Can reincarnation be scientifically proven?


People in this forum are using the English words “reincarnation” and “rebirth” interchangeably. As someone who does not read or speak Pali, I find this confusing.

Etymologically speaking, “reincarnation,” of course, derives from the Latin carn- meaning “flesh.” So to be reincarnated is to take on a new form in the flesh.

“Rebirth” derives its meaning from the Indo-European root bher- meaning “carry” which then has translated into meaning the carrying and delivering of offspring (typically in a mammalian sense).

Determining the processes by which reincarnation (taking on a new fleshly form) or rebirth (repeating the emergence of life forms from a parent organism) are two very distinct things. And yet these distinct concepts seem to be treated interchangeably in forums such as this one, to the detriment of productive dialog.

It would be much more useful, for me at least, to understand precisely what the Buddha meant by what is variously referred to in English as “reincarnation” and “rebirth.” Again, I don’t read Pali, so perhaps it would be helpful to back up a bit and clarify for new practitioners such as me precisely what concept is being evaluated here.


Interesting. I have never heard anyone ever use the word “rebirth” in relation to sexual reproduction. You mentioning it is new to me.

Reincarnation” in contemporary usage, as I understand it, implies a permanent-self or soul that transmigrates from one body to another after death and the integrity of the permanent-self/soul is preserved. This is why its use has been abandoned by most of the English speaking Buddhist community, because it is in opposition to anattā(not-self) principles fundamental to the Buddha’s teaching.

Rebirth” in contemporary usage doesn’t have the permanent-self/soul baggage that reincarnation has from the 20th century New Age movement and the earlier introduction of Hinduism into the West. “Rebirth” is able to describe the process of renewed birth without a permanent unchanging essence. What the Buddha describes is a constantly-changing non-identifiable essence that is without distinct description nor permanent features which transmigrates.


It makes sense if you read more deeply and get off of the extremely literal plane. All that stuff about the eight this, the nine thats, the 28 so-and-so’s Is just later Buddhist doctrinal catechism for dogmatic literalists.


That makes sense if you’re bending the teaching to fit your perception instead of changing your perception to be in-line with the teaching.

I am not a dogmatic literist. The Buddha doesn’t speak in esoteric mumbo-jumbo. He isn’t inviting us to read between the lines of what he’s saying to figure out his secret indirect mystical hidden meanings. Nothing is hidden. He invites all to listen to him and see for themselves if what he says is true or not. Ehipassiko! Come an see for yourself! I have been able to take the teachings and put them to practice. Anyone can if they wish. The things he is describing begin to open up and make applicable sense. If you don’t wholehearted take on the challenge to practice to find out the validity of the doctrine for yourself then, sure, the teachings might as well be esoteric mumbo-jumbo nonsense that must be deciphered.

Sometime people simply mean the words they are using without innuendo.


And yet, the title of this thread is “Can reincarnation be scientifically proven?” If reincarnation has been abandoned by most of the English speaking Buddhist community, why is it even being discussed in this forum? Or would it be better to re-title this thread “Can rebirth be scientifically proven?”?


The dhamma is indeed open to investigation. It’s all taking place within your fathom-long body. Not everything we find in the suttas is the word of the Buddha. It was compiled and amended by followers over centuries, with varying levels of insight and comprehension. Also, not everything the Buddha thought or said is equally worthy of attention. The Buddha was a human spiritual master, not an omniscient prophet.

I read the suttas, consider what they say, and consider various different ways of interpreting them and finding something helpful in them. But if a conflict arises between the words of the text and my own meditative experience and experience with the discipline, I often act as my own refuge and go with my personal experience.


Yes. We aren’t reading audio recordings 25 centuries old that were transcribed. Not every sutta is necessarily valid or indisputable. But you also can’t dismiss key concepts that are profuse throughout the whole teaching and are vital to it conceptually.

Nothing wrong with that :sunglasses:


I guess I would say that the part of the teaching that is literally vital could probably be summed up in three pages. Maybe less.


‘Experience’ here is stretching it:

Reverends, extinguishment is bliss! Extinguishment is bliss!” When he said this, Venerable Udāyī said to him: “But Reverend Sāriputta, what’s blissful about it, since nothing is felt?” “The fact that nothing is felt is precisely what’s blissful about it. Reverend, there are these five kinds of sensual stimulation. What five? SuttaCentral


I still don’t understand how this is possible if there is nothing to be reborn.


“Was that - life?" I will say to death. "Very well! Once more!”
― Friedrich Nietzsche, [Thus Spoke Zarathustra]

Can rebirth be proven? I do think that Dr. Ian Stevenson went a long way toward a scientific approach to the proofs for rebirth. Whether people accept his science is another matter, but he was a serious and careful scientist. His work continues at the University of Virginia today.

Also, if we can accept 99 percent of what the Buddha taught, and find it profound and weighty in terms of its pragmatic and scientific value, why then do we feel a need to reject rebirth outright, as unscientific? Are our modern western minds so determined and so clouded as to reject all phenomenon that cannot be explained by mathematics, or our own rigid western intuitions?

From Dr. Stevenson: "On my first trip to India I met a respected Indian monk, a swami. I told him I had come out to see what evidence there was in India for reincarnation. He remained silent for a long, long time. Then he said, ‘‘We here in India regard it as a fact that people are reborn, but, you see, it doesn’t make a difference because we have just as many rogues and villains in India as you have in the West.’’


All kinds of things are possible or conceivable. Some seem much more likely than others given our current stage of knowledge. But there is no reason to reject something entirely simply because it hasn’t been empirically confirmed. One can regard it as an open question.

I only get interested in jumping into this topic when, as sometimes happens, defenders of the traditional view go beyond adhering to that view out of their own personal spiritual needs or convictions, and begin to disparge the views and practices and spiritual goals of others who don’t share those traditional views of the Buddha, his teachings and what is true and most important in them. Then I feel a need to defend the intellectual space needed for another approach, not just for my own sake but for the sake of others who might be suffering from these criticisms of their intelectual or spiritual integrity, but are too timid or intimidated or dispirited to push back.


I like your approach, Dan. It is this “defense of others’ intellectual space” that I feel allows for some truth or questioning of assumptions to be cultivated. And, that’s always a good thing. Even if you and I might disagree about something, I always learn something from you, I question my assumptions, and hopefully become a bit wiser, or at least more circumspect in the process.


Same here, Michael.


The concept, whether you call it rebirth or reincarnation or what have you, is as described in the suttas, especially those about dependent origination. The Nidanasamyutta (SN 12) is all about dependent origination and has many suttas. Here is SN 12.2 which gives plain definitions of each link of dependent origination.

At Savatthī. “Bhikkhus, I will teach you dependent origination and I will analyse it for you. Listen to that and attend closely, I will speak.”

“Yes, venerable sir,” those bhikkhus replied. The Blessed One said this:

“And what, bhikkhus, is dependent origination? With ignorance as condition, volitional formations come to be; with volitional formations, consciousness … as in preceding sutta … Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering.

“And what, bhikkhus, is aging-and-death? The aging of the various beings in the various orders of beings, their growing old, brokenness of teeth, greyness of hair, wrinkling of skin, decline of vitality, degeneration of the faculties: this is called aging. The passing away of the various beings from the various orders of beings, their perishing, breakup, disappearance, mortality, death, completion of time, the breakup of the aggregates, the laying down of the carcass: this is called death. Thus this aging and this death are together called aging-and-death.

“And what, bhikkhus, is birth? The birth of the various beings into the various orders of beings, their being born, descent into the womb, production, the manifestation of the aggregates, the obtaining of the sense bases. This is called birth.

“And what, bhikkhus, is existence? There are these three kinds of existence: sense-sphere existence, form-sphere existence, formless-sphere existence. This is called existence.

“And what, bhikkhus, is clinging? There are these four kinds of clinging: clinging to sensual pleasures, clinging to views, clinging to rules and vows, clinging to a doctrine of self. This is called clinging.

“And what, bhikkhus, is craving? There are these six classes of craving: craving for forms, craving for sounds, craving for odours, craving for tastes, craving for tactile objects, craving for mental phenomena. This is called craving.

“And what, bhikkhus, is feeling? There are these six classes of feeling: feeling born of eye-contact, feeling born of ear-contact, feeling born of nose-contact, feeling born of tongue-contact, feeling born of body-contact, feeling born of mind-contact. This is called feeling.

“And what, bhikkhus, is contact? There are these six classes of contact: eye-contact, ear-contact, nose-contact, tongue-contact, body-contact, mind-contact. This is called contact.

“And what, bhikkhus, are the six sense bases? The eye base, the ear base, the nose base, the tongue base, the body base, the mind base. These are called the six sense bases.

“And what, bhikkhus, is name-and-form? Feeling, perception, volition, contact, attention: this is called name. The four great elements and the form derived from the four great elements: this is called form. Thus this name and this form are together called name-and-form.

“And what, bhikkhus, is consciousness? There are these six classes of consciousness: eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, body-consciousness, mind-consciousness. This is called consciousness.

“And what, bhikkhus, are the volitional formations? There are these three kinds of volitional formations: the bodily volitional formation, the verbal volitional formation, the mental volitional formation. These are called the volitional formations.

“And what, bhikkhus, is ignorance? Not knowing suffering, not knowing the origin of suffering, not knowing the cessation of suffering, not knowing the way leading to the cessation of suffering. This is called ignorance.

“Thus, bhikkhus, with ignorance as condition, volitional formations come to be; with volitional formations as condition, consciousness…. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering. But with the remainderless fading away and cessation of ignorance comes cessation of volitional formations; with the cessation of volitional formations, cessation of consciousness…. Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering.”

The “various orders of beings” are beings of the 3 spheres of existence, beings of the: sense, form, and formless spheres.


Here’s what I was taught:

In Buddhist cosmology, the universe is eternal. The cosmos last forever. It repeats.

Given enough time, anything that can happen will happen. My current consciousness, which is a general network in my brain, not dependent on any particular exact formation/piece, is the result of the right conditions appearing together. Remember, consciousness is a network in the brain, you can suffer injury/change to parts but still retain consciousness/self as long as the general network is preserved. E.g People who loose there memories in early stage Alzheimers, are still themselves.

If the causes and conditions that came together to create me have already appeared in the universe once, given sufficient time, they will appear again. Given the universe is eternal, it is only a matter of time until the general brain network that is me appears again. After enough time, in the physical universe, the right causes and conditions will be aligned in the right order again, to create something which is essentially me. Even if that thing doesn’t have the exact same memories/experiences as me, this doesn’t matter. What it retains is the most basic, fundamental neural activity of my brain.

(To read more on the general network/orchestra of neural activity that gives you your sense of self-hood since birth, look below)

The network that is me, at this moment, will passover again and again in the universe. Thus, I am reborn. Depending on what I do in this life, I can make my general mode of functioning/consciousness less reactive and more mindful, ensuring less suffering in the next life. By changing the fundamental characteristics of myself, by becoming more “enlightened” I can ease the yoke of Samsara.

P.S I have seen other arguments but this is one of the best to come to mind.

Here’s some more basic reading: (mediation changes your default mode network)

No Big Bang? Quantum equation predicts universe has no beginning (this article helps explore the repeating/non-repeating universe debate.)


Your idea is quite different than the Buddhist idea of samsara because it would follow that every version of your neural activity would recur again including your most unhappy states, with no connection to whatever states occurred after that in some particular iteration of yourself, e.g. if you became a Buddhist and got rid of all craving. This totally negates the Buddhist idea that a single stream of consciousness continues and evolves dependent on past conditioning in a linear process. The Buddha for example is supposed to never be reborn again but in your conception of rebirth it is inevitable that he would be.

The idea you’re propounding is more similar to Epicurean atomism where the void/space is infinite and there are infinite atoms thus making it plausible that there are counterparts to you in other areas of infinite space-time-matter.