Can reincarnation be scientifically proven?


This is true for any idea or view which conflicts with previously held views though. And of course, changing one’s view is a messy thing, and it is not a one size fits all affair. I am only putting forth what I see as the strongest and most rational argument for Buddhist rebirth. It doesn’t mean its perfect or it will convince everyone equally or that it is useful for everyone.

It is just an attempt at showing how Buddhists who believe in rebirth need not do so merely on faith alone or other irrational reasons like appeal to authority. It is a common charge leveled at Buddhists who believe in rebirth by atheists and secular Buddhists, so I felt it was good to lay this out.

If you don’t see it as useful, that is fair enough, you’re free to ignore the whole thing.


Javier, I like your reasoning. Not everything can be proven in the scientific way, nor should we expect it to be. I used to be a Christian, and the primary reason that I have changed my views is the reasoning that you gave. Some (not all) Christians say, “If you don’t believe in Jesus, you are going to hell.” I cannot believe that if someone does not believe in Jesus, they will immediately go to hell. Then, if we consider God to be love (as Christianity teaches) it makes more sense for God to provide us with every opportunity to save ourselves (multiple life times if need be).


If someone knows that there’s nothing after death, it’s also just a belief- they can’t know for certain any more than those people who were sure that the earth was flat. The reasonable position is to say I know this much but there might be other possibilities. So keeping an open mind. Believing in moral actions is common to all religions. God is in my view incompatible with his (or her) definition/or has lower morals than humanity, so it seems more like a human creation from a time when survival was challenging!

I have a MSc in psychiatric research from King’s College, London and different research methods are used to research differing questions. Initial studies need more ‘open’ approaches and this means qualitative research models are used. Trends and hypotheses are generated and not statistical data. Dr. Ian Stephenson and his associates used the phenomenon of recollections of other lifetimes in children aged around 3-7 and researched if they might match with the lives of recently diseased people often using clues in their recollections. The detail they encountered generated one major hypothesis and this was one of rebirth. This was against the research norm of hypothesis needing to fit the norms of current scientific boundaries, as there were no other plausible explanation. However sound the methodology was, it would be counter cultural in the West, and questioning the power of the Church, ultimately. This work doesn’t have the status such a momentous body of research should receive and only has lukewarm mentions when someone quotes it elsewhere. Usually when a hypothesis is considered for further research , it is done in the negative and this called a Null hypothesis. To examine a hypothesis a Null hypothesis has to be disproved. There has to be at least one case that disproves the Null hypothesis- in this case there has to be a case that shows rebirth is the most likely (as scientifically we don’t have the instruments to measure the process of rebirth directly, much like how many psychiatric medications are developed despite not knowing exactly how they work in the brain) cause of rebirth recollections. So far they have discovered close to 2500 cases where it could be traced and his son continues his research now. This disproves the Null hypothesis, but there is again no known scientific mechanism which can explain it and this is its weakness. Scientific methods only really allows for incremental change to its knowledge. It’s not possible to do quantitative research where numbers are crunched and solid facts are generated or at least it hasn’t been done as far as I know- we might see it in the future. A model such as number of recollected data points correlated to severity of event leading to death or number of personal characteristics of diseased persons remembered vs similar number of a similar child making a calculated guess (that is a study with a control group), or getting close members of the family of the diseased person to prospectively predict characteristics of the reborn person vs a control group could boost the reputation of such research and increase the validity of the evidence available.


You’re welcome.

Like before, maybe. On topics like rebirth, experiential science isn’t a concern for me, so I haven’t attempted to do more than connect a few dots between preexisting theories. I’m content with accepting these ideas on trust in the teachings.

My 18-year old militant atheist self would be shocked and appalled by me saying this, lol. I was also a more stressed-out person then. Not worrying about things that can’t be controlled, changed, or confirmed has greatly eased my mind.


Strictly speaking, I don’t think you can “prove” anything scientifically. Proofs are for math and logic.

I do think you can find evidence for it (along the lines that @Mat discussed). But there is a huge problem: funding. There is hardly any money in parapsychology because of the stigma that it’s a “pseudoscience.” So it’s hard to do research on stuff like reincarnation, OBEs, ESP, etc. Hopefully the zeitgeist will change one day and such things will be taken seriously by the scientific establishment.


There is an interview here on this site between Ajahns Sujato, Brahmali, and Jim Tucker where he (Tucker) says this as well:

Ian Stevenson used to say the word proof should only be used in mathematics. In science it’s all about evidence, not proof. So what is the evidence? And what is the best explanation that the evidence provides? It’s not the same as proof. And sometimes what appears to be the correct explanation is ultimately shown not to be.

But, regardless, this is certainly evidence that some children have memories from a life that occurred in the past. Now the most obvious explanation on the face of it would be that it’s reincarnation, that the child’s memories came from a life they’ve experienced before. …
I think ultimately, in order to convince the open-minded and intelligent, we would need to incorporate these cases into an overall understanding of reality, because they obviously fly in the face of scientific materialism. The general public believes all kinds of things actually, but as far as the reigning intellectual paradigm is concerned, it’s scientific materialism. If it’s gonna happen, I think it’s probably gonna come through physics. If consciousness is to be considered a separate entity from physical matter, a new theory would need to incorporate most of what we already know to be true. But I’ll probably have to wait until my next lifetime, or the one after that, to see that. But I do think it’s possible that ultimately it could come about.

I would like to take a look at this if you happen to be able to locate it. I did a search of BBC for Ian Stevenson as well as Jim Tucker but turned up nothing.


I think that this might be the programme that I remember, but I can’t find a transcript or recording. It seems like a lifetime ago :wink:

I think that the only reason reincarnation is the most obvious explanation to Jim Tucker is because he, the people he is investigating and a large proportion of the world already believes in reincarnation. When I used to read novels I would sometimes get so caught up in the story that I would almost become one of the characters. The most obvious explanation isn’t that I actually was that character in a previous life. When people have these sorts of spiritual visions, it’s probably not useful for the scientists to buy into their narrative. There may be something really strange going on here, but I don’t think it’s clear that the most obvious explanation is reincarnation.


Thanks! That was fast. I found a link to the program: BBC - Radio 4 - Many Happy Returns
Unfortunately my computer (linux) can’t find a plugin that is needed to listen to it.
I was hoping to be able to see who the critics of his work were - their backgrounds. The write-up mentions two: Dr. Leonard Angel (a Philosopher) and Dr. Helen Joyce -who is currently an editor at the Economist. Can’t see that either one of them have any relevant experience for judging Stevenson’s work. So far, this has been what I have found - that his critics lack the background and skills to evaluate his work. I think a simple solution would be to try to reproduce his research but getting funding could be difficult.

I find that scientists that propose theories that go against materialist beliefs tend to be written off as being biased. But of course, that goes both ways and so it is just as reasonable to say that science done by someone who holds materialist views would be equally biased. Personally, I think most researchers can step back from their personal beliefs in conducting their research.


Yes, they all represent some form of continuation beyond death. The only significant difference I can see is that heaven and hell are said to be eternal, whereas rebirths are temporary and allow the possibility of future “salvation”.


I suppose even a ‘long time’, especially if unpleasant could be felt as eternal.


Yes, like the waiting room at the dentist’s. :yum:


You can’t ‘prove’ something. For instance you take it as a given you have a hand but it could be argued that it’s mostly space. However the evidence against having a hand doesn’t stack up so much that we can agree the hand doesn’t exist.


I think that maybe Dr. Helen Joyce maybe has some past (current at the time of the programme) experience to judge his work especially in the area of analysis of statistical data and her position as editor of ‘Significance’, but I may be wrong here. I don’t understand her area well enough to make a reasonable judgement.


This may lie at the root of Helen Joyce’s dismissal of Dr. Stevenson’s research. Her training is in high level mathematics and she may have a predisposition to reject any formula that can’t be readily proven. In any case, with some googling I found this nice interview of Dr. Stevenson that sheds some light on his research: Scientific Proof of Reincarnation: Dr. Ian Stevenson’s Life Work | Humans Are Free


Great Interview. Thanks. I have read several with Jim Tucker but this is the first with Ian Stevenson.


Scientifically, life and energy are quite different things. Energy (in science) is things like heat (thermal energy), motion (kinetic energy), the energy stored in molecules (chemical energy) and mountains (potential energy). Life is an example of negative entropy - entropy is disorder, and life has a tremendous amount of order at the molecular as well as macroscopic level. The second law of thermodynamics says that entropy in a closed system cannot decrease, so if order increases in part of a closed system, it must decrease somewhere else in the system. In summary, I’d say that the first law neither supports or disputes rebirth, since energy can take many forms, and the second law would have to be taken into account when offering a scientific explanation of rebirth, which is separate from the naturally evolved way of producing life by procreation.

Personally, I believe rebirth can’t be proven (or even justified based on evidence) scientifically at this point because no one has proposed a scientific mechanism for rebirth. Science operates on falsifiable hypotheses, and there is not one yet for rebirth.

I suspend disbelief in rebirth because it is a vital part of an ethical system that I find effective. This approach has literally saved my life. I’m a scientist, but I don’t spend time worrying about the scientific “proof” in this particular case. I do object to loose reference to scientific principles presented as justifications of such beliefs.


Hey, folks, as a professional PhD mathematician who has also worked with statisticians and done plenty of statistics myself, I can confidently say that those with advanced training in statistics (which would be the bulk of the “mathematical” training for an economist) completely understand the difference between mathematical proof and accepting an hypothesis based on evidence.


As far as we currently know.

I wasn’t trying to provide a rigorous explanation, or undermine any scientific principles. My reference was essentially an analogy meant to provide some orientation.


I already qualified the statement with “scientifically”. Spelling it out, that means “according to currently accepted science”. There is not a precise definition of “life”, even “life as we know it on this planet” that is without controversy, but no alternative definitions would include anything like “Life is a form of energy”, because we know enough about life to dispute such a claim.

In science fiction, there is talk of “beings of pure energy”, and in spiritual circles, just about anything you want can be labelled as “energy”, but in currently accepted science, the term “energy” is well-understood.


I never understood energy. I have learned forms of energy. But what is energy?