Wednesday, 27 October 2021

Reincarnation and its Critics, Part 3: Patterns in Reincarnation Cases are determined by Culture

In the psi encyclopaedia entry Patterns in Reincarnation Cases it says:

Sceptics of a reincarnation interpretation of the cases point to the association between beliefs about the reincarnation process and case features such as the presence or absence of sex change and argue that this is proof that people are imagining or constructing the cases in accordance with their culturally-mandated ideas.  This proposition has been called the sociopsychological or psychosocial theory of past-life memory claims.

For example, David Lester in The Myth of an Afterlife in his chapter Is there life after death?  says:

Stevenson noted that in his best cases the previous person lived in the same region as the current person. But there should be more cases where the previous personality is from a different nation, for there is no reason why deceased spirits should be constrained by space.

And he adds:

There are large cultural variations in the reports, and there is no reason why the characteristics of Stevenson’s cases should vary significantly from culture to culture. Such cultural variation suggests that the belief system of the culture determines the content of the reports. If a culture believes that sex change does not occur from one life to another, then it is not found in the reports.

So, should the reports be fabricated or mistaken, we would expect the characteristics of the cases to align with cultural expectations and desires.  And that is precisely what we find.  Should we conclude that the evidence therefore cannot be what it seems, that it does not point to reincarnation?

We cannot address this question until we have some inkling of what our expectations ought to be on this issue if, in fact, reincarnation does occur.  
Let's suppose we were not acquainted with any of the evidence suggesting reincarnation.  What should be our prior expectations regarding what determines or influences the details of the reincarnational process?  In other words, what is it that governs the sex we will be reborn as, where one is reborn, and what period of time elapses before one is reborn? 

There seems to me to be three broad possibilities (or any combination thereof).

  1. Some impersonal natural "mechanism" largely, if not exclusively, characterises the reincarnational process.  Such a "mechanism" determines what sex we are born, where we are born, and how long we stay in the otherworldly realm before we are reborn.  Neither our thoughts, desires, underlying beliefs, nor any external agent, will have any significant influence in this process.  Such a natural "mechanism" or process might be construed as being akin to the natural laws that describe our familiar material realm.  For example, if we were to find ourselves in the unfortunate position of falling from a high height, our beliefs, desires, underlying beliefs and general psychological state will not be able to prevent us from stopping or slowing down our acceleration towards the Earth.  

  2. Our desires, underlying beliefs, general psychological states, and hence our implicit expectations, do play at least some effective role if not exclusively determines the details of the reincarnational process.

  3. Some external agent(s) of some nature, wholly or partially, dictates the details of the reincarnational process.

If it can be shown that prior to looking at the research into reincarnation that it is more reasonable to subscribe to "1", or at least mainly "1", then this vindicates the skeptic's conclusion that the evidence for reincarnation can be dismissed.  So we now need to look at their reasons for subscribing to "1".

Unfortunately, they don't give any reasons
, or at least not so far as I am aware.  Certainly, David Lester doesn't give any in his chapter in The Myth of an Afterlife where he argues against reincarnation.  My suspicion is that skeptics expectations here are heavily influenced by their background suppositions about the world.  Specifically, that consciousness, whether in the form of explicitly directed intentions or more vaguely in the form of psychological dispositions, plays no effective causal role in the world over and above material processes.  The world, instead, is ultimately entirely governed by impersonal physical laws that are not directed towards any ends.  So why should any supposed realm in-between lives be any different? 

This idea that consciousness plays no effective causal role in the world over and above material processes implies that, broadly construed, some type of materialism is correct.  Which then rules out the possibility of souls reincarnating.  Thus skeptics, by imagining that it is entirely some impersonal process that determines the specifics of the reincarnational process, are to a certain extent, begging the question.  

A world in which reincarnation happens entails that our essential nature is a soul.  This, in turn, implies a world very different to the world in which the materialist imagines we live.  In particular, it seems likely to me that in the afterlife realm our underlying beliefs, expectations, and desires will very much have an influence in what we experience and the environment we find ourselves in.  And, should we reincarnate, influence when, where and what sex we will be when reborn.

This, of course, is just my belief, which could be incorrect.  But we need reasons to suppose the alternative -- an impersonal "mechanism" -- would be mainly responsible.  That neither a soul's beliefs and desires nor any external agent will play anything other than, at most, a minor role in this process.

Unless they are able to advance some cogent reasons, I therefore have to conclude that the cultural variations in the reports only constitute weak evidence against reincarnation.

Reincarnation and its Critics, Part 1: The Increasing Population
Reincarnation and its Critics, Part 2: Reincarnation isn't Falsifiable

Wednesday, 20 October 2021

Reincarnation and its Critics, Part 2: Reincarnation isn't Falsifiable

The falsifiability criterion was advanced by Karl Popper to demarcate scientific from non-scientific theories. The idea is that if one has a scientific theory explaining some aspect of reality, but all conceivable observations of the world are compatible with the theory being either true or false, then, at least from a scientific perspective, your theory is devoid of any content. You're not actually saying anything about the world since all possible physical states of affairs are compatible with the theory. So Popper held that scientific theories must be falsifiable, that is we must be able to point to possible observations that would falsify or disconfirm our theory. This then invites the question, is reincarnation falsifiable? 

The philosopher Michael Sudduth has said in his blog:

A couple of years ago I asked reincarnation researcher Jim Tucker what fact, if it should turn up, would disconfirm reincarnation. He couldn’t tell me. We need look no further for evidence that the present state of reincarnation research hasn’t advanced beyond the conceptual infancy of Ian Stevenson’s brain child. You can’t tell me how the world should not look if your conjecture is true? I’d suggest that it’s equally impossible to say what would non-trivially confirm your conjecture. If your conjecture fits anything you could possibly observe, you’ve transcended the empirical world. You’re doing metaphysics, writing fiction, or peddling snake oil. None of these should be confused with the empirical stance.

In this context "disconfirm" has the same meaning as falsify in the Popperian sense of this word. Sudduth holds the position that there should be some potential discovery in reincarnation research that one could make that would show reincarnation to be the incorrect explanation.

In order to appreciate how silly this is let's consider the following analogy. Let’s say I claim to have an apparent memory of going to a party a week ago. Other people remember me being there and more or less corroborate what I said and did that night. I also remember accidentally knocking into a table and having a bruise on my leg in that specific location the next day. Now what fact(s) would disconfirm that I was actually there?

Of course, such a question is ridiculous. The evidence that I was there at that particular location or locations already exists, and any facts that would disconfirm I was there would need to explain away all this evidence. I would have to be either lying or suffering from false memory. Other people would have to be deliberately lying when they confirmed I was there, and so on.  

It is as silly to castigate Jim Tucker for his alleged inability to mention any potential disconfirming facts against the reincarnation hypothesis, as it would be to castigate me for being unable to mention any remotely plausible potential facts that would disconfirm that I went to the party in question.

The problem here is that the falsifiability criteria ought not to be applied in the scenarios where either something exists/occurs or not. If, hypothetically, we suppose it actually is the case that reincarnation occurs, then clearly it cannot be falsified just like one cannot, for example, falsify the Sun will rise the next morning or falsify ice will melt if the temperature were to go above 0℃. One cannot show that which is true is actually false! 

Popper's falsification criteria is actually meant to apply to scientific theories that attempt to explain some aspect of reality.  If, at some point, the theory doesn't match up to what we observe, then the theory is falsified (although, in reality, the theory is often rescued by auxiliary hypotheses, especially if there is no alternative theory to take its place).  So it's inappropriate, for example, for someone to ask how we can potentially falsify the idea that a stone held in the hand will fall when released. But we should be able to potentially falsify any theory regarding why the stone falls.  Likewise, we cannot potentially falsify that reincarnation occurs, but we can potentially falsify any scientific theory about how or why reincarnation occurs. But, as it happens, we do not have any such scientific theory.  Indeed, we don't even have any scientific theory about how our everyday embodied consciousness relates to the world, hence the hard problem of consciousness (any type of materialism, dualism, or idealism are metaphysical hypotheses, not scientific theories).  

What fact would disconfirm that reincarnation occurs?  We can imagine Jim Tucker's perplexity in being asked this question, much like someone would be perplexed if asked what fact would disconfirm I attended the aforementioned party.  It's not a question of discovering further facts.  Rather,
we need an alternative hypothesis that explains all the extant evidence in a more convincing or elegant manner than the reincarnation hypothesis does.  Ideally, such an alternative hypothesis will also accommodate any evidence that might not seem congruent with reincarnation.

The problem here is that none of the competing hypotheses appear to explain all the evidence (but I will be taking a look at such hypotheses in another post in this reincarnation series). Jim Tucker, of course, is aware that none of the competing hypotheses pass muster, so how was he supposed to respond?  It was a loaded question that implicitly reflects Sudduth's erroneous understanding of falsificationism.

Unfortunately, this misuse of Popper's falsificationism, including by academics, is prevalent.  Moreover, it isn't merely a weapon wielded against reincarnation but also more generally any type of afterlife and psi too. 

Reincarnation and its Critics, Part 1: The Increasing Population



Tuesday, 12 October 2021

The Anguish of Being


Ha Ha!  I love this.

Let's imagine that we conclude life and the Universe are devoid of all meaning, that we will soon cease to exist forevermore, that the human race will eventually cease to exist and that might not take too long, that the Universe itself will, at some far distant time, be wholly devoid of any life and nothing will ever happen again, that our existence is pure happenstance and our lives and the Universe are ultimately absurd.   

We can believe all this.  But we nevertheless find ourselves miraculously alive, having experiences now.  Exploring the world, having experiences, wondering what it all means, enjoying this very brief flicker of existence.  So life is still very much worth living.

But, I nevertheless still think that people don't really grok how radical this is.  They prefer not to think about it, to lose themselves in the trivialities of existence.  And, perhaps, that's just as well if they truly do believe their lives and the Universe are ultimately absurd.  That it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

I just took a pause here and reread my previous paragraph.  It sounds like I emphasise with the guy on the left. Not at all!  If, contrary to my beliefs, I were an atheist and naturalist, I would very much agree with the guy in the tree. But, regardless of our beliefs here. Regardless of our ultimate fate. Regardless of what we ultimately are. Regardless if the Universe came into being by happenstance or is a result of something more mysterious. It still remains life is an adventure to be experienced and cherished.

Often it's extremely hard to decide what is the rational thing to believe.

It's extraordinarily difficult for most of us to decide what the truth is on many contentious issues. Will we witness catastrophic clima...

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