Rebirth Part 2: Is There Scientific Evidence of Rebirth?

Feature Contents

    The concept of reincarnation and rebirth has successfully captivated human beings over the ages. Although the terms “Reincarnation” and “Rebirth” are often used inter-changeably, there is a significant difference between the two concepts. Reincarnation is normally understood to be the assumption of another body by a permanent self or a “soul”. According to this doctrine, after the biological death, the soul transmigrates into another body. Rebirth, on the other hand, is the idea that it is not a “permanent self” but a form of subtle mind-stream which conjoins with a new life after the death of its previous one. This mind-stream carries within itself karmic imprints from previous births. Also, rebirth doesn’t necessarily have to be in human form, a human being can be reborn as any other sentient being, depending on the karmic cycle.

    Reincarnation and rebirth are mainly eastern concepts and form the basic tenets of the three major eastern religions of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. However, Hinduism and Jainism talk mostly about reincarnation of the soul, or Atman, Buddhism focuses on rebirth of consciousness.

    Rebirth wheel and reincarnation cycle
    Spectacular tankha of the wheel of suffering, illustrating samsara and rebirths in various worlds, a concept bound up not only in Buddhism, Hinduism, Janaism and Taoism—but given credibility (the concept of rebirth) by scientists.

    The doctrine of Buddhism discounts the existence of a soul or Atman. According to ancient Buddhist texts, there is no permanent self which moves from one life to another. Instead, it is the consciousness or the stream of consciousness which, upon the end of one life, joins another, much like a flame which is transferred from one candle to another. There is a certain relationship between the past and the present lives, neither are they identical, nor completely distinct.

    Such transmigration of consciousness is the effect of Karma, and this process of rebirth continues until the consciousness attains Nirvana, or complete independence of material wants and desires. Only then, can the “self” be free.

    What Does Science Say?

    Please see Part 1 of Rebirth Series: Is There Scientific Evidence of Rebirth is here>>

    In our present world, driven with science and rationality, the opinion is divided about the existence of the phenomenon of reincarnation. However, scientists have routinely been presented with evidence to at least partially support the notion of rebirth. Reincarnation or rebirth serve as the only conceivable explanation for children as young as three years of age, having detailed knowledge of their past lives, where they stayed, what they did, even how they dies. Other evidence of reincarnation includes xenoglossy, or ability to speak in a language with a person has never learnt and existence of matching scars and birthmarks.

    What Constitutes Proof of Rebirth?

    In science, generally, to refute a theory, you only need one refuting piece of evidence. At least, that’s the standard used when refuting theories. In other words, science cannot unequivocally state there is no rebirth or reincarnation as long as there is one instance of rebirth. Professor Ian Stephenson’s landmark work, widely accepted in the scientific community as valid, presents multiple instances of children with memories of previous lives. To read more about his work, see part one of this series>>

    The Body is Reborn Every Second?

    In theory, the human body is constantly being reborn. Cells in the body are constantly reborn. Even though we might hold  the illusion that we are unchanging, in fact we are a different physical human being now, than we were one month ago. The same is true of the Universe. Of every atom and molecule in the Universe. We are constantly recycling, even within our “one lifetime.” It is, perhaps, for the more science-oriented, easier to accept the notion of some form or rebirth. It’s easier to accept recycling of energy and matter, certainly, than extinction.

    Quantum Theory

    The landmark work of Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Phsyics, still best introduces the parallels between modern physics and eastern philosophical thought: “Quantum theory thus reveals a basic oneness of the universe. It shows that we cannot decompose the world into independently existing smallest units. As we penetrate into matter, nature does not show us any isolated “building blocks,” but rather appears as a complicated web of relations between the various parts of the whole. These relations always include the observer in an essential way. The human observer constitute the final link in the chain of observational processes, and the properties of any atomic object can be understood only in terms of the object’s interaction with the observer”

    The concepts of basic oneness, “cannot decompose”, and observational processes could interchangeably be used when discussing Quantum Theory or Buddhist Teachings. Mr. Capra wrote: “If physics leads us today to a world view which is essentially mystical, it returns, in a way, to its beginning, 2,500 years ago. … This time, however, it is not only based on intuition, but also on experiments of great precision and sophistication, and on a rigorous and consistent mathematical formalism.”

    Nasa Scientist and Physicist Thomas Campbell

    Thomas Campbell, and eminent scientist, believes in reincarnation. In a review on a video featuring Dr. Campbell, the site Beyond the Psychic Veil summarized the argument this way:

    There is no time. There is no space. Everything is one. Hence, we are all experiencing everything all at once. That means you are you, you are the neighbor, the dog (yes animals may reincarnate as well), the kid on the skateboard, the grouchy guy in the corner store, you are me, the Dalai Lama, Jesus, Hitler, Joan of Arc. You are everyone, all at once, in all points of time, and all points of space. However … you are focused on seeing and experiencing reality through your perspective only at this time.”

    This isn’t evidence of rebirth, certainly, but the arguments are a fit with current Quantum theory. If, in fact, it’s a matter of perspective, rebirth becomes an easy notion to accept. The arguments are also very inline with Buddhist concepts of existence, emptiness, and self.


    Past Life Regression

    Putting aside physics, other types of evidence—albeit not accepted by everyone—is past life regression. Past life regression is a method by which a patient is put in a trance and guided by a series of questions into her past life. This can lead to the answers of many questions in an individual’s present life, for example, someone’s irrational fear of insects could be accounted to a trauma suffered in one’s past life.

    Although many scientists have heavily criticized some pieces of evidence which prove the existence of reincarnation, some scientists are skeptical. The events which have occurred have no other rational explanation except reincarnation or rebirth. The field of science is heavily divided on this issue, although nothing in science contradicts the possibility of rebirth, and many scientists argue there is substantial suggestive evidence that rebirth is more than just a mystical concept.

    Karmic Wheel or Wheel of Suffering
    A universal image in Buddhism is the “wheel of Samsara” which illustrates how clinging, suffering and karma bind us to an unending cycle of rebirth. Shakyamuni Buddha taught the path to Enlightenment, and freedom from the wheel of suffering.

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    Lee Kane

    Author | Buddha Weekly

    Lee Kane is the editor of Buddha Weekly, since 2007. His main focuses as a writer are mindfulness techniques, meditation, Dharma and Sutra commentaries, Buddhist practices, international perspectives and traditions, Vajrayana, Mahayana, Zen. He also covers various events.
    Lee also contributes as a writer to various other online magazines and blogs.

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