- It is well-known that the main philosophical tenets of Christianity and Judaism — belief in God, life after death1, and miracles—have been subjected to a devastating critical examination by a number of the greatest Western philosophers. Hume, Diderot, Kant, Mill, and Bertrand Russell are just some of the names that occur to one at once in this connection. No Western philosopher has offered a similarly detailed critique of reincarnation and the related doctrine of Karma probably because very few people in the West had taken these theories seriously. Unfortunately this is no longer true. The belief in reincarnation and Karma has been steadily gaining support in recent decades. This is no doubt due to the decline of Christianity, but it is also, very regrettably, one aspect of the tide of irrationalism that has been flooding the Western World, especially the United States. There is an urgent need for a comprehensive and systematic evaluation of reincarnation and Karma and the present volume is designed to fill this gap.
- I have attempted to state, fairly and fully, all the main arguments offered in support of reincarnation and Karma. I have tried to show that this evidence is worthless. It has been claimed that such facts as child prodigies, deja vu experiences, hypnotic regressions, and the reincarnation memories of a number of children, mainly in India and in other countries where belief in reincarnation is widespread, can only be explained by reincarnation. None of these claims stands up under critical examination.
- I also try to show that there are grave conceptual problems connected with these doctrines. I try to show that the law of Karma is no law at all, offering only post hoc explanations. Reincarnationism is not an empty theory in the same way, but many facts are clearly inconsistent with it. These facts include, but are not limited to, population increases, the fact that life in the universe is relatively recent, and various features of evolutionary history. There are other more basic reasons for rejecting reincarnation. One of these concerns personal identity. Neither of the two criteria for personal identity—bodily continuity and memory—are satisfied in alleged cases of reincarnation. There is also the altogether fatal problem of specifying a credible way in which a person can come to inhabit another body after its original body has died. Reincarnationists are committed to the absurd notion of an astral or "spiritual" body and the even more absurd view that such a body invades the prospective mother's womb at conception or at some stage during gestation. Finally, we have enormous evidence that the mind or consciousness cannot exist without the brain. Reincarnationists and other friends of the occult get extremely irritated and defensive when the brain-mind dependence facts are mentioned, but their irritation will not make these disturbing facts go away.
- I refer to the problems of finding a way in which the mind of a human being could make its transition from one body to another as the "modus operandi problem." This problem also arises in connection with the belief in a God who is supposed to interfere in the world. I have added to the main body of the book an "Irreverent Postscript" on the difficulties that believers face in this connection. This postscript is "irreverent" but entirely serious. I don't think that believers have an answer.
- The description just offered does not cover the entire scope of the book. I have also dealt in considerable detail with the claims of leading figures of the new immortality movement which arose in the United States in the mid-1970s. The writers targeted in this connection are Elisabeth Kubler-Ross; Raymond Moody, the author of the bestselling Life After Life; Karlis Osis and Erlandur Haraldsson, who specialize in deathbed visions; and Stanislav Grof and Joan Halifax, who have argued that certain experiences during LSD sessions support reincarnation as well as other supernaturalistic theories.
- I have not discussed one phenomenon on which some reincarnationists base their views. This is Xenoglossy, the alleged capacity of some individuals to understand and speak a language they did not learn in their present life. This topic has been treated in two splendid articles by Professor Sarah G. Thomason, a professional linguist, and in Ian Wilson's Mind Out of Time. I could not add anything of significance to their discussions and I refer the interested reader to their publications2.
- The writer most frequently criticized in this book is Professor Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia. I should like to make it clear that there is nothing the least bit personal in these comments. I have never met Professor Stevenson. I have occasionally corresponded with him and he has always courteously responded to requests for reprints of his publications. He has written more fully and more intelligibly in defense of reincarnation than anybody else and this is the only reason why he features so prominently in my discussions.
- In 1986-1987, I published a four-part series of articles, "The Case Against Reincarnation," in Free Inquiry, and something should be said about the relation between that series and the present book. Space limitations prevented me from discussing several significant aspects of the subject in the articles and they are now covered in considerable detail. The discussion of the other topics that were covered in the Free Inquiry series has been greatly expanded. The articles generated a great deal of correspondence, a selection of which was published in the Fall 1987 issue of Free Inquiry. Most of the correspondents expressed their relief and pleasure that the case against reincarnation had at last been presented to a wide public. A letter I particularly cherish referred to my "irrepressible Voltairean sense of humor." The pronouncements of many religious apologists lend themselves to such treatment, but reincarnationists are perhaps better at offering wild absurdities than the apologists for Christianity and Judaism. I don't think I have missed too many Voltairean opportunities.
- I am indebted to my good friend Professor Michael Wreen, who read the whole manuscript and made innumerable helpful suggestions. I also wish to thank Tim Madigan and Champe Ransom for reading several chapters and offering valuable advice. Two good friends and former students, Pattie Eaton and Chris Padgett, helped me with the research for the original Free Inquiry articles. There was no way of expressing my gratitude at the time and I am happy to do so now. I am greatly obliged to Professor Bruce Reichenbach for sending me his publications on Karma and the work of other writers which I could not have easily obtained. I also want to thank my friend John Beloff, the editor of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, for repeatedly supplying me with bibliographical material. Joe Nickell kindly helped me to track down material about Sathya Sal Baba, a holy miracle worker who has a huge following in India and who has also impressed some Western writers. Finally, I wish to thank Susan Tiller, who has been typing all my manuscripts for close to twenty years. She is not only a superb typist, but she has also been a wonderfully supportive friend.
- S. G. Thomason, "Do You Remember Your Previous Life's Language in Your Present Incarnation?" American Speech (1984), and "Past Tongues Remembered?" Skeptical Inquirer (Summer 1987).
- Wilson's book was published in London and New York in 1982. The discussions of Xenoglossy occur in Chapters 5 and 6.
- There is a reply to Thomason by Robert Almeder in Skeptical Inquirer (Spring 1988).
- The same issue contains a rejoinder by Thomason.
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