Reincarnation: A Critical Examination.
G.K. Chesterton is often cited, by those who affect to believe that this society discriminates against religion, as saying that when people cease to believe in God they do not believe in nothing but in anything. Leaving aside the obvious retort -- that a faith in a supreme and benevolent being is an advertisement precisely of a readiness to believe anything -- let us concede that the inevitable decline of conventional religion has made room for the growth of other forms of mass suggestion for the feeble-minded. To call this new spiritual space a vacuum would be a sparing use of metaphor. The most fashionable new delusion involves one or another form of belief in reincarnation. Karma is big these days, and those who regard their bodies and brains as disposable and replaceable "vehicles" -- in the suggestive term used by the poor saps in San Diego -- are as goofily sincere as those who believe they get a better model with each trade-in from Detroit.
A new book, Reincarnation: A Critical Examination (Prometheus), has made its appearance with such good timing that we can be reasonably sure that harmonic convergence had nothing to do with it. Written by the philosopher Paul Edwards, it examines the belief in transmigration of souls, the notion of karma and the latest interest in "near-death" visions promulgated by the "immortality" movement.
"The fact of having been born," wrote George Santayana, "is a bad augury for immortality." The refusal or reluctance of many people to face the self-evident truth of this observation is no surprise: The prospect of annihilation is not always tempting. But as David Hume pointed out -- borrowing from Lucretius -- on his own deathbed, the idea of nothingness before one's birth is in principle no more or less terrifying than the prospect of nothingness to follow. Most of today's recycled reincarnationist nonsense depends on weird suppositions, or weirder anecdotes, concerning either memories of a previous life or intimations of a future one. Edwards reviews these in order and puts them mercifully to rest. I can only summarize the case here:
[Section] No reincarnationist has even attempted to answer the question first proposed by Tertullian: "How happens it that a man who dies in old age returns to life as an infant?"
[Section] Reincarnation beliefs predate the findings of evolution. They can give no account of the fact that human bodies descended from nonhuman species. And those extremists who postulate human souls in animal or insect bodies obviously cannot describe the experience in any known language.
[Section] Unless a reincarnationist is willing to say there was a "first generation" of souls created with the first humans, he is exposed to absurdity by the recency of human life on the planet.
[Section] Since all births are defined by reincarnationists as "rebirths," there has either not been a vast explosion in the human population, or souls from "astral bodies" are being mobilized to make up the spiraling deficit. An ingenious solution put forward in some reincarnationist circles -- the idea of a single soul inhabiting many bodies at once -- destroys the essential claim that any form of individual identity can survive death.
This is not an exhaustive account of Edwards's refutations, but it does show that reincarnation is based entirely upon wishthinking and that, when confronted by arguments, its adherents simply make up new speculations on the spot. As for "neardeath experiences" or N.D.E.s, it is a simple matter to show that euphoria in the terminal stage -- as well as the experience of less delightful and less well-reported hallucinations -- is caused by hypoxia. Reducing the supply of oxygen to the brain is a sure way of stimulating "visions" in the temporal lobe. The self-emasculated dupes of Rancho Santa Fe are nothing, in this analysis, to the self-lobotomized hopefuls who made a celebrity out of Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. I thought I was fairly unshockable by displays of spiritual charlatanry, but Edwards's meticulous deconstruction of the author of On Death and Dying is one of the greatest services to intellectual hygiene of the recent past. In 1975 Kubler-Ross announced that she was ready with "hard numbers and hard data" on astral travel, out-of-body experience and other evidence from the threshold of immortality. As Edwards notes:
The book which was going to contain the "hard numbers and
hard data" has not appeared and there are no signs that it is going
to appear. Kubler-Ross has never disclosed the names of any
of the physicists, electronics experts or super-neurologists who
"cross-verified" her conclusions. The only "scientist"
Kubler-Ross ever mentions is Robert A. Monroe, a leading instructor in
The succeeding chapter, on the driveling fantasies of a person obviously in need of professional help, is a triumph of the skeptic's art. Dr. Edwards is not a crude materialist in the "mind is meat" sense. But he explains carefully what is fairly obvious to begin with -- that consciousness cannot be meaningfully separated from the operations of the brain, and that no modus operandi can be found for the translation of one "identity" into another body. The sad thing is that so many people, in the belief that the universe is organized to suit and influence them, are willing to sacrifice even the slight cranial capacity with which evolution has equipped us.