Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Exploring Theravāda's connections to other paths - what can we learn from other traditions, religions and philosophies?
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Macavity
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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Post by Macavity » Tue Aug 04, 2009 1:50 am

Individual wrote:His work contradicts Buddhist teachings because he is suggesting there is a mechanism for post-mortem personality transfer. In Theravada Abhidhamma, the existence of "personality" period is reject and what's commonly regarded as consciousness (vinnana) is impermanent, like all things, and notself.
The continuance of personality and behavioral traits over lifetimes doesn't contradict Buddhist teachings. In fact many examples of this are found in the Tipitaka, like the monk who exhibited arrogance because he had been a brahmin in many previous lives, or the one who would chew the cud because he had formerly been an ox.

This seeming continuance of personality traits doesn't require one to posit a personality that persists over lifetimes, or even during a lifetime. In the Abhidhamma such traits are accounted for in the teaching on conditional relations, with particular reference to association condition, repetition condition and natural decisive support condition.
Stevenson does not simply make observations, but created some pretty wildly speculative conclusions. He gains support from people who are looking for false evidence to support what they already blindly believe.
I agree that his methodology is very problematic. Faith in rebirth based on Stevenson's findings is built on quicksand.

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Ciarán

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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Post by Pannapetar » Tue Aug 04, 2009 2:18 am

There are a number of things that speak in favour of Stevenson's work:

1. Stevenson's study was free of preconceived religious notions; it was based on the simple empirical question: do people live more than once? To say that Stevenson was given to speculation is off the mark. Stevenson even stated that his work cannot and should not be seen as conclusive evidence for reincarnation.
2. His methodology was sound. He collected a large body of data in different cultures. He did not ask suggestive questions. He defined proper criteria for the evaluation of claims. The investigative methods were sound. He was extremely careful about possible fraud, since any fraudulent accounts would have discredited his work. His statistical methods were sound.
3. The relation of birthmarks to injuries in previous lives cannot be attacked by the argument of 'false memories'. It represents an enormous statistical anomaly.

Most attacks on Stevenson's work come from ideologically or religiously motivated parties who are in disagreement with the idea of reincarnation. The overwhelming majority of critics are content with ad hominem attacks painting Stevenson as an fringe science advocate with strange ideas and a pseudo-scientific approach. That picture is far from the truth. Stevenson had a degree in medicine and he was a psychiatrist with a solid scientific education. He was certainly neither a nutter nor a fraud. The data he collected is very strong indeed, though most critics refuse to look at it. Even the Skeptic society wasn't able to produce a convincing refutation of his work.

Stevenson's work is continued today by the Department of Perceptual Studies at the university o Virginia under the direction of Jim Tucker. The case database is continually expanded, particularly with cases in North America. Tucker's work is featured in the documentary The Boy Who Lived Before (available on YouTube). This case was selected not because it produces particularly convincing evidence, but because it illustrates the problems inherent in past life research.

Cheers, Thomas

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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Post by cooran » Tue Aug 04, 2009 6:09 am

Thanks Pannapetar. I agree with your understanding. I had Stevenson's books and donated them to the Dhammagiri Forest Monastery. The Abbot there finds Stevenson's research very interesting, and to have been ethically and properly conducted, and does not find fault with it. He has post-grad quals in another area, and would have quickly noted anything not up to the required academic standard.
My understanding is that Stevenson also conducted research many years earlier in Sri Lanka.
Ciarán said: I agree that his methodology is very problematic. Faith in rebirth based on Stevenson's findings is built on quicksand.
Could you expand on this please?

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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Post by clw_uk » Tue Aug 04, 2009 10:43 am

Most attacks on Stevenson's work come from ideologically or religiously motivated parties who are in disagreement with the idea of reincarnation. The overwhelming majority of critics are content with ad hominem attacks painting Stevenson as an fringe science advocate with strange ideas and a pseudo-scientific approach. That picture is far from the truth. Stevenson had a degree in medicine and he was a psychiatrist with a solid scientific education. He was certainly neither a nutter nor a fraud. The data he collected is very strong indeed, though most critics refuse to look at it. Even the Skeptic society wasn't able to produce a convincing refutation of his work.

And most people who hold it up are people who already believe in such things and want to prove it to be true




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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Post by Pannapetar » Tue Aug 04, 2009 11:19 am

clw_uk wrote:And most people who hold it up are people who already believe in such things and want to prove it to be true
Yes, that is probably true, although the group you named may be more inclined to actually look at the data while sceptics often don't take the time to study something that they reject a priori. I think Stevenson's work is most useful to the group of people who are undecided on the issue. This group is likely to be the one that is most receptive and careful. Of course, Ian Stevenson is not the only one who did research on PLEs. Some very interesting research was done by the hypnotherapist Peter Ramster in the early 1980s. Four of his cases are documented in this 11-part documentary on Youtube. Worthwhile watching!

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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Post by Sanghamitta » Tue Aug 04, 2009 2:17 pm

I think that there are many good reasons for accepting a literal view of post-mortem rebirth. However if you want to undermine your own case then citing hypnotherapy is a pretty good place to start.

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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Post by Individual » Tue Aug 04, 2009 4:26 pm

Sanghamitta wrote:I think that there are many good reasons for accepting a literal view of post-mortem rebirth. However if you want to undermine your own case then citing hypnotherapy is a pretty good place to start.

:anjali:
Per Ben's warning, to avoid turning this thread into a debate about rebirth, I've responded to your remarks in this thread:
http://dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f= ... 458#p26458" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;
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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Post by Pannapetar » Wed Aug 05, 2009 2:25 am

The original question was whether modern biology might be helpful in understanding rebirth. I think we have to answer this with: probably not. The reason is that biology is purely concerned with physical processes. Heredity could be seen as an instance of physical rebirth at the gene level. Individual genes clearly span multiple life times in the sense of multiple organisms. In case of mitochondrial DNA -since it is passed down unchanged by the mother- it could even be said that rebirth occurs at the level of chromosomes. But genes and mitochondrial DNA are also subject to impermanence due to mutation; in fact this is what makes evolution possible in the first place. Richard Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene gives a fascinating account of this perspective. According to the selfish gene idea, phenotypes are nothing but "lumbering robots" that perform survival functions for the benefit of genes to help them propagate. It's surely an interesting view, but I doubt it has much to do with the Buddhist idea of rebirth.

Consciousness research is perhaps more likely to shed some light on the Buddhist understanding of rebirth. I already mentioned the investigation of PLEs, but the study of near-death experiences (NDE) is likewise relevant to the topic, because NDEs provide a glimpse on what happens when the physical (human) body dies. During the last 50 years, ambulances and modern medicine made it possible for many people to escape death and live on to tell the story. The first case studies of NDEs were published by E. Kübler-Ross, R. Moody et al in the 1970s. Since then a large amount of reports and studies with thousands of cases have been collected, more recently by B. Greyson, M. Morse, S. Parnia, P. v. Lommel and others. Most people who had an NDE, as well as many doctors came to the conclusion that experience continues after death. NDEs cannot be considered conclusive evidence for continuation, since people did come back after all, and there are a number of complicated neurological issues to consider, but they are at least suggestive of continuation.

Cheers, Thomas

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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Post by clw_uk » Wed Aug 05, 2009 8:44 am

Consciousness research is perhaps more likely to shed some light on the Buddhist understanding of rebirth. I already mentioned the investigation of PLEs, but the study of near-death experiences (NDE) is likewise relevant to the topic, because NDEs provide a glimpse on what happens when the physical (human) body dies. During the last 50 years, ambulances and modern medicine made it possible for many people to escape death and live on to tell the story. The first case studies of NDEs were published by E. Kübler-Ross, R. Moody et al in the 1970s. Since then a large amount of reports and studies with thousands of cases have been collected, more recently by B. Greyson, M. Morse, S. Parnia, P. v. Lommel and others. Most people who had an NDE, as well as many doctors came to the conclusion that experience continues after death. NDEs cannot be considered conclusive evidence for continuation, since people did come back after all, and there are a number of complicated neurological issues to consider, but they are at least suggestive of continuation.

I dont see consciousness being the answer either, at least not in Buddhas teachings. Consciousness arises only when there is a sense base (eye), external form (tree) and contact between them. When, say, the eye closes that particular consciousness ceases. Cant see how consciousness can be seperate and "float around" somewhere

There is also some interesting biological explanations for NDE's (cant post it atm). NDE'a are very interesting and mysterious though

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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Post by Ben » Wed Aug 05, 2009 9:14 am

Hi Craig
clw_uk wrote:I dont see consciousness being the answer either, at least not in Buddhas teachings. Consciousness arises only when there is a sense base (eye), external form (tree) and contact between them. When, say, the eye closes that particular consciousness ceases. Cant see how consciousness can be seperate and "float around" somewhere
Actually, Richard Gombrich mentioned that within the Buddhist philosophy of psychology, 'consciousness' as a mental entity or thing doesn't exist. Rather, consciousness is a process of cognizing a sense object. Its in 'How Buddhism Began: the conditioned genesis of the early teachings.' Also, have a look at Bhikkhu Bodhi's 'A comprehensive manual of the Abhidhamma' which gives an atomic-level view of this process.
Kind regards

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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Post by Pannapetar » Wed Aug 05, 2009 10:05 am

clw_uk wrote:Consciousness arises only when there is a sense base (eye), external form (tree) and contact between them. When, say, the eye closes that particular consciousness ceases.
The phenomenalist view of consciousness is too rigid. It does not describe the whole picture. We experience vision in dreams, for example, and the eyes don't need to be open.
clw_uk wrote:Cant see how consciousness can be seperate and "float around" somewhere.
In case that empirical data contradicts a doctrine (or the philosophical understanding thereof), there are several options:

1. Dismiss the data.
2. Dismiss the conclusion suggested by the data.
3. Dismiss the doctrine.
4. Review the understanding of the doctrine and see whether it can be made compatible.

In case of NDEs and related phenomena, I see myself drawn to the last option. Bikkhu Bodhi has given a very comprehensive and detailed account of the Buddhist (philosophical) idea of rebirth in this 2-part audio talk:

Rebirth and Kamma part 1
Rebirth and Kamma part 2

Cheers, Thomas

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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Post by mikenz66 » Wed Aug 05, 2009 10:24 am

Pannapetar wrote:
clw_uk wrote:Consciousness arises only when there is a sense base (eye), external form (tree) and contact between them. When, say, the eye closes that particular consciousness ceases.
The phenomenalist view of consciousness is too rigid. It does not describe the whole picture. We experience vision in dreams, for example, and the eyes don't need to be open.
Of course. That's contact between the mind base and mind objects, which causes mind-conciousness to arise... It's easy to stop at the eye and ignore the other fives sense bases...

Mike

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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Post by clw_uk » Wed Aug 05, 2009 10:37 am

The phenomenalist view of consciousness is too rigid. It does not describe the whole picture. We experience vision in dreams, for example, and the eyes don't need to be open.

the eye was an example, dreams are mind, mind ideas and contact



The general idea is that consciousness is always dependent and not independent, if you have it floating around then its independent


MN38 has a good teaching on this

Bhikkhus, founded on whatever, consciousness arises, it is reckoned on that. On account of eye and forms arises consciousness, it’s reckoned eye consciousness. On account of ear and sounds arises consciousness, it’s reckoned ear consciousness. On account of nose and smells arises consciousness, it’s reckoned nose consciousness. On account of tongue and tastes arises consciousness, it’s reckoned tongue consciousness.On account of body and touches arises consciousness, it’s reckoned body consciousness. On account of mind and ideas arises consciousness, it’s reckoned mind consciousness. Bhikkhus, just as based on whatever fire burns, it is reckoned by that. Fire ablaze with sticks is stick fire. Ablaze with twigs is twig fire. Ablaze with grass is grass fire. Ablaze with cowdung is cowdung fire. Ablaze with grain thrash is grain thrash fire. Ablaze with dirt is dirt fire. In the same manner consciousness on account is eye and forms is eye consciousness. Consciousness on account of ear and sounds is ear consciousness. Consciousness on account of nose and smells is nose conscioussness. Consciousness on account of tongue and tastes is taste consciousness. Consciousness on account of body and touches is body consciousness. Consciousness on account of mind and ideas is mind consciousness.

There is another that states that there are only these six types of consciousness in the Buddhas teachings, and as you see they all arises in dependence on something and cant exist without said support so a consciousness floating around in out of body exp. or NDE's or through lives is a no no in Buddhadhamma

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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Post by mikenz66 » Wed Aug 05, 2009 10:48 am

clw_uk wrote: There is another that states that there are only these six types of consciousness in the Buddhas teachings, and as you see they all arises in dependence on something and cant exist without said support so a consciousness floating around in out of body exp. or NDE's or through lives is a no no in Buddhadhamma
How about the immaterial planes? Only nama, no rupa...?

Mike

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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Post by Pannapetar » Wed Aug 05, 2009 11:46 am

clw_uk wrote:There is another that states that there are only these six types of consciousness in the Buddhas teachings, and as you see they all arises in dependence on something and cant exist without said support so a consciousness floating around in out of body exp. or NDE's or through lives is a no no in Buddhadhamma
Are you saying that conscious experience requires (physical) form? That's putting the cart before the horse.

Take another look at the codependent origination. "Form" (nama-rupa) comes only into the picture after consciousness: "with Vijñāna as condition, Nāmarūpa arises".

Cheers, Thomas

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