However, for those who are intellectually honest, including many skeptics, there is no denying the fact that the phenomenon of "Children who remember previous lives" does occur. The only question is how to explain this phenomenon.
We will test each explanation on one case provided by Stevenson’s colleagues, Jim Tucker and Jurgen Keil (Life Before Life, pgs. xi-xiv; the original journal article is available here):
“Dr. Jurgen Keil, a psychologist from Australia, listened as Kemal Atasoy, a six-year-old boy in Turkey, confidently recounted details of a previous life. They were meeting in the boy's home, a comfortable house in an upper middle class neighborhood, and with them were Dr. Keil's interpreter and Kemal's parents, a well-educated couple who seemed amused at times by the enthusiasm that the little boy showed in describing his experiences. He said that he had lived in Istanbul, 500 miles away. He stated that his family's name had been Karakas and that he had been a rich Armenian Christian who lived in a large three-story house. The house, he said, was next to the house of a woman named Aysegul, a well-known personality in Turkey, who had left the country because of legal problems. Kemal said that his house had been on the water, where boats were tied up, and that a church was behind it. He said that his wife and children had Greek first names. He also said that he often carried a large leather bad and that he only lived in the house for part of the year.
"No one knew if Kemal's story was true when he met Dr. Keil in 1997. His parents did not know anyone in Istanbul. In fact, Kemal and his mother had never been there, and his father had only visited the city twice on business. In addition, the family knew no Armenians. His parents were Alevi Muslims, a group with a belief in reincarnation, but they did not seem to think that Kemal's statements, which he had been making from the time he was just a toddle of two year of age, were particularly important.
"Dr. Keil set out to determine if the statements that Kemal had given fit with someone who had actually lived. The work that Dr. Keil had to perform to find out if such a person even existed demonstrates that Kemal could not have come across the details of the man's life by accident.
"When Dr. Keil and his interpreter went to Istanbul, they found the house of Aysegul, the woman who Kemal had named. Next to the house was an empty three-story residence that precisely matched Kemal's description - it was at the edge of a the water, where boats were tied up, with a church behind it. Dr. Keil then had trouble finding any evidence that a person like the one Kemal described had ever lived there. No Armenians were living in that part of Istanbul at the time, and Dr. Keil could not find anyone who remembered any Armenians ever having lived there. When he returned to Istanbul later that year, he talked with Armenian church officials, who told him that they were not aware that an Armenian had ever lived in the house. No church records indicated one had, but a fire had destroyed many of the records. Dr. Keil talked with an elderly man in the neighborhood who said that an Armenian definitely lived there many years before that the church officials were simply too young to remember that long ago.
"Armed with that report, Dr. Keil decided to continue his search for information. The next year, he made a third trip to the area and interviewed a well-respected local historian. During the interview, Dr. Keil made sure he did not prompt any answers or make any suggestions. The historian told a story strikingly similar to the one Kemal had told. The historian said that a rich Armenian Christian had, in fact, lived in that house. He had been the only Armenian in that area, and his family's name was Karakas. His wife was Greek Orthodox, and her family did not approve of the marriage. The couple had three children, but the historian did not know their names. He said that the Karakas clan lived in another part of Istanbul, that they deal in leather goods, and that the deceased man in question often carried a large leather bad. He also said that the deceased man lived in the house only during the summer months of the year. He had died in 1940 or 1941.
"Though Dr. Keil ws not able to verify Kemal's statement that the wife and children had Greek first names, the wife came from a Greek family. The first name that Kemal had given for the man turned out to be an Armenian term [Fistik] meaning "nice man." Dr. Keil could not confirm that people actually called Mr. Karakas that, but he was struck by the fact that, even though no one around him knew the expression, Kemal had given a name that could easily have been used to describe Mr. Karakas.
"How did this little boy, living in town 500 miles away, know so many things about a man who had died in Istanbul fifty years before he was born? He could not have heard about the man Dr. Keil had to work so hard to learn anything about. What possible explanation could there be? Kemal had a very simple answer: he said that he had been the man in a previous life."
Normal Explanations ( from weakest to strongest):
I. One explanation suggests that the matches between the Previous Personality and the Current Subject are a coincidence, a fluke. When I first saw this explanation I laughed out loud in an otherwise quiet library. You could maybe suggest such an explanation for one or two cases or for a few "matches" in each case, but "strength is in the numbers." Kemal Atasoy, for example, made fifteen fully confirmed statements concerning his Previous Personality, three partially confirmed, and four unconfirmed statements. It is preposterous to claim that "coincidence" has much explanatory value.II. Perhaps the researcher was deceived by the child or the family in some critical way. In the case of Kemal Atasoy that would mean that his parents had coached him or perhaps he had read about Aysegul's neighbor somewhere and intentionally claimed that he was the reincarnate of that man. In other cases, by the time the investigator arrives on the scene, the child does not remember the past-life and the testimony of the parents must be relied upon. It is conceivable that the parents, in at least some of the cases, are lying.
The difficultly with this is that the most of the time the families have no interest in concocting such a story, and sometimes it is counterproductive for their social-standing or family life. Critics counter that in some cases children may create a story for social benefits (for example, in the Indian caste system or in our case the lived next to a well-known personality). In response, a) these cases are rare and most children and families receive no benefit and have no desire or time to create a hoax, b) there are cases where the child remembers being in a lower caste or having difficult living conditions.
Furthermore, in many cases there are multiple witnesses to the child's claim, and therefore it is unlikely that there is a conspiracy. Thus Stevenson is confident that “Perhaps I have been hoaxed in some cases without knowing this. I cannot deny that this may have happened, but I think it can only have happened rarely, if ever (Children, 147)”
Another suggestion is that the investigators are guilty of fraud. This would mean that at least six primary investigators and countless assistants would be conspiring, an extremely unlikely phenomenon. However, skeptics draw attention to a case where Stevenson's translator was accused of dishonesty:
"The data collected on this trip became the basis for Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, whose publication was delayed because his publisher backed out of the project when it was discovered that Stevenson's interpreter was accused of dishonesty. Stevenson admits the man was dishonest in some matters, but he did not think the man had deceived him. So, Stevenson did not reject the data collected with this interpreter's help."
Stevenson addresses this issue in Children Who Remember Previous Live: “Probably some errors in translation have occurred from time to time, as I have noted (when I have detected them) in my detailed case reports. However, I do not think that these have been numerous or damaging…” (pg. 132)
Thus, even our good friend, Sam Harris, agrees that fraud is unlikely: "Either he is a victim of truly elaborate fraud, or something interesting is going on."
III. Another argument is that children have wonderful imaginations and this is the cause of their "memories." Attention is drawn to cryptomnesia, the phenomenon in which a person obtains information normally and then forgets its source. This explanation is only possible in the cases where the child's statements aren't verified or when there was no external confirmation (unlike the case of Kemal Atasoy). This then is a reasonable explanation for a minority of the cases, and Stevenson carefully considered this possibility in almost all of the cases he studied (Children, 149), but even these cases I wouldn't call "worthless" since there are other aspects of evidence besides "memories."
IV. The most serious argument against Stevenson and Co. is that their methodology was sloppy. Generally critics do not maintain that Stevenson was purposely sloppy or, for the most part, that they could have done a better job. Anyone who reads Old Souls will see a first-hand account of how methodical Stevenson was in his investigations. They do claim, however, that a) Stevenson often arrived at the scene after the child forgot the alleged memories of the Previous Personality, and he thus relied on the testimony of the family, or he arrived after the two families had already met (the case was “solved”), b) he was involved in a tricky business by questioning children (and with a translator at that), and c) and analysis of the data is not so clear-cut.
a) The argument is that these cases almost always developed in an uncontrolled setting. This would allow for faulty memory or for a socio-psychological explanation of the cases. Brody developed such a hypothesis (summarized by Stevenson, quoted by Keil: “In a culture having a belief in reincarnation a child who seems to speak about a previous life will be encouraged to say more. What he says then leads his parents somehow to find another family whose members come to believe that the child has been speaking about a deceased member of their family. The two families exchange information about details, and they end by crediting the subject with having had much more knowledge about the identified deceased person than he really had had.” The uncontrolled nature of the cases create “paramnesia” (the delusional belief that two events, or in this case, people, are connected).
This can be countered in numerous ways. First, some cases are more controlled than others, such as when Stevenson arrived while the child was still making statements or displaying behavior etc. or when there were written records of the child’s statements before he met the Previous Personality’s family, or where there was no known surviving family (as in the case of Kemal Atasoy) . Second, this explanation would only explain cases where the culture encourages such beliefs or the parents have some benefit from unintentionally creating such a story. This is not true for all cases. Third, Stevenson tried not to rely on independent witnesses in his investigations. Fourth, Stevenson did not generally give much weight to cases in which the families had already met or even had some past-ties.
b) Interviewing indeed is tricky, and Stevenson had his hand at it for half-a-century. With regard to translators Stevenson addresses this issue as well: “In several different countries, I have been fortunate in having the same interpreters work with me for a decade or longer. They have become used to my methods, and together we have identified some of the words and phrases in the languages used that are particularly liable to faulty translation. Moreover, by recording the questions asked as well as the answers given, I can observe whether the interpreter is asking my questions or pursuing his own line of inquiry. The more experienced interpreters often think of better ways of phrasing a question that I have, and they may also suggest further questions to pursue a point that seems to them important. They have thus become collaborators more than assistants in the interviews (Children Who Remember Past Lives (132).”
c) Leonard Angel, in 1994, critically reviewed one case in Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation (Stevenson’s first book, published in 1966) and finds his method wanting in six ways. In short, Imad Elawar was reported to have made 61 statements that matched his Previous Personality. But upon closer examination there were discrepancies between the statements of Elewar and the Previous Personality that Stevenson nevertheless counted as a "match." Stevenson, therefore, may have fallen prey to "subjective validation," or the process of validating words, initials, statements, or signs as accurate because one is able to find them personally meaningful and significant. Also see here.
Thus, Angel was quoted as saying: "'I think he was trying to figure things out, but he just didn't follow elementary proper standards,'' said Leonard Angel, a philosopher of religion at Douglas College in New Westminster, British Columbia, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. ''but you do have to look carefully to see it; that's why he's been very persuasive to many people.''
Stevenson himself and others have argued against Angel's criticisms. For those interested in the give-and-take see here.
V. Another suggestion is that of genetic memory. Most scientists do not believe in such a mechanism, even though epigenetics is somewhat similar to this idea, but, even so, this does not explain cases (such as Kemal Atasoy) in which there is no genetic relationship between the Previous Personality and Current Subject.
VI. Lastly, I quote from The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion (which, in my opinion, is not so spiritual): "Reincarnation is a tricky concept because it implies that an entire personality - encompassing everything about the deceased - has somehow been incorportated into a new body. Furthermore, it implies that the current person is an outgrowth, a follow-on, a natural extensions of the previous personality (or chain of personalities). The mechanism I am hinting at is much different. It is an embellishment of the known, bodily processes of stress, immobility, and dissociation. It encompasses the physical and feeling knowledge that is stored unconsciously when schocking, painful, or otherwise overwhelming experiences become traumatic and the course of the emotional stream is diverted or dammed up. The latent energy conveyed will relate to the experience itself and the parts of the body most directly invovled, comprising a virtual snapshot of what was being perceived at the time of the threat. I won't posit that the entire personalioty is reborn in a new body - only that the emotional energy that went unreleased in its time obeys the first law of thermodynamics and, through unkown means, is effectibvely transfered to a new residence. In this conceptipn, what survives is the impulse to express intense feelings that have been frozen, held in, or repressed (pg. 352)."
This explanation, while very valuable, does not have full explanatory value (such as, trvial memories and behaviors).
Paranormal Explanations (from weakest to strongest)
I. Perhaps the children are experiencing a form of telepathy (see my post here) combined with subconscious impersonation. Almeder quotes C.T.K. Chari (pg. 43): "[W]e cannot rule out some combination of the counterhypotheses of hidden and disguised memories acquired in a normal fashion, extrasensorially selective tapping of memories of others, and a psychometric or psychoscopic ESP achieving a strong empathic identification with deceased persons..."
Almeder, quoting N. Hintze and J.G. Pratt and Stevenson himself, argues that a) these children do not otherwise display ESP, and b) this phenomenon is well-beyond typical psychic powers.
Another suggestion, though, is that after hearing the claims of the child, the investigator, while attempting to validate the child's statements, psychically influenced the interviewees. In the case of Kemal Atasoy Keil interviewed the historian with the child's claims in mind. Perhaps he psychically influenced the memory of the historian. Perhaps.
II. Another suggestion is that these cases are instances of possession. Almeder (pg. 53) argues that those claiming possession state that "I am X" while those claiming a past-life usually state "I was X." In other words, there isn't a major personality change in past-life memory cases (Tucker, Life Before Life, pg. 46). Also, possession would not explain the existence of birthmarks (pg. 45).
II. Finally, we arrive at reincarnation. Besides the fact that this is what the children are claiming, it also has a high explanatory value ( announcing dreams,confirmed statements, strange behaviors, birthmarks). There are four main problems with this hypothesis:
a) Paul Edwards writes: "An acceptance of the collateral assumptions [involved in the belief in reincarnation] would amount, to borrow a phrase from Kierkegard, to the 'crucifixion' of understanding" (quoted in Alemder, pg. 34). In other words, Edwards a priori finds reincarnation impossible (for example, because there is no explanation as to how the memories enter into a new body). There is not much to argue against such a position.
b) Skeptics are bothered by the population explosion. Apparently, there would not be enough souls/minds to reincarnate into all of the bodies in existence. Since when are skeptics experts on spiritual mechanics...?
c) Different cultures present different type of cases thus suggesting that the memories are cultural-influenced. For example, cultures that do not believe that one can change sex-type in reincarnation do not report cases where a child remembers being a different sex-type. In response, there are cases where no family member believed in reincarnation. Furthermore, when we get to our discussion of Hashgacha/Divine providence we will discuss the subjective nature of Hashgacha/Divine providence. Lastly, there could be a cultural component to the phenomenon but that does not discredit the entire phenomenon ("throw the baby out with the bath water").
d) Critics argue that this hypothesis is unfalsifiable because any "un-solved" case does not count against it. There is a confirmation bias. I'm not sure how to respond to this objection because I am not an expert in the philosophy of science and the need for "falsifiability." All I do know is that Kemal Atasoy had otherwise unexplainable memories. It only takes a few very good cases to make a strong argument that reincarnation occurs, at least, sometimes.
In conclusion, there is a difference between science and common-sense. It is true that Stevenson did not prove with a 95 % confidence interval that the cases he researched for over forty years were indeed cases of reincarnation. However, it seems to me, that anyone who has read a large amount of the cases, does not feel that their assent to belief must be fully scientific, and who has not been blinded by scientism, will find the evidence for reincarnation extremely convincing.