This week it was reported that a 74-year-old Cambodian widow had taken in a stray calf, believing the beast to be the reincarnation of her husband.
Now, the calf cannot speak for himself, but I assume he is pretty chuffed with the new arrangement. Rather than living on the street, he roams freely in the house and I assume he now eats like a prince.
Other cases of alleged reincarnation are more difficult to cast aside as nonsense. Young children, with apparently no prompting, have been known to insist on having lived a previous life, often suffering a tragic and sudden death. Precise details of the past life description are later found to accurately match with details of the life of some target deceased person.
While these kinds of personal reincarnation accounts can be found throughout the world, it is notable that they are overwhelmingly more common among majority Buddhist communities, such as in Cambodia and Sri Lanka. Since reincarnation figures prominently in the religious beliefs of these Buddhist communities, it seems reasonable to conclude that the large number of reincarnation stories coming from these communities is the result of cultural diffusion: the children have overheard the adults talking about reincarnation.
However, once the huge number of Sri Lankan and Cambodian cases are removed from the equation, the resulting pool of testimonial accounts is relatively meagre. We are left with a handful of reincarnation accounts of very dubious provenance.
Of course, it could always be argued that the transmigrating spirit needs to be raised in a Buddhist context in order to retain the beliefs from the previous life. Plants need nurturing soil and sunlight to grow. Similarly, the soul requires the right kind of environment in which to blossom and develop through its many earthly lives.
Alas, this explanation is clearly ad hoc. It reminds us of the psychic’s claim that his supernatural powers are muted in the presence of disbelievers. In both cases, the belief in the phenomenon is a prerequisite for the phenomenon to occur. The placebo effect is a genuine example of just such a phenomenon. Reincarnation, however, is most probably not.