Reincarnation Research and Myths of Scientific Practice

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About Sommer_HPS

Dr. Andreas Sommer, historian of the human sciences at Cambridge University, UK. View all posts by Sommer_HPS

19 responses to “Reincarnation Research and Myths of Scientific Practice

  • Troy

    Excellent post, Andreas!

  • Bob R.

    Marvelous–clear and fact-based. This is good enough to be ignored as studiously as Stevenson’s work!

  • Charles Boden

    Spiritual evolution via the reincarnatory process is the only theory that truly makes any sense… (Y)

  • Alan

    Hi Andreas … really enjoy your site.
    Here’s Prof. Jesse Bering’s open minded article at Scientific American on Prof. Stevenson’s work.

    If you look there are no comments! – but there was an extensive list which have been removed. Just for the record and FYI there was this response by Bering to one commenter who dismissed Stevenson’s work. It comes under “2:00 pm 11/3/2013” (by Bering) if you scroll down a bit in this Webcache document where someone else quoted Bering. Hopefully this won’t disappear also. I just thought it was a great response by him.

    Thought you would be interested. Best wishes!

    • Sommer_HPS

      Thanks, Alan! Bering’s comment is worthwhile reproducing, so here we go:

      30. jessebering
      2:00 pm 11/3/2013

      Science has an obvious history of putting the cart of empirical observation before the horse of theory, as the field of epidemiology can clearly attest with regard to the precise mechanisms of viral bacteriology, or Darwinian evolutionary biologists can surely sympathize with respect to formal genetics. The documentation of anomalous data, including a feverish attention to ruling out mechanisms currently known to science, is no more and no less than evidence of the inexplicable. Such inexplicable data, in my opinion, Stevenson established surely enough. In fact, it’s not just my opinion. In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan, no less, identified Stevenson’s research program on children’s memories of previous lives as deserving of serious scientific scrutiny. (Sam Harris also alluded to these data as being so worthy in his book, The End of Faith.) Now, perhaps you’re a better scientist than Carl Sagan, David Cummings, but the fact that the man who penned the well-trod atheistic credo of “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” which you clearly subscribe to as an atheist, saw Stevenson’s work as fit to analyze in close detail suggests, to me, that it’s not a collection of “mere anecdotal data” and a far cry from Creationism. As for the cognitive construct of apophenia, I’m more than familiar with the concept and wrote about it at some length in The Belief Instinct, especially its symptomology in schizophrenia and the tendency to promiscuously attribute causal links where none exist. But having read many (in fact, most) of Stevenson’s case reports closely, I see no evidence whatever of this being a satisfactory explanation for his observations. And as a general note, it’s rather easy to dismiss an entirety of a work on the basis of a broad theory (of “apophenia,” “anecdotes,” “fear of death,” “confirmation bias,” and so on), but should you ever wish to actually engage in the work itself, rather than simply comment on second-hand accounts such as this one, I assure you that you would find it considerably more difficult to wave off individual case reports as breezily as you’ve attempted to do here. Almost none can be easily brushed aside with stock from the skeptic’s go-to barrel: fraud, cryptoamnesia, apophenia, chance, distorted memories, parents’ reincarnation beliefs, culture, leading questions, conflating conversations, and so on. He was aware of them all. (Earlier in his career, he’d written *the* textbook on psychiatric interviewing techniques, don’t forget, so he was impressively well-versed on these issues). And that’s the rub for you … when the occasional rebellious, stubborn data refuse to fit your preferred theoretical model, it’s rather annoying, isn’t it? None of this is to say, alas, that I personally believe in reincarnation. I don’t, at this stage in my thinking. But neither am I afraid to engage meaningfully in the possibility, however remote, that I’m dead wrong. What is the mechanism? I’ve no idea. Stevenson had no idea, either, and he admitted as much. Would you rather he invented or concocted some explanation simply to satisfy your demand for answers? He could only surmise that his data suggested the brain and mind were orthogonal. “Certainly the mind expresses itself through the brain,” Stevenson once wrote. “Anyone can prove this to himself with an ounce or two of whiskey. [This] does not, however, prove the identity of mind and brain. When we squeeze a sponge, water runs out, but this does not make water a product of the sponge.” In the tradition of Victorian parapsychology, Stevenson saw the brain as, essentially, a kind of lens or prism through which the mind, as “energy” (and he hated that word just as much as I do, but he knew there was just no way to properly describe such a hypothetical entity) is filtered. An individual’s consciousness is canalized by his or her brain, in this sense, rather than created by it. Or to use yet another metaphor, the brain is like a radio receiver, with the airwaves existing whether or not there’s a device around to receive and transmit these signals. Reincarnation, he stressed, only complements rather than contradicts what we already know about evolution and genetics, helping to fill in some of the (big) gaps about embryology and an individual’s personality that modern science presently allocates to “chance” alone. In short, I’ve as healthy a disrespect for shoddy work as the next scientist and have earned my atheistic credentials, but I’m also willing to educate myself on opposing claims by reading firsthand accounts rather than another skeptic’s dubious take.

  • Anil chaturvedi

    Science is confined only to study the secrets of material universe. Even till date science is unable to know what is consciousness. Science is not a competent tool to know the life after death. one should have to evolve a new way to know the ultimate

    • Charles Boden

      “Between you and me, I’m so not into the idea that karma will eventually get me and drag my poor soul back into a new body after I die.”

      It is not “karma” that will bring you back. More probably your own choice, though it does seem to be na unavoidable process. Personally I have no doubt that the spiritual phenomenon is a dimensional one. We do have a spiritual or dimensional body and “consciousness” retains its existence and individuality even after death of the physical/material body.

      For what little it might be worth, on the only occasion I underwent a hypnotic regression, what I “saw” at one ponit, as well as some other things, was myself as a Knight by the name Ezequiel, being slain by Turks in a battle. When the regressionist asked what year this was, I spurted out 1480, but after having done so my thoughts were that the crusades had been in the 12th & 13th centuries, not in the 15th. Upon arriving home, however, I google-searched, and found that Indeed there was a battle against the Ottomans in 1480, at the Seige of Rhodes.

      Not proof to anyone else, but to me, together with other factors, it was quite strong.evidence, as I had never even heard of the Seige of Rhodes.

  • Wendi

    I’m wondering if you are familiar with Rudolph Steiner’s work? The anthroposophical view embraces both science and spirituality, neither one invalidating the other. Obviously, reincarnation is a difficult field of study as direct observation is impossible, but as you mentioned, data can be gathered to support one’s claim of reincarnation. Different methods of investigation are needed. At the end of the day, the subject requires open-mindedness, a trait often lacking in the scientific community.

    • Sommer_HPS

      Yes, and I can see why Anthroposophy is so attractive to many. But personally, I’m deeply suspicious of any doctrine, ‘ism’ or school of thought, particularly if it’s based on the teachings of one single person (or book).

  • Charles Boden

    I believe the equation is one of Consciousness. This is the key. Consciousness has no matter, yet it is a perceivable reality of the universe. It also seems to be intangible and indestructible. But how would it be possible to prove that consciousness is not just a side-effect of the brain, but rather that the brain is an instrument by which consciousness can manifest in the physical? What about the existence of forms of consciousness in creatures that have no brain? Consciousness is information, and information is at the basis of all things. It is my belief that all things contain a form of consciousness as they all derive from the Greater Consciousness that gave origin to all things. But how could this be proven?

  • Pavel Axentiev

    Thank you! As a scientist (or a scientifically trained professional, at least) with esoteric sensibilities, I appreciate the fact that there is a growing mass of talented writers on these topics that can incorporate sound logic, some at least basic familiarity with the scientific method, and a great deal of factual research into their writings. I hope to join the movement as well some day. Thank you once again, and best of luck!

  • Andrew

    Why is it on this website you mostly seem to cite pro-paranormal references but ignore most of the skeptical literature? For example your bibliography on this very article apart from Sagan only cites very credulous paranormal books written by believers in the paranormal.

    Ian Stevenson’s work has been shot down in the skeptical literature (See Robert Baker, Paul Edwards, Terence Hines, Ian Wilson etc). The problem is that believers ignore such literature due to cognitive biases. They do not want their magical beliefs to be refuted so will ignore any of the negative evidence that goes against them.

    Your comment “chances are that your informants weren’t trained scientists who personally scrutinized the data with an open mind, and published their critiques in peer-reviewed science journals” is not true.

    Here is two reviews published in a mainstream peer-reviewed linguistic journal by two professors of language that found faults with Stevenson’s work on xenoglossy. They basically concluded his claims were without scientific evidence and he has made unprofessional comments about languages. Regards.

    Samarin, William J (1976). “Xenoglossy: A Review and Report of a Case by Ian Stevenson”. Language 52 (1): 270–274.

    Frawley, William (1985). “Unlearned Language: New Studies in Xenoglossy by Ian Stevenson”. Language 61 (3): 739.

    • Sommer_HPS

      Thanks for your comment. However, since you appear rather worried about people who might believe in the ‘paranormal’, please read the Welcome page to understand this blog is not making claims for or against its existence. As explained there, it is concerned with the public and academic reception of research into ostensible occult phenomena over time. Please remember I’m a historian of science (as are most guest bloggers here), and our questions are very different from those of parapsychologists.

      Second, the main reason why I “ignore most of the skeptical literature” is because it has very little to say on relevant history of science scholarship (which it routinely ignores). Not least, most active representatives of the ‘skeptics movement’ typically favour aggressive polemics over constructive, rational debate, usually by upholding naive images of scientific practice, the kind of ‘myth’ I was primarily concerned with in my article. This is evident to anyone informed about some of the parapsychological work that is being assaulted by programmatic ‘skeptics’, and has been documented by sociologists of science, who have identified the skeptics movement as an essentially ideological one. In case you’re interested, here are a few studies:

      Collins, H. M., & Pinch, T. J. (1979). The construction of the paranormal: nothing unscientific is happening. In R. Wallis (Ed.), On the Margins of Science: The Social Construction of Rejected Knowledge (Sociological Review Monograph, vol. 27) (pp. 237-270). Keele: University of Keele.

      Collins, H. M., & Pinch, T. J. (1982). Frames of Meaning: The Social Construction of Extraordinary Science. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

      Hess, D. J. (1992). Disciplining heterodoxy, circumventing discipline: parapsychology, anthropologically. In D. J. Hess & L. Layne (Eds.), Knowledge and Society Vol. 9: The Anthropology of Science and Technology (pp. 191-222). Greenwich: JAI Press.

      Hess, D. J. (1993). Science in the New Age. The Paranormal, Its Defenders and Debunkers, and American Culture. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.

      McClenon, J. (1984). Deviant Science: The Case of Parapsychology. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

      Pinch, T. J., & Collins, H. M. (1984). Private science and public knowledge: the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and its use of the literature. Social Studies of Science, 14, 521-546.

      Regarding Stevenson, one doesn’t have to agree with his conclusions, let alone be guilty of ‘magical thinking’ to strongly disagree with your assessment that his work “has been shot down in the skeptical literature (See Robert Baker, Paul Edwards, Terence Hines, Ian Wilson etc).” Baker, Edwards, Hines and Wilson’s attacks are essentially polemical and ad hominem rather than informed, systematic, let alone constructive critiques. (See, for example, James Mattlock’s review of Edwards, which you can download and read via the PDF link above).

      It is fair to refer as you do to “cognitive biases”, but it’s also good to remember there is more than one type of bias.

      Regarding the two book reviews you list, I wonder why you cite them since they are not directly concerned with the kind of research I sketch above (Stevenson’s study of xenoglossy doesn’t even appear in my bibliography.) Also, nowhere in Samarin’s review is there an argument that Stevenson’s xenoglossy research was useless or ‘unscientific’. On the contrary, Samarin not only welcomed such studies (he merely pointed out a few weaknesses), he actually praised that Stevenson “dispassionately considers one possible explanation after another. If he has ignored any, I cannot suggest what it might be” (p. 271), and he concluded: “I really do believe that this is an interesting case. There are very few so well documented” (p. 273). Could you explain why you cite this review is a devastating critique?

      I was unable to access the review by Frawley – maybe you could summarize his concrete arguments? It can’t be too much hassle since the review seems to be only page.

      Finally, if you could let me know where in the peer-reviewed scientific literature there are informed and constructive critiques of some of the studies by Mills, Haraldsson, Keil, Tucker and Mattlock I listed in the bibliography I’d be much indebted. As I said, as a historian I’m not interested in making a case for or against reincarnation (and personally I am rather biased against it), but the public reception of the more recent research by Stevenson and colleagues is as relevant for my work as, e.g., that of William James’s involvement in psychical research, and if I missed important literature I’d be grateful for any sources I might have overlooked.

  • Andrew

    I accept my bias. I don’t believe in the paranormal. All these parapsychologists you mention are anti-science to me and doing superstition. I will not read their books, it seemed to be mostly old men writing this nonsense who had gotten older and scared of death and wanted something to be more than nature, there is a long history of this guys like Oliver Lodge or William Crookes who left science for magical thinking.

    The Samarin and Frawley is on Wikipedia article for Stevenson:

    “William J. Samarin, a linguist from the University of Toronto has written that Stevenson had chosen to correspond with linguists in a selective and unprofessional manner. He noted that Stevenson corresponded with one linguist in a period of six years “without raising any discussion about the kinds of thing that linguists would need to know.” He also wrote that most of Stevenson’s collaborators were “fellow believers” in the paranormal, starting with a preconceived notion.”

    “Prof. William Frawley in a review for Stevenson’s Unlearned Language: New Studies in Xenoglossy (1984) wrote that was he too uncritically accepting of a paranormal interpretation of the cases. In one case a female subject could only answer yes or no questions in German which Frawley found unimpressive. In another, the female subject could speak Bengali with a poor pronunciation. Frawley noted that she was raised on the language of Marathi (related to Bengali), had studied Sanskrit from which both Marathi and Bengali derive and was living in a town with thousands of Bengalis. He concluded “Stevenson does not consider enough linguistic evidence in these cases to warrant his metaphysics.”

    So not totally favourable for Stevenson’s research but you are right this was just two book reviews like a page long, maybe it was cherry-picked.

    Obviously you have all day to research this stuff you are a historian with decent papers out and much more read than me but you are also a council member of the SPR and your stuff only seem to be ever cited by believers in the paranormal and those who want to attack skeptics. But you say that is not your intention sorry I apologise if I misunderstood. Good luck with your research. I don’t know which skeptical books you have read but Hidden Memories by Robert Baker was the best I read on the topic.

    • Sommer_HPS

      Thanks for your candour, Andrew; and absolutely no need to apologise to me. If you refuse to inform yourself by reading the relevant primary sources, however, you really shouldn’t make any accusations of ‘anti-science’, etc. Best wishes!

  • Alan

    At the risk of getting mushy … just looking at Jesse Bering’s article in SciAm above, he says Ian Stevenson found “zero evidence of karma”. Is this actually a scientific *data point* considering the number of cases the great man studied? Really, a kind of non-judgemental Reality no matter how you spend your life?
    I just wonder if one can tentatively link this to the idea of *beauty* in an apparently impersonal universe (according to current science). Hey, we see beauty all around … in the forms of physical laws, a flower, a mathematical theorem, a song, an ethical concept, a person. Maybe all forms of life have their unique sense here. It’s kind of everywhere and rings that little bell when we see it.
    Supposing reincarnation true and with no karma (which I guess would mean some nasty backlash on a life lived), a new chance is given, new possibilities. It also doesn’t make sense to me that things get forgotten, at some level, over these lifetimes. So I kind of think there’s beauty in here. And is this whole business one of learning? Why? Who’s in charge? How did this all get set up? And once you posit souls it seems to me there’s a great deal up for grabs here. For instance, greater souls …

    There’s beauty again in these lines from Cloud Atlas, the book/film about reincarnation.

    “Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.”

    (lo and behold the comments have now appeared in the SciAm article Andreas – nothing to do with me)

  • Parapsychology: The rise and fall of paranormal experimentation | paranormalhuntress

    […] Dr Andreas Sommer, a historian of human sciences at the University of Cambridge, says the very visible instances of fraud often get caught up unfairly in respectable research, however. In a paper for Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical sciences, Sommer writes, “the standard sceptical literature shows a remarkable lack of interest to distinguish between obvious self-immunisation strategies [of frauds] and observations by critical and experienced investigators with flawless scientific and clinical reputations and credentials.” From his research into the subject, Sommer believes that apparitions, telepathy, mediums and children citing specific information about past lives post “massive challenges” to science, the last of which he covers in detail on his Forbidden Histories blog. […]

  • paigetheoracle

    Maybe the real question should be what is memory? How is it formed? Where does it go when we die or simply forget? Could memory and the near death experience be contained in the equivalent of an I-cloud? Lived personally but released into an impersonal memory bank, to be reloaded after death into another body as in some kind of glorified video game (matrix theory of reality)

    • Sommer_HPS

      The concept of memory storage (akin to digital information) is actually quite problematic, even though it is used as a standard concept in the neurosciences. For a sophisticated critique see, e.g., Gauld, A. (2007). Memory. In E. F. Kelly, E. W. Kelly, A. Crabtree, A. Gauld, M. Grosso & B. Greyson (Eds.), Irreducible Mind. Toward a Psychology For the 21st Century (pp. 241-300). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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