Fact or fiction? The girl, the hypnotist and past lives
Jon Danzig's review of 'Many Lives, Many Masters' by Dr Brian Weiss
Faith, of course, means the belief in something that cannot be proved. That applies to religions and other beliefs, and to reincarnation: the idea that our lives are recycled over and over and we come back in different forms.
It’s a lovely idea; I personally have an open mind about it and don’t really know if reincarnation occurs or not, but agree it could happen. Why not?
I would never dream of challenging someone's belief or faith. After all, it's personal to them, and private, and deserves to be respected.
But what if a scientist came along and claimed to be able to give evidence for a ‘faith’; to prove what was previously unprovable, using ‘scientific methods’? That would surely be something, wouldn’t it? Because with evidence, one wouldn’t need faith anymore: we could claim it was a fact. Of course, to be able to replace faith with a verifiable irrefutable fact, we would surely want to be 100% sure about the evidence being offered and to check it out.
That’s what I’ve been doing with a book, written by a 'scientist', claiming to provide proof of reincarnation and past lives. It’s called ‘Many Lives, Many Masters’ by American psychiatrist Dr Brian Weiss, and I’ve been checking it out. The book features one of Dr Weiss’s patients, called ‘Catherine’, who went to him for therapy. Subsequently he hypnotised her over many sessions. In her hypnotic state, Catherine revealed to him stories of many past lives spanning thousands of years.
The book has given great hope to people that reincarnation really happens. It’s a best-seller with over 1.5 million copies sold and has helped to make Dr Weiss a ‘past-life’ celebrity, who often appears on TV. His book has also achieved exceptionally high ratings; if you go to Amazon, you’ll see that it routinely receives 4 or 5 stars out of 5.
I first came across the book when a friend, who is a firm believer in reincarnation, lent me a copy. She knew of my dedication to ‘evidence based science’ and said to me, “Jon, here’s evidence that reincarnation really happens.” I promised to read the book with an open mind.
One of the first things that struck me about this book was Dr Weiss’s statements that he was both a medical doctor and a scientist committed to scientific methods. So, this wasn’t just a book that relayed someone’s hypnotic stories simply as a curiosity that you could ‘make of as you will’. This was a book that the author claimed had science and evidence behind it; a book that boldly claimed on its front cover was “true”.
Dr Weiss explained to his readers that he was, “driven to pursue the experience with Catherine in a careful, scientific manner” and to look at the information “objectively”.
His biography states that he is a graduate of Columbia University and Yale Medical School, and is currently the Chairman Emeritus of Psychiatry at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami. Certainly Dr Weiss’s training, discipline and profession would have taught him to follow the strict protocols of ‘evidence based science’.
In explaining to the readers how he would approach his research into his patient’s hypnotic stories of many past lives, Dr Weiss wrote, “I felt the need to apply the scientific method, which I had rigorously used over the past fifteen years in my research, to evaluate this most unusual material emerging from Catherine’s lips.”
So the reader clearly understood what he meant by this, Dr Weiss further wrote, “The important strides that are going to be made in this field will be made using scientific methodology. In science, a hypothesis, which is a preliminary assumption made about a series of observations, is initially created to explain a phenomenon. From there, the hypothesis must be tested under controlled conditions. The results of these tests must be proved and replicated before a theory can be formed. Once the scientists have what they think is a sound theory, it must be tested again and again by other researchers, and the results should be the same.”
With such bold claims of scientific scrutiny, credibility and reasoning, this was surely a book to be taken seriously. No wonder my friend claimed that this book provided ‘proof’ of reincarnation. The eminent title, history and qualifications of the author alone made the book seem to be a work of truth and honesty, even before opening it up to read.
Except, when I did open up the book to read, what I saw was simply unbelievable. And I don’t mean unbelievable in the ‘wow’ sense such as ‘unbelievable, they’ve found ice on Mars’ or ‘unbelievable, stem cells can be created from skin.’ I mean unbelievable because it was all completely unbelievable; it was nonsense. In fact, it was so unbelievable, I couldn’t quite believe how anyone had believed it, let alone given it five stars; let alone proclaimed that it represented ‘proof’ of reincarnation.
As I went through page by page, I made a list of just some of the glaring, unbelievable statements made in the book, and added my own comments as to why they were just so unbelievable. Before I knew it, I had accumulated 3,500 words. It was the easiest 3,500 words I’d ever written – and probably the most fun and stimulating. Nonsense after nonsense; another one, another one and another one. This was better than fishing. I was netting whoppers. What was wrong with me? Couldn’t the other 1.5 + million readers of this book see what I saw – or rather couldn’t see?
I could not see evidence; nothing like it; none of the promised science; no methodology; no controlled conditions; no sharing or replication of data; no credibility whatsoever. This was just a work of science fiction, not science fact.
Let me give you some examples.
Dr Weiss explained in his book that his patient, Catherine, whilst hypnotised, could only say the date she had ‘regressed’ to if she could see or hear it in her past life. During one session Catherine said whilst hypnotised by Dr Weiss that she could “vividly see” that, “The year is 1863 BC.”
How could Catherine have seen a date that never existed at the time?
On another occasion when Dr Weiss hypnotised Catherine in his clinic, his patient described herself as a 35-year-old German pilot in the Second World War shot down in France.
Can you think of any reason why Dr Weiss, apparently trained and practised in the discipline of scientific truth seeking, never asked Catherine for the name, rank and squadron of the pilot she claimed to be before she was born? I cannot think of any reason; to verify Catherine’s story, it’s the first question I’d ask. But time and again in the book, Catherine revealed stories of her past lives and Dr Weiss didn’t ask her for full names and addresses.
In another hypnosis session, Dr Weiss wrote of Catherine, “She had never heard of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Yet she was relating similar experiences to those described in these writings. This was a proof of sorts.” This was surely not a proof of anything. How could Dr Weiss ascertain that Catherine had never heard of the Tibetan Book of the Dead? His scientific training should have taught him that it is impossible to prove a negative.
I can understand to an extent why some readers might have believed ‘Many Lives, Many Masters’ to be genuine. There is a notion, completely unfounded, that what someone says under hypnosis must be true. That idea has absolutely no science or merit behind it and so, yes, it was a surprise to me that a medical doctor should want to propagate such an urban legend.
If someone said under hypnosis that they had flown to the moon last night, or were invisible every Tuesday – and this and much wilder utterances have often been proclaimed during hypnotic states – it should be considered no more believable than if it had been said by someone wide eyed and awake and munching a Big Mac. Hypnosis is not a truth device. However, it can be a magnifier of one’s imagination.
For those who’d like to read my full review with its page-by-page list of nonsense from this book, I’ve added a link to the bottom of this article. By all means boost Dr Weiss’s sales and check out the book for yourself; you may well be able to add to my list, which wasn’t exhaustive.
Does this mean that reincarnation isn’t true? Not at all; it means nothing. The book neither proves nor disproves past lives or reincarnation. It’s just a book that re-tells the hypnotic stories of a girl who’d gone to her doctor for help. It offers no evidence or science, or even proof that the patient called Catherine existed.
For those who believe in reincarnation, relax. You can still have faith.
Jon Danzig's full forensic review of 'Many Lives, Many Masters'
- Fiction parading as science? - Brian L. Weiss M.D. - Many Lives, Many Masters - Epinions.com
Review Summary: Dr Weiss has conducted his research without scientific protocols or peer review. This, I believe, discredits his book as a work of fairy tale-like fiction.