Curt J. Ducasse

C. J. Ducasse

(1881-1969), French-born, highly respected Professor of Philosophy at Brown University. Awardee of the Carus Lectures prize (American Philosophical Association). Contributed to the "Journal Information for Philosophy and Phenomenological Research", "Causation", "Immortality" (Edited by Paul Edwards), "Philosophical Dimensions of Parapsychology" (edited by James M. O. Wheatley). Ex-student of Josiah Royce. Pursued a career in philosophy but retained a strong interest in logic - so much so that he took the initiative to create the Association for Symbolic Logic with its Journal of symbolic logic. Among his many important papers on survival are "How the Case of The Search for Bridey Murphy Stands Today" Journal of the ASPR 54: 3-22, and "What Would Constitute Conclusive Evidence of Survival After Death?" Journal of the SPR 41: 401-406. His books included "A Critical Examination of the Belief in Life After Death", "Paranormal Phenomena, Science and Life After Death" (Monograph), "A Philosophical Scrutiny of Religion", "Nature, Mind, And Death", "Truth, Knowledge and Causation", "Philosophy As a Science: Its Matter and Its Method" and "Philosophy of Art".

A Critical Examination of the Belief in a Life After Death - Part 5

Chapter 22: Incompetent Kinds of Evidence For and Against Reincarnation

1. "Deja vu" experiences | 2. Illusions of Memory | 3. Paranormal retrocognitions | 4. Testimony, purportedly from discarnate spirits

 - Curt J. Ducasse -

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          IN CHAPT. XXI, we examined a number of difficulties in the way of the reincarnation hypothesis, and found them far from sufficient to show that it cannot be true, or even that it is more probably false than true. We now come to the question whether any empirical evidence is available that would tend to support the hypothesis. In the present chapter, certain facts will be considered which have sometimes been offered as evidence of reincarnation but which, as we shall see, admit of some different and more plausible explanation. And since, in Part IV, we came to the conclusion that some positive evidence exists for survival - survival discarnate for the time being anyway - of some components of the personality of deceased persons, the facts on which we shall comment in the present chapter will include the testimony on the subject of reincarnation contained in certain communications which purported to emanate from surviving spirits of the deceased.

1. "Deja vu" experiences

An experience sometimes thought by the persons who have it to be evidence that they have lived before their present life is the experience psychologists have labelled "deja vu," i.e., "already seen," "seen before." It is what occurs when a person "recognizes" some situation which in fact he never experienced before-for example some street or house in a town he is now visiting for the first time, and of which he has never seen a picture or description. In such cases, the person concerned sometimes interprets the fact that what he is seeing for the first time in his life nevertheless feels familiar to him, as being evidence that he must have seen it in an earlier life.

The true explanation, however, is usually that the new situation is similar in prominent respects to some situation he has experienced before in his present life but which he does not at the moment recall; and that, although the two situations also have dissimilarities, nevertheless the points of likeness between them are sufficient to generate the feeling of familiarity which, normally, is a sign that the object or situation arousing it was experienced before. A striking example of such spurious recognition occurs when we "recognize" a person whom we have in fact never met before, but who happens to be the twin of an acquaintance we then mistakenly believe ourselves to be facing at the moment.

Another explanation, however, perhaps fits better some instances of "deja vu" - those where the person concerned feels that he so remembers the conversation he is now hearing, or the house he is now entering for the first time, that he can tell what the person who speaks next is going to say, or what a given door in the house leads into.

In such cases, what he now feels he already knows may be something which he is now paranormally precognizing. Or it may be something which he paranormally precognized a short time before, but only subconsciously, or perhaps the night before in a dream he does not remember - the later parts of the past precognition being now brought to consciousness by the present perceptual fulfilment of the earlier parts.

Whether or not this explanation happens to be the correct one in a given case, the fact that precognition has been experimentally proved to occur sometimes(1) means that explanation of a "deja vu" experience in terms of paranormal precognition must not be ruled out a priori, and that the normal type of explanation must not be made a Procrustean bed, which every fact of this kind, no matter how recalcitrant, shall be stretched or trimmed to fit into.

(1) See for instance "Experiments in Precognitive Telepathy" by S. G. Soal and K. M. Goldney, Proc. S.P.R. Vol. 47:21-150; 1943; and summary in Modern Experiments in Telepathy, by S. G. Soal and F. Bateman, Yale Univ. Press 1954, pp. 123-31.

2. Illusions of Memory

Mnemonic illusions are another type of experience capable of causing a person to believe that he has lived other lives than his present one. The late Prof. J. H. Hyslop mentions an example of such an illusion, which, although the experient did not interpret it as memory of an earlier life, nevertheless strikingly illustrates the possibility of mnemonic illusion(2). The person concerned was a friend of Dr. Hyslop's, and, in conversation with another, mentioned that he remembered the Harrison presidential campaign and described in considerable detail many of the incidents in it. He, however, had been born in 1847, whereas the Harrison campaign had taken place in 1840. The explanation of his "memories" of the campaign turned out to be that what he really remembered were the vivid images of the campaign which he had formed in childhood as a result of the elaborate descriptions of it which uncles of his who had taken part in it and with whom he went to live at the age of eight, delighted to rehearse, in his hearing, for their friends and neighbors. He had remembered the images, but not how his mind had come to be furnished with them.

(2) Borderland of Psychical Research, Turner & Co., Boston, 1906, pp. 371-2.

3. Paranormal retrocognitions

But a person's belief that he had an earlier life may be a conclusion he bases on a dream or vision which subsequent historical research shows to have corresponded in recondite details to some historical event antedating his birth - which details he certainly never learned in a normal manner. A tempting interpretation of such an experience is that he actually witnessed the event in an earlier life, and that the vision or dream is a memory image of it, carried over from that earlier life to the present one.

An example of a vision which would lend itself to such an interpretation, although in fact it was not so interpreted by the two ladies who had the vision, is that of Miss Moberly and Miss Jourdain at Versailles, related in their much discussed book entitled An Adventure(3). A more plausible interpretation of the facts as reported - which is the interpretation they themselves adopted - is that their vision was a case of retrocognitive clairvoyance.

(3) London, Faber & Faber, 1911. By 1947 the book had had four editions and many printings.

4. Testimony, purportedly from discarnate spirits

Another kind of empirical evidence alleged by some to substantiate, or to invalidate, the belief in reincarnation consists of the declarations on the subject contained in the mediumistic communications from purported discarnate spirits.

In 1856, Hypolite Denizard Rivail, better known by his pen name of Allan Kardec, published Le Livre des Esprits, consisting mainly of communications, dictated through unnamed "diverse mediums" by various purported discarnate spirits in answer to questions asked by Kardec - these questions and answers being then published by him in the book at the behest of those spirits. One of the central doctrines proclaimed by them is that of reincarnation. The following, which is a translation of Sec. 166 of the 1947 amplified edition, is a typical passage (from Chapter IV pp. 147/8):*

* Ed. Griffon d'Or, Paris, 1947.

Q. How can the soul, which has not reached perfection during corporeal life, complete its purification?

A. By undergoing the trials of a new life.

Q. How does the soul accomplish this new life? Is it by its transformation into Spirit?

A. The soul, by purification, undoubtedly undergoes a transformation, but for this it needs the trials of a new life.

Q. The soul then has several corporeal lives?

Yes, we all have several lives. Those who assert the contrary wish to keep you in the ignorance in which they themselves are; it is their desire.

Q. It seems to follow from this principle that the soul, after having left one body, takes on another; in other words, that it reincarnates in a new body. Is this what we are to understand?

A. Evidently.

Interesting additional information concerning Le Livre des Esprits is provided by Alexander Aksakof, one of the early investigators of psychic phenomena, in an article entitled "Researches on the Historical Origin of the Reincarnation Speculations of French Spiritualists."(4) He states that, in 1873 in Paris, he heard that a somnambulist, Celina Japhet (real name, Bequet) had contributed largely to the work. He called on her, and she told him among other things, that she was "a natural somnambulist from her earliest years;" that, in 1845 she went to Paris, made the acquaintance of a magnetizer, M. Roustan, and became a professional somnambulist under his control, giving "medical advice under the spiritual direction of her grandfather, who had been a doctor;" and that "in this manner in 1846 the doctrine of Reincarnation was given to her by the spirits of her grandfather, of St. Theresa, and others." Aksakof states at this point that "as the somnambulic powers of Madame Japhet were developed under the mesmeric influence of M. Roustan, it may be well to remark in this place that M. Roustan himself believed in the plurality of terrestrial existences." Aksakof's account of what Madame Japhet told him goes on to relate that from 1849 until 1870, she was a member of a spirit circle in Paris which met once or twice a week, and of which Victorien Sardou was a member; that, after a while, she became a writing medium and that the greater part of her communications were obtained in this manner; and that "in 1856 she met M. Denizard Rivail, introduced by M. Victorien Sardou. He [Rivail] correlated the materials by a number of questions; himself arranged the whole in systematic order, and published The Spirits' Book without ever mentioning the name of Madame C. Japhet, although three quarters of this book had been given through her mediumship. The rest was obtained from communications through Madame Bodin, who belonged to another spirit circle ... After the publication of The Book of Spirits ... he quitted the circle [Mme. Japhet's] and arranged another in his own house, M. Roze being the medium." Aksakof's article ends with the words: "All that I have herein stated does not affect the question of Reincarnation, considered upon its own merits, but only concerns the causes of its origin and of its propagation as Spiritism."

(4) The Spiritualist, Aug. 13, 1875, pp. 74-5.

Another Frenchman, Alphonse Cahagnet, published in 1848 a book, Arcanes de la Vie Future Devoiles, translated under the title of The Celestial Telegraph, and containing, like Kardec's, communications purporting to emanate from discarnate human spirits, who on the contrary deny that reincarnation occurs. For example:

Q. You are convinced that we never more appear on earth, to be again materialized?

A. We are born, and die but once; when we are in heaven, it is for eternity.(5)

(5) Sec. 83, p. 111 of the 1851 First American Edition.

In England, the famous medium, D. D. Home, denied and ridiculed the doctrine; and communications through mediums in English speaking countries, when touching at all on reincarnation, have in most cases denied it. For example, Dr. C. A. Wickland, in his book, Thirty Years Among the Dead, already mentioned, reports many communications received through his own wife as medium, including some purporting to come from deceased persons who while on earth had accepted and taught reincarnation, but who in those communications repudiate the doctrine. Prominent among these are the purported spirits of Ella Wheeler Wilcox (pp. 411-5) and of Mme. Blavatsky (pp. 420-7).

Their testimony, however, is hardly more impressive than that of Allan Kardec's spirits on the opposite side of the question. For instance, what the supposed spirit of Ella Wheeler Wilcox says is that she "would not care to come back ... would not like to come back to this earth plane again to be a little baby;" that she does "not see why" she should come back! But obviously, if our likes and dislikes as regards our own future fate, settled the question of what it actually will be, then few of us would die, or become bald or wrinkled, or ever catch cold; for few persons indeed like these prospects.

The utterances of the purported Blavatsky spirit are much more categorical: "Reincarnation is not true," the spirit says, "I have tried and tried to come back to be somebody else, but I could not. We cannot reincarnate. We progress, we do not come back."(6) But although more downright, these statements are no more impressive than those of the Wilcox spirit; for it would be strange indeed that, as those statements would have it, not only the other alleged spirits of former Theosophists quoted in the same chapter, but the spirit of the very foundress of the modern Theosophical movement, should expect and try to reincarnate just a few years after death, notwithstanding her own explicit teaching that the interval between incarnations averages from 1000 to 1500 years; notwithstanding her own definite condemnation of the belief of "the Allan Kardec school ... in an arbitrary and immediate reincarnation;"(7) and notwithstanding her own teaching that reincarnation takes place not by trying for it, but automatically at the end of many centuries spent in the blissful "devachan" dream world. And it would be equally strange that reincarnation should now be denied - on the ground of the gratuitous assumption that "progressing" and "coming back" are mutually exclusive - by the very same Mme. Blavatsky who had affirmed reincarnation on the ground that we progress by coming back, as does the schoolboy progress by coming back to the same school after vacations and learning each time new lessons, which the school well can teach him but which he cannot all learn in a single term.

(6) Op. cit. Chapt. XV, p. 421.
(7) The Key to Theosophy, 3rd. ed. 1893, pp. 90, 98, 129.

Thus, if the utterances of the purported Blavatsky spirit should be considered evidence at all for anything, it would then rather be for truth of the Blavatsky teaching that the purported spirits who speak or write through a medium are instead only what is left of a personality when, some time after death, what she calls "the second death" has taken place; that is, when the higher active, thinking and judging mind has withdrawn from and left behind the lower, passive part, consisting of the habits, passions, memory images, and desires. This unthinking shell of the personality, she taught, borrows from the medium's living mind and is in this way temporarily able to act the part of a true spirit.

It would seem, then, that the misconceptions of Mme. Blavatsky's teachings evident in the statements of her alleged spirit through Mrs. Wickland, and uniformly also in the statements of the alleged spirits of former disciples of hers, are in fact simply the misconceptions of those teachings present in Mrs. Wickland's own mind.

As regards the modes of thought and the style of the communications attributed in Dr. Wickland's book to the spirit of Ella Wheeler Wilcox, the present writer is not in position to judge whether they are typical of the thought and style of the prototype. But in the case of those attributed to Mme. Blavatsky's spirit, the intellectual content of most of the utterances in the eight pages of its communications is of the feeble quality which is rather usual in "spirit" messages; and which, if the messages really emanated from the particular spirits claimed to be their authors, would cause one to weep for the then degeneration patently undergone after death by the minds of such of them as, like Mme. Blavatsky's, were anyway vigorous.

In this connection, it is interesting to note that the purported Blavatsky spirit says at one point: "Some may say this is not Madam Blavatsky ... They may say, she would not say so and so, she would not talk so and so, - but it is Madam Blavatsky" (p. 424). This would indicate that the would-be-Blavatsky "spirit" was conscious of the incongruity of its own utterances to the mind and personality of its claimed prototype.

Anyway, assuming for the purposes of the argument that the communications by mediums do come from discarnate human spirits, and even that these spirits are the particular ones they say they are, the really important point with regard to their denials of the reincarnation doctrine is that their lack of memory of lives earlier than their recent one on earth proves exactly nothing; just as the fact pointed out earlier that we now have no memory of the first few years after our birth or of the vast majority of our days since then, is no proof at all that we were not alive and conscious at those times. And the spirits' denial, or equally their assertion, that they will eventually reincarnate, is not based by them on any claim of paranormal capacity to precognize their own far remote future; nor is there any evidence that they have such capacity. Indeed, A. Campbell Holms, a writer who does not himself believe in reincarnation, but who is familiar with the records of spirit communications and apparently accepts them at their face value, writes: "Spirits long passed over, who appear to discuss matters with moderation and caution, if asked about reincarnation, will usually say that, although it may be true, they have no knowledge of it."(8)

(8) The Facts of Psychic Science and Philosophy, London, Kegan Paul, 1925, p. 36.

Such "spirits" thus evince greater intellectual responsibility than do either those Spiritualists or Spiritists who naively assume that the mere fact of a person's having died constitutes an answer to the question how his surviving spirit knows, or whether it knows, that reincarnation is not, or is, a fact. All that a surviving discarnate spirit could competently testify to would be (a) that it has survived its body's death; (b) that, as yet, it has not reincarnated; and (c) that it does not, or as the case may be does, "remember" anterior lives on earth.

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Contents | Preface | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16 | Chapter 17 | Chapter 18 | Chapter 19 | Chapter 20 | Chapter 21 | Chapter 22 | Chapter 23 | Chapter 24 | Chapter 25 | Chapter 26

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