Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

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Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Postby Individual » Sat Aug 01, 2009 2:22 am

I was thinking about this the other day and thought I was onto something. I started thinking maybe there might be some kind of way specifically identifying a material component which carries the gandhabba between births, and this could elucidate what continues and what doesn't.

Well, thinking about it a bit more, I realized I was wildly speculating and just trying to hunt for a convoluted way to explain a soul-theory in biological terms. One insight I had which I think was useful, though, is that conventionally the definition of a "person" can be reduced from "a mind and a body" to the information (genetic or otherwise) which is the basis for that mind and body.

But anyway, there's some interesting stuff I've heard in biology which I think is relevant and may at least inspire a skeptic to consider the possibility of rebirth.

#1. Germ cell immortality.

They're the basis for sperm and egg cells, and they're pretty strange. First of all, they're considered "immortal," because they're the biological bridge between generations. To explain what this means: If you create a culture of non-germ cells, the cells have a limit to how much they can reproduce, so they have a finite lifespan, whereas germ cells can divide forever and form the basis for the entire gene pool... In the body, germ cells differentiate as either sperm or egg, and when combined with one another during fertilization, they form embryonic stem cells, which can then differentiate into any cell in the human body -- blood cells, skin cells, brain cells, etc..

So what really constitutes the conventional "you" is the information contained within this line of germ cells, whereas the other cells -- what makes up most of your body, your skins, bone, flesh, etc. -- is simply a result of reactions going on among germ cells.

http://www.college.emory.edu/hybridvigor/death.htm

In Clark's view, biology considers our germ cells our true selves. "The only purpose of somatic cells, from nature's point of view, is to optimize the survival and function of the true guardians of the DNA, the germ cells," he writes. Gametes beget gametes, and the fundamental biological beneficiary is DNA. With each generation, that DNA should encode creatures more and more adapted to their environment. It becomes quite a hallowed molecule: DNA, the essence that transcends generations, whose integrity and transmission nature has exquisitely ensured.


#2. The role of viruses in human evolution and pregnancy.

There was a documentary on this a while ago -- I forget what channel -- but it might be that viruses were the origin of life and the catalyst for further evolution...

The idea is that the structure of viruses may have helped form the structure of the first eukaryotic cell and may influence the way in which genes are expressed during pregnancy by infecting germ cells. Viruses implant their DNA in the organism they infect. Well, because viruses are the most common biological "agent" (since they're not considered alive), our entire bodies are filled with, covered with, and surrounded by viruses. Most of these viruses are benign, though. Still, instead of germ cells, could the virus be a closer example of a material component for gandhabba?

#3. Evolution's Emergence from Cosmic Interactions

Emergence is the tendency for a more complex property to emerge from a series of relatively simple interactions. So, a primordial goo on Earth billions of years ago eventually created us and our consciousness... Many biologists recognize a special kind of emergence called "strong emergence," in which an entirely new property emerges from a system which did not exhibit that property before. This is almost magical, because you could say it's as if the system is creating new properties, that the system itself is exerting an influence on its future development. So, there isn't really a strong distinction between life and lifeless. Pre-biological reactions (chemical reactions, movements in space) may eventually be seen as a superorganism, governed by a subtle form of consciousness.

More here:
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/31393080/
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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Postby Pannapetar » Sat Aug 01, 2009 3:40 am

This is all highly speculative, but I think that looking for a material basis of rebirth is betting on the wrong horse. I would definitely bet on a nonphysical horse here. At this particular stage in history, the success of science directs attention away from the nonphysical, since science itself is embedded in a materialist/physicalist ontology. I would look at epigenetic processes before looking at heredity.

Apart from that, I think it is -at least in principle- possible that empirical sciences can shed some light on rebirth. The study conducted by Ian Stevenson "Twenty cases suggestive of reincarnation" has pioneered this field, and this work is now being continued from various sides by various researchers. I think it is somewhat comparable to the phenomenon of NDEs (near-death experiences). 30-40 years ago, NDEs were a rather obscure phenomenon and almost no literature existed on the topic. Today we have roughly a dozen scientific studies on NDEs that were published in respected science publications and we have a flood of books that have popularised the topic. The research on PLEs (past life experiences) will not be as easy as the research on NDE, because the phenomenon is much rarer and presents intricate internal problems for a scientific point of view, but I think we can expect an increasing body of literature and empirical support.

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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Postby clw_uk » Sat Aug 01, 2009 4:00 am

Rebirth, how absurd (anatta) ;)
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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Postby clw_uk » Sat Aug 01, 2009 4:04 am

The study conducted by Ian Stevenson "Twenty cases suggestive of reincarnation" has pioneered this field




Not really that strong, his work isnt that falsifiable



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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Postby Pannapetar » Sat Aug 01, 2009 4:17 am

clw_uk wrote:Not really that strong, his work isnt that falsifiable


I believe this is an epistemological misunderstanding. What Ian Stevenson did and what others do now is collecting data. Data is -by definition- not falsifiable. Only theory is. Insofar, it makes no sense to demand falsifiability from studies such as this. What needs to be demanded from such studies instead are proper scientific methods of investigation which preclude the chances of error and/or fraud, or at least reduce it to a statistically insignificant minimum. Ian Stevenson's study is widely regarded as having established very high standards in this aspect.

And why exactly do you find rebirth absurd? I thought that it was taught by Buddhism?

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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Postby Ben » Sat Aug 01, 2009 4:40 am

Dear members

This is just a reminder that the appropriate place to challenge the doctrine of rebirth is the 'great rebirth debate'. This thread is not the place for doing so. Please focus on the subject of this thread. Any posts which do not conform to the OP or this request will be removed and repeat offenders disciplined.
Thanks for your cooperation.

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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Postby clw_uk » Sat Aug 01, 2009 4:48 am

Pannapetar wrote:
clw_uk wrote:Not really that strong, his work isnt that falsifiable


I believe this is an epistemological misunderstanding. What Ian Stevenson did and what others do now is collecting data. Data is -by definition- not falsifiable. Only theory is. Insofar, it makes no sense to demand falsifiability from studies such as this. What needs to be demanded from such studies instead are proper scientific methods of investigation which preclude the chances of error and/or fraud, or at least reduce it to a statistically insignificant minimum. Ian Stevenson's study is widely regarded as having established very high standards in this aspect.

And why exactly do you find rebirth absurd? I thought that it was taught by Buddhism?

Cheers, Thomas




For respect for the forum rules and layout i will answer you in the "rebirth debate thread"


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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Postby Individual » Sat Aug 01, 2009 8:06 am

Pannapetar wrote:This is all highly speculative, but I think that looking for a material basis of rebirth is betting on the wrong horse. I would definitely bet on a nonphysical horse here. At this particular stage in history, the success of science directs attention away from the nonphysical, since science itself is embedded in a materialist/physicalist ontology. I would look at epigenetic processes before looking at heredity.

I do not think that science is "materialist" and conflating physicalism with materialism is incorrect. Also, Buddhism itself (Theravada, at least) is physicalist too:

From the Sabba Sutta:
"Monks, I will teach you the All. Listen & pay close attention. I will speak."

"As you say, lord," the monks responded.

The Blessed One said, "What is the All? Simply the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & aromas, tongue & flavors, body & tactile sensations, intellect & ideas. This, monks, is called the All. 1 Anyone who would say, 'Repudiating this All, I will describe another,' if questioned on what exactly might be the grounds for his statement, would be unable to explain, and furthermore, would be put to grief. Why? Because it lies beyond range."

It's not that science or Buddhism denies the existence of non-physical, of the supernatural or esoteric, but rather, it states that if something is beyond the range of observation, it's as if it doesn't exist, there can be only speculation, and claiming such things exist is irrational.

The old paradigm of science -- positivism -- was physicalist, but today, science is governed by a new paradigm which acknowledges the existence (and possible scientific study) of both physical and mental phenomena. See the Cognitive revolution.

Pannapetar wrote:Apart from that, I think it is -at least in principle- possible that empirical sciences can shed some light on rebirth. The study conducted by Ian Stevenson "Twenty cases suggestive of reincarnation" has pioneered this field, and this work is now being continued from various sides by various researchers.

To be frank, Ian Stevenson's research was crap. His methodology is terrible and he did reincarnation research, not on rebirth, since he tried to prove how consciousness transmigrated. In any studies of rebirth, I don't expect to find proof for standard Asian superstitions, since the cultural norm among Asians and Indians today about the afterlife is superstitious reincarnation. Even popular monastics often conflate reincarnation with rebirth.
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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Postby acinteyyo » Sat Aug 01, 2009 8:23 am

unfortunately I can't remember which sutta fit but when I remember correctly rebirth is determined by kammā thus rebirth is connected with kamma-vipakā and kamma-vipakā is acinteyya. the buddha never explained how rebirth works, maybe because 'how it works' doesn't matter. all the buddha said is that there is rebirth. so my interpretation is 'how it works' has nothing to do with the cessation of dukkha. if someone finds out how rebirth works one would've wasted his time anyway, because dukkha wouldn't end by the knowledge of 'how rebirth works'.

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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Postby Pannapetar » Sat Aug 01, 2009 9:09 am

Individual wrote:I do not think that science is "materialist" and conflating physicalism with materialism is incorrect. Also, Buddhism itself (Theravada, at least) is physicalist too...


I think you need to read up on the meaning of physicalism in the philosophy of mind. I am sure that you will find that this notion is wholly incompatible with most Buddhist schools, including Theravada. The "cognitive revolution" you mentioned was in retrospective not much more than a fad of the fifties. It certainly did nothing to change the metaphysical underpinnings of the scientific venture.

Individual wrote:To be frank, Ian Stevenson's research was crap. His methodology is terrible and he did reincarnation research, not on rebirth, since he tried to prove how consciousness transmigrated. In any studies of rebirth, I don't expect to find proof for standard Asian superstitions, since the cultural norm among Asians and Indians today about the afterlife is superstitious reincarnation. Even popular monastics often conflate reincarnation with rebirth.


Let me get that right. You find Stevenson's research "crap", because its conclusions contradict the metaphysical beliefs that you hold about rebirth? That's a rather a poor argument.

acinteyyo wrote:unfortunately I can't remember which sutta fit but when I remember correctly rebirth is determined by kammā thus rebirth is connected with kamma-vipakā and kamma-vipakā is acinteyya. the buddha never explained how rebirth works, maybe because 'how it works' doesn't matter. all the buddha said is that there is rebirth. so my interpretation is 'how it works' has nothing to do with the cessation of dukkha.


Most importantly, the Buddha encouraged us to do the work ourselves and find out about it. You can reason all day about this or that sutta or this and that philosophy, but this will never be able to take the place of direct insight. That's what vipassana means. Insight. How do you find out about rebirth? By insight.

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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Postby Individual » Sat Aug 01, 2009 3:27 pm

Pannapetar wrote:
Individual wrote:I do not think that science is "materialist" and conflating physicalism with materialism is incorrect. Also, Buddhism itself (Theravada, at least) is physicalist too...


I think you need to read up on the meaning of physicalism in the philosophy of mind. I am sure that you will find that this notion is wholly incompatible with most Buddhist schools, including Theravada. The "cognitive revolution" you mentioned was in retrospective not much more than a fad of the fifties. It certainly did nothing to change the metaphysical underpinnings of the scientific venture.

I think today you'll find more scientists agreeing that unobservable objects can be studied, so long as the claims made about them are falsifiable. That's distinct from scientific materialism. Today, the most widely influential theories of consciousness in philosophy are functionalism and biological naturalism. Both of them seem to acknowledge a distinct mental component. Now, most scientists aren't influenced by this or even consider it because it isn't relevant to their field: In most fields of science, what you're studying is always observable and doesn't have anything to do with consciousness.

Pannapetar wrote:
Individual wrote:To be frank, Ian Stevenson's research was crap. His methodology is terrible and he did reincarnation research, not on rebirth, since he tried to prove how consciousness transmigrated. In any studies of rebirth, I don't expect to find proof for standard Asian superstitions, since the cultural norm among Asians and Indians today about the afterlife is superstitious reincarnation. Even popular monastics often conflate reincarnation with rebirth.

Let me get that right. You find Stevenson's research "crap", because its conclusions contradict the metaphysical beliefs that you hold about rebirth? That's a rather a poor argument.

It's crap because it got poor peer reviews for a variety of reasons. And it's crap because it's reincarnation.
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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Postby Pannapetar » Mon Aug 03, 2009 3:44 am

Individual wrote:Today, the most widely influential theories of consciousness in philosophy are functionalism and biological naturalism.


Yes, I agree with you on that, but these two positions strike me as thinly veiled materialism in most of their exponents. Functionalism ala Dennett amounts to "Darwinism of the mind" and biological naturalists are still sold on emergence. I don't think these views are compatible with Buddhism, because they are annihilist.

Individual wrote:It's crap because it got poor peer reviews for a variety of reasons. And it's crap because it's reincarnation.


Can you point me to these peer reviews?

There isn't any real difference between reincarnation and rebirth, or rather the difference is purely academic and serves to point out doctrinal subtleties. It's merely an intellectual exercise.

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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Postby kc2dpt » Mon Aug 03, 2009 1:01 pm

Pannapetar wrote:
Individual wrote:It's crap because it got poor peer reviews for a variety of reasons.

Can you point me to these peer reviews?

No, he can't. People get confused. Stevenson early paper on "20 cases" received valid criticism. His later works addressed this criticism.

There isn't any real difference between reincarnation and rebirth, or rather the difference is purely academic and serves to point out doctrinal subtleties. It's merely an intellectual exercise.

It would be more fruitful if those who wish to dismiss Stevenson's work because it studies "reincarnation" would explain what precisely about his work contradicts Buddhist teachings. He studies people who remember their past lives. The Buddha remembered his past lives. So no problem there. Where's the problem?

In truth, Stevenson doesn't study reincarnation, nor rebirth, nor Buddhism nor Hinduism, nor any other belief system. He records observations and then tries to see what conclusions these observations support. If you object to his research then you object to the most basic form of scientific study.
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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Postby Individual » Mon Aug 03, 2009 8:35 pm

Peter wrote:
Pannapetar wrote:
Individual wrote:It's crap because it got poor peer reviews for a variety of reasons.

Can you point me to these peer reviews?

No, he can't. People get confused. Stevenson early paper on "20 cases" received valid criticism. His later works addressed this criticism.

I can't cite them easily because scientific journals aren't very publicly accessible. I'd have to go to the library, to see if I could find access, and then go through the process there...

What I do know is that Wikipedia, which is reasonably reliable, says his work wasn't well-received. A basic description of his work is then good enough.

From what I have read, he asked children between the ages of 2 and 4, for testimony of past-lives, and then tried to connect this with actual people that died. The problem with this should be obvious: First of all, witness testimony, or human memory, is unreliable enough, but this is especially true in the case of children. Secondly, by stringing together child testimony with similar events, all he's demonstrating is that children have similar prototypes, that is, that they're similar of reciting plausible scenarios, that the "stories" they come up with are not entirely random but are indirectly derived from actual events. This is an interesting result, demonstrating that young children are extremely receptive, but it's not a proof for reincarnation.

Peter wrote:
There isn't any real difference between reincarnation and rebirth, or rather the difference is purely academic and serves to point out doctrinal subtleties. It's merely an intellectual exercise.

It would be more fruitful if those who wish to dismiss Stevenson's work because it studies "reincarnation" would explain what precisely about his work contradicts Buddhist teachings. He studies people who remember their past lives. The Buddha remembered his past lives. So no problem there. Where's the problem?

In truth, Stevenson doesn't study reincarnation, nor rebirth, nor Buddhism nor Hinduism, nor any other belief system. He records observations and then tries to see what conclusions these observations support. If you object to his research then you object to the most basic form of scientific study.

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. So, suggesting that each individual has a personality not subject to life and death... well, Peter, I can't see how you of all people could be confused as to how this contradicts the Buddha's teachings. In the Potthapada sutta, the Buddha makes clear that there is no sort of mystical mind\body preceding the gross mind and body which is not also impermanent.

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.
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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Postby clw_uk » Mon Aug 03, 2009 10:36 pm

It would be more fruitful if those who wish to dismiss Stevenson's work because it studies "reincarnation" would explain what precisely about his work contradicts Buddhist teachings. He studies people who remember their past lives. The Buddha remembered his past lives. So no problem there. Where's the problem?



Firstly he studies people who claim to remember past lives which is something that seems to be getting missed. Secondly, as evident via several debates across different boards, there can be a case as to why it contradicts the Buddhas teachings


Individual has brought up some good points, as for myself i tend to look at it with Occams Razor



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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Postby 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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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Postby 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.

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Re: Could modern biology help explain rebirth?

Postby 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?

Postby 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?

Postby 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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