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Too much speculation, too little presentation of the evidence
on 31 October 2016
I found this disappointing. I was less prepared to believe in reincarnation after reading it than I was before. Only one chapter (Chapter 4) is devoted to describing actual cases of children who remember previous lives, though later chapters refer to particular features of other cases, where they are introduced ad hoc to bolster some point the author is making. Even the fourteen cases in Chapter 4 are just summaries, with the author saying these and most of the other cases he refers to are written up more fully in his other books and articles. The thing that struck me about the fourteen cases described here is how weak they are. The author collected his data often years after the events had occurred, by which time the children had frequently forgotten their memories of a previous life, and the author was reliant on interviews with others about what had happened. In some of the cases, a child remembered a previous life, but it was never confirmed that such a person had existed. For example, a Burmese girl remembered being a Japanese military cook who had been killed by allied bombing in WW2, but, although such an event may well have happened, no specific person was identified. In many of the other cases, the adults involved were strong believers in reincarnation or could draw comfort from projecting the idea onto their children...for example, a woman who believed that her son was the reincarnation of the love of her life who was killed before they could get married, or a father who believed that his twin girls were the reincarnation of their older sisters who had been killed in a car crash. In the latter case, the twins themselves did not believe they were reincarnated. Apart from this chapter on cases, the book begins with several chapters of general discussion, in which the author admonishes those who reject the idea of reincarnation out of hand and urges the reader to have an open mind. He covers other ways of getting information about reincarnation, such as through hypnotic regression, and then himself rejects them pretty much out of hand, saying the study of children who remember previous lives is the only reliable way. I began to wonder whether the author's "MD" is legit, as he seems to have some strange ideas, for example taking the existence of telepathy as a scientific fact. He uses the existence of telepathy to prove that the mind is distinct from the brain, and he says that, while some people might doubt telepathy, the evidence for it is so overwhelming it cannot realistically be denied. Well, I am all ready to believe in telepathy, but I hardly think it can be used as a solidly established fact on which to build other theorising. After the chapter on case studies, the author goes on to discuss various regularities of the cases, such as the tendency of the children to forget their memories after a certain age, and the high incidence of violent death among the previous personalities (as the author calls them). Since the author insists that reincarnation is real, he finds himself having to explain away what appears to be strong evidence that it is actually a social/cultural phenomenon rather than a natural/biological one. This evidence includes the fact that in cultures where there is a belief people cannot reincarnate as a member of the opposite sex, no such cases occur, and even though many westerners believe in reincarnation on a personal level, it is not socially recognised, and is seldom reported in the west. The author suggests this correspondence between cultural beliefs and what actually happens is because people suppress or overlook cases that do not fit their preconceptions. This could be the explanation, but it seems like special pleading, and is typical of much similar special pleading in the later chapters of the book—for example when he acknowledges that people might have defrauded him and responds by saying “I don’t think they did, though”. The final chapters consist of what appears to be data-free theorising about how reincarnation might work. For example, he worries about how souls (discarnate personalities) get into the right gender of embryo, suggesting, to me ludicrously, that “a discarnate personality might influence a potential mother telepathically and cause psychosomatic changes in her that would increase or decrease the chances of a male conceptus”. Well yes, it might. But does this get us anywhere? After ploughing through page after page of such speculation, I began to get a bit impatient. The reason I don’t give the book one star is, to his credit, that the author is very honest about the flaws in the data, and it could be said that he uses the book to show the problems of these cases as much as to argue for their veracity. His essential point is that, despite the weaknesses of any individual case, the total of several hundred cases he has investigated from many parts of the world, and their cross-cultural similarities, point to the existence of a genuine phenomenon. I think he is right. There is something here, but whether it is actual reincarnation or some kind of sociological oddity and human self-deception is uncertain. After reading this book, I moved closer to the latter point of view, but my mind remains open.