Reincarnation: Whether vs. How

We’ll take a look at some objections to reincarnation in this post. My hope is not only to give some helpful advice to those who encounter these objections, but to flesh out some of the ideas we’ve been working with in previous posts as well.

Let me start by saying that it’s okay to know that reincarnation occurs without knowing why it does or how it works. Almost all of our knowledge – if not all of it – is to some degree or other like this: who among those with even the most profound understanding of why and how something works would claim to have exhausted all the facts on the matter? So there is nothing about making this claim that should strike one as concessionary.

If I could convince the opponents of reincarnation of one thing before debating the matter with them, it would be this. Far too often, such opponents will demand of one explanations for why reincarnation occurs or how it works on the bizarre assumption that failing to answer their questions about reincarnation means there’s a good reason to think that reincarnation doesn’t occur. But, assuming that the questions they pose constitute problems for the proponent of reincarnation is itself the problem, and a textbook example of begging the question.

For example, it may be asked that if reincarnation occurs, why are past lives are not remembered, or remembered by more people, and in less contested cases? But, why should we expect to have such past-life memories in the first place? The question turns a mystery into a problem by taking it for granted that reincarnation would involve transference of memories. The “problem” it finds is thus not with reincarnation itself, which is not intrinsically beholden to any theory of memories, but with a particular theory of reincarnation, on which there would have to be a transference of memories. The failure to distinguish between reincarnation itself and particular theories of reincarnation plagues discussions on the matter.

As it happens, Proclus tells us of an answer given long ago, and whether or not it succeeds, opponents of reincarnation have not addressed it:

“The marvelous Aristotle gives the following explanation for the fact that a soul coming from the other world, forgets here the sights there whereas when it is leaving this world here, it remembers its experiences. And one should accept the argument. For he himself says that some people passing from health into sickness even forget the letters they have learned, but this never happens to anyone passing from sickness to health. For souls, life outside the body is natural like health and life in a body is unnatural like sickness. For there they live according to nature, but here they live contrary to nature. So, it follows in all likelihood that souls that go from there to here forget the things there, but souls that go from here to there remember the things here.” – As quoted by Lloyd P. Gerson in Aristotle and Other Platonists p. 59, who cites Ross, W.D. 1955. Aristotelis: Framenta Selecta. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Frag. 5.

In the language we have explored through previous posts we can understand this argument in terms of a decline from the undivided unity of the subject without predicates to the divided unity of the subject with predicates, as well as the return thereto. Note that this argument does not directly address whether the soul can only have memories when it is embodied; but, granting that it can, it concerns how a loss of memories represents a decline from living according to one’s nature, whereas a return to oneself outside the body, by contrast, represents the restoration of a life according to one’s nature. But, if memories count as predicates, how could they survive a subject’s return to a predicate-less state? And if they do not count as predicates, then how are they not just the subject herself or nothing at all?

It does not seem that memories could survive one’s transition to a predicate-less state as they exist in the subject’s predicated state. But, that does not mean memories could not survive in any way. After all, the a-temporal soul qua the principle of personalization of predicated state x, y or z just is the soul to which the memories experienced in x, y or z belong. So, the memories are hers, it’s only a matter of understanding how. What we may say for certain, due to her ineffability, is that they do not belong to her as they are in x, y or z: they belong to her in her mode of unity, not theirs.

Take another example. Sometimes folks will object to reincarnation by making an issue of population growth: how are there more human beings now than before? Does reincarnation require that new souls have been created? If we have to explain some embodiments by appeal to the creation of a new soul, why not explain all embodiments like that? What need is there to say that anyone gets reincarnated? Is it not unnecessarily more complicated to posit reincarnation and the creation of new souls instead of just the creation of new souls? On the other hand, if the population increases and new souls have not been created, then is it that the small amount of souls needed to account for the start of our species are now animating hundreds of times the number of bodies they initially did so that each of the billions of human bodies out there now have souls? Without knowledge of which other bodies my soul is animating, what grounds are there to say that my friends, family or even heinous criminals are not just different animations of myself? And if new souls haven’t been created and the old souls are not animating multiple bodies, then how many of those who appear to be human are really just soulless bodies? That is, how many people are really zombies?

The attempts to reduce reincarnation to superfluity or absurdity are endless. But, as with the former example of memory transference, these questions hardly amount to problems without the assumptions upon which they are predicated. For example, consider the assumption that souls have temporal origins – which assumption we have contested several times throughout previous posts (e.g. here and here). If souls have no temporal origin, then embodiment does not represent the creation of a “new” soul, but a point of personalization from that which is in itself a-temporal. There is then no need to suggest that a small pool of souls is being made to animate scores of bodies at once: it could just as well be that, as the procession of being unfolds, souls which had no points of personalization previously now do. To focus on the former, with all its contentious implications, in the face of the latter gives one’s game away as merely trying to defeat an idea instead of coming to the truth, no matter what that happens to be.

I hope this post proves helpful. However one responds to such objections as these, ask what about reincarnation is the objection taking for granted and see if there is a distinction between the theory of reincarnation being objected to and reincarnation itself. Above all, enjoy the process of looking for answers, and ask the Gods for guidance.