«JOURNAL OF SCIENTIFIC EXPLORATION A Publication of the Society for Scienti¢c Exploration Volume 22, Number 1 2008 Page Editorial 1 Editorial Peter ...»
Indeed, all human knowledge is burdened with a degree of uncertainty, but in the hard sciences we are accustomed to accepting odds once they go into the millions and billions, let alone astronomically large numbers, without saying that such and such evidence is ‘‘suggestive of,’’ say, relativity theory or the Big Bang.
And there is no logical reason to act otherwise in regard to the evidence for reincarnation, simply because reincarnation counters age-old Western religious beliefs and cannot be reduced to mathematical formulae with testable numerical predictions. I argued many times with Ian Stevenson that, as a result of his undue reticence, readers of his publications are led to believe that he himself harbored genuine doubts about the results of his own research, thereby inviting the doubt of others and preventing that research from being widely accepted.
No, contrary to such an appearance, Ian Stevenson’s pioneering work has laid as secure a foundation for human reincarnation as may be claimed by almost every other well-recognized science. Although a flawlessly proven case does not exist, his documentation has statistically proven, to stupendous odds and beyond any reasonable doubt, that at least some humans have been reincarnated, his own refusal to make such a claim notwithstanding.
Most importantly, also, Ian Stevenson has inspired many of the present highly gifted and dedicated reincarnation researchers to continue his work and to expand the structure of reincarnation science, so that it will live on and gradually win over the universal acceptance that I believe to be inevitable. Thereby Ian Stevenson’s place as one of the great personalities in the history of the University of Virginia will be secured, and while we have reason to mourn his departure, we have much more reason yet to celebrate his wonderful life and achievements.
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Every time I talk to people who were interviewed by Dr. Stevenson, they always ask the same questions: ‘‘Where is the American Doctor? When is he coming back to Lebanon? Is he still doing research on reincarnation?’’ Dr. Stevenson had a way of putting children and their parents at ease. He always brought gifts to the children that he interviewed, and his gentle, noninvasive style won their confidence. As a result they told him about many private incidents connected to their previous lives. Some even consulted him on medical issues! Whenever we returned to a house for a follow-up interview, Dr.
Stevenson was always welcomed heartily.
I first met Dr. Ian Stevenson in 1976, having just graduated from the American University of Beirut (AUB) with a Business Administration degree.
Dr. Sami Makarem, a professor at AUB, asked me if I would be interested to work with Dr. Stevenson, who was working on cases of reincarnation in Lebanon and elsewhere. I started as an interpreter and then became his research assistant. My duties were to conduct and translate field interviews from Arabic to English, prepare reports, and research new cases for him. It was through him that I met Dr. Emily Williams Kelly, who also came to Lebanon to investigate and follow up on Dr. Stevenson’s cases.
In the summer of 1980, Dr. Stevenson asked me to come to Charlottesville to assist him in organizing data for his research work at the University of Virginia. I worked on assigning computer codes to selected Lebanese cases on reincarnation.
In 1997, after an absence from Lebanon of 16 years, Dr. Stevenson asked me to assist him again in his research on reincarnation in Lebanon. He arrived in the company of Tom Shroder, an award-winning journalist and later the author of Old Souls (Shroder, 1999). During that memorable visit, I arranged for Dr. Stevenson to deliver a presentation and lead a discussion on reincarnation at AUB. The hall was full, and everyone commented on his vast knowledge and dignity.
It was also through Dr. Stevenson that I met Dr. Erlendur Haraldsson, who was interested in conducting psychological tests and research on Lebanese children who remember previous lives. It was thus that I became a co-author with Dr. Haraldsson of a paper on three cases of reincarnation in Lebanon (Haraldsson & Abu-Izzeddin, 2004).
Dr. Stevenson was a patient man. He would wait for me to translate, in
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particular after long, and sometimes emotional, responses from his subjects. Dr.
Stevenson was also a meticulous person. We carried all kinds of forms with us on our trips, including ‘‘preliminary information forms about reincarnation cases,’’ ‘‘birthmarks forms,’’ ‘‘follow-up interviews,’’ and our daily expense record forms.
I always received autographed copies of his new published books. On January 23, 2001, he sent me his book Children Who Remember Previous Lives, with this note: ‘‘For Majd with thanks for all your excellent help over many years and love, from Ian Stevenson.’’ What would one of Dr. Stevenson’s subjects say about him today? To find out I visited Itidal Abul-Hisn, who as a child remembered a previous life (see Stevenson, 1997: vol. 2, p. 1900). She is one of many cases of the reincarnation type that Dr. Stevenson had investigated in Lebanon. She still lives in the same apartment in Beirut where Dr. Stevenson, Tom Shroder, and I had a follow-up
interview with her in 1997. She was moved by the news of his death and said:
Dr. Stevenson had good manners. He always asked me how I was doing. If I got uneasy while I was speaking about my previous life, he would stop and ask me if I want to rest for a while before I continue. He would also ask me if I want to continue talking, stop or change the subject. All his questions were asked politely and nicely. He always thanked us for the time we gave him.
Itidal was silent for awhile, and then with a smile said:
I remember when Dr. Stevenson came to interview me for the second time. He gave me a strawberry-fragranced cologne bottle. I still remember that bottle. He also gave my mother a pistachio-colored scarf. Dr. Stevenson visited us four times. I am really sorry that he passed away.
In a note to Dr. Stevenson’s friends and family, I wrote that, for the Druze, reincarnation is more than a field of study, it is a firm belief. With that belief it becomes a little easier to accept the death of those we love. It does not, however, diminish the sense of loss.
ReferencesHaraldsson, E., & Abu-Izzeddin, M. (2004). Three randomly selected Lebanese cases of children who claim memories of a previous life. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 68, 65–85.
Shroder, T. (1999). Old Souls: The Scientiﬁc Evidence for Past Lives. Simon & Schuster.
Stevenson, I. (1997). Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects (2 vols.) Westport, CT: Praeger.
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A surprising number are scared to death of new ideas. They have attacked major discoveries without even glancing at the evidence. And their distrust of unconventional experiments may now be hampering scientiﬁc progress.
A Dutchman living in the East Indies once tried to tell a native of Java that in his country the water sometimes becomes so hard you can walk on it. The Javan was immediately convulsed with laughter, and the Dutchman could make no progress with his explanation.
We find this an amusing story, but it would be even funnier if it did not really refer to us all. Ordinarily our reaction to new ideas does not harm us or others.
But when we make the discovery of new facts and new concepts our business, then incredulity can prove costly. When humans become scientists they continue to experience some of the less rational qualities of being human. And with this part of them they can get in each other’s way, and in the way of progress.
Pierre Gassendi, for example, made notable contributions to seventeenthcentury physics. He devised the first atomic theory of matter since Democritus, and his works strongly influenced Newton. Yet when in 1627 someone reported the fall of a meteorite in Provence, Gassendi explained it as due to some unidentified volcanic eruption. This attitude toward meteorites was shared by nearly all astronomers and many other leading scientists for the next century and a half.
Some insisted that the stones had been picked up somewhere and carried by the wind; others accused those who claimed to have seen the stones fall of lying.
In the late eighteenth century the great Antoine Lavoisier, himself a radical innovator in chemistry, rejected accounts of meteorites as the products of malobservation. Stones could not fall out of the sky, he declared, because none were there. Finally, in April 1803, a shower of small meteorites on L’Aigle, France, persuaded the astronomers to change their attitudes.
In the same way the first reports of hypnotism—or mesmerism, as it was called in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century—evoked many denials that the reported phenomena had ever occurred. In London, Dr. John Elliotson was driven from the chair of medicine at University College for endorsing and
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promoting the study of hypnotism. The early accounts of surgical operations conducted under hypnosis encountered extraordinarily irrational opposition. Dr.
James Esdaile reported from India in the 1840s the successful completion of over a thousand operations (one-third of them major operations) with the patients hypnotized and a death rate of only 6 per cent during or after the operations. Although this occurred before asepsis when almost 30 per cent of other surgeons’ patients died, Esdaile had great difficulty in getting his work even published, much less accepted. His scientific critics alleged that he had bribed his patients to sham insensibility. According to one account ‘‘it was because they were hardened impostors that they let their legs be cut off and large tumors be cut out without showing any sign even of discomfort.’’ In their opposition to hypnotism many of the most creative scientists of the period forgot the rules of their own calling. Lord Kelvin announced that ‘‘one-half of hypnotism is imposture and the rest bad observation.’’ Similar prejudices met Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood, Pasteur’s work on microbes, and Semmelweis’ discovery that physicians themselves spread the infection of puerperal or childbed fever from one mother to another. To the list of scientists who have suffered from the incredulity of their colleagues we can add Darwin, the several discoverers of anesthesia, and Freud.
Early in the nineteenth century a tragic example of resistance delayed the introduction of a life-saving medical treatment. An English physician, O’Shaughnessy, discovered evidence that patients with cholera died not of the infection directly, but of the depletion of salt and water carried off in the diarrhea. Another physician, Dr. Thomas Latta of Leith, boldly acted on these observations and snatched from the grave a number of patients desperately ill with cholera to whom he gave infusions of salt and water. He reported his almost miraculous success; a few other physicians tried and confirmed the value of his treatment; but still not enough interest could be aroused to promote the treatment further. Almost one hundred years later, twentieth-century physicians rediscovered it.
Contempt Prior to Examination A common and astonishing feature of the opposition to scientific advance is the certainty with which it is offered. For the moment, and sometimes for years, the doubter forgets that he could be wrong. At the first demonstration of Edison’s phonograph before the Paris Academy of Sciences, all the scientists present declared that it was impossible to reproduce the human voice by means of a metal disc. One man proposed to throttle the demonstrator. ‘‘Wretch!’’ said he. ‘‘Do you suppose that we are fools to be duped by a ventriloquist?’’ Resistance to the new can reach into the highest places. We owe to Francis Bacon much of the foundation of scientific method. He said: ‘‘We have set it down as a law to ourselves that we have to examine things to the bottom; and not to receive upon credit or reject upon improbabilities, until these have passed 134 Ian Stevenson a due examination.’’ Yet Bacon could not believe that the Earth goes around the Sun. Galileo, who could not persuade fellow astronomers to look into his telescope, could not himself accept Kepler’s evidence that the planets move in ellipses. Nor could he believe that witches suffered from mental illness, a view beginning to gain acceptance in his day.
Professor P. G. Tait, a contemporary and colleague of Lord Kelvin, made contributions to physics hardly less important than those of Kelvin. But when the news of the discovery of the telephone reached him, he said, ‘‘It is all humbug, for such a discovery is impossible.’’ Another interesting conversation occurred between Sir William Hamilton and Sir George Airy, justly celebrated mathematicians of the nineteenth century. Hamilton had just published his discovery of quaternions and was explaining it to Airy. Airy said, ‘‘I cannot see it at all.’’ Hamilton replied, ‘‘I have been investigating the matter for many months and I am certain of its truth.’’ ‘‘Oh,’’ rejoined Airy, ‘‘I have been thinking it over for the last two or three minutes and there is nothing to it.’’ Many great ideas have, to be sure, won rather easy acceptance. Einstein had his difficulties, but they did not include stupid hostility from fellow scientists.
Still such hostility should not occur at all among scientists. For it was science that once fought religion for freedom of inquiry and belief. In its original victories—and some of its more recent ones too—science defeated attempts to censor ideas. The principle of expanding knowledge replaced that of closed revelation. What had seemed to be a body of established facts was challenged and succeeded by a new body of facts based on observation rather than on reason and authority. But in the process a confusion arose between science and that body of newly discovered facts.