Some 40 years ago, when I was a graduate student, I came upon a pamphlet by one Dr. Ian Stevenson, entitled something like “Evidence for Reincarnation from Claimed Memories of Former Lives.” I read it; I was impressed by what I recall as its judiciously open-minded approach. I showed it to my girlfriend.
“But isn’t it obvious,” she said, “how very much we want to believe in this kind of thing?”
Of course she was right. Like many, perhaps most of us, I shuddered—I still shudder—at the idea that death might be precisely what it seems: the extinction of our conscious existence. I’d already absorbed the lesson that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. It would be remarkable, Sigmund Freud once remarked apropos of religion, if reality were to be so exactly as we wish it. Not impossible, to be sure. But remarkable.
I set Stevenson’s pamphlet aside. Unlike some other books I owned back then, it’s no longer with me.
Last Sunday morning, while attending a worship service at our nearby Unity Center of Peace, I heard Ian Stevenson’s name for the first time in many years. It cropped up in a talk given by musician Cliff Rubin, purporting to demonstrate the scientific plausibility of reincarnation on the basis of quantum physics, its actuality on the basis of the sort of evidence Stevenson gathered. Cliff is a fine musician. He’s also a fine speaker, and the issues raised by his talk have lingered with me. What he said seemed to make sense. But really, what do I know about quantum physics?
Answer: nothing whatsoever. My background in physical science mostly derives from my senior year in high school, circa 1965. I did take astronomy in college, but never physics. Then I got caught up in fascination with Semitic and classical languages, and there went my scientific education.
By a lucky chance Sunday evening, I ran into a man from the Unity congregation who has the scientific background I lack. He gave me some of the perspective I needed to think about Cliff’s talk. Any errors in what follows, it goes without saying (though I’ll say it anyway), are my own.
We begin in the world of sub-atomic particles, that Lewis Carroll style wonderland where nothing you think of as common sense has any applicability. Experiments have demonstrated that what is done to an electron has an effect on a corresponding positron. (I use these words as if I knew what they meant.) This effect is as near to simultaneous as can be measured, which is to say, transcends the speed of light, which is no longer the absolute Einstein understood it to be. Which is to say, it is not a matter of causation, at least not in our usual sense of the word.
(This is, my friend from the congregation tells me, a recognized phenomenon known as “spooky action at a distance.” You can Google it to find out more.)
Now step from the inconceivably minute into the world that most of us know. Experiments once more (says Cliff) have demonstrated that if two expert meditators are doing their meditations at a distance from one another, and you influence the mind of one with a strobe light, the other will simultaneously be influenced. Just like, or at least analogous to, the electron and the positron. Once again, faster than the speed of light.
Which points to links between human consciousnesses, inexplicable on the basis of the scientific paradigm we’ve been taught to believe in. But to quote Freud once more—he was quoting Charcot—theory is all very fine, but it doesn’t stop things from existing.
And now the really huge step: Quantum physics (says Cliff) teaches us that the observer is a part of the reality he or she observes. Infer from this that reality presupposes, requires consciousness. (Shades of Bishop Berkeley? I’m not sure.) Consciousness, then, is not an epiphenomenon, a recent product of evolution, as I’ve been taught to think of it. On the contrary: before the Big Bang was, consciousness is.
Accept these premises, and it’s not so hard anymore to give a reincarnational spin to Stevenson’s data. Or to see death as a minor incident in the eternity of consciousness, a temporary ending that prepares for a new beginning.
Can reality possibly be so exactly as I wish it?
And if that experiment with the meditators were real and valid, how come science hasn’t completely reshuffled itself? Why isn’t telepathy taught as an accepted part of psychology courses?
Two aspects of my personal experience are relevant to this question. First, I spent 25 years as a professional academic. I know from long and sometimes bitter experience the power that institutional groupthink wields in academia. When UFOlogists claim (you knew we’d get around to UFOs, didn’t you?) that credentialed scientists would be a great deal more open to the UFO evidence than they are, if it weren’t for fear of ridicule and ostracism, this isn’t just special pleading. It’s completely plausible, if not actually true.
Intellectual paradigms have a tendency to become entrenched, self-insulating and self-perpetuating. Brenda Denzler has explored how this works in Chapter Three of her wonderful book The Lure of the Edge: Scientific Passions, Religious Beliefs, and the Pursuit of UFOs (University of California Press, 2001). “Like other scientists with an interest in UFOs, [astronomy professor J. Allen] Hynek was denied a voice in most of his profession’s publications yet ridiculed for presenting his work outside of them.” If the UFOlogists have something to say, why don’t they publish in the scientific journals? the skeptics demanded. They conveniently forgot that the UFOlogists “were almost always denied the opportunity to publish in refereed journals because their subject matter was considered to lie outside the realm of legitimate science.”
So the question, how many tenured professors would agree with Cliff’s reading of quantum physics, doesn’t cut as much ice with me as you might think. I know too much about how people get (and don’t get) tenure.
But here’s the other aspect of my experience. I was once a UFOlogist myself. I know what it’s like to be inside a delusional system, completely convinced of its truth—for reasons that had, as I see in retrospect, nothing to do with the actual evidence.
The aforementioned J. Allen Hynek, a wonderful man whose death in 1986 from a brain tumor continues to be a source of grief to all who knew of him, tells a story about the famous UFO debunker Donald Menzel. (I blogged about Menzel several weeks ago.) “Dr. Menzel’s written reply on a serious questionnaire which asked, ‘what should be done about UFO reports that can’t be explained,’ was, ‘Throw them in the wastebasket!’ ” (Hynek, The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry, Henry Regnery, 1972, p. 206.)
I share Hynek’s indignation at this flippancy. Yet damned if I don’t think Menzel had a point.
Because time, it seems to me, has made it even clearer than it was in 1972: whatever UFOs are, they’re not extraterrestrial visitors, and there’s no reason to think the problem has any significance for the physical sciences. They’re a human phenomenon, one which in my opinion is very important and demands exploration. (Hence this blog.) But a physicist has no reason to care.
Unexplained reports? So what? We’re never going to be able to explain everything people see, or imagine they see, in the skies. Why should it make a difference? The disconfirming evidence, or pseudo-evidence, is a useless distraction. The wastebasket is the safest place for it.
Maybe the experiments Cliff talks about are also best ignored. When I asked him what the materialistic scientists make of them, he said: “They say the instruments weren’t working properly.”
And maybe that’s true. A scientist told me many years ago, with considerable heat, that ESP can’t be real because the laws of physics won’t allow it to be real. The evidence for it therefore must be wrong. Given the uncertainty that attaches to evidence, this argument can’t be dismissed.
(I suppose I could have quoted, in reply, Freud quoting Charcot. But, as I found out years later, this man didn’t think too much of Freud either.)
Or maybe the essentially materialist, God-free paradigm that controls what we think of as science is just that: a paradigm, impregnable because the sociology of science won’t permit any assault on it.
Ask the people who burned Galileo at the stake.
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