Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Come as you were

Last weekend was the Reincarnation Conference in New York City, and I missed it.

Of course, tickets were $139 a pop, and I suspect Carol would have had words with me if I'd blown that kind of money on such a thing.  But still.  It featured talks, workshops, and opportunities for hypnosis sessions in which you were guided through "Past Life Regression."  One woman found out she drowned in the sinking of the Titanic.  Another remembered a life in which she saw Jesus deliver the Sermon on the Mount.  I'd bet we also had some Babylonian princesses in there.  There always seem to be Babylonian princesses.

A recent poll indicated that one in five Americans believes in reincarnation.  One in ten claims actually to recall a past life.  This is grist to the mill of Dr. Brian Weiss, organizer of the conference.  "I define [reincarnation] as when we die physically, a part of us goes on," he said, "and that we have lessons to learn here. And that if you haven't learned all of these lessons, then that soul, that consciousness, that spirit comes back into a baby's body."

Well, that all sounds just nifty.  But the difficulty, of course, is the usual one; there's no evidence whatsoever that this actually happens.  The human mind, as I've mentioned before, is a remarkably plastic, and scarily unreliable, processing device.  Experiments have conclusively shown that given enough emotional charge, an imagined scene can actually become a memory, and thereafter be "remembered" as if it had actually happened.  In a context where a subject was being hypnotized by a professional-looking individual with "Dr." in front of his/her name, and perhaps was even being given subtle suggestions of what to "recall," that impression, and its retention as a memory afterwards, would become even more powerful.

And then, there's just the statistical argument, that because there are more people alive today than at any time in the past, not all of us can be reincarnated.  Some believers solve this problem by allowing reincarnation from "lower animals."  In that case, it's funny how no one seems to remember being, say, a bug.  "Boy, life sure was boring, as a bug," is something I'd bet you rarely hear anyone say in a Past-Life Regression.

Not only does no one remember being a bug, few of them, it seems, were even just ordinary humans.  "The skeptical part of me about the past life thing is that, just statistically, the odds are that in my past life, I was a Chinese peasant, right?" says Dr. Stephen Prothero, a professor of theology at Boston University.   "But hardly anybody ever is a Chinese peasant.  Everybody is Cleopatra or Mark Antony or Jesus, you know?"

Dr. Weiss, however, continues to believe, probably largely because at $139 a ticket, he's making a lot of money by believing.  "We're not going to be able to extract a blood sample and get DNA and say, 'Oh, I see you were alive in the 11th century,' no," he stated.  "It's people remembering it, so it's clinical proof."

So, once again, we have someone whose definition of "proof" differs considerably from mine.  And I'd be willing to say, "Well, what harm if these people believe that they were once Eleanor of Aquitaine?" except that people like Weiss are bilking the gullible out of large quantities of money.  On one level, perhaps people who are that credulous deserve bilking, but the compassionate side of my personality feels like it's just wrong to take advantage.

In any case, I rather regret missing last weekend's "Come As You Were" party.  It could have been fun.  I would have loved to see what they'd have made out of trying to do a Past-Life Regression with me.  I think I'd have said... "I'm... I'm flying through the air.  Free.  Wild.  I'm... crap, I just got splatted on a windshield."

So it's kind of a pity I didn't get to go.  Oh, well, as the reincarnated are wont to say, I suppose there's always next time.

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