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




  1. It seems to me that you don't quite understand what it means for something to be falsifiable. Falsifiability means that there could conceivably be observations made that shows a theory to be false. It does not mean that there will be any observations showing it to be false.

    Take your example of having bruised your leg at a party. Observations such as, not having a bruise on your leg, nobody remembering you at the party, or evidence that you were somewhere else at the time would all demonstrate that you did not in fact bruise your leg at that party. Just because those observations have not been made, and will not be made (because it did happen), does not mean they are not conceivable observations that would disprove the story.

    Likewise, the statement that letting go of a rock from your hand will cause it to fall to the ground is also falsifiable. The observation that could be made is that letting go of the rock doesn't cause it to fall to the ground. You can do the same thing for the examples about the sun and ice melting. Any statement about something that can easily be observed can be shown false if you do not observe what is claimed. Even if these claims are true, and what is observed will be as expected, falsifiability only requires that there is a hypothetical observation that would prove a statement false.

    Finally you say that to disprove reincarnation would require someone else to propose an alternate theory that fully explains all the evidence. Since you seem to agree that reincarnation is an unfalsifiable claim I will point you to Russell's teapot ('s_teapot). As wikipedia says, Russell's teapot shows that "the philosophic burden of proof lies upon a person making empirically unfalsifiable claims, rather than shifting the burden of disproof to others". Therefore, the burden of proof lies on the those making claim that reincarnation is real, and does not require a better alternative hypothesis in order to be false.

    1. Hello AWK,

      You're making the very same mistakes that motivated my blog post in the first place where I attempted to show why this type of thinking is mistaken. So, since you do not understand my original post, I don't have much to add about the falsificationism issue.

      I'll just repeat what I said in my post, namely that the falsification criteria was supposed to apply to *scientific theories*. If something has always been observed without exception, then the world is extraordinarily unlikely to suddenly change in this regard.

      Re Russell's teapot. To repeat what I've said before.

      In our observations of the world we note that the Universe appears to be described by physical laws. It seems that these laws have universal applicability -- that is the very same laws apply throughout the Universe. Hence we know what entities to expect and what not to expect -- thus our expectation is that stars will have planets orbiting them, and not flying teapots. In short, if someone asserts that x exists, but x would be unexpected given our understanding of physical laws, then the burden of proof ought to be on the one making the assertion.

      Clearly this cannot be applied to reincarnation. Nor to God either come to that. Nor to an afterlife. Nor to free will etc. Nor to anything philosophical. None of these hypotheses involve anyone saying there is a material something existing that we wouldn't expect from an extrapolation of known physical laws.


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