Friday, October 18, 2019

Yoga memory

Such phenomena as instincts, child prodigies, love at first sight, and déjà vu are sometimes said to be evidence for reincarnation, but they obviously have little probative value, since it is quite possible to give convincing explanations of these phenomena that do not involve reincarnation. More serious as evidence for reincarnation is the phenomenon of yoga memory - the experience of certain people, usually children, who claim to be someone else reborn and to "remember" the previous life. Consideration of such cases was almost entirely unsystematic and anecdotal until the recent work of the medical doctor Ian Stevenson, who in several books intelligently discusses various cases of yoga memory.19

There are two issues here. The first is whether the cases Stevenson discusses can be relied upon. To my knowledge, no one accuses Stevenson of dishonesty, but criticisms of his methods and conclusions have been raised. For one thing, in the vast majority of the cases that Stevenson discusses, there was contact between the two families - the family into which the child was born and the family the child claimed via yoga memory previously to belong to - before Stevenson was ever on the scene. For another, Stevenson seems to dismiss far too easily the possibility of fraud on the part of the child. For a third, Stevenson has never even attempted to answer the objections of his several critics, and proceeds as if these critics did not exist.20

The second issue is this: assuming Stevenson's cases (and other cases of yoga memory) are genuine in the sense that there was no deliberate fraud, egregious error, etc., what is the most sensible explanation of those phenomena? One explanation, of course, is reincarnation. But are there other, more plausible explanations?

Suppose that telepathic communication between human minds occurs (and I myself have neither knowledge nor even any particularly firm opinion on the matter). If so, there is the possibility that those who have experienced yoga memory have learned what they know about the past person whom they claim to be identical to by telepathic communication with living humans who know those same facts about the deceased person. This may be completely unknown to the person who is having the yoga memory. Indeed, here is a crucial conundrum for reincarnation: claims based on purported yoga memory will be believable only if they can be verified; verification will normally be achieved via the testimony of people who are in a position to know the relevant facts; but that always opens the possibility that the yoga rememberer was somehow in telepathic communication with those same people. So the point is this: one great difficulty for reincarnation is the fact that the strongest evidence for it admits a variety of explanations.

(Davis, Stephen T. After We Die: Theology, Philosophy, and the Question of Life After Death, pp 26-27.)

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