Paul Edwards

Reincarnation: a critical examination

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (1999).

One of the more striking effects of the enthusiasm for "Eastern wisdom" that became widespread in the hippy movement of the 1960s was a readiness to accept the notion of reincarnation, at least in human form (reincarnation as an animal seems not to have caught on much). Along with this, the doctrine of karma, usually interpreted as saying "as you sow, you shall reap", has also become popular; thirty or forty years ago few people would had heard of it, but now it's a common figure of speech among the young, as even a brief sojourn on the Internet will show you.

It's easy to understand why reincarnation should have attained this degree of acceptance in the West. For one thing, the idea of rebirth in a physical body probably seems easier to accept in a technological society than that of post-mortem survival in heaven. For another, the karma theory appears, at least at first glance, to offer an intuitively appealing solution to the problem of inequality. Why are some people gifted and fulfilled while others live wretched lives in poverty and deprivation? It's because of how they behaved in previous lives. How you conduct yourself in this life will determine your state in your next incarnation. It's long seemed to me that there's a logical flaw in this scenario: it merely displaces the inequality problem into the past. Did everyone start out equal initially? If not, it isn't fair; but if so, then how and when did the inequalities start to creep in?

This is just one of the objections raised to reincarnation by Paul Edwards, a philosopher. There is also, for example, the administration difficulty: how is all this accounting system to work, and by what mechanism does it happen? Edwards has no great difficulty in showing that there are serious logical problems with all these questions. He then turns to the evidence that is quoted in support of reincarnation. One of the best-known of such cases is that of "Bridey Murphy", in which, in the 1950s, a girl in the USA named Virginia Tighe claimed to have memories under hypnosis of a former life as an Irish girl living in Cork in the early part of the nineteenth century. Not all writers sympathetic to reincarnation in general accept the authenticity of this case and Edwards rejects it emphatically.

The research of Dr Ian Stevenson is more difficult to discount. A psychiatrist at the University of Virginia, he has, according to Edwards, written more fully and intelligibly on reincarnation than anyone else. Stevenson doesn't use hypnosis; instead, he has investigated a large number of cases in which a child claims to have memories of a previous life and these memories are subsequently corroborated by people who knew the person the child claims to have been in that life. The child sometimes has birthmarks which seem to substantiate the claims and generally recognizes people and possessions from the previous life. Stevenson has published his findings in scholarly monographs; so scholarly, in fact, that it seems he has been unable to find a publisher for his latest, more detailed, material.

Although the case for reincarnation, at least in some cases, is quite strongly supported by Stevenson's work, it is not without its difficulties. Almost all the cases he describes come from societies in which the reality of reincarnation is accepted, which makes one suspect that belief in it may be merely a cultural phenomenon, although Stevenson asserts that in many of these societies it is considered unlucky to remember one's previous life. Sometimes there was a long time gap between the child's first claim to have the memories and Stevenson's investigation, which makes the problems of possible secondary elaboration more difficult to eliminate. Because of language difficulties, Stevenson usually had to rely on interpreters, who may have introduced biases of their own into what was said. For these and other reasons, Edwards feels entitled to reject his conclusions. It is certainly true that Stevenson has at times endorsed published accounts of reincarnation, not investigated by him, which seem pretty implausible.

Not all of the book is strictly concerned with reincarnation. Two chapters are devoted to a sustained attack on Dr Kubler-Ross's description of five stages of grief in terminal illness, and another to Dr Grof and LSD. This stuff is quite entertaining but struck me as rather over-personalized and I think would have been better omitted. The final chapter is more technically philosophical and deals with the dependence of consciousness on the brain.

The tone of the book is generally light and witty, with a slight tendency to smugness at times, although it generally gives a fair account of the arguments usually advanced in support of reincarnation by those who favour the theory. However, I have a question about who will read it. Convinced believers in reincarnation presumably won't. Confirmed disbelievers probably won't either, unless they want ammunition to use in arguments with believers. People who have no interest in the matter one way or the other also won't read it. This leaves the interested but uncommitted, who are not sure whether there is something in the idea or not but who nevertheless think the question is important. This is probably the most rational position to adopt but there may not be too many potential readers in this category, although the publishers, who specialize in trying to debunk what they take to be superstitions and irrational beliefs of all kinds, doubtless hope that there will be.

%T Reincarnation: a critical examination
%A Edwards, Paul
%I Prometheus
%C Amherst
%D 1996
%G ISBN 1 57392 005 3
%P 313 pp
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