The homepage of the Univ. of Virginia’s Division Of Perceptual Studies quotes Thomas Jefferson:
"I was bold in the pursuit of knowledge, never fearing to follow truth and reason to whatever results they led."
It is a fine quote, exactly the sort of postprandial statement one can imagine Jefferson making at Monticello, with a glass of Chateau d’Yquem in one hand and Sally in the other. They don’t make presidents like him anymore.
But perhaps they do. That is, if Dr. Ian Stevenson is right.
Ian Stevenson‘s a medical doctor (internal medicine) trained at McGill University, the author of many peer-reviewed articles, and a former chaired professor at UVa. Dr. Stevenson’s pursuit of the truth has led him into very odd territory. In the 60s through the 80s, he investigated cases in India, Ceylon, Brazil, Alaska, and Lebanon that were "suggestive of reincarnation."
There’s a rough pattern to these reincarnation stories. A child– usually between two and four years of age — begins to claim that he/she is actually so-and-so, now deceased. Parents resist said claims. Eventually, contact with so-and-so’s family is made. Dénouement follows. At some point, ranging from 3 weeks to twenty years, Stevenson shows up with his tape recorder and interpreter. He interviews the families, cross-checks claims, classifies events into a typology, and then re-conducts the interviews with a second translator. The book describes twenty representative cases. His conclusion:
"In the cases of the present collection we have evidence of the occurrence of patterns which the present personality is not known to have inherited or acquired after birth in the present life. And in some instances these patterns match corresponding and specific features of an identified deceased personality. In such cases we have then in principle, I believe, some evidence for human survival of physical death. I say in principle, because I continue aware [sic] of particular weaknesses in the present cases."
In short, there are events suggestive of reincarnation. I think he’s mistaken. But whatever one may think of his extraordinary conclusion, the book will induce respect. His case reports are painfully detailed, monumentally tedious and reassuringly detached. It’s shoe-leather research rather than arm-chair research. It’s Masters and Johnson sans lubrication. The book is a lovely testament to what empiricism is all about.
Assuming the evidence is not manufactured out of whole cloth (in which case the book ranks with great literature), there’s a neat little puzzle to be explained. Some of the cases are rather disquieting, especially the cases of Pramod and Swarnalata. Stevenson’s methodology is not that of the doctor or the physicist but that of the detective.