Signs of Reincarnation by James Matlock (Book Review)

Geplaatst door

Titus Rivas   (publicatiedatum: 25 November, 2019)


Book Review of "Signs of Reincarnation: Exploring Beliefs, Cases, and Theory" by James G. Matlock.


Book Review
James G. Matlock. Signs of Reincarnation: Exploring Beliefs, Cases, and Theory. With contributions from Jeffrey Mishlove and Michael Nahm. Lanham, Boulder, New York, London, 2019. ISBN 9781538124796.

The book Signs of Reincarnation by anthropologist James (Jim) Matlock is without a doubt one of the most rigorous works about serious parapsychological reincarnation research that I have ever read. It discusses the history, methodology, prominent investigators, and main empirical findings of the field at an academic level.
The text of the book evolved while Matlock was preparing an intensive course by the same name and reaching certain insights in the process. There is also an active Facebook group, which is also called Signs of Reincarnation.
Even readers who are well acquainted with serious studies in this field will learn new things from this book, such as that by now there are around 1700 solved cases of young children who remember a previous life. Or that phobias related to the past incarnation occur relatively frequently. The author also analyses universal and culture-specific patterns in cases of the reincarnation type. Thus, we read that cases in which a child recalls a life as someone of the opposite sex occur much more often in certain cultures than in others. This does not mean that there are no cases that go against cultural expectations, for instance, cases of children in the West, whose parents certainly did not believe in reincarnation themselves. Matlock concludes that patterns of expectations may influence the reincarnation process, but without forming the correct explanation for the existence of paranormal memories of previous incarnations.

Also, there are cases in the book that have received little coverage elsewhere, such as the interesting American case of Rylann O’Bannion, which was personally investigated by Matlock.
The author’s own daughter Cristina started talking about a past life when she was three, and he dedicated the book to her.

Jim Matlock places himself explicitly and without reservation within the tradition initiated by American investigator Ian Stevenson. He points out that a lot more important evidence was found in studies of spontaneous memories of young children than through experimental research that uses techniques such as hypnosis. He gives much attention to all kinds of issues, e.g. spontaneous memories in adults, matches between recollections of a spiritual pre-existence, memories of an intermission period, between lives and NDEs, or the question whether there is good evidence for several types of karma. He turns out to be critical of New Age-doctrines and popular authors (such as Walter Semkiw) about reincarnation, and argues that religious and esoteric tenets of for example Hinduism and Buddhism should be tested against empirical data.

The author is right to dismiss nonsensical caricatures of reincarnation research by skeptics such as Michael Shermer and Keith Augustine. It is striking that most skeptics don’t even do their homework when it comes to acquainting themselves with the evidence. They start from an utterly outdated materialistic world view, whereas it seems clear that the influence of this materialism within science is inevitably diminishing more and more. For example, Matlock demonstrates that a non-materialistic theory can explain both “orthodox” neurological data and all types of anomalies surrounding the relationship between brain and mind that don’t match the dominant materialistic model. He points out that there is a convergence between anomalous phenomena and opts for a filter model of the brain without hesitation, which states that the mind is not produced but rather “filtered” by the brain. The author is right in showing a considerable amount of confidence in his discussion of so-called (skeptical) psycho-social theories, but also of attempts by scholars such as Michael Sudduth to explain all the evidence for reincarnation away as the product of telepathy and clairvoyance in the children involved. This way, it becomes clear how implausible such theories really are,
The same can be said for explanations based on notions such as the so-called Akasha Records or morphogenetic fields. Such theories don’t explain why children identify emotionally with someone, who died before they were born, and keep on doing so for years, while they demonstrate paranormal knowledge behavior and often even physical characteristics, such as birthmarks and birth defects. I agree with Matlock that the debate about these issues has been won convincingly by those who assume that the theory of a real reincarnation offers the best explanation for such cases.

Following his truly excellent overview of the whole field of research and the strength of the evidence, Matlock presents his own rather unique theory, with which I disagree in more than one respect. His theorizing is related in several respects to ancient animistic traditions and panpsychist (or perhaps more correctly panexperientialist) and vitalistic theories. It characterizes Matlock more than anything that he rejects a substantial personal self rather resolutely. Instead, he prefers talking about a mind, psyche or consciousness, defining the term “person” as a living, “embodied” human being. This means, for instance, that “persons” cannot survive death, and that postmortem survival is therefore limited to the (conscious and subconscious) mind. This implies that a reincarnated child cannot be the same “person” as the one whose life the child remembers. This could suggest that Matlock does not believe in a personal kind of reincarnation. A child with past life memories would not literally be a reincarnation of a deceased person, but it would have non-physically inherited so to speak that person’s psyche, while remaining another person,
The author mentions five scholars who inspired him to formulate his own theory, namely Frederic W.H. Myers, C.D. Broad, Whitehead, Henry Stapp and of course Ian Stevenson. He terms his own conclusion the theory of a “processual soul”, the word processual immediately suggesting that the theory has a background of anti-substantialist process-philosophy. It seems to suggest that the theory is close related to the anatta-doctrine of Buddhism, but Matlock stresses that he really does accept a personal kind of reincarnation, albeit of a mind that used to belong to someone else and not of a substantial Cartesian soul. For example, he states that we become “another person” with each incarnation. In my view, what seems incoherent about this, is that its hard to imagine how someone from the past who is not the same person as someone in the present still can change into that other person. Either the body is an intrinsic part of our personal identity (in the metaphysical rather than epistemological sense) or it is not, it seems to me, but not both at the same time. Matlock feels at home with the idealist and panpsychistic traditions and repeatedly uses the infamous– and really materialistic – argument against substance dualism that it would be incomprehensible how a non-physical psyche could interact with a physical brain. There are still other aspects with which I disagree, but this is enough for me here.

It must be said that Matlock is really exemplary in the way he deals with theoretical opponents such as myself, something I was already familiar with because of my membership of his Facebook-group and pleasant personal chats. He correctly represents the positions and arguments of intellectual rivals and even refers to relevant papers written by them. This is one of the ways in which this book is really exceptional for me.
Anyone who has a basic academic background and sufficient interest in reincarnation and related subjects, simply must read this work.

Titus Rivas