Had I heard about this anywhere else I would have quickly passed it by. It sounds too improbable. Even impossible. But psychiatrist Ian Stevenson was such a careful investigator that coming from him this stopped me in my tracks.

Among the people who pay attention to the children who talk of past lives, are the Druze of Lebanon, a sect within Islam who I believe existed long before the rise of Islam. In his book Old Souls, New York journalist Tom Shroder describes his trips with Stevenson to re-visit some Druze families.

They visited a young man named Tali, who did not speak until he was 3 years old. Then one day Tali responded to someone, “Don’t call me Tali – I’m Sah.”

Investigation determined that Tali appeared to be claiming to be Said Abdul Hisn, a man who was sitting on the patio of his home when someone came up from the street and shot him. The autopsy report indicated that a bullet entered Said’s left cheek, severed his tongue at the back, then exited through his right cheek..

Stevenson found Tali to have an area of increased pigmentation ½ inch in diameter on his right cheek, and a smaller one on his left cheek. These were slightly farther back on Tali’s cheeks than the locations on Said, but Stevenson says birthmarks often ‘migrate’ after birth. Tali also had a speech impediment.

Stevenson found many similar cases in Lebanon, but the phenomenon is widespread.

Jim Tucker, a child psychiatrist who worked with Stevenson at the University of Virginia, found cases in Burma and Thailand where at funerals the family mark the body of a dead relative with charcoal in the belief that when the deceased’s soul is reincarnated the new infant’s body will bear a birthmark in the same location. Tucker has slides of charcoal marks on corpses that are almost identical with the birthmarks on children who are claiming a past life.

What are we to make of this? It is so unexpected, and so flies in the face of our common understanding that it cries out to be called coincidence.

Stevenson was inclined to avoid making any pronouncements about the cause of these things. He saw his job to be collecting the evidence, and he collected a lot of it. For example, his first book about birthmarks, Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects (1997), has 2,268 pages in two volumes.

He saw himself as a detective gathering evidence for the court of science. The problem is that the court hearing has never taken place.

But in the face of his evidence, the arguments of the skeptics are pretty lame. They basically say Stevenson must be wrong because these things are impossible. There is little science to be found in their critiques.

For example, psychologist Robert A Baker said Stevenson’s children can be explained by a combination of cryptomnesia and confabulation. That might sound persuasive, but once you’ve read even a few of Stevenson’s investigations you wonder whether Baker read any of them first hand. Stevenson covers those issues thoroughly.

When philosopher Paul Edwards, said by some to be Stevenson’s chief critic, said Stevenson’s cases “do not even to begin to add up to a significant counterweight to the initial presumption against reincarnation” he showed that he doesn’t understand science. Since when did our ‘initial presumptions’ count for anything? Initial presumptions have been blocking science for centuries. And, of course, here he is only talking about the presumptions of people in the ‘West’. The people of India, for example, he obviously ignores since many of them presume reincarnation to be real.

As for Edwards saying Stevenson lived in ‘cloud-cuckoo-land’, etc., those are the words of someone who doesn’t want a legitimate debate, and doesn’t want to consider the possibility that the world may be different than he thinks it is.

What I find interesting about the attempts to discredit Stevenson is the number of them and the intensity of the hostility. Jonathan Swift once said that you can tell a man of genius by the number of fools gathered against him.

Why is it so important to deny reincarnation? Why does it trouble these people so much? I used to think reincarnation highly improbable, but it never bothered me that some people believe in it.

Some scientists have looked at the evidence and supported Stevenson. For example, German physicist Doris Kulmann-Wilsdorf, who moved to the USA after WW II, after examining Stevenson’s evidence, said “the statistical probability that reincarnation does in fact occur is so overwhelming….that cumulatively the evidence is not inferior to most if not all branches of science.”

As with so many other paranormal phenomena, we have long passed the point where we should be arguing whether reincarnation phenomena exist. What we need now is research into how it exists, and what its existence tells us about the universe we live in.

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