Book Review: 20 Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation by Dr. Ian Stevenson (University of Virginia)


I found this book to be problematic. Let me explain:

On the one hand, I’m quite convinced that something anomalous was going on in at least a few of these cases. I also admire the sincerity, professionalism, scientific approach, and documentation of the author. He continually assesses the possibility of fraud as well as the opportunities for the case studies to have gained information through conventional (non-paranormal) means. In short, this is an erudite, convincing, systemic, and scientific approach to these matters. It is also highly convincing of something unusual taking place.

Where I stumble, though, is the implicit metaphysics in play by the author in his conclusions. While I agree in the indications of non-normal events, I simply cannot subscribe to the metaphysics of those that pursue these cases. In talking (as he does) about re-incarnation, mediums, possession, etc., the author falls into the metaphysics of the 19th century spiritualists. Namely, that there is some type of Cartesian world where souls inhabit bodies until they depart. Then, these souls might show up again in another body or at a seance. To me, that worldview (while common in the West) seems rife with philosophical inconsistencies and poorly conceived presuppositions.

I don’t believe in discarnate beings. I don’t believe that immaterial entities can move physical items (e.g. a ghost knocked over a lamp) or that disembodied souls can somehow “take over” a new\pre-born body or an adult medium. That worldview opens up a host of philosophical problems which I believe are insurmountable. It simply doesn’t make sense.

Having said that, as I mentioned above – something anomalous is absolutely taking place here. That is why this book is great. It carefully documents instances that indicate an epistemology and metaphysics that is other than our current simplistic scientific materialism (which also does not hold philosophical water).

I think we will find as we investigate alternate means of knowing that phenomena akin to ESP, reincarnations, etc. will have an explanation. I hesitate to say it will be a “natural” or “scientific” explanation because I’m not sure that there is room in Newtonian physics for these types of cases. I’m also not one to quickly jump to a conclusion that somehow quantum physics or entanglement or any other explanatory fad of the day is in any way related to this. However, I think as we move beyond a Newtonian worldview (and a Cartesian worldview) that we will be able to make some sense of this in a means that is consistent with a well grounded philosophy. I’m just not sure what that is yet.

I am very much reminded of the words of the British geneticist and evolutionary biologist, J.B.S. Haldane: “I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.



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