Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Reports of Reincarnation: What's Really Going On?

For most of my life I considered belief in reincarnation completely ridiculous, and an obvious example of wishful thinking.   These people just don't want to face the reality of their impending doom, I figured, so they latch onto crazy stories about life after death and their souls moving on to occupy other bodies.  Yeah, right.

But the more I read about the topic, the more this attitude of facile dismissal started to grate on me.   I encourage anyone interested in understanding this aspect of universe to read Ian Stephenson's book Children Who Remember Previous Lives: A Question of Reincarnation ... and the Wikipedia page on Reincarnation Research gives some other useful references too. 

This research definitely doesn't prove that reincarnation exists, in any of the classic definitions of reincarnation.   Yet, it's also very difficult to dismiss as simple fraud or self-deception.If you really read the evidence carefully, you come to the inescapable conclusion -- Something Strange Is Going On Here.
A similar situation is noted in Robert McLuhan's book Randi's Prize, which recounts many examples of strange phenomena occurring during seances in previous centuries.   When one really studies the historical record regarding these phenomena, explanations in terms of hoaxes and self-deception become difficult to maintain.  One comes to the conclusion: something strange was happening there, though due to its peculiar nature it's hard to study with repeatable experiments.  Yeah, there was lots of fraud and self-deception; yet when you finally consider all the evidence carefully, it's not really plausible that these account for all of it.   It seems hard to account for the evidence without positing some kind of psi phenomena -- though exactly what kind remains unclear.

My general thoughts on psi are given on this page. I'm not going to try to convince skeptics to believe in psi, reincarnation or anything, in the space of this short blog post.  If you're truly skeptical about psi, but open-minded, I encourage you to read the references given on that page, and Stephenson's book on reincarnation as well.

What I'm musing about is: Supposing some of the evidence gathered by Anderson and others about reincarnation is real (as seems likely to me) -- then, what the heck is going on in this universe?

The classic religious stories of reincarnation don't make much sense.   Many folks have poked many holes in them; it's extremely easy to do.

Yet, there does seem to be evidence that knowledge about one person's life, often a recently dead one, can somehow leak into the mind of some other human, often a very young one.   

One can imagine a lot of different psi phenomena that could lead to this.  My own speculation is that the phenomenon has something to do with the primacy of pattern over time.  

I realize that, with this sort of speculation, I'll utterly lose anyone who takes a reductionist, naive-realist type view of the world -- a view in which ordinary physical reality is primary and mental, subjective reality is an epiphenomenon.  But, so it goes...

The linear flow of time, as we perceive it subjectively in ordinary human states of mind and as we study it in physics, is not necessarily a fundamental property of the universe.  It may be "just one way that information self-organizes".   If one views the universe as a sort of pool of forms, patterns, feelings etc., with the conventional linear time axis being just one form of organization among many that emerges in this pool, then reincarnation-type phenomena seem a lot less strange.

Suppose, for instance, that the two brains involved in a reincarnation-type phenomenon have some sort of similarity to them, in their pattern of organization or dynamics.  Could this similarity set up some kind of "resonance" between these brain/minds, acting in the broader pattern-space of the universe but outside the particular pattern that is the linear order of time?   This possibility fits in well with Sheldrake's ideas about morphogenetic fields, which I've tried to tie in with some proposed modifications to quantum mechanics.

Sorry to disappoint, but I have no grand conclusion on these matters.  My current way of thinking is:
  • There is some valid, strange (to our normal world-view) phenomenon going on, underlying some of the known examples of reincarnation-like phenomena
  • The classic religious stories about reincarnation are almost surely not correct
  • Maybe, maybe, maybe some morphogenetic field type explanation could help explain what's really going on

I look forward to the science --- or trans-science --- of the future, which I suspect will be able to explain reincarnation-type phenomena and other paranormalities to us, using entirely new concepts, or concepts like morphogenetic fields that currently exist only in very blurry form....


Unknown said...

How do two minds connect? Can you explain more?

Giulio Prisco said...

Akashic records?

My thoughts, similar to Ben's:

Matthew Fuller said...

" I'll utterly lose anyone who takes a reductionist, naive-realist type view of the world "

But don't most reductionists believe something like qualia and consciousness actually exist? For example, does Yudkowsky not believe he is conscious, or that there is no subjective experience?

Anonymous said...

Have you read Dr Amit Goswami? He's a Quantum Physicist from University of Oregon (rtd). He heavily builds on that research in crafting a theory based on Quantum Mechanics, arguing that consciousness is a quantum non-locality. Some of it's a little out there for me but it's an interesting perspective.

Of course, if some of the other physicists are right that the universe is basically a quantum program, and we're AI running in that program that have evolved out of the basic computer physics, then reincarnation would just be a copying and reuse of that AI program that is the basis for our consciousness. Reincarnation would make sense then as a re-use of basic character design, just as in programming a game one might re-use code for the core of characters but with certain attributes changed. Maybe AGI has already been invented in a VR universe? It's called humanity...

Anonymous said...


Tim Tyler said...

IMO, science is cool with people "remembering" previous lives. According to standard science, humans are born with a comprehensive package of knowledge about the environment of their ancestors coded into their DNA. Evidently some percieve this knowledge in terms of ancestral memories. It seems like no big deal.

Stephen Paul King said...

The Quantum Suicide/Imortality thought experiment seems not inconsistent with reincarnation...

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Benjamin what do you mean by classical religious stories about reincarnation?

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