Thursday, February 26, 2015

Evidence for Reincarnation?

Reincarnation is a prominent feature of both Hinduism and Buddhism, but among Western occultists it has something of a bad rap. The problem is that many New Age systems have co-opted the idea and removed it from its original context. Also, it seems like half the New Age reincarnation enthusiasts out there were all famous and powerful people in their past lives, often with many individuals latching onto the same famous identities. Even in Thelema, people claiming to be the reincarnation of Aleister Crowley have become something of a running joke because it seems like every year more of them pop up on the Internet.

Tibetan Buddhism includes detailed and technical practices related to reincarnation, as it is believed that advanced lamas called Tulkus can maintain some degree of continuous awareness as they transition to their next incarnation. A Tulku will often provide some details about where this next incarnation will be born, and monks assigned to search for the proper child will go from there. One of the best-documented of these searches was that which identified Tenzin Gyatso as the current Dalai Lama. As a small child, Gyatso was able to pick out items belonging to the previous Dalai Lama from a collection of relics with complete accuracy.

Recently a small boy in Ohio claimed to have lived a previous life as a woman whose name was Pamela.

Little Luke Ruehlman of Cincinnati, Ohio, claims to be the vessel for the reincarnated spirit of a woman named Pamela Robinson, who died in a Chicago fire in 1993—at least, that's what his mother Erika said he told her.

"I was like 'who is Pam?'" Erika Ruehlman told WJW earlier this month. "He turned to me and said, 'Well I was.' I said 'What do you mean you were?' He was like, 'Well I used to be, but I died and I went up to heaven and I saw God and eventually God pushed me back down and when I woke up I was a baby and you named me Luke.'"

Erika was skeptical, and started asking more questions. After determining all the details she could, she researched the name, location, and date. And it turned out that Pam was in fact a real person.

Ruehlman said she was able to talk to Luke about Pam. She figured out Pam lived in Chicago and died in a fire. "That's when I came across the Paxton Hotel," Ruehlman said. A woman named Pamela Robinson died in a March 1993 fire at the Chicago apartment building.

"I had found a picture of Pam, we had put it on a piece of paper with a lot of fake pictures," Ruehlman said. "Luke goes, 'Well I don't recognize anybody, but I remember when this one was taken' and he pointed to the correct one."

So apparently Luke was able to pass a similar sort of test to that used to determine the identity of the Dalai Lama. But does that mean he's really Pamela Robinson's reincarnation? He was able to correctly identify a photograph, but his memories were nonetheless fragmented and fleeting.

Even the Tibetans acknowledge that the memories transmitted from one life to the next are severely limited. This is not surprising, as neuroscience has shown that most memories are stored in the physical brain. If they were not, brain damage would not affect memory as strongly as it does. So what this tells me is that limited recall is one of the marks of a genuine case of reincarnation. Perfect, polished memories are far more likely to be the result of wishful thinking.

Furthermore, those who claim to be reincarnations of a famous person should be subjected to the strictest scrutiny. The reasoning behind this is simply a function of math; relatively speaking, the number of famous people in the history of the world are massively outnumbered by regular people who lived regular lives, and about whom few historical accounts were ever written. Another problem with verifying such claims is that if a person's history has been covered extensively, it's hard to tease out facts their "reincarnation" might have that would not be widely known.

By both of those tests, Luke's story could be for real. But it also is true that more investigation is warranted. The main thing that I would want to rule out is any possibility that Luke might have obtained his information about Pam by normal means, since kids can be quite resourceful when it comes to learning and it always is possible that he might have heard the story of the fire and latched onto certain details from it.

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