Thursday, March 12, 2009

Possession & reincarnation

In Death & Personal Survival (Littlefield Adams 1992), Robert Almeder has written what may well be the most thorough and sophisticated defense of reincarnation that’s currently available.

In several respects, this is a major issue:

i) Between Hinduism and Buddhism, reincarnation is widely believed.

ii) Reincarnation entails a radically different worldview than Christian eschatology.

iii) There’s not a lot of good apologetic literature on this subject.

From a Christian standpoint, the obvious alternative explanation for alleged cases of reincarnation is possession. And, indeed, Almeder also regards possession as the best alternative explanation. He then deploys several arguments against that explanation, ibid. 53-55, 155-58.

I’ve isolated three basic arguments:

1. He accentuates the fact (if it is a fact) that cases of reincarnation involve personal continuity whereas cases possession involve personal discontinuity.

In cases of possession, the personality of the subject undergoes displacement (“total personality replacement”). In cases of reincarnation, by contrast, the subject testifies to his identity over time, from his former existence to his current existence. He’s simultaneously aware of his past life and his present life. His personality is not submerged.

I have several problems with this argument:

i) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that it really is a case of possession (pace Almeder), I don’t know why Almeder thinks the incubus would be a reliable witness. The incubus might lie about its “past life.” From a Christian standpoint, the incubus would an evil spirit of some sort–whether a demonic spirit or wandering spirit (of the damned). Not exactly a trustworthy source of information.

ii) Moreover, Almeder seems to treat possession as one-off phenomenon. But from what I’ve read, possession ranges along a continuum. There are degrees of possession. Degrees of influence or control. The “total personality displacement” model represents a limiting case of possession–but by no means the only type.

iii) Furthermore, he also cites the example of a subject who says, “I was a woman, but now I’m a man.”

But this raises serious questions of personal identity. Can you have a man in a woman’s body, or a woman in a man’s body? Does he think a human personality is essentially androgynous? It seems to me that even a Cartesian dualist has to grant the profound influence of gender on personality.

iv) In addition, the degree of displacement is not that cut-and-dried. As one writer observes, “We noted in the last chapter that subjects in reincarnation cases tend to identify thoroughly with the past personality, whereas in most possession cases the previous personality seems more parasitic and apparently displaces the normal personality. And that distinction may, indeed, be one fair, if rough way to distinguish most reincarnation from possession cases. But transplant cases don’t fit neatly in either category. In some of those cases, the original personality of the recipient isn’t displaced; instead, it’s modified in ways characteristic of the donor. And in others (sometimes in the same cases), the recipient does identify strongly with the donor, and we see the kind of personality blending characteristic of reincarnation cases. Yet in others (and again, sometimes in the same cases), the recipient (a child in these instances), apparently interacts, seemingly mediumistically, with the donor…my recommendation is that we interpret transplant cases as supplementing evidence for possession,” S. Braude, Immortal Remains (Rowman & Littlefield 2003), 243-44.

v) Finally, Almeder's case for reincarnation suffers from a deep methodological fallacy. He begins by distinguishing paradigm-cases of (alleged) possession from paradigm-cases of (alleged) reincarnation. He then draws the conclusion that the evidence for reincarnation is not reducible to possession since paradigm-cases of possession lack some of the typical features of paradigm-cases for reincarnation, and vice versa.

But isn't the specter of vicious circularity hovering in the background? Isn't the correct classification of these phenomena a necessary preliminary step in this whole debate? As such, doesn't his classification scheme take that preliminary step for granted? Almeder is beginning his discussion one step later than he ought to. By what criteria do we identify which features are distinctive to possession and which features are distinctive to reincarnation? Almeda is tacitly assuming what he needs to prove at the very outset of the discussion. So he needs to go back a step and justify his classification scheme.

Perhaps he'd counter that this objection is reversible. If we can't say whether or not reincarnation is reducible to possession, then we can't say whether or not possession is reducible to reincarnation.

But even if that were then, what then?

a) At most, we’d be left with an epistemic stalemate. He'd still have no distinctive evidence for reincarnation.

b) Moreover, even if the bare phenomenology of the case-histories underdetermines the correct interpretation, a Christian might well have resources beyond the raw data to exclude one interpretation in favor of another.

For example, if, on the one hand, possession is clearly attested in Scripture while, on the other hand, Scripture disallows reincarnation, then we’ll opt for possession as the best explanation.

2. Picking up on Stevenson, Almeda also says that, in the case of reincarnation, amnesia sets in after the age of 8. In the case of possession, by contrast, there is no automatic termination. Moreover, where possession ceases, there’s a restoration of the underlying personality.

Several problems:

i) This line of “evidence” suffers from the general ambiguities I mentioned under (1).

ii) Moreover, it’s a truism of developmental psychology that children pass through different stages of cognitive development during their formative years. So we’d expect some important discontinuities. As the risk of stating the obvious, younger kids are quite imaginative and impressionable.

iii) Furthermore, appeal to “amnesia” is a face-saving maneuver to explain away the embarrassing fact (embarrassing for the reincarnationist) that most folks don’t remember their former lives. The obvious reason is because there’s nothing to remember. No past life to recollect.

It’s no coincidence that most of the “evidence” for reincarnation comes from highly suggestive technique of hypnosis, during which the patient is asked a number of leading questions (often by a reincarnationist).

iv) Finally, amnesia isn’t distinctive to alleged cases of reincarnation. It can also be found in cases of possession (or obsession). As one writer notes, “The obvious question would then arise, what sort of relationship might be supposed to exist between the obsessing entity (the deceased Gifford), and his willing victim, Thompson? Thompson’s mental state while under the Gifford influence varied from dreaminess and mild dissociation (to which he was in any case liable) to a fairly complete automatism with (probably) a good deal of amnesia, not however quite amounting to a trance,” A. Gauld, Mediumship and Survival (Paladin 1983), 156.

3. Also borrowing a page from Stevenson, he notes that, by definition, birthmarks and birth defects are congenital. And he treats prenatal possession as synonymous with reincarnation.

It seems to me that this suffers argument from several key equivocations:

i) Prenatal possession is not the same thing as preexistence (in a former life).

ii) Ex hypothesi, reincarnation involves a single-personality to multiple-body correspondence, whereas possession involves a multiple-personality to single-body correspondence. So they’re opposite phenomena, rather than parallel phenomena.

iii) Suppose possession is sometimes congenital? After all, some writers think that psi is a hereditary form of mediumistic magic. If we treat that as a working hypothesis, then not only could these symptoms present at an early age, but if the subject is, in some measure, under the influence of an ancestor, then the memory of the subject might well tap into the memory of the ancestor. He would share the memories of an ancestor, not because he is the reincarnation of the ancestor, but because the ancestor has taken possession of his mind, to one degree or another.

And that would include acquired skills, since these are also a function of memory. At the same time, Braude denies any hard evidence for the transmission of acquired skills. Cf. Immortal Remains, 179. If so, then that’s one less evidence for reincarnation–which could, in any event, be as easily explained by recourse to possession.

1 comment:

  1. let's suppose a spirit who you believe has been with you your whole life, call it the instinctive guardian angel belief, and then one day reveals himself and becomes one with you and there are at least ten coincidental features you share with the spirit, is it spiritual possession or reincarnation? for the dalai lama says, i quote, "I made very clear that because of reincarnation-the purpose of reincarnation-is to carry the task which started by previous life" the spirit has a message he'd like to share. he is, by the way, a 2700 year old caucasoid shaman buried in Turpan, Xingiang Province.