[INDOLOGY] sources for the idea that reincarnation is a semi-random process?

Steve Farmer saf at safarmer.com
Fri Nov 20 22:36:59 UTC 2020

Dear Dean,

Responding to Dominik you suggest that scientists might not be interested in studying reincarnation due to what you represent as

>> … the current scientific paradigm of materialism or physicalism which assumes that only material phenomena are real. Mental states, which would be how past or inter-life experiences would tend to be viewed, are considered to be epiphenomena which have no inherent reality but are mere outgrowths of physical brain functioning.

You add a little later:

>>> … this area is currently considered a metaphysical question not a "scientific" one.
>>> There might be approaches which could address such issues but most scientists are simply not interested. Many also feel that expressing an interest in this could hurt their scientific career.

As I think Dominik was trying gently to suggest to you, Dean, you’re deeply confusing 19th century with 20th and 21st centuries views of science. This is evident in your conflation of classical field theory — as expressed, e.g., in Newton, Faraday, and Maxwell — with much later quantum field theory, whose theoretical aims and mathematical tools (including Hilbert space!!) belong to a very different era.

In brief, quantum field theory originated in the 1920s-late 1940s in major figures involved in quantum mechanics including Dirac, Van Neumann, and Feynman. Following Feynman’s work in the late 1940s (when the use of Feynman’s diagrams and renormalization were introduced) it now lies at the center of the so-called “standard model” in particle physics. Seventy years later it has been tweaked by a long list of later mathematical physicists and cosmologists including Steven Weinberg at Harvard (in his 80s but still working).  

Weinberg wrote an elegant historical overview back in 1977 on the radical shifts in field theory from classical to quantum mechanics. Rather than belabor the point I’ll give you a link to Weinstein's classical paper here, where you can verify for yourself how radically different classical field theory and quantum field theory are:


Back to the supposed reluctance of modern scientists in general to deal with issues involving the origins of consciousness. The truth is just the reverse: ever since Schrödinger published his 1926 article on the quantum wave function, issues of consciousness have been central to the field. The issue is prominent due to the many paradoxes that arose after Schrödinger in making sense of the “collapse of the wave function” (so named by Heisenberg and Van Neumann) which  involves questions re. measurement and consciousness that remain unresolved after 94 years of heated scientific discussion.

There is nothing unique about the specific physicists Dominik mentions — the late David Bohm (d. 1992), Stapp, or Penrose. Dozens of other figures took the same route, including many of their teachers. Any short list — I’m leaving dozens of people out — would have to include Van Neumann, Eugene Wigner, John Archibald Wheeler, Steven Hawking, John Barrows and Frank Tipler (in their massive 1989 book on the so-called Anthropic Principle), Dyson Freeman, Max Tegmark, and a zillion billion others and their students. 

Hugh Everett, the originator of the still scientifically popular (among physicists, though not Penrose) "many-world interpretation" of quantum mechanics, falls in there too. Everett’s daughter Elizabeth took his scientific claims about human consciousness and immortality so seriously that when she killed herself, in 1996, her suicide note asked that her ashes be tossed in the garbage to assure that she'd "end up in the correct parallel universe to meet up w/  Daddy” — a oblique reference to complaints from Everett’s colleagues and family that he neglected himself physically (the usual carpe diem drinking, smoking, and gambling sort of thing) since he was so certain his scientific arguments for universal “quantum immortality” were irrefutable.

Why is this wonderfully wild & crazy theory so popular with theoreticians? Since it is expressed as a deterministic alternative to what later became the Copenhagen interpretation, which provoked Einstein’s famous “God does not throw dice” remark at the Solvay Conference. (Bohr’s amusing response: “Don’t tell God what to do!” Neither of course believed in God in any religious sense.)

Freeman Dyson, who just died this February, was famous (or infamous) for what appears to be his pan-psychism — sparked again not by religion but by rational attempts to solve the paradoxes in the “collapse of the wave function” problem — which led him to believe that "mind is already inherent in every electron.” The claim was predictably ridiculed by Dyson’s contemporaries and popular writers, but that didn’t prevent Dyson from being one of the most influential physicists of recent times, in many fields in physics including the development of quantum field theory in the late 40s.

Leaving physics aside and moving to neuroscience, where — again vs. your claims — it is again easy to show that scientific interest in consciousness is very widespread:

Building brain models that attempt to explain human consciousness has long been a Holy Grail in the field, in fact, starting in fiercely competing research groups in the late 1970s. All involve major and NOT minor figures, including giants like Vernon Mountcastle, Gerald Edelman, and (later) Giulio Tononi; Francis Crick and Christof Koch; Walter Freeman and his students at Berkeley; Stanislaus Dehaene, Jean-Pierre Changeux, and their students in France; Karl Pribram and his grad students at Stanford (many of them my friends); and many others.  

Dozens of research labs all over the planet are currently studying near simultaneities in the firing patterns of distributed neural networks or even quantum entanglement (Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance”) as processes required for conscious behavior.  Some very key tests of these models have in fact been made, though further advances are currently awaiting for further developments in cosmology.

Again, not to belabor the point, here is a recent overview by Koch of his work with Crick and some of their rivals (amusingly not all of them, if you know anything about of Crick’s deep Nobel rivalry with Edelman):

Koch (2018) “What is Consciousness?”

Finally, how much interest do these types of questions raise today in the scientific community — when compared, say, with public interests in ancient religious views of consciousness, e.g. in Buddhism or Jainism or virtually any Vedic scholastic tradition?

The answer is suggested in the enormous excitement generated by a mathematical paper published earlier this week in Frontiers in Physics — hardly a high-impact factor journal — entitled "The Quantitative Comparison Between the Neuronal Network and the Cosmic Web.”  

I've read the paper and don't view its claims as groundbreaking, since similar correlative or fractal-like views have been put forward in lots of recent theoretical papers in integrative systems biology. But my views aside, in its first 4 days after publication this paper was viewed by over 25,000 (sic!) people, and secondary discussions have already begun in social media widely used by theoretical physicists to exchange ideas.

Here’s the new paper on the brain and cosmos from 4 days ago;
https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphy.2020.525731/full <https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphy.2020.525731/full>

Sorry this one-time post has been so long — but the topic is interesting and important!  Quick summary:

1. Scientific approaches to consciousness have been critical to the work of a long list of famous physicists since at least the 1927 Solvay Conference on Electrons and Photons, marked by the famous arguments between Bohr and Einstein on the paradoxes in quantum mechanics;

2. Similar approaches have also been central to neurobiology since at least the 1970s, triggered by major empirical discoveries starting in the 1950s and early 1960s that I haven’t mentioned, especially by Mountcastle (in 1957on the columnar structure of the premotor cortex), by Hubel and Wiesel (on the similar structure of the visual cortex), and on discoveries of a different sort in the Soviet Union following many decades of anatomical work by Luria and his collaborators.

Warm regards,
Steve Farmer

The Systems Biology Group
Palo Alto, CA

> On Nov 20, 2020, at 8:21 AM, Dean Michael Anderson via INDOLOGY <indology at list.indology.info> wrote:
> On Thursday, November 19, 2020, 10:36:17 PM GMT+5:30, Dominik Wujastyk <wujastyk at gmail.com> wrote:
> I'm not sure this is a fair representation of the current scientific paradigm. 
> Dean writes:
> Thanks for your valuable comment and information Dominik. I agree with you and Penrose, et al. Forgive me if I beg to differ, however, in considering it the "current scientific paradigm." But, as you point out, things are changing. We can only hope.
> Best,
> Dean
> On Wed, 18 Nov 2020 at 20:24, Dean Michael Anderson <eastwestcultural at yahoo.com <mailto:eastwestcultural at yahoo.com>> wrote:
> My response: I see the main objection would be the current scientific paradigm of materialism or physicalism which assumes that only material phenomena are real. Mental states, which would be how past or inter-life experiences would tend to be viewed, are considered to be epiphenomena which have no inherent reality but are mere outgrowths of physical brain functioning.
> I'm not sure this is a fair representation of the current scientific paradigm.  Of course it depends on whom in the scientific community you listen to.  I've been watching some of the online lectures by Roger Penrose recently (he just got a Nobel).  He's proposing some very interesting and definitely non-physical speculations about the non-computable nature of consciousness.  He's not mainstream on these topics, at least amongst physicists, but he is a major voice.  And there are others too, in the rapidly-evolving field of consciousness studies.  There has always been a philosophical stream in Physics that thinks creatively about the consequences of quantum mechanics, such as non-locality, quantum entanglement, etc.  Henry Pierce Stapp, David Bohm, etc.  And anyway, is electromagnetic radiation, for example, best thought of as a "material phenomenon"?  Perhaps the science paradigm is not best thought about as material vs. nonmaterial, but as falsifiable vs. metaphysical.
> Best,
> Dominik
> --
> Professor Dominik Wujastyk <https://apps.ualberta.ca/directory/person/wujastyk>,
> Singhmar Chair in Classical Indian Society and Polity,
> Department of History and Classics <http://historyandclassics.ualberta.ca/>,
> University of Alberta, Canada.
> South Asia at the U of A: sas.ualberta.ca <http://sas.ualberta.ca/>
> SSHRC research: The Suśruta Project <http://sushrutaproject.org/>
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