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House of X: How would reincarnation work? Would we know it when we saw it?

Is it a mutant power, or something that happens in the real world, too?

Jonathan Hickman is not averse to playing with high concept stuff in his comics. In two issues each of House of X and Powers of X, he’s already turned our perceptions of all things X-Men completely around, in unanticipated ways. But were those panels of Charles Xavier and Moira MacTaggert in House of X #2 really “the most important in the history of the X-Men,” as advertised?

You can decide that for yourself, but it definitely introduced one of the more creative mutant powers we’ve seen — and stop reading here if you don’t want to be spoiled — the power of reincarnation. It seems, unbeknownst to anyone, Moira has actually lived 10 different lives (nine to their completion), returning back to when she started after each death, retaining all her memories and using that information to try to plot the best course of lifetime action to make the world a better place for her kind.

That’s in contrast to “real” reincarnation, in which a person’s … soul? … essence? … is transferred into a NEW body sometime after they die, as the world continues to move forward. Maybe that new body is another person, maybe it’s a cane toad. Depends on which particular cultural/religious belief system you’re talking about.

House of X #2

“Real” is in quotes because, yes, there are stories about reincarnation, and plenty of anecdotes, but not a lot of good, empirical evidence to support the idea. And there’s certainly no plausible mechanism for how it might happen.

In Marvel Comics, we know the astral plane is a thing, so we can imagine maybe Moira’s mind travels through there. There’s no such analogue known in the real world, and scientists usually want to know how a thing might happen before agreeing that it does happen. Data can be wrong or incomplete, after all. It took geoscientists almost 50 years to accept the fact that the continents move, after the idea was first proposed, because all the suggested mechanisms didn’t make sense. That’s not undue stubbornness, that’s how you make sure you got it right.

On top of that, for reincarnation to be real, a lot of what we already know about biology (and physics, for that matter) would have to be wrong. We know that the mind is a product of the brain. Traumatic brain injuries can dramatically change personalities, and you can predict how depending on where, exactly, the damage is. And certainly any adult with even the mildest recollection of puberty understands that hormones affect our behavior. How or why would this be so if “we” were separate from our bodies, rather than being products of them?

But all that’s kind of putting the cart before the horse. Psychologist Ray Hyman has a famous maxim that says, “Don’t try to explain something until you’re sure there is something to be explained.” Some people have been heavily swayed by the research of psychiatrist Ian Stevenson who, at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, collected reincarnation stories and attempted to fact check them for 40 years, totaling 3,000 cases in all.

Most of the cases were of young children “remembering” details of the lives of deceased people in other parts of their home countries (apparently you can’t reincarnate across borders). Unlike Moira’s total recall, these memories are fragmented and often vague. Some of Stevenson’s examples seemed remarkably specific and hard to explain away, though, and he claimed there was no way for the children to have the knowledge they unexpectedly blurted out.

House of X #2

As it turned out, despite Stevenson’s claims to the contrary, there was contact between the two families involved, prior to Stevenson interviewing them, in at least 98% of all his cases. You can’t say for sure that means the reincarnation stories were lies or confabulations, but if you want to do honest science, you still have to throw them out. This most extraordinary of claims, especially, needs extraordinarily high standards of evidence, with no room for error or deception.

A more recent example is that of James Leininger, a boy who (his mother claims) remembers his previous death, as the fighter plane he piloted was shot down during World War II. James’ parents said he knew way too many details about planes and related topics, as a 3-year-old, for something strange to not be happening, despite him having plenty of toys and actually having visited a flight museum. I was obsessed with dinosaurs at that age, but thankfully no one told me I used to be a brontosaurus.

Reincarnation stories are ultimately a great example of confirmation bias — molding what you can to fit the conclusion you want and leaving the rest out — and like many other beliefs, it’s region-specific. In cultures where it’s believed you can’t cross genders when you come back, no one does, but it’s reported in other places that don’t have that restriction.

One thing’s for sure, and it’s that kids are really good at thinking crazy things up. If we’re going to accept their tales of past lives, why don’t we also think their imaginary friends are spirits or interdimensional beings? That question might take 11 lifetimes to answer.

AiPT! Science is co-presented by AiPT! Comics and the New York City Skeptics

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