive it. The emperor agreed, and the rascals took advantage of his gullibility by dressing him in nothing at all. When he paraded his new “outfit” before his subjects, however, no one was willing to admit that the emperor was actually naked for fear of appearing too foolish to be able to see the cloth. Finally, a simple child pointed out the obvious, and the crowd took up the cry, leaving the emperor in the ridiculous position of having to finish the procession with a straight face, knowing he was indeed naked.
The response of the intellectual community to Ian Stevenson’s findings is not unlike the response of the crowd to the emperor’s new clothes. Even if some individuals agree with some of his ideas or find some of his evidence persuasive, they are loath to publicly or professionally acknowledge their sympathy for fear of censure from their colleagues. Practically everyone is aware of the weaknesses and limitations of standard explanations for the evidence Stevenson presents, but they think it better to play along and preserve their status than to risk deviating from the norm and being labeled irrational.
The three factors delineated above—the effect of preconceptions on perception, the entrenchment of paradigms in modern science, and the social nature of research—are among the problems, as pointed out by Kuhn and others, associated with a strictly objective and rational image of science. I have indicated how all three probably play a role in keeping professional research communities from appreciating the pioneering work of Ian Stevenson on the subject of reincarnation. I believe another dynamic is at work, however, perhaps more significant and certainly subtler and less well understood: the hubris of modern science.
The goal of scientific research as it exists today is to understand, manipulate, and ultimately master matter. Physicists even speak of a desire to develop a grand uniform theory that would take the form of a few equations (or even a single one) that could be printed on a T-shirt. In their search for truth, scientists tend to rely solely on their own intellect and innate abilities in making new discoveries. “Man is the measure of all things” is their motto, and the infinite potential of the human intellect is their creed. Even those who believe in God relegate him to the background, as at most the initiator of a universe now completely mechanistic and rational. Indeed, scientific inquiry is predicated on the belief that the universe is a riddle answerable through human endeavor. The privileged position in society of science as a whole, and of scientists as individuals, rests on this belief.
Higher Sources of Information
Phenomena such as reincarnation that indicate a reality beyond the reach of the microscope and telescope remind scientists too poignantly that their collective sense of mastery is only illusory and threaten their high status. The fact is that empiric research, such as that of Ian Stevenson, can take us only so far in understanding the transmigration of a nonmaterial soul. Even if they accepted his work, researchers of reincarnation would be forced to turn to other sources of information, such as scripture, to more fully understand it. To do this they would have to admit their dependence on an authority higher than themselves. Such submission is anathema to the very spirit of contemporary scientific inquiry, however, and so it ends up being much easier to reject reincarnation altogether.
If only scientists were able to accept a more humble stance, they could take fruitful advantage of the Vedic literature of India, which represents a coherent source of information on reincarnation and other topics not addressed by mainstream science. The Vedic literature explains that the true nature of the universe is in fact inconceivable to ordinary human perception, and information about it must ultimately descend from God through his messengers and revealed scriptures. Among such scriptures is the Bhagavad-gita, which informs us that we are all eternal spirit souls who belong in the spiritual sky with the Supreme Lord. There we are all immortal and full of complete knowledge and uninterrupted happiness. Due to a desire to enjoy separately from the Lord, however, we have been forced to descend to this material world and endure the cycle of repeated birth and death. Here we must reincarnate through various species of life until we again accept the supremacy of God, or Krishna, and are allowed to re-enter his realm. Until then, the actions of our current life determine what our next material body will be.
Significantly, the Vedic understanding of reincarnation doesn’t preclude its systematic study and experimental investigation. That is to say, scientific research could go on, but simply in a different spirit (and perhaps with some different theories and tools). Rather than approaching the study of nature as the lords of all they survey and pretending that scientific research as currently practiced is a completely reliable source of objective truth, the intellectual community would have to acknowledge its limitations, some of which have been described in this article, and adopt a more appropriate humility.
In this mood, scientists could begin to embrace reincarnation based on Stevenson’s work, and then turn to the Vedic scriptures for further guidance and information. The texts themselves guarantee that such a sincere cultivation of knowledge will result in genuine realization and verifiable truth. Backed by a robust and well-grounded understanding of reincarnation, scientists could offer society answers to some of its most pressing questions: Why do some people suffer and some people prosper in their present lives? They are simply experiencing the results of actions taken in their past lives. Why should people be moral and avoid sinful activities? By doing so, they ensure a better next life.
Of course, the ultimate understanding of reincarnation enunciated by the Vedic scriptures is that we should try to break free from the cycle of repeated birth and death by reconciling ourselves with God. As soon as we surrender unto him, he promises us in the Bhagavad-gita, he’ll fill our hearts with complete knowledge of everything to be known. And we’ll get to live with him in eternal bliss to boot. What more could any scientist hope for?