Yesterday read Old Souls by Tom Shroder on my counselor's recommendation. Interesting, but didn't really tell me much I hadn't encountered before (except for putting just how awful India can be into concrete terms). It did have a few interesting quotes I wanted to make a note of:
"I wanted to ask you," I said. "At your lecture, that one question about your 'message'? Your answer about doctors considering reincarnation as an alternative possibility for the cause of birth defects seemed so– I don't know– small. We're talking about reincarnation, after all. Compared to that, diagnosing birth defects seems kind of a minor point, doesn't it?"
I think I expected him to see my point immediately, confess that he was just trying to avoid the question. Instead, with real feeling, he defended his answer. "Parents whose children are born with deformities suffer considerable distress not knowing what caused them, maybe believing they themselves did something that caused them. Being able to tell them that something entirely beyond their control may be at fault could be a great comfort."
Then pausing, he settled back and looked at me. He knew what I meant.
"In general, I tend not to claim too much for the spiritual benefits of proving reincarnation," he said. "When I first went to India, I met with a swami there, a member of a monastic order. I told him about my work and how I thought it would be important if reincarnation could be proven, because it may help people to lead more moral lives if they knew they would come back after death. There was a long silence, a terrible silence, and finally he said, 'Well, that's very good, but here, reincarnation is a fact, and we have just as many scoundrels and thieves as you do in the West.' I'm afraid that rather deflated my missionary zeal."
"That's the paradox," Stevenson said. "In the West people say, 'Why are you spending money to study reincarnation when we know it's impossible?' In the East they say, 'Why are you spending money to study reincarnation when we know it's a fact?'"
Tucker asked me if I had read the skeptical criticisms of Stevenson's research. I told him that I had, and was unimpressed by most of them.
"Of all the arguments," I said, "the one that still seems to me to carry the most weight is the fact that Alzheimer's patients lose every aspect of their personality– their memories, their abilities, their temperaments. And it all disintegrates in direct correspondence to the physical deterioration of their brains. The question is, if partial destruction of the brain destroys all the aspects of a person that might be reincarnated, how can we imagine that anything can survive total destruction of the brain?"
"There's a standard response," Tucker replied. "And I think it's a good one: It's like a radio. If you smash the radio, it's not going to be playing any music. But that doesn't mean the radio waves have disappeared. It just means there's nothing to receive them.
"The skeptics would respond, 'Where does the radio signal come from?' You might as well ask, 'What happens inside a black hole? What came before the Big Bang?'"
I ran into Tucker one other time before I left town. We had another long talk, at the end of which he expressed a frustration that I had long suspected Stevenson felt as well.
"I wish we could move on to attempting to understand the mechanisms behind these cases," he said, "Instead of constantly trying to establish this as a legitimate phenomenon."
"The problem is," I said, "if you start talking about how the soul migrates before you know what a soul is and before people accept that that's what your cases prove, you just look silly."
He nodded with a weary look. This was not the first time that that thought had occurred to him.