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Rebirth, Part 1: Is There Evidence of Rebirth or Reincarnation?

Rebirth, Part 1: Is There Evidence of Rebirth or Reincarnation?

Part 1 of a Buddha Weekly Series on Rebirth

Nothing inspires more debate amongst Buddhists, than the notion of rebirth. There’s no doubt the Buddha believed in reincarnation — the predominant belief then and now in India and Asia. On the other hand it’s not “a teaching” or doctrine in Buddhism. In many parts of the “East” it’s just accepted, while it’s fashionable in the “west” to teach that rebirth as described by the Buddha was a “metaphor”, a skillful means designed to simplify teachings.

There is, however, no evidence of this. It was, and remains today, a belief widely accepted by hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Why does it persist as a belief, in this age of science and logic? In part, it persists because there is some scientific anecdotal evidence of Rebirth—and no absolute proof that it doesn’t exist. Why does it even matter, especially when the Buddha taught a way to “escape” the cycle of suffering and rebirth? Because, as long as there is suffering, rebirth as a belief will persist, in part as an “explanation” of our suffering.

Why is There Suffering?

“Have you ever wondered why some people in the world are born so poor? And, on the other hand, some people are born so rich? Have you ever wondered why some babies are born with illness and others are fine? Do you ever wonder why life seems so unfair?” (Reincarnation Video, inset below)

To many people, there is a logical reason behind it—and some science to support it. It’s called Reincarnation. Hundreds of millions of people in the world—Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists and many others—believe in reincarnation or rebirth. But is there proof that of reincarnation? Many noted psychiatrists and scientists claim that there is, some of which were widely published in Journals.

Why are some people born poor while others are born into richness? Many believe that karma generated in past lives helps determine and shape our current incarnation.

 

Ian Stevenson Collected “Irrefutable Evidence”

The best known evidence is the work of Ian Stevenson, who spent fifteen years collecting data from over 4500 people who spontaneously recalled past lives. According to Dr. Robert Almeder of Georgia State University, “This was important research, empirical research and I could not think of any alternative explanation as plausible for the data as that some people reincarnate.”

Video by Dr. Almeder discussing Reincarnation evidence and Stevenson’s research” below:

 

It is Irrational to Disbelieve Reincarnation?

Dr. Almeder continues: “As a matter of a fact, some people, after reading the data… said “look, it’s not unreasonable to believe in reincarnation”…. My reaction was stronger. My reaction to the data was that it’s irrational to disbelieve it. A lot of people thought that went over the top, that it was too strong a claim. I meant it in a very simple way, that if you have a very commanding argument that you can’t refute, not to accept the argument is to act irrationally. ” He goes on to say that there’s a very strong argument in Stevenson’s data that has not been refuted.

 

Death is a part of the cycle of suffering. Ultimately, Buddha’s teachings teach us how to escape from suffering, in the teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. When we fail to achieve enlightenment, to escape suffering, we are doomed to be reborn endlessly. Those quality of those lives is determined, in Buddhist belief, by our actions in current and past lifetimes.

 

Dr. Stevenson himself said, “It’s not unreasonable to believe, because this is the best fit on the data.” One of the reasons why the data is not refutable is the presentation of supporting historical facts: the spontaneous memories of children 2-4 years old. These children had no exposure to past live history information, yet unfailingly gave details of past lives that were verifiable.

Some Children Had Birthmarks Supporting Claims

In Dr. Stevenson’s studies “some people had birthmarks or birth defects that corresponded to the injury in their past lives, said Dr. Phang Cheng Kar, a noted psychiatrist. These injuries or birthmarks were supported with medical or autopsy reports. “It’s very convincing.”

 

Physics at least partially supports the notion or rebirth. Matter is never destroyed, it is converted to energy. All beings are born out of the same elemental soup—romantically thought of as "stardust."
Physics at least partially supports the notion or rebirth. Matter is never destroyed, it is converted to energy. All beings are born out of the same elemental soup—romantically thought of as “stardust.

 

Almeder goes on to say “[This means] by implication that human beings are more than their bodies, that a personality, in the end, is not reducible to a statement about biochemical states, brain states, biological properties produced by brain states.”

 

Why are some babies people born into illness and suffering, while others always seem healthy and happy?

 

Reincarnation is the concept where the mind or spirit is reborn after the physical body has died. The mind can be reborn as a new human being or into various other states, depending on the causes created by the previous life. Hence the disparity in our various states of being. Reincarnation is not the same as rebirth. Reincarnation tends to involve a belief in the soul (atman) reincarnating (typically a Hindu belief), while rebirth considers the aggregates of consciousness, energy or mind stream (as it’s expressed in Buddhism).

Absence of Proof is not Proof of Non-Existence

Most science is built around the notions of proof. However, where there is an absence of proof (for example, “does God exist” or “are we reborn?”), it is not correct for scientists to say it doesn’t exist. They can, properly, say, they don’t believe it, or do believe it based on their own beliefs or experience, but they cannot say absolutely, by evidence, that God or rebirth don’t exist. Even the “theory of Evolution” is a theory (despite a preponderance of evidence.) That leaves probabilities. A scientist might believe it’s probable or improbable there is rebirth, but not that there is or there isn’t (as a fact, not a belief.)

In absence of absolute evidence of rebirth we must then consider the preponderance of evidence — which anecdotally points to the existence of rebirth. It is more likely, than not, if one looks at the evidence, rather than one’s own feelings on the matter.

Quantum Physics and Rebirth

Interestingly, rebirth is somewhat supportable by modern day Quantum Physics — again, theoretically. Roger Ebert, in his article “The Quantum Theory of Reincarnation” stated it well from a “layman” point of view:

Everything, consists of quantum particles. These particles can as well be in one place as another, even at the same time. We, ourselves, consist entirely in and of this material. Our identities, our names, our personalities, our beliefs, opinions, senses of humor–indeed, what we think of as our minds. We consist of one-dimensional bits of the cosmic total. And we might just as well be different bits–elsewhere–because the “self” is essentially an organizing principle which we have imposed upon this chaos…”

Mr Ebert’s succinct and clarifying statement fits both the scientific view of the universe, and, shockingly, a very Buddhist perspective. The references to “self” as an organizing principle, is very nearly the plunge into the heart of the Heart Sutra. 

“Therefore, our identities were assembled from this quantum material…”Mr. Ebert continues, “by the organizing principle of our conception of ourselves. We bring ourselves into being. Our consciousness is the gravitation. We came from whirling nothing, we return to whirling nothing. The dust we came from and the dust to which we return are not really there, but thinking makes it so… But the puzzle is, what reality does Everything have, apart from my thinking of it?” 

Mr. Ebert’s musings are not only unsettlingly sharp and thought-provoking, they strike at the “soul” of the rebirth argument. We’re all made of quantum particles (or stardust as we romantically referred to it a few years back), so what is there that dies? Is it simply a re-“organizing principle imposed on chaos”? Is it just our conception of ourselves changing?

If those arguments all sound too theoretical and mind-bending, we can return, at least, to the concrete world of Doctor Stevenson, or perhaps to more “everyday” physics, such as Einstein’s law of relativity E=MC2.

Excerpt from the film “Reincarnation” with guest speaker Dr. Phang Cheung Kar (watch the film below, it’s well worth the full 15 minute watch):

Basically, matter in the universe simply cannot be destroyed. You could think of it as recycling. Converting. Changing. But it never extinguishes. Scientists now theorize that the Great Bang at the beginning of the Universe was not a beginning but rather a “restart” or the rebirth of the Universe, a cycle that repeats over and over throughout eternity.

Rebirth Fits the Model of Physics

Matter becomes energy. Energy becomes matter. Mindstream, in Buddhist thought, (referred to with different terms/descriptions) is basically energy. Science does tend to support, at least partially, the notion that mind is perhaps a field of energy rather than brain matter. (See Buddha Weekly’s feature How is the Mind Different from the Brain? Science May Support the Duality of Separate Mind and Brain) If the mind is energy—a concept gaining scientific acceptance—it is more reasonable to assume rebirth is possible, than the reverse, especially when you consider the work of Doctor Stevenson. In absence of contrary evidence, rebirth fits the model of physics. Extinction does not. While there may not be clear scientific proof of rebirth—yet—conceptually, rebirth is a better fit with science than extinction. As Dr. Stevenson said, “It’s not unreasonable to believe, because this is the best fit on the data.”

 

The cycle of suffering and rebirth in Buddhism symbolically illustrated.
The cycle of suffering and rebirth in Buddhism symbolically illustrated.

 

Scientific Proof

Is there scientific proof of reincarnation? Proof, no. Theoretical support, certainly in part. The models we accept today for how the universe works are a better fit with rebirth than oblivion of life. And the extensive evidence collected by people like Doctor Stevenson makes it easier to believe than not.

Dr. Phang Cheung Kar (M.D.): “In studies on reincarnation by a the psychiatrist, the late Dr. Ian Stevenson from University of Virginia, Dr. Stevenson has collected more than 4,500 cases of spontaneous previous life recall. When I say spontaneous, I mean people who spontaneously, not through dreams, not through hypnosis, not through other methods, simply recall a past life. A typical case would be children around 2-4 who just make statements about their past life. They say things like “you’re not my mom, you’re not my dad” and they make statements referring to their past lives.”

Our Series on Rebirth and Reincarnation continues in part 2>>

7 Responses to Rebirth, Part 1: Is There Evidence of Rebirth or Reincarnation?

  1. Hello,

    With all due respect Dr. Stevenson Ian has had his name misspelled several times in this article as Dr. Stephenson.
    Please take a note so it can be corrected.

    With kinds regards,

    Isabel*

  2. If it’s irrational not to disbelieve it it doesn’t follow that it’s true or that it is rational to believe it. It just means that it is irrational to deny it as a possibility. I think this article misrepresents the meaning.

  3. The comment that ‘it is irrational not to believe in rebirth’ needs some qualification. As is set out in this piece it is misrepresented slightly. It basically means: if one were to face it with an open mind it would be irrational to not consider it as a possibility. From that statement it does not follow that it’s true or it is irrational to consider other possibilities. It makes quite a mild statement that since the evidence is there it is irrational to not consider the theory.

  4. The article said, “generally, to refute a theory, you only need one refuting piece of evidence” but clearly that is not true. Theories generally survive until there’s a replacement theory. A single counter-example is enough to invalidate a mathematical statement… but it isn’t to trash a theory in physics, chemistry, medicine! Counter-examples in science (not maths) lead to enquiry into how to improve the model, not to immediate rejection of the (best) model (so far…).

    In fact some of our mainstay scientific theories were doubted at times by contradictory evidence (eg, atomic theory, plate tectonics, and many more).

  5. You keep conflating reincarnation and rebirth. These words are not synonyms. They represent entirely different ideas. There is no reincarnation in buddhism, but there is rebirth.

    • Thank you for the clarification. You are correct, however, most people use them interchangeably, and for the purposes of discussion we find we often do as well. The key difference is “incarnation of a soul” (reincarnation) versus rebirth of a mind-stream (Buddhism).

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