Preface to Reincarnation Refuted:  Evidence, Logic and Common Sense


The word 'reincarnation' is repeated so often it is thought by many to be a fact. It is the purpose of this book to show that reincarnation is not a fact, has never been a fact and - more importantly - cannot happen. I am aware that this contradicts a fundamental tenet of the Eastern religions and opposes the grain of New Age thinking but there are very good reasons for supposing that reincarnation is impossible - reasons that will become abundantly clear as the book progresses. After many years of study and research into religion, science and the paranormal, I have come to the conclusion that reincarnation is not only a false and misleading doctrine but a hindrance to spiritual progress. That individuals should wish to believe in such an indemonstrable concept as reincarnation is itself a topic worthy of study but, whatever the reasons, it is evident that the steady trickle of media commentary in support of the doctrine has played a critical part. While the majority of spiritualistic publications have found it profitable to promote the idea of reincarnation, either as a fact or a possibility, this book is dedicated to the task of explaining why it cannot happen. As such the reader will encounter ideas never seen or discussed in the reincarnationist literature.

Although reincarnation is normally associated with the great religions of the East, this is not a religious book in the usual sense of the word, nor is it a book about religion. The reader will not be bombarded with quotations from the scriptures nor be asked to accept any religious precept other than the existence of an eternal creative force. All that is required is an open mind and a willingness to engage in straightforward logical arguments. With the exception of some parts of Chapter 4 and the mathematical appendix, the book is accessible to everyone.

Written largely with reincarnationists in mind, or those who regard reincarnation as a possibility, this book will also be of interest to those who wish to see how logical arguments can be used to dismantle a religious or political ideology. If after having read this book the reader is willing to critically examine any doctrine or idea put to him or her - whatever its source - before accepting it as the gospel truth, the book will have served a useful purpose. The thesis of this book can be summed up in three statements: (a) there is no evidence for reincarnation, (b) the doctrine of reincarnation is logically incoherent, (c) reincarnation violates commonsense.

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Chapter 1: Waking the Dead has been organised as a conversation between myself and two believers in reincarnation. This has a twofold purpose: (a) to provide an introduction to the many issues surrounding the subject, and (b) to submit the arguments for the doctrine to direct scrutiny. While the characters are imaginary their opinions are quite real.

Chapter 2: Believing the Impossible looks at reincarnationism in conjunction with a belief system that provides reincarnationism with much of its legitimacy - Darwinism. As we shall see, both "isms" have many features in common, not the least of which both lack a credible modus operandi. Following an outline of reincarnationism in the West and its portrayal on the World Wide Web, we conclude by showing that biological evolution - reincarnationism's outward justification - could never have happened the way Darwin envisaged.

Chapter 3: Proving a Negative deals with the oft repeated claim that reincarnation cannot be refuted because "you can't prove a negative." Following a discussion of inductive reasoning and its relationship to statements that cannot be refuted, we show that the claim, when applied to the doctrine reincarnation, is a category mistake. In the second part of the chapter, we introduce the Temporal Postulates and prove that systems incorporating concepts of individuality, immortality and reincarnation are logically incoherent. The chapter concludes by proving another negative: that no events are connected in necessary causal relationships.

Chapter 4: The Problem with Karma analyses a key component of reincarnationist philosophy: the doctrine of karma. Explaining how karma must work in practice if the personality is to be liberated from the cycle of rebirths, we show how it may be quantified and analysed with the tools of mathematics and probability theory. We then present a number of propositions, chief of which is that karma cannot be eliminated in practice leading, in turn, to what I have called the Impossibility Theorem - a universal statement asserting that reincarnation cannot be a fact of nature. The chapter ends with a further analysis of karma showing it to be fundamentally incoherent. For readers with a mathematical background the proofs are provided in the Mathematical Appendix.

Chapter 5: Strange Encounters begins with a light-hearted conversation with an imaginary gentleman who believes he is more than one person. This prepares the ground for a serious analysis of multilocation (of which bilocation is a special case) and the strange phenomenon of circumscriptive replication i.e. the physical occupation of two or more places at once. The question, whether or not these and other phenomena, such as the physical phenomena of mediumship, the exteriorisation of sensibility and motivity, community of sensation and shared memories undermine the concept of individuality is discussed in detail.

Chapter 6: Spirit Influence looks at the spiritual constitution of the self, the phenomena of spirit possession and how discarnate personalities can impress the minds of psychically sensitive people with their thoughts, feelings and memories. Once dismissed as superstition, spirit possession is now engaging the attention of anthropologists, psychiatrists and public health officials. A proven instance of spirit possession - the case of Lurancy Vennum - first brought to the world's attention in 1928 by Dr. E. Winchester Stevens is reviewed at length.

Chapter 7: Mind and Body discusses mind-body interaction showing that correlated birthmarks - often touted as evidence for reincarnation - belong to a group of paranormal phenomena that include, among other things, stigmata, hypnotically induced burns and maternal impressions.

Chapter 8: Suggestive of What? is a critical analysis of Dr. Ian Stevenson's best-known work: Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. We show that Dr. Stevenson reached his principal conclusion - that reincarnation is the best possible explanation of past life memories and correlated birthmarks - only by misrepresenting the facts. As we shall see, such phenomena have a much more plausible explanation than that proposed by Dr. Stevenson. We review a number of Stevenson's cases showing that one in particular - the case of Jasbir - cannot possibly be an instance of reincarnation demonstrating that Stevenson will opt for the reincarnation explanation even when it is manifestly untrue. A number of his cases show that obsessive belief in reincarnation can lead to identity confusion, mental illness and suicide.

An idea much loved by reincarnationists, who frequently maintain that everything and everyone is subject to it, is the so-called Law of Cause and Effect: that actions in this life have consequences (i.e. karma) that can only be resolved in future incarnations; hence the need for reincarnation. Chapter 9: Newton's Universe traces the origin of the 'law of cause and effect' to the collapse of the old geocentric astronomy of Ptolemy, its replacement with the heliocentric models of Copernicus and Kepler, the conflict between Galileo and the Catholic Church, and the triumph of Newtonian physics. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how the concept of causal necessity spread to areas beyond the physical sciences - especially to the field of political economy - and how Newtonian methods were incorporated into the technical apparatus of traditionally 'non-scientific' disciplines.

Chapter 10: Law and Disorder continues the discussion of causal necessity, revealing that the law of cause and effect was controversial from the very beginning. Having been contested by a number of distinguished classical thinkers such as Hume and Peirce, it collapsed as a fundamental principle of science with the arrival of the quantum at the beginning of the twentieth century. Modern philosophers such as Jaegwon Kim and John Mackie still maintain that the concept of causation is problematical. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the phenomenon of 'deterministic chaos,' arguably the final 'nail in the coffin' of causal certainty.

Chapter 11: The Unreality of Time establishes the reasons for believing that time is unreal - an idea traceable to Aristotle, Parmenides of Elea, Sextus Empiricus, and Augustine. More recently, it is associated with the Cambridge philosopher John McTaggart. The Chapter concludes with a discussion of the Reduction Principle and how it relates to the scientific theory of spontaneous creation out of nothing espoused by Stephen Hawking, and to a fundamental precept of the great religions.

In Chapter 12: From Here to eternity, we show how various concepts of the soul have been enlisted in the reincarnationist cause and why they have singularly failed to provide a rationale for reincarnation. We then discuss the issue of human immortality and consider whether or not an eternal being can be a person. The chapter concludes with a presentation of the Refutation as a system of formal propositions, chief of which is that the human self does not reincarnate.

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Refutations of reincarnation are sometimes dismissed as so much 'armchair' theorising, inferior in every way to empirical research and contrary to personal experience - an idea espoused by those who have convinced themselves that past life memories permit of only one interpretation. In reply to this, it must be said that no amount of data can demonstrate anything without an underlying theory to support it or give it meaning. Only when a theory has been formulated can the data be reckoned as 'empirical evidence.' While reincarnation research is notable for the amount of data it has accumulated, it is notable for the absence of any coherent or testable theories. Secondly, the reader should be aware that the doctrine of reincarnation is itself the product of 'armchair' theorising and as such should be subjected to the normal tests of logical consistency.

Another stratagem used to counter refutations of reincarnation is to say that because reincarnation means different things to different people, it is unclear what is being refuted. The implication is that whatever version of reincarnation is refuted, all other versions remain intact. Unfortunately for proponents of this view, reincarnation is refuted not by analysing the multitudinous beliefs about reincarnation - an approach not pursued in this book - but by establishing the true nature of human spirituality. The flat Earth doctrine was refuted not by analysing the meaning of the word 'flat' but by establishing the true shape of the Earth.

It is a curious fact that while diversity of meaning is supposed to inhibit refutations of reincarnation, it does not, apparently, inhibit discussions of reincarnation. Individuals who attend conferences on reincarnation and, more importantly, speakers who deliver lectures at conferences on reincarnation, are generally relaxed and unconcerned about this potential source of confusion. Communication proceeds smoothly, papers are delivered happily and fees accepted gratefully – and no one ever complains that reincarnation means different things to different people. Furthermore, empirical research into reincarnation is never bedevilled by such issues; researchers get on with the job and cheerfully announce that their findings support the doctrine of reincarnation. Significantly, the European Values Survey (2002) had no difficulty phrasing the question: "Do you believe in reincarnation, that is, that we are born into this world again?"

There are two kinds of refutation in this book: a mathematical refutation based on the unviability of karma (discussed in Chapter 4) and a logical refutation based on the unreality of time. The logical refutation was first published as a brief outline in James Webster's anthology The Case Against Reincarnation : A Rational Approach (2009) - a book that may be regarded as a companion volume to this one. Since then, I have made a number of changes, the most notable being the use of the term 'self' in place of 'soul' and the introduction of the so-called Temporal Postulates enabling the propositions of the Refutation to be developed in a more systematic and orderly manner. This 'two-pronged' approach means that if one accepts the scientific concept of the unreality of time (as does the author) then reincarnation is refuted by the Temporal Postulates. On the other hand, if one believes that time is real (as do a number of philosophers) then reincarnation is refuted by the Impossibility Theorem. Either way, reincarnation is refuted.

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"Every journey begins with the first step," to quote an old saying. Whatever the reader's beliefs, hopes or aspirations, I hope the journey is an interesting and eventful one!