Sunday, November 21, 2010

More on Dr. Charles Tart

The more I look at the interview on Buddhist Geeks a while back with Dr. Charles Tart, the more questions I have. Let's start here:

...[T]he prime kind of evidence for [reincarnation] is not the stuff you see in the movies where somebody’s hypnotized and regressed, cause that usually yields an awful lot of fantasy. But, really, it’s the cases which now number in the thousands of little kids, usually somewhere between three and six years old or something like that, who suddenly start talking about a previous life, and who talk about it with enough specificity, they lived in such and such a town. Their name was so and so. They had relatives named so and so and all that, that you’re then able to go to that other place and find someone who died not long before that kid was born and be able to come up with a reasonably good match there. If there were one or two cases like that you’d think “ah, you know, coincidence or they heard somebody talking about somebody who died,” but we’ve got thousands of them where that kind of thing has been ruled out. You know, when you’re a three year old and you suddenly start talking with specificity about somebody in a village 150 miles away who died, there’s no context with your family in that village or something, and it matches, then you’ve got something to look at.
Most of these cases were collected were originally by a psychiatrist named Ian Stevenson, now deceased for several years, who himself never said he proved reincarnation, but he collected a lot of evidence for it. And his successors at the University of Virginia Medical School, now have, let’s see, last time I talked to them they have about 4,000 cases total in their files and about 2,000 of them have been analyzed and digitized enough to go into the computer that they’re beginning to look for patterns in them.
I’ll tell you one of the most interesting patterns that’s been found for instance, and that is that a lot of these kids remember a violent death. And it’s as if the trauma of that violent death somehow knocked out the usual forgetting mechanism for reincarnation. And particularly interesting subset of those kids, they not only remember being killed in a certain way, but they have birthmarks on their body that look like the kind of scars you would expect if they were killed that way. So for instance, some little four year old remembers being killed because somebody shot him in the chest with a shotgun, and he’s got a little round birthmark on the front of his chest, and a much bigger one on his back behind that, which would look like the entrance and exit wounds for a shotgun AT close range. So you apparently get these biological markers once in a while. 

 Now it seems, based on my bits of searching from Dr. Tart's book, that he became interested in a literal reincarnation after reading some book about some past life regression from hypnosis, one Bridey Murphy story in fact.  Unfortunately,

The 'facts' related by Bridey were not fully checked before the publication of Bernstein's book The Search for Bridey Murphy. However, once the book had become a bestseller, almost every detail was thoroughly checked by reporters who were sent to Ireland to track down the background of the elusive woman. It was then that the first doubts about her 'reincarnation' began to appear. Bridey gave her date of birth as December 20, 1798, in Cork, and the year of her death as 1864. There was no record of either event.[1] Neither was there any record of a wooden house, called The Meadows, in which she said she lived, just of a place of that name at the brink of Cork. Indeed, most houses in Ireland were made of brick or stone. She pronounced her husband's name as 'See-an', but Sean is usually pronounced 'Shawn' in Ireland. Brian, which is what Bridey preferred to call her husband, was also the middle name of the man to whom Virginia Tighe was married. But some of the details did tally. For instance, her descriptions of the Antrim coastline were very accurate. So, too, was her account of a journey from Belfast to Cork. She claimed she went to a St. Theresa's Church. There was indeed one where she said there was—but it was not built until 1911. The young Bridey shopped for provisions with a grocer named Farr. It was discovered that such a grocer had existed.

Color me "skeptical," but this is clearly evidence for someone wanting to believe suggested "memories," rather than reincarnation.

It seems, based on the previews of Tart's book on Amazon as well as Google, that Tart's "evidence" for reincarnation is similar kinds of stuff.

Now the fact of the matter, is if Dr. Tart had firm evidence of this or other paranormal activities that could be scientifically demonstrated, he could win  $1 million from the James Randi foundation. But Tart's claims such as they are, are notoriously resistant to being scientifically verified with the scientific method.

Tart also claims in the interview on Buddhist Geeks that humans "can" do various paranormal activities:

These [telepathy, clairvoyance, pre-cognition, psychokinesis, and psychic healing] are the big five. These are the things human beings can do, that we don’t have any feasible explanation of, in terms of our current material understanding of the world, or reasonable extensions of that. And I say reasonable extensions, because who knows but that there might be some drastic revisioning of physics the way, for instance, quantum physics revisioned classical physics, and then things might fit in. But for now, they don’t fit in, and that’s why I talk about non-materiality; they don’t fit that material kind of view of things. So, we should study these things on their own terms.

It is of course, rank nonsense. How strongly can I put this?  Buddhist geeks had on a guy who has made scientific claims that any reasonably bright older grade school or middle school kid can debunk.

How strongly can I put this, and still practice the precept of right speech: I strongly suspect Dr. Charles Tart is making claims that cannot be verified scientifically, and uses charges of "scientism" to attempt to smear and discredit those who point out very plainly that Tart's claims are not borne out by any evidence based on repeatable applications of the scientific method.  I am willing to reconsider my suspicion should Dr. Tart provide evidence to the James Randi Foundation as per its $1million  challenge for evidence of the paranormal. 

In positing woo versus metaphysical naturalism  as Tart does implicitly whilst impugning legitimate scientific inquiry, he, to my way of thinking, defames both the Dharma and legit scientists and engineers.  For a variety of reasons as I have stated on my blog, this is an absurd dichotomy, and the absurdity would be readily acknowledged by competent philosophers with real backgrounds in philosophy.

I realize these are strong words, and I really do not fault Vincent Horn for this interview; he isn't an expert in these kinds of issues, and even myself, I'd have to do about an hour or two's  work before I could verify the scientific soundness of some tests of the paranormal.   But that said, I would hope we all recognize that the issues of the metaphysical are much broader than Stephen Batchelor versus woo, and that there are rational, evidence based middle grounds with which to work here that avoid woo as well as grandiose claims about the nonexistence of that beyond the physical, if only because of the failure of our own perceptions and language.  That's a whole other ball of wax compared to Ouija boards.


Kyle Lovett said...

Besides the fact that Dr. Tart sounds like a nutter, I just can't get past his last name. LOL

Duff said...

I think you're right in criticizing Tart's claims in this podcast as they are massively overstated with little-to-no integration of the criticisms or subtleties of these issues.

I find stories suggestive of reincarnation fascinating, but wouldn't call them "science," nor would there be any obvious mechanism for how such a thing could occur if true.

I'm not sure how you get that Tart is defaming the dharma here though---pretty much all Tibetan Buddhists believe in reincarnation and it's an official part of the lama/tulku hierarchy. Also most of the suttas include Buddha talking about "once-returners," "never returners" etc. as designation of one's degree of enlightenment. If anything, to claim reincarnation does not have evidence is to misrepresent the dharma as it has been taught.

That said, I'm very skeptical of specific claims to reincarnation (Mr. X born as Mr. Y), but am also fascinated by the stories and ongoing belief in the phenomena.

Mumon said...


I could give you other names of folks with whom I've worked that are substantially more amusing, but it is their name; unfortunately.


It's not so much reincarnation per se that I think is the issue, but rather the denigration of the scientific method and the juxtaposition of metaphysical naturalism with woo that I think is a misrepresentation of the Dharma, and hence discredits it.

I'm the first one to admit that probably most Buddhists in the past believed in some form of reincarnation, but it traditionally hasn't been an essential or emphasized part of the Dharma (excepting the Tibetans and the like). Too, the idea of a literal reincarnation does go smack up against the notions of anattman and nonduality.

Moreover, the notions of "rebirth" that aren't specifically involving a literal, time sequential rebirth are far more useful in illustrating/exemplifying the Dharma.