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Reviewing Reincarnation

By a stroke of luck, shortly after the previous post on Reincarnation and Science was published, another blogger, John Michael Greer, an official in the Druidic Religion, posted an article on druidic views of reincarnation. There are similarities between that and Buddhist ones, so that text might be used to check on the thinking done there.


Let’s first amplify the thinking on reincarnation and science. There are two main categories of consistency flaws with reincarnation. One is based on information theory and the other on physics. For the information theory stream, consider the interaction of the ‘spirit’, which is what the Druids call what we have referred to as the ‘essence’, with the body. What information flow is there from one to another? We need to consider all possibilities to prove a failure of consistency. One is the spirit communicates with the brain of the body of the person with whom it is linked. There are two ways to communicate with a brain. One is wideband, meaning that somehow large amounts of information are transmitted and received, such as with vision. The brain processes the photon input streams from the eyes, and there is no recognizable image formed on some neural screen in the brain. There are simply neurons which fire when the retinal nerve cells are hit with a photon. These neurons are not arranged in a smooth surface, but wind through and around each other. Is the spirit somehow getting a transmission from these cells? After this, the brain processes the image, first in a elementary way, noting where edges and contrasts are, and later in an interpretive way, so that a view of a shovel triggers the concept that there is a shovel in the field of view. For the spirit to get the encoded interpretation would be even harder to describe. The brain does have layers, but they are not neat unified layers as existed in the early neural nets simulated on computers. Instead, they are a convoluted mass of millions of neurons, each with many inputs and outputs.


Another view might be that there is only narrowband communication between the spirit and the human to whom it is associated. This might be words, uttered or otherwise encoded. Even this is difficult, but the concept of feeding signals into the auditory nerves of the human might be more understandable. If the communication is two-way, there would have to be some pickup of signals from the speech muscles, or possibly a stage before that. There might be some possible pick-up from the speech centers of the brain, in the left hemisphere.


If there is narrowband signals only, the spirit would have only poor recognition of the world. Even with vision from its associated human, there would be quite limited understanding of the world, especially beyond the visual range of the human. In order for the spirit to interact with the human, it would require a much larger transmission of data. How would it get that?


Switching over to the physics side, to transmit information requires energy. There is a minimum amount, which is limited by the quantum nature of states of atoms. If there was energy disappearing from somewhere in the real world, in order to provide this communication channel or multiple channels, it would be detectable. There is no non-conservation of energy that has been detected in any physics experiment, meaning there is no evidence of a new force that might do this, nor any evidence of any of the known forces dribbling energy into any spirit world.


On the physics side, one question to ask is, does this hypothesized spirit exist in the three-dimensional world as we experience it, or is it in some parallel universe, or a region of existence with no dimensions at all. If it is in the three-dimensional universe, it somehow has to keep up with the motion of the human to whom it is attached. What pulls it along? There would have to be some force necessary to move it, just as there is a force which moves our heads along when our feet walk forward. But there is no force left for a spirit. Is it self-propelled? Then there would be some energy expended, meaning some heat produced, but none of it has been observed.


If the spirit is in some parallel universe, then the communication problems are exacerbated. How does information about the real world get into the parallel universe so the spirit is not totally unaware of everything happening there?


Let’s look at a different part of the information problems that beset the spirit concept. How does information about spirits, such as any details about their existence or non-existence, get to humans, such as Greer? Perhaps Greer gets his information from other humans, so we can ask about the track back to the first person with the concept of a spirit. Call him ‘Source’. How did Source get the information about the spirit world. Perhaps there is not one such person, but a group of them each getting part of the information, which was then shared to make up the total picture that Greer now possesses. Whether there was one or many, the communication problems are equally impossible. Do the spirit entities understand their world, and its interaction with our world, well enough to simply formulate this information in whatever language Source spoke, and then they simply used narrowband communication to tell him about it?


The first difficulty with this is validation. How does Source know what he heard was from something other than a part of his own brain? How does he know if it was correct or if the spirit voice was from a confused, mistaken spirit, who didn’t have good information? How does he know he wasn’t being made a joke of in the spirit world? How does he know if there are not glaring errors in what was told to him? How does he know he interpreted it correctly? All these questions are solved by some validation, meaning a scientific experiment to corroborate what was conveyed to him, but how does someone from a time long, long before Francis Bacon invented the scientific method figure out how to do it?


Validation might occur anywhere along the time path from Source to Greer, but it doesn’t seem to have been done, or if tried, it failed. Any proof, in the sense of a repeatable experiment to detect the existence of a spirit, would have had very great impact, and would have likely opened up a new branch of physics or of science. Nothing happened for however many centuries there were in this gap.


To summarize, there are two objections to reincarnation, relating to energy flow, which are discussed above. One is that there is there is no energy pathway to carry information from any human body to any spirit or essence. This means no information flow, and therefore a very knowledgeable spirit. The other is that there is no way to validate any information flow that did happen between the spirit and the human. None. This means the information is not useful for any purpose whatsoever.


How does Greer deal with this issues? He does not mention the first issue, that of information transfer. He does not discuss how he has dealt with the validation issues for his own particular beliefs, but he does attempt to blur the issue somewhat. The hidden trick is that he makes human knowledge of something like a binary choice. You know it or you don’t. But knowledge is subject to a probability, rather that being discrete. He mentions that someone might be able to identify a picture of his mother from a set of mug shots, but cannot describe how the reasons they have for choosing that picture. He does not at all describe what he means by reasons, and there is no actionable question that he asks, just vague words. Science does have some insights as to how the human brain recognizes faces, but that would not apply to a specific, particular recognition event. It makes no sense to state that since the brain operates with billions of neurons, whose specific actions are unknowable, that knowledge of whether reincarnation is consistent with science is impossible. They are not connected.


He then proceeds to say that members of the Flat Earth Society might deny that Antartica exists, no matter what evidence was shown to them. Perhaps this is a subtle jab at scientists, pretending that there is some parallel between Flat Earth Society members and scientists is their unreasoning beliefs. This may make non-scientist readers of his blog feel better, but the comparison has no substance, just a set of ill-defined allusions.


He lists one reason for his beliefs as the work of Professor Ian Stevenson, who spent several decades collecting stories from children, mostly in India and between the ages of two and eight, who claimed some knowledge of a previous life. The methods of data collection and other aspects of his work have been criticized in depth by others, but to summarize the points made, the work simply was naive and non-scientific. Virtually all children, 99.9999+%, do not have these memories, and in those who claimed to, the knowledge they had was minimal, perhaps a few names of relatives of the supposed previous life person, the existence of a building or a train or something similar. Even if there was such a thing as reincarnation, the connection between lives is so negligible one wonders why it would be of any importance. Stevenson’s work might be summarized by saying that reincarnation has virtually zero effect on anyone. If that is the case, why would anyone care about whether there was some spirit or essence floating around somewhere in a parallel universe? Why would anyone care about what happened to a spirit, as the connection to any human’s future life is almost nil?



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