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Reincarnation: Pro and Con

Of the authors that contend that reincarnation exists, there is no better researcher than Ian Stevenson.  Stevenson, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of Virginia, has spent over twenty-five years tracl

If it's hard to find reliable books on the case for reincarnation, it's even harder to find any that present the skeptical viewpoint.   Three chapters in Melvin Harris' Investigating the Unexplained (reviewed on page 201) provide an excellent skeptical treatment of hypnotic "past-life regressions," discussing both the Bridey Murphy case and the sensational cases of British hypnotherapist Arnall Bloxham.  But the best critique of reincarnation I've seen appeared as a four-part series in the Fall 1986 through Summer 1987 issues of Free Inquiry magazine.  The first issue of the series includes an article by Melvin Harris summarizing his research, as well as part one of philosopher Paul Edwards' four-part point-by-point critique of reincarnation.  In the series of articles, Edwards outlines the various doctrines of reincarnation and discusses particulars like the Law of Karma, body-mind dualism, the creation of new souls, and where the mind is between Incarnations.  He concludes with an engrossing discussion of Stevenson's assumptions, methods, and conclusions.    -T.S.

When Wijeratne was between two and two and a half years old he began to walk around his house in a solitary way talking to himself.  His behavior attracted the attention of his mother, who listened to his tale.  She overheard him saying that his arm was deformed because he had murdered his wife
in his previous life.  He mentioned a number of details connected with a crime of which she, until that time, had heard nothing.  She asked her husband about the boy's statements and he confirmed the accuracy of what the boy was saying for in fact his younger brother, Ratran Hami, had been executed in 1928 for the murder of his wife.

Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation

Many subjects of these cases have birthmarks or birth defects that correspond, according to the informants and other sources of evidence, to wounds (or other marks) on the bodyof the related previous personality.  In some instances a correspondence occurs between an internal disease of the subject and a similar one from which the previous personality suffered . . .

Birthmarks and birth defects related to the previous personality seem to me to provide some of the strongest evidence in favor of reincarnation as the best interpretation for the cases. They are objectively observable (I have photographed several hundred of them), and for most of them the only serious alternative explanation that I can think of is a psychic force on the part of the baby's mother that influences the body of the embryo or fetus within her.  However, this explanation, which is itself almost as mind stretching (for the average Westerner) as reincarnation, can be firmly excluded in about twelve cases in which the child's mother and father never heard of the identified previous personality until after the child's birth.

Children Who Remember Past Lives

One of the skeptics is Professor Chari, an Indian philosopher, now retired from Madras Christian University, who is not a Western materialist or positivist but a Hindu and a well-known parapsychologist.  Professor Chari does not reject reincarnation, but he believes that Stevenson is incredibly naive and that his reports have no evidential value.

. . . Chari insists that [Stevenson's cases are] cultural artifacts, pure and simple.  "A reincarnationist fantasy in the small Asian child," he writes, "starts typically in play or a gamelike situation."  It is then promoted (or retarded) by the conscious or unconscious beliefs, attitudes, and responses of parents, guardians, and Interested bystanders.  Chari calls this fantasy the Asian counterpart of the "imaginary playmate" or "fictitious companion" that has been disclosed in many western studies of childhood.

The Case Against Reincarnation

ian Wilson has emphasized that Stevenson generally dismisses on the flimsiest grounds the possibility of fraud on the part of the children, their parents, and other interested parties.  Stevenson maintains that no motive for fraud exists, when such motives are only too evident. Wilson has pointed out that several of the children remembered belonging to a higher caste in their previous lives and seem to have been motivated by a wish for better living conditions.  In one case, for example, a boy asked for one-third of the land of his past-life father, showing no interest in his previous incarnation when this former "father" lost his fortune and became poorer than his father in the present life. Wilson also calls attention to the fact that Stevenson invariably tells us exceedingly little about the character and background of the parents, who are usually vital informants.  In many cases, too, there was or easily could have been contact between the parents and persons connected with the "previous personality" about whose life the child had accurate recollections.

The Case Against Reincarnation