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Secular Buddhism and pseudo-scientific attacks on rebirth
July 9th, 2013 (November 21st, 2013)

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Secular Buddhism and pseudo-scientific attacks on rebirth

'Secular' is rich enough in meanings for "secular Buddhism" to mean nothing specific.

Some will interpret 'secular' as 'worldly',  i.e. "devoted to the temporal world as opposed to the spiritual world."  The people considering it this way are very likely to fall into "lust for enlightenment" and "spiritual materialism". Everything is measured by: "what does this do in practical terms, for me?"
This is Buddhism as an -ism at its worst: reinforcing the ego rather than challenging it… This is still Buddhism as an -ism created on top of the Dharma, but I dare say this is not the Dharma!

Some will interpret 'secular' as 'profane',  i.e. "not concerned with or devoted to religion."  The people considering it this way are likely to fall in the new 'certainty' of modern times: scientism (as an -ism, a dogmatic perspective that proposes that only the material world is real and that all phenomena can be fully explained using the principles and methods of a materialist science). They are likely to have missed that Buddhism is about the mind and consciousness, and that the one phenomenon that escapes materialism at the moment is very much consciousness: so far, we have no proof whatsoever that consciousness simply emerges from enough physical computing power. And we have reasons to believe that some animals might have consciousness although they indeed have less "computing power" than the fastest computer architectures available…

And some will interpret it as the "rejection of religion and religious considerations"  from Buddhism. This usually goes with rejecting all notions of authority and rejecting 'vows', which could be fine if they weren't usually replaced by the unquestioned authority of one's egotistical views and desires.

Middle Path

I consider myself 'secular' because I reject the miraculous as an explanation. I can accept it as observation, but not explanatory narrative. I take what I don't understand as "something I don't understand", I refrain from 'explaining' things by invisible forces or entities. I accept that some forces might not be seen 'directly' but only by the consequences of their presence (e.g. black holes); this is different from calling everything I don't understand a miracle or God's work, etc. I accept that I "don't know". Even if God exists, it may be God's work, it may not, I don't know! I don't pretend to explain when I de facto have no element to actually associate a phenomena to divine influence except for the fact that I have no other idea…

Such a secularism however refuses the blind rejection of religion (

Such a secularism acknowledges that prayer might be effective, even if it doesn't work as usually explained (

Such a secularism acknowledges that myths play a role in how our psyche is structured, and have causal consequences on our behaviours, are 'real' (maybe even self-fulfilling —e.g. "soul mates"

Such a secularism refuses to replace a religious certainty with just another certainty, another dogma… It refuses the illusion "more recent / modern / western is 'better'," as if progress was linear, as if civilisations never fell, as if what appeared a good idea initially never was later rejected, as if science explained everything and / or never needed revisions…


Rebirth is one of the most contentious teachings for many 'secular' buddhists. Many consider that this is an "old Indian myth" but cannot justify such a claim.
I think this can be an interesting debate (a bit metaphysical maybe, but related to how we appropriate an ego, i.e. related to clinging, i.e. related to suffering… i.e. more useful —in practical terms— than often assumed), but it is a common mistake to consider that science has proven rebirth to be 'just' a myth.

I usually don't waste my time countering claims about science that are trivially un-scientific. I assume that "right effort" suggests to buddhists to cultivate "conventional truth" (and 'scientific' very much fits 'conventional'). But a recent article has been circulated lately and has proven popular on g+, which may require a response if I don't want my silence to be complicit.

The article is a Secular Evaluation of Rebirth, by Doug Smith:
Please read it before continuing.

The article might be interesting but is falsely 'scientific', as explained below.

"Of course, the Buddha could have been reborn on other planes or planets, but once again there is no mention of vast divergences in body plan, language, culture, or surroundings that would indicate such a rebirth."

Please tell me why would this be 'necessary'? I can see a perfectly plausible scenario compatible with science for this: let's admit that a mature bodhisattva or buddha can only arise when the supportive conditions and circumstances are present (an inter-dependence statement compatible both with Buddhism and scientist materialism).

Then, most key lives worth being set as 'examples' or 'role models' for us would have arisen in worlds similar to ours: just like human life is seen as the most favourable life for awakening, there's little point talking to us about worlds where most beings are not 'mature' enough to have a real chance to nirvāṇa, but also there's little point talking to us about worlds where most beings are non-returners…
So most previous lives worth being recalled for our education (e.g. in the Jātaka tales) are lives close to ours.

One of the reasonable arguments of the article is the low 'age' of humanity, but this is valid only if there's only one universe! In a (scientifically possible) multi-verse (where quantum indeterminacy results in perpetual "branching-out",, humanity could easily have been born a lot earlier than in our continuum… So the age of humanity argument would have to relate a lot more closely to the age of the universe than to the age of humanity. But even this would somehow assume that all the universes of the multi-world were born at the same time, which is questionable. It would also assume that there was nothing before the big bang —and implicitly that humanity rose only once, rather than many times—, which is questionable: cf. video on (turn the english subtitles on!).

Even more fundamentally, rebirth is repeatedly considered in the teachings as compatible with selflessness. Arguing that the Buddha supposedly remembered so many lives that he would have existed before the arising of humanity is assuming "one life after the next" rebirth, i.e. self-based rebirth! With buddhist rebirth, there's nothing preventing anyone from appropriating many lives from just one 'generation': in the case of the Buddha, the many lives of "the wise." Note that this might also work the other way with many lives now appropriating a unique past, cf. Bernardo Bertolucci's film "Little Buddha" (1993).

Before Enlightenment, the future Buddha was subject to karma… Karma is empty of essence (i.e. is context-dependent, its 'independent' essence —separate from context— cannot be found) and it relates to clinging to an identity. It is an appropriation mechanism: what we consider as constitutive of who we are (directly or indirectly). As an appropriation, it is "from the present onto the past": we ask the question "who am I?" and we pick elements of the past to narrate where we come from. It is not trackable "from the past to the present" as this would reify causality in some context-independent individual-attached phenomena. The Buddha said as much about the intractability of karma, intractability which is to be expected given selflessness.

"Indeed, the evidence provided in MN 39 is consistent with a world in which humans always existed in a way much as in the Buddha’s own time."

Which makes sense in the case of the Buddha appropriating the many lives of "the wise" (over only a few generations)…
And which also makes sense from a pedagogical perspective… If you're to teach people on how to live their human lives in a particular context, do you talk about the lives of plants or about wildly different contexts? Not really. You might talk of the lives of other beings, but they need to be relatable enough for the audience to appropriate the lessons. Imagine for example that the Buddha had talked about how to deal with addiction to facebook / twitter / google+ and other social platforms, do you think it would have made any sense to his audience?

"If this is evidence for rebirth, it is not very convincing. More convincing would have been some otherwise inexplicable stories about social, linguistic, and morphological change as the Buddha retreated into memories of the distant past."

More convincing of what?

• Of rebirth being true? Is proving this the goal of the teachings? Or is rebirth merely a circumstantial phenomena and the teaching is about something else? Just like monks and nuns are separate even though they're ultimately selfless, rebirth is a phenomena even if it were an illusion: it would be an illusion with consequences on our behaviour! It would be a 'real' i.e. causal illusion. "Seeing things as they are" is not "rejecting rebirth", it might be so but it's far from obvious: it might just as well be e.g. "seeing rebirth as a myth people need to be freed from at some point, but not necessarily the first myth they need to be freed from because this one may actually be used as a tool to free them from many other myths." What about upāya (expedient, pedagogical means)? 

• Of a single continuum of time, without quantum branches? Metaphysics? Reification of time?

The article focuses on interpreting rebirth as a physical phenomena, but the dharma would actually reject such reification!

People need to consider that the conventional Dharma talks about our minds, not physics. It talks of how we appropriate a sense of 'self' ("cognitive development" in modern western scientific terminology), a 'self' which might not be so helpful and seems to be the root of suffering. Basically the Dharma might be about how we all create neuroses while creating a sense of 'self'! Rebirth is then an appropriation process, which is compatible with reincarnation but doesn't require it, which is compatible with any physicality (notably that the many lives of the Buddha were "in parallel", even in the same generation and shared world).

Rebirth is not a person-based process, so there's no difficulty whatsoever with such an psychological interpretation!
It is indeed very much in line with the second objection of the article, that memory is not fixed. Well, impermanence and selflessness say as much, and it requires a naïve reader to reify the "previous lives". Previous lives are 'appropriated', they're narratives the mind picks up to create a sense of 'self'. And just like "conventional truth" is not detrimental to "ultimate truth", the Buddha talking about previous lives doesn't mean he interpreted them as a continuous individual-based (or soul-based) one-at-a-time stream. As with any discrimination of phenomena, freedom is not about the discrimination but about how one relates to it, not about ideas or feelings but about how one relates to them…

Cf. the "karmic continuation" series, available at: (I: capitalism), (II: dualistic views), (III: "the end justifies the means"), (IV: arms race), (news (Newtown, MA))

Another example of lack of scientific method in the mentioned article is in the third objection.

"There is … the obvious problem of confirmation bias. The ideal, according to Stevenson, was to seek out PLE [past-life experience] stories and then try to confirm them. Failure to confirm, however, did not count against the reincarnation hypothesis. In fact, nothing could be discovered using Stevenson’s methods that could ever disconfirm the reincarnation hypothesis. Many scientists would consider this a fatal flaw in his methodology."

This is so disingenuous, I don't even know where to start! Let's do so from the end:

"Many scientists would consider this a fatal flaw in his methodology"?

Wow, like the scientists who, when they don't find the Higgs boson, take it as evidence that they simply did not look in the right place (at the right energy) and they need a bigger particule accelerator? This sort of confirmation bias? Well, that's a pilar of science: make a model / hypothesis, then seek the proof! Calling it a confirmation bias is simply introducing a veiled insult and attacking the legitimacy of results because there was an agenda, but most science and technology has been made / created with an agenda! Very little has been pure random discovery without seeking.

"Failure to confirm, however, did not count against the reincarnation hypothesis."

Classic case: yes, repeatedly not-finding evidence is a hint that what's sought doesn't exist however, no, this is not a proof. Cf. black swans, and the fact that swans supposedly could only be white (until black swans were described scientifically by English naturalist John Latham in 1790…). In Stevenson's case, he was not even in the case of "repeatedly not-finding evidence" since he actually did find some evidence. The evidence might be misleading or misinterpreted, that's totally a possibility, but there is evidence so to talk of "failure to confirm" is a joke here!

Should rarity always be considered 'against' some phenomena? What about the difficulty we have to detect neutrinos? Should we consider they don't exist then?

I will obviously pass the "This notion of rebirth further implies that our understanding of physical causation is flawed" given the author did not 'solve' the EPR paradox: we actually don't have the "understanding of physical causation" he suggests we have!

"The whole notion of a rebirth consciousness assumes either that memories are not stored in the brain’s neural network at all, or that if they are, that storage system can somehow be transmitted across time and space by nonphysical or undetectable means."

Nope, I provided above the "karmic continuation" series with the answer to the "nonphysical or undetectable means": it's called a physical and social environment! Memories are neither created nor recreated in a vacuum: we shape the environment, the environment shapes us! Rebirth shouldn't be reified, made 'independent' or 'inherent'; inter-dependence applies here too.

"This notion of rebirth also leaves unexplained how it is that the rebirth consciousness moves from life to life: how does it know where to go? If it is able to perceive things around it, such as eggs awaiting fertilization, just how does that perception take place?"

This is not a description of rebirth, this is individual-based hence reincarnation, i.e. what rebirth is not! Rebirth might manifest as reincarnation (when the appropriation of a sense of self is so related to another, earlier sense of self that other people and oneself project 'sameness') but this is a mental fabrication on top of rebirth, not rebirth itself!

"If, on the other hand, the transmission is instantaneous, that would require temporal coincidence between death and conception that is not always guaranteed to be the case"

And actually I believe the Theravādins say explicitly that some streams of consciousness do cease "by accident", regardless of karma, simply because there's no receiving womb available when needed for continuation! I.e. the author of the article reify rebirth as a 'certainty', a 'truth'… but rebirth is at best a conventional truth, not an ultimate truth! There's no warranty whatsoever that rebirth would happen! It is karma-related, so it is a 'tendency' (not a certainty).

Thus, I am a secular buddhist in the sense of not believing in magic and miracles, but I'll say that the article's "it is for reasons such as these that any contemporary, scientifically informed Buddhist practice should reject belief in rebirth and its associated kammic causation" is just prejudiced scientism!

If Stevenson is not credible because he had an agenda, I'm afraid the author of the article has the same flaw and even less evidence to support his case. He's also attacking a strawman: reincarnation rather than rebirth. I do not consider so because he quotes Stevenson, but because he assumes rebirth to be entity-based, one-at-a-time… Confusing the two leads to throw the baby with the bathwater. Stevenson focused much on reincarnation, as a form of 'trackable' rebirth much easier to scientifically 'measure' than context-based fluid rebirth. The author of this article attacks a wider perspective without even being able to argue against the narrow perspective of Stevenson!

If we accept physics as a role model for the application of the scientific method, then a valid scientific argument against Stevenson cannot be rarity (neutrinos), paradox (EPR), or having had an agenda (Higgs): it has to be in proposing another plausible 'mechanism' to explain the phenomena observed. To say "I don't believe" is like Einstein saying "God doesn't play dice", that's a belief, not science. The other possibility of proof is in scientifically demonstrating that the phenomena reported were not observed but merely fabricated.

I have no issue if someone wants to debate rebirth, but if you claim to do so with the scientific method, then apply the scientific method!

#Buddhism   #Dharma  
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