Theologically Incorrect

Foremost, I want to commend Dr. Claire White on her research on the cognitive science of reincarnation beliefs. Examining how humans cognitively recognize agents based on the continuity of certain attributes is an ingenious way to explore the criteria people intuitively construct for the continuity of agents across lifetimes. It solves the difficult problem of operationalizing belief in reincarnation to make it available for scientific study. While I applaud the project and its initial hypothesis, some of the methodology seems to reflect an incomplete understanding of the religious doctrine it is attempting to link with fundamental cognitive processes.

Dr. White identifies the continuity of physical traits and memories as telltales by which the continuity of an agent between lives is typically identified. From her research, Dr. White shows that if participants are asked how they would determine someone is a deceased’s reincarnation, they overwhelmingly would look for shared physical characteristics (e.g. a birth mark) between the two, as well as shared memories, e.g. the reincarnation retaining a memory of an experience of the deceased. Dr. White then attempts to show that mental and physical continuity are actually intuitive cognitive processes that help us identify agents in the world, and so they, in turn, inform how we conceptualize reincarnation. She makes this case through a notion of theological incorrectness. The notion of theological incorrectness is a well-established tool in the cognitive science of religion literature which helps to differentiate intuitive (i.e. innate) cognitive processes from culturally learned beliefs. The idea is that when someone is asked to reason about a theological concept (what Dr. White in the interview calls a “reason task”), they are likely to use intuitive cognitive notions about the world even if those notions diverge from the indoctrinated theology that the person otherwise claims to believe. Appealing to the presence of theologically incorrect intuitions in individual reasoning about theological concepts shows that something other than just a cultural construct is operative in that reasoning, pointing to more fundamental cognitive structures.

The use of theological incorrectness as a criterion for the operation of an intuitive cognitive mechanism thus depends on the existence of a divergence between the reasoning of the participant and the formal theological reasoning of the tradition to which they belong. If there is no divergence, it is just as likely that the participant is reasoning from a culturally constructed concept as from some intuitive cognitive structure.

But, I don’t think Dr. White has shown that continuity of memory or physical traits as criteria for reincarnation does actually diverge from the theological system. In the case of Buddhism, she cites the Dalai Lama who is recognized as a reincarnation by remembering objects from his past life. She says this criteria is theologically incorrect from the perspective of the Buddhist doctrine of no-self. If the self is impermanent, how could someone carry a memory from one life to the next? The doctrine of no-self, however, does not just govern the transition between lifetimes. All Buddhist schools argue that a person changes from moment to moment, endlessly, and thus has no stable self. If memory continuity between lifetimes is problematic for the doctrine of no-self, then so is memory within one life, let alone between. However, there is no reason to think this is the case. The Buddhist doctrine of no-self is actually none too different than the cognitive science (CS) view of self. CS rejects the notion of a permanent homunculus pulling the strings inside the brain. The experience of a self is made of functioning neural components processing ever changing electro-chemical signals. This is sufficiently a no-self conception in the Buddhist sense. If CS can have a no-self view and explain memory, there is no reason to assume a priori that memory continuity is inconsistent with a Buddhist standpoint of no-self. In fact, I would argue, all Buddhist systems have thorough analyses about how memories are transferred between lives despite there being no-self. To say that memory transfer is theologically incorrect just demonstrates not being acquainted with the theology.

Physical trait continuity also is not theologically incorrect. White argues that in the reincarnationist doctrine, the mind or soul inhabits a new form when it reincarnates. If it is something non-corporeal that reincarnates, why is there any physical continuity? This first assumes that reincarnation doctrine is essentially mind-body dualist, which, at least in Buddhism, is a much more complicated debate. But, even if we grant a type of dualism, the assumption that physical continuity is theologically incorrect completely dismisses the doctrine of karma, which is indispensible in most Eastern reincarnationist doctrines. Karma is not only thought to be carried in the mind or soul between lives; it is also instrumental in physically forming the reincarnate body. Physical continuity is thus not theologically problematic. There is nothing grossly physical that reincarnates, but the mind or soul carries propensities from the past life that necessitate one’s physical form in the next.

If neither of these concepts, physical or mental continuity, are theologically incorrect, it’s hard to make the case that they are borne out of some more fundamental agent-recognition cognitive structures. Because of the research design, I am even more suspect that the convergence Dr. White has shown is the result of a shared conceptual understanding of reincarnation rather than some intuitive structure. Dr. White said that she asked participants to reason about “reincarnation” without any religious language, so as not to prime their answers. “Reincarnation,” even in another guise, however, is already a religious concept, so I’m unclear how this isn’t already a sort of priming. Furthermore, there is good reason to think that each of the three studies she mentions are drawing on groups that have similar religious notions of “reincarnation.” The U.K. has had long cultural exchange with India, Jains themselves have conceptions of reincarnation drawn from an Upanishadic Indian milieu, and the American New Age draws largely on the Theosophists, who themselves also developed their religiosity out of this milieu. The convergence on continuity of memory and physical traits as criteria for reincarnation could be as much explained by a shared Indian notion of reincarnation than by some fundamental cognitive process. These studies do not demonstrate a true cross-cultural slice.

Lastly, Dr. White presents her upcoming research problem: why is it that upper class whites have adopted the notion of reincarnation but with a positive valence? She argues that in traditional reincarnationist doctrine, rebirth is to be escaped, not embraced. This question again shows an incomplete understanding of these traditions. In Buddhism, for example, it was only the very elite, probably a very small minority of monks, that were concerned with escaping rebirth. The vast majority of Buddhists are focused on what’s called the “lower scope,” attaining a better rebirth. The irony here is that White is trying to identify a cultural difference between American whites and traditional reincarnationist where there may actually be a shared cognitive structure, perhaps an intuition that the mind continues after death. Whereas earlier I argued that she is confusing cultural structures for cognitive ones, here she may be doing the reverse.

In sum, I think a lot of these problems could be rectified with a more thorough understanding of the theological positions about the phenomena under investigation. We cannot hope to identify theological incorrectness with an incomplete understanding of theology itself. Even if participants profess a different theology “on the ground” than the party line, investigating the relationship between the professed theology and its source requires a deep understanding of theology in general. Perhaps this demonstrates a good opportunity for collaborative research toward consilience. Just as the humanities can broaden understanding in their domain through the inclusion of cognitive science, the cognitive scientist has much to gain in collaborating with the religious studies scholar who has thoroughly investigated the doctrinal level of the phenomena under investigation.

Not Just Any Body Will Do!

Dr. Claire White’s research addresses the religious topic of reincarnation that, although perhaps more adhered to by human cultures across time and space than the belief that we have only one earthly life followed by eternal reward or punishment, has received little serious scientific investigation—especially from the question through which Dr. White addresses it. That question is not whether reincarnation (or any other religious belief) is true, but rather “Why do some people have that belief?” It is this type of psychological question that is the hallmark of the cognitive science of religion (CSR).

The long-held assumption, made historically by both scholars and laymen, has been that religious beliefs are created and instilled through cultural transmission and indoctrination. In the past few decades, however, the newly emergent field of CSR has taken that assumption to task with numerous empirical experiments. Contrary to this long-held assumption, research into a wide variety of religious beliefs by CSR has found that many of those beliefs are held by us because they tap into and appeal to our natural cognitive biases. These cognitive biases predispose us to believe in gods, an afterlife, a moral universe, and creationism. Even though each religion addresses these topics in (sometimes very!) different ways, the findings suggest that what binds this great variation together are these underlying intuitions.

Like any human endeavour, however, science sometimes includes missteps.

White’s research, in conjunction with my own and others’, calls into question a theoretical assumption held by many CSR scholars that the body plays a negligible role in beliefs about supernatural agents (see here, here and here). According to such scholars, supernatural agents are represented by believers as disembodied beings, devoid of any bodily properties. This applies to gods as well as the afterliving deceased. Once a human dies, these researchers tell us, the only part of this deceased individual we intuitively represent as continuing is her mind. We no longer represent her as embodied in any way, let alone in any way connected with her previous earthly body. In contradistinction to this view with regard to the latter, both White and myself argue that the body still plays a vital role in representations of the afterliving deceased, and that this bodily representation is sufficiently corporeal and similar enough to allow for recognition and identification as “the same again” as well as continued social interaction.

As White rightly states in her interview, if there were ever a case in which the afterliving deceased’s previous earthly body should play no role whatsoever in her representation, recognition and identity, then it should be in the context of reincarnation. It is believed that the new physical body of the reincarnated individual shares no causal history, in the scientific sense, with her previous body. It could vary in race, sex, and innumerable other ways. Yet White’s empirical findings demonstrate that when trying to determine whether a reincarnated individual is the same again, we intuitively look for and at distinctive physical clues. If it were indeed the case that humans intuitively represented the afterliving deceased as disembodied minds, then there would be no reason, let alone an intuitive bias, to gauge the reincarnated individual’s identity based on her bodily attributes. Yet we do.

The evidence produced by White vividly demonstrates this by the fact that one of the two most important features that one “implicitly” looks for and appeals to in order to recognize a reincarnated individual as the same again are distinctive physical characteristics. Since the individual’s new body shares no causal history—genetic or otherwise—with her previous body (again, in the scientific sense), there should be no implicit reason to expect there to be such specific physical clues of identity. Nevertheless, White’s evidence demonstrates that we still represent and appeal to physical clues in matters of recognizing a reincarnated individual as the same again.

White does not appeal to novel cognitive mechanisms to explain this phenomenon, as is vogue in CSR (and cognitive science as a whole). Instead White claims that this intuitive cognitive bias relies on the known mundane representational processes that we use every day to recognize those we encounter as the same again. We expect them to have a specific causal history which we implicitly track through both mental (i.e., autobiographical memories) and distinctive physical characteristics. Of course, the latter are far more easily tracked than the former (could you imagine how different our interactions would be if we had to establish every individual’s identity by first interrogating her about her memories?).

White is also to be commended for incorporating anthropological evidence in her research. This is something that should be done much more often in CSR. Too often, researchers produce results and theories in their laboratories that appear to share little in common with the religious practices they are attempting to illuminate empirically. They provide us with no bridge to get from their results and theory to religion writ large in human cultures. Even worse, sometimes their results and theories seem to fly in the face of religious beliefs and practices.

Again, take the claim that humans represent supernatural agents as disembodied. This is problematic in that supernatural agents (with very few exceptions) are starkly represented as embodied, not just in iconography but also in mythologies and religious texts, and in fact often with very specific and odd physical features. For instance, think about the pantheons of supernatural agents across such diverse cultures as in ancient Egypt, Greece, Scandinavia, India and China. How could the supernatural agents in these cultures have been represented, let alone carried out their specific mythical exploits, if we believed (intuitively or otherwise) that they were disembodied? Reconciling the laboratory phenomenon of dualism with religious beliefs and practices begins to appear impossible.

To overcome the complaints of its critics, CSR needs to follow White’s lead. Not only must we diligently carry out cross-cultural experiments in the laboratory, but we also need to consult and remain faithful to the anthropological record of religion as it is believed and practiced. If the two appear incompatible, it is our experiments and theories that must be rethought. It is not as though we in CSR can authoritatively tell the religious faithful that they are worshipping all wrong!

Not In That Dead Body


“Who are you? What are you? Where is your soul or spirit? It’s not in that dead body…” – Dr. Robert White, Neurosurgeon and Bioethicist

Dr. Robert White

Interdisciplinary pioneers of otherwise uncharted territory in the cognitive science of religion (CSR) are apt to ask some of the most provocative yet fundamental questions of human existence. These questions extend not only across the lifespan, but also into the realm of continued existence after death. A religious notion traversing cultural boundaries, reincarnation in particular and the cognitive processes underlying reincarnation beliefs are arguably foundational to understanding how people reason about existence and identity. Whether addressing how reincarnation is conceptualized or how to go about identifying the reincarnated, such questions are not only religious in nature, but experimental researchers are also beginning to explore these subjects and their associated cognitive processes through controlled empirical studies. Dr. Claire White of the Cognitive Science of Religion Lab at Cal State-Northridge asks exactly these questions in her research, which she summarizes in a recent interview with the Religious Studies Project.

Dr. Claire White

Who are you?

Obviously, reincarnation invites inquiries around identity: What does it mean to be the same person or different people, either within or between lives? With the diversity of reincarnation beliefs in the world, there is no single consensus on the matter of identity, though converging streams exist.

Reincarnation beliefs are common throughout Buddhism and Hinduism as well as within several new age religious movements and among plenty of spiritual seekers in the west. Dr. C. White explains that other researchers of reincarnation have documented reincarnation beliefs in at least 30% of cultures, a figure that may actually be an underestimate on account of excluding ambiguous cases. Among those studying reincarnation, Dr. Tony Walter, Professor of Death Studies at the University of Bath and Dr. Helen Waterhouse, Visiting Honorary Associate in Religious Studies through the Open University have found that fewer people (of those surveyed in the UK) endorse the belief in reincarnation than those who find reincarnation plausible, which may include up to a quarter of all respondents [1].

In the interview, Dr. C. White points out this important distinction between 1) ontological commitment and 2) plausibility (on account of a belief being “cognitively sticky” or intriguing). Needless to say, significantly more people are willing to entertain the plausibility of reincarnation than are likely to wholeheartedly adopt reincarnation into their existing belief structure.

The prevalence of reincarnation beliefs cross-culturally and the appeal even to those who are not firm believers in reincarnation begs the question: why? Although there are several possible (and equally true) reasons for cultures and the individuals that comprise them to endorse reincarnation beliefs at some level, one possible function of reincarnation beliefs that deserves further attention is that they provide a means of circumventing one’s own mortality.

Talking to Death

To confront the inevitability of one’s own death from the perspectives of nihilism and annihilationism in which death is viewed as the ultimate end raises the crisis of meaninglessness, which according to existential psychiatrist Dr. Irvin Yalom, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Stanford University, “stems from the dilemma of a meaning-seeking creature who is thrown into a universe that has no meaning” [2]. In a world where the only certainty is death, the sense of having no meaning in life conjures existential terror. According to Terror Management Theory (TMT), this existential terror results from the desire to live while being forced to acknowledge the reality of death [3], creating unavoidable conflict in the mind of the mortal. Importantly, empirical research on TMT indicates that mortality salience, or bringing to mind thoughts of one’s own death, leads to self-esteem striving, which involves pursuit of positive self-evaluations as a means of buffering against the terror and anxiety evoked by the uniquely human awareness of mortality [4].

Looking at Death

Both traditional and modern accounts of reincarnation presume continued existence and the preservation of some form of identity across lives in spite of physical death. The belief that death is not the end of existence (whether through adoption of reincarnation beliefs or some other form of afterlife) is understandably comforting to many. In fact, according to Yalom, desire for psychological “immortality” is the default response to existential anxiety. However, immortality, whether real or imagined as a defense mechanism against existential anxiety, requires some-thing to be immortal, some kind of enduring feature(s) to maintain uninterrupted identity.

What are you?

Two types of features are typically taken as evidence of identity, Dr. C. White explains:

  1. Physical marks
  2. Memories

When seeking to identify a reincarnated person, one strategy entails looking for specific physical marks, especially distinctive marks that are unlikely to belong to many people. Congenital traits are preferred and considered more reliable, since what is present from birth is less likely to change, indicating some degree of underlying stability.

The other commonly employed strategy is to match a reincarnate-candidate to the previous incarnation on the basis of memories, specifically episodic memories. Recognition, whether of another person or a particular object that should otherwise be unfamiliar, is trusted as an indication of identity during reincarnation searches. This is largely on account of the commonly accepted reasoning that memories represent continuity of self and communicate ownership.

Dr. Ian Stevenson

Early research by the late Dr. Ian Stevenson, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in the 1960s also attempted to address questions of reincarnation, albeit through an overwhelmingly anecdotal approach. Documenting cases of children whose memories and birthmarks matched those of the deceased, Dr. Stevenson accumulated several thousands of pages worth of photographic “evidence” of reincarnation. While groundbreaking for its time, Dr. Stevenson’s reincarnation research was unfortunately lacking in the empiricism and scientific rigor necessary to procure sufficient evidence for what he was purporting to prove. Nonetheless, his was among the first research to suggest that memories and physical marks can be transferred from one lifetime to another, thus serving as identifying traits among the reincarnated.

Where is your soul or spirit?

Meditation on Mortality

Buddhists are one religious group to directly confront the inevitability of death through meditation on mortality (which may involve visualization of corpses) while proposing rebirth as a means of [not-]self-preservation. The not-self part here is crucial, for reasons that Dr. C. White also mentions in her interview. She notes that in Buddhism there is no such thing as a permanent and enduring self, yet in Tibetan Buddhism in particular, the belief that an individual (e.g., His Holiness the Dalai Lama) reincarnates and can be identified based on recognition of objects belonging to their previous incarnation implies continuity of identity, or at least episodic memory. Dr. C. White suggests these reincarnation beliefs contradict the official teachings of the Buddhist tradition within which they are embedded.

Aging and Death

As should be evident from any serious inquiry into the teachings of Buddhism, the Buddha rejected the existence of an enduring self that persists from life to life, like a soul or spirit, rendering the question “Where is your soul or spirit?” meaningless. Yet within Buddhism the notion of rebirth or reincarnation is widespread. A common question then raised by the uninitiated is, “if there’s no self, what gets reincarnated or reborn?” The question again becomes, “Who are you? What are you? Where is your soul or spirit? It’s not in that dead body…” Focus inevitably returns to that dead body… What once animated it and gave it life that is lacking in death?

As for the Buddha’s response, he discouraged needless speculation on the matter, deeming it unnecessary to the cessation of suffering [5]. Yet few find this silence satisfactory. Probing the annals of Buddhist philosophy, one finds that several schools of Buddhism purport that some subtle level of selfless consciousness is the culprit. Whether it is the bhavanga-sota/bhavanga-citta referenced by commentarial sources in Theravada Buddhism or the alaya-vijnana of Mahayana Buddhism, some form of sub-conscious life-continuum yokes together past, present, and future.

It’s not in that dead body.

Dr. Robert White - Monkey Head Transplant

The other Dr. White quoted at the beginning of this piece, while never explicitly endorsing reincarnation beliefs, nonetheless raised several questions regarding identity that called upon both science and religion. Pivotal in the field of neurosurgery, the late Dr. Robert White, Professor of Neurological Surgery at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine until his death in 2010, is best known as a prominent head transplant surgeon, operating on several species ranging from dogs to monkeys. Obviously concerned about the ethical dimensions of his bizarre operations, throughout his career, “Dr. Frankenstein,” as he is otherwise called, often questioned his own practices as a surgeon from a critically bioethical perspective. Dr. Robert White proposed that the brain (which he believed was responsible for housing the soul) plays a central role in identity preservation. In fact, he is quoted in Scene Magazine: “I believe the brain tissue is the physical repository for the human soul.” He is also quoted in Scene Magazine, remarking “We discovered that you can keep a human brain going without any circulation…It’s dead for all practical purpose – for over an hour – then bring it back to life. If you want something that’s a little bit science fiction, that is it, man, that is it!”

As far as what happens to “that dead body” once “the not-self” uninhabits it, that is a question no scientist can sufficiently answer, as its metaphysical assumptions lie outside the purview of physicalist science and cannot be encapsulated by any intellectual system aiming to quantify qualia. Understanding what the self is and is not, and that even conceiving of “the not-self” is problematic in its reification of substanceless phenomena, seem to take precedence yet pose obstacles to CSR. Yet with emerging interdisciplinary research within CSR, the reasoning processes behind these notions of identity, existence, and continuity can at least be illuminated, even if the metaphysics remain unscathed.

Dr. Robert White


[1] Walter, T., & Waterhouse, H. (2001). Lives-long learning: The effects of reincarnation belief on everyday life in England. Nova Religio, 5(1), 85-101.

[2] Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.

[3] Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. Public Self and Private Self, 189-212.

[4] Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Arndt, J., & Schimel, J. (2004). Why do people need self-esteem? A theoretical and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 130(3), 435-468.

[5] “Sabbasava Sutta: All the Fermentations” (MN 2), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition).