One major technique of pseudoscience is to borrow vague concepts from religious and occult or mystical traditions that are unfamiliar to Western man. These concepts can then be rephrased and twisted about so that their origins would be difficult for the average person to trace. The retreaded ideas, with accompanying worthless “techniques,” can then be peddled at high prices to the gullible. Unlike Western religions, which emphasize “salvation,” and joy in the next world, however miserable and insignificant you might be in this one, Eastern religions, at least as they are marketed in the West, tend to emphasize the development of new and sometimes godlike powers in the individual … if not now, today, then next week after a few lessons. Mingled confusingly and inconsistently together in pseudosciences and pseudoreligions like Scientology, Eckankar, Silva Mind Control, etc., are Eastern concepts like yoga, meditation, reincarnation, and astral travel, woven into more traditional Western teachings such as that the individual survives bodily death.
The most familiar of these ideas is survival of bodily death via the individual’s consciousness being somehow imprinted on a non-material something or other which leaves the body at death to go to some never-never-land or Elysium. Not quite so common is the idea that the something reattaches to another body, so that the individual is in some sense “reincarnated,” although for some reason he is unaware of his previous existence. This is the idea of reincarnation, or transmigration of souls, or metempsychosis. Least common of all is the idea that the immaterial something can leave and return to the body at will, at any time, without ill effects to the body. This is the notion of astral projection or astral travel.
Dealing with the last first, it is important to distinguish between dreams and claims. Everyone has, at times, extraordinarily vivid or realistic dreams. These can include dreams of flying, dreams of meeting yourself or seeing yourself, dreams in which you have a bird’s-eye viewpoint, detailed dreams of distant locations either well or poorly known to you, and so-called “movie” dreams in which you can see what is going on as if present, but none of the characters observed are aware of your existence (just as the actors in a film ignore the presence of the movie camera). These vivid dreams may make a stronger impression on the awakened dreamer than more ordinary dreams, but there is little doubt that they are just dreams.
Such dreams should be carefully distinguished from the unsubstantiated claims of various individuals (examples are Ingo Swann, Gilbert N. Holloway, Stuart “Blue” Harary) that they can “leave their bodies” at will and travel instantaneously to distant locations, seeing what is there and returning to describe it! Suffice it to say that NOBODY has ever scientifically demonstrated such an ability. The typical meaningless pseudoscience “experiment” is just to ask the claimant to describe something that is on a shelf just above his head (the “experimenters” then obligingly go out of the room while the subject stands on tiptoe or a chair to see what’s on the shelf so he can describe it as an “astral observation” to the “experimenters” when they return).
Pseudoscientific “studies” of life after death involve two kinds of meaningless antics. First, there are the attempts to detect, weigh, photograph, or otherwise measure the “soul” or “spirit.” Such great moments of pseudoscience as Dr. J. L. W. P. Matla’s measurement of the volume of a soul (53 liters!) in 1904, Dr. Duncan MacDougall’s measurement of the weight of a soul (precisely 3/4 of an ounce!) in 1907, and Dr. R. A. Watter’s observations of the souls of just deceased grasshoppers and baby chicks in a small cloud chamber (1931) are not taken very seriously, even by the most enthusiastic pseudoscientists. Far more popular, particularly since 1975, have been collections of anecdotes and unsubstantiated tales concerning what unconscious hospital patients (and occasionally patients in coma or “clinically dead”) are supposed to remember about dreams or hallucinations while “close to death.”
These stories are always taken at face value, despite the fact that a person who is seriously ill, deeply unconscious, and perhaps dosed with a variety of drugs, medications, and painkillers is exceedingly unlikely to be able to remember anything whatsoever from his period of unconsciousness. The standard pseudoscience claim is that, taking the stories at face value, “all” patients describe very similar dreams, so that perhaps the experience is in some sense “real” and not just a dream. Common features supposedly include: a feeling of great relief, great peace or profound relaxation; loud ringing or buzzing sounds; motion through a dark tunnel; “out-of-body” experiences like those of the vivid dreams mentioned above; viewing of fields of brilliant colors and lights; and a rapid scan of memories of one’s past life. There seems little connection between such hallucinations and the traditional concept of life after death — for one thing, the people involved aren’t dead! True bodily, organic death is irreversible; no one who has been through it is available for interview. The pseudoscientists love the phrase “clinical death,” which has little or no meaning and vaguely refers to unconsciousness with faltering breathing or heartbeat.
It is therefore more useful to compare the so-called near-death experiences to hallucinations due to drugs or anesthetics. It is found that in fact all the features allegedly common to “near-death” are found in hallucinations due to drugs such as phencyclidine and mescaline, and many features are shared with ordinary light sleep in which dreams are mixed with authentic sensory inputs from the room in which one sleeps, as well as with the states of unconscious produced by dissociative anesthetics such as nitrous oxide, ether, and ketamine. The “near-death” patient is frequently semi-conscious, so that dreams and hallucinations are overlaid with confused sensory impressions of actual events such as conversations of doctors and nurses; changing room lights; being rolled down corridors; bells and warning buzzers, etc., etc. These states of partial consciousness are interesting from a psychological point of view, but obviously totally irrelevant to the question of an individual’s survival of organic death and decomposition.
A belief in reincarnation is common to many different cultures and religions, being found among the Australian aborigines, in Hinduism, in Buddhism, among the Celts, Druids, and Greeks of 2,000 years ago, and in certain forms of Jewish mysticism. In its most extreme form, the idea is that there are a fixed number of eternal “souls” in the universe, leaping from body to body like ethereal grasshoppers, but never being created or destroyed. This idea is obviously difficult to reconcile with the fantastic growth of the human population of the earth. The global population has grown from about 10 million persons 10,000 years ago, to about 100 million during the Renaissance, exploding since 1600 to the present staggering level of 4 billion or more. The increase in the population during the period 1950-1970 was twice the total world population in 1650.
More difficult questions may also be raised. For instance, how can the “soul” come to share the human’s memories, personality, etc? And if it does come to share the memories and personality of its host, why does it not carry them to its new host after the death of the old one? This point is the one most often exploited by pseudoscientists and occultists, who for a large enough fee will happily “teach” one to “remember” ones “past lives.”
One of the most dramatic incidents in the history of pseudoscience was the Bridey Murphy case, the subject of a best-selling book published in 1956. The story is that in 1952, Pueblo, Colorado, businessman Morey Bernstein hypnotized housewife Virginia Tighe (called “Ruth Simmons” in the book) and asked her to recall one of her past lives. She told a remarkably detailed story of her life in Cork and Belfast, Ireland, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as Bridey Murphy, later Bridey McCarthy. She spoke in a rich Irish brogue and even danced a vigorous jig on demand. But when reporters from the Chicago Daily News and the Denver Post were sent to Ireland to check out the details, they found that none of the persons, places, addresses, businesses, etc., mentioned by Virginia Tighe had ever existed. Much more fruitful was a visit by reporters to Virginia Tighe’s old neighborhood in Chicago. Speaking to childhood friends of Virginia, they were able to show that all of the incidents so vividly described by Bridey as having happened to her during childhood had in fact happened to Virginia, and were among her favorite stories of childhood, which she had told often to friends. They also found Mrs. Anthony Corkel, an Irish immigrant who had lived across from Virginia and with whom Virginia had spent a good deal of time. Mrs. Corkel’s name was Bridie Murphy!
It has been established over and over that a person who is “hypnotized” (whatever that means) and then is asked to tell a story about any subject (even his or her experiences as a 27-armed Martian octopoid during the 19th century war against the Brigands of the Moon) will do so effortlessly. Thus, by asking leading questions and dropping hints, the “hypnotist” can elicit any story whatsoever that is desired.
Books on reincarnation since Bridey have learned the lesson that stories must be quoted or summarized only very vaguely, and no incriminating details that anyone can check up on. A typical story would be, “Oh, yes, I remember being Tutankhamen’s favorite charioteer. Yep, yep. I drove horses around a lot for old Tutankhamen.” There is no way to check such a story. If the name of Tutankhamen’s charioteer is given in reference books, the subject could just as easily have read it there as the researcher. If the name is not mentioned, there is no way to check it anyhow.
Again, very vivid dreams are often interpreted by occultists and pseudoscientists as memories of past lives (confusing, if they are also examples of astral projection and also of afterlife experiences).
Reincarnation is a permanently popular subject; no matter how obscure you are in your present life, you can always “remember” past glories. “Past-life” spotters always seem to have been someone important, despite the enormous ratio of peasant to nobles during most of human history. In May 1983, semi-retired actress Shirley MacLaine proudly announced that her memories of past lives stretched all the way back to the mythical lost continent of Atlantis. Maybe even further. Back then she was a queen. You can be one, too; there seems to be, in fact, nothing to stop everyone on earth from “remembering” having been the exact same person — say, Queen Cleopatra!
As astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan has written, “There are many ideas which are charming if true, which would be fun to believe in, which are a delight to think about: reincarnation; the philosopher’s stone to turn base metals into gold; the search for long or possibly indefinitely extended lifetimes; psychokinesis, the ability to move inanimate objects by thinking about them; precognition, the ability to foresee the future; telepathy, the ability to read someone else’s mind; time travel; leaving one’s body (the literal meaning of ecstasy); becoming one with the universe … But precisely because these ideas have charm, exactly because they are of deep emotional significance to us, they are the ideas we must examine most critically. We must consider them with the greatest skepticism, and examine in the greatest detail the evidence relevant to them. Where we have an emotional stake in an idea, we are most likely to deceive ourselves.” Nothing which has so far been said or written or “demonstrated” by people concerning the topics of reincarnation, life after death, or astral travel amounts to anything other than transparently childish self-deception.
ASTOP – The Austin Society to Oppose Pseudoscience – has prepared fact sheets on various pseudoscience topics for the benefit of teachers and others interested in promoting critical thinking. Dr. Rory Coker, Professor of Physics at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of this fact sheet. The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), a professional research and educational organization concerned about the harmful effects of cult involvement, prints and helps distribute these fact sheets. Because ASTOP fact sheets seek to stimulate critical thinking, rather than advance a particular point of view, opinions expressed are those of the authors. A list of available fact sheets can be obtained by contacting ICSA (email@example.com).