Reincarnation is Now a Scientifically Acceptable Phenomenon - by Dr. Granville Dharmawardena, University of Colombo
(Based on a Scientific paper presented at the 52nd Annual Sessions of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science, November 1996)
In the seventeenth century when Rene Descartes divided everything in the universe into two realms as "Res Extensa" (matter) and "Res Cogitans" (mind), gathering knowledge within the realm of Res Extensa was called Science and the phenomenon of reincarnation got pushed into the other realm Res Cogitans which was condemned to be not respectable and not up to the dignity of Scientists to probe into. Science was considered the respectable realm to study.
All important and respectable knowledge of the universe was thus restricted to science which was restricted to the study of the aspects of the universe that are measurable. Scientists accepted that the universe consisted essentially of "objects" leading to the belief that the ultimate realities of the universe are things and not beings. It was believed that everything in nature could be explained in terms of interactions of matter particles.
Science developed in this framework is known as "Classical Science". Classical Science had great material success because it helped to develop technology which brought about wealth and material benefits to mankind. It helped the West to colonise the rest of the world and acquire economic dominance and political influence.
The frame work of Classical Science was punctured by Henry Becquerel exactly hundred years ago, in 1896, by the discovery of Radioactivity. Albert Einstein cracked it at the beginning of this century by discovering the theory of relativity. It was totally blasted by the advent of Quantum Theory and the Uncertainty Principle. It is noteworthy that Einstein's discovery falls entirely within the realm of Res Cogitans as it did not involve any experiments or measurements.
In classical science scientists made idealised mental pictures of the phenomena to be understood. Imagined mechanisms were usually presented to make various phenomena and relationships between them understood. But as Modern Science boosted man's knowledge transcending the limitations imposed by the five senses and took us to murky areas of nature, profound changes had to be introduced to procedures in science. Our ability to understand everything by way of perceptible mental pictures diminished and it became necessary to imagine models with components which behaved in ways that had no counterparts at all in the world familiar to us. Mechanisms involved in these models in most instances not only are invisible but also consist of elements that operate in ways never known in the world that we actually experience through our five senses.
For example a single electron can pass through two different holes on a screen at the same time and still remain a single particle on the other side. If we use some mechanism such as flashing a light on the electron to observe through which hole it passes, then it will pass only through one of the two holes. Mechanisms of such phenomena are beyond our imagination at least at present. Mathematical models devoid of pictorial content which are typical of modern science resulted from attempts to fit the concepts of atoms and waves to the discoveries made at the end of the 19th century which led to the quantum theory. Classical science usually stood for absolute precision where as modern science stands for impossibility of absolute precision.
Modern science joined up the two realms, Res Extensa and Res Cogitans and made us to understand that the universe cannot be broken up into two independent arbitrary realms as Res Extensa and Res Cogitans. They are not independent and cannot be studied completely independently. Within the establishment of modern science some of the aspects of nature that did not strictly adhere to the realm of Res Extensa, which were therefore earlier condemned as unbecoming of scientists to talk about have become respectable. Reincarnation falls into this category. Therefore scientists now have the professional clearence to scientifically investigate reincarnation. This paper does not distinguish between subtle differences among reincarnation, rebirth and rebecoming.
If reincarnation is to be examined from an unbiased scientific point of view, it is necessary first of all to find a way of bypassing such unscientific barriers as religious bias. This can be done by considering the standard procedure used at present for the acceptance of any modern scientific theory and testing reincarnation by following the same procedure.
Geremy Hayward has described how one ventures to deal with a new theory. He describes this procedure as a four step scientific process as follows;
a) study the relevant phenomenon,
b) formulate the new theory,
c) use the theory to predict observations that we should be able to make if the theory is correct, and
d) look for these predicted observations.
Richard Feynman, Noble Laureate for Physics, describes this process in detail. He combines steps "a" and "b" and describes it as a three step process.
If the observations made in the last step do not agree with the predictions of the earlier step the proposed theory is not acceptable. If they agree the theory becomes acceptable. If more and more observations show agreement the theory receives stronger scientific acceptance. Once a theory becomes scientifically accepted by this test it remains so unless someone finds reliable new data to prove its unacceptability.
Reincarnation is a very old belief and a large fraction of the world population believes it. For example Rene Descartes' statement "What I have said is sufficient to show clearly enough that the extinction of the mind does not follow from the corruption of the body and also to give men the hope of another life after death." in 1641 confirms his belief in reincarnation. About 20 percent of those in the Western World whose religions shun reincarnation nevertheless believe it. According to opinion polls this percentage is rising.
Hence the phenomenon of reincarnation is already known and therefore the steps "a" and "b" are already there. In examining the scientific acceptability of reincarnation therefore one has only to go through the last two steps of the above scientific process. If this is done successfully the scientific acceptability of reincarnation is proved in the way any other theory of modern science is proved.
Reincarnation may be defined as the re-embodiment of an immaterial part of a person after a short or a long interval after death, in a new body whence it proceeds to lead a new life in the new body more or less unconscious of its past existences, but containing within itself the "essence" of the results of its past lives, which experience goes to make up its new character or personality. Thus, infancy brings to earth not a blank scroll for the beginning of a new earthly record, but it is inscribed with ancestral histories, some like the present scene, most of them unlike it and stretching back into the remote past.
Reincarnation is an issue of utmost importance, one that promises to touch the ordinary man, woman and child in a profound and far reaching way. Crime statistics show that convictions are much lower among those who believe in reincarnation than among the others. If scientifically accepted, reincarnation will have a stake in defining human identity in the 21st century.
There are two possible scenarios, No-Reincarnation scenario and Reincarnation scenario that can be considered. Human being is composed of the body and an immaterial part. The body which is the material part is well understood because it fell within the Classical Science realm of Res Extensa and was extensively studied by scientists. The immaterial part has not been studied by scientists because it fell within the Classical Science realm of Res Cogitans.
In the No-Reincarnation scenario death is something like the Event Horizon of a black hole. Crossing the event horizon is a one way journey and after crossing it nothing can come back, not even light. Here the body disintegrates after death and the immaterial part either annihilates or gets into a scientifically unknown state and remains there for ever, ie. each individual is borne, lives one life time and at the end of it passes the event horizon of death to a state of no return.
In the Reincarnation scenario death is not an event horizon because only the body, the material part, disintegrates and goes into a state of no return. The immaterial part enters into a scientifically unknown state and reappears, after a period.
The above description of the phenomenon of reincarnation constitute steps "a" and "b" of the scientific process. The next step of the scientific process is looking for observations that can be predicted assuming the existence of this phenomenon, observations that have a reasonable chance of being practically examined.
Abilities of individuals to carry memories of past events differ widely from individual to individual. Some people can remember events and experiences of long past whereas some easily forget things within a few years. Most people vividly remember special events such as tragic happenings for a very long time, even up to death. Under hypnosis people recollect events which they had completely forgotten. Some people have the exceptional ability to recall knowledge and experiences gathered long ago and use them when necessary. For example a friend of mine who had been discussing Advanced Level Physics with me when he was studying for the GCE AL exam long time ago, but never did any science there after escaped injury in the Central bank bomb blast by instantaneously recalling his memories discussing AL Physics. But others who had studied Physics more recently lost their eyes because that memory didn't flash back to their rescue at the time of impending disaster. As soon as my friend saw the flash of the bomb blast from his window , AL Physics flashed back to his mind and prompted to him that the shock wave comes a little while after the flash. Instantaneously he threw himself back flat on the floor before the shock wave blasted the window glasses.
If reincarnation as defined earlier is true it should be possible to extend some of the above human capabilities, which result from immaterial aspects of the human being, beyond birth to the previous life and even beyond to earlier lives. Some people should be able to remember events in their past lives. Hypnosis must enhance this ability. Some must be able to make use of knowledge and experiences of past lives.
With these predictions we can move on to the last stage of the scientific process, to look for these predicted observations.
A large amount of data has been accumulated by research workers around the world on matters relating to reincarnation.
gathered in their past lives are some of the aspects that have been subjected to much research and investigation.
The observations made on the above areas agree with the predictions made in the third stage of the scientific process thereby successfully completing the four step test for scientific acceptability. No scientifically acceptable data that can go to prove the scientific unacceptability of reincarnation have appeared in scientific literature so far.
On the basis of these tests it is concluded that the scientific acceptability of the phenomenon of reincarnation is proven at least on three counts in terms of the accepted principles of modern science.
A science minded person often finds it difficult to accept reincarnation because he/she had failed to perceive a reincarnation mechanism that is intelligible within the outdated Decartes' classical science frame work. But Modern Science, specifically Quantum Mechanics, has compelled us to accept unintelligible mechanisms of natural phenomena like the behaviour of electrons and we do not hesitate to accept them. Likewise with the data available we are compelled to accept reincarnation as a reality.
Austrian Scientist Rudolf Steiner says,
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