Monday, November 11, 2013

Reincarnation and Personhood

From guest blogger, Chase. 

This blog post is concerning an aspect of reincarnation that we discussed recently in class that is relevant to an understanding of the continuation of personhood from one life to the next. If we are to make sense of reincarnation there must be some criteria for being able to link one soul to multiple person’s, otherwise it seems that a soul cannot really be a part of a person in any relevant sense.

The problem needs to be further illuminated as it pertains to the main ideas of reincarnation in order to show how the disembodied soul really can be an important part of a being’s personhood. When we talk of the disembodied soul transitioning from one body to the next as beings are born and die, what are we actually implying? It would seem that claims of this sort are implying that there is some “me” that is part of my existence now and is paired with my body in some fundamental way. I take it that most people who believe in reincarnation would call this “me” the soul or mind. By annotating it in this way, we are able to make sense of reincarnation claims like “in a past life I was a different person.” Without some soul to attach to the idea of “me-ness” claims of this sort are totally illogical. But what aspect of personhood is actually continuing from one body and life to the next? This is the question that brings about problem for the reincarnation believer. The soul cannot be described as the personality, for it is obvious that a person could have two distinct personalities in two different lives. Similarly it cannot be described as the memory of a being because very few people ever claim that they have memories of their past lives. (Let us set aside for now the few that do make such claims.) So if the soul is not in any way related to my memories or my personality and experiences, in what sense is it really me at all?

Jesse raised a good point when he noted that if some other person in a future life is a being from the present or shares their soul, than the person who is alive now should have some vested interest in the well-being of their soul in the future. However, intuitively, how can we care about some being that yet to be created any more than any other nonexistent being? One could claim that you should care about this being because it is you, but that statement begs the question because it provides no real reason to believe this in the first place. There must be some criteria to connect that future person’s soul to mine if we are to make sense of reincarnation. Here is my attempt at a simplified version of the objection to the account of the soul in reincarnation:
1. If reincarnation really does describe the process of life after death in our universe, then there is some soul that is connected to me in some fundamental way and this soul is me in some relevant sense.
If this soul is connected to, and is, me, then it follows that whatever other body my soul inhabits in the future also is me.
2. If other beings in the future are me, then I must be connected to them in some fundamental way and should value their well-being more than the well-being of other bodies that are not mine.
However, we have no real way of connecting my soul to any other soul or body from the past or future.
3. If my soul is not connected to those other bodies in any relevant way, then either the soul that inhabits those bodies is distinct from my own, or the soul can only be described as “life force” or something similar to it and it has no real consequence on my life now.
4. Therefore, reincarnation is either reducing the soul to some sort of meaningless term that has no real bearing on how life should be lived, or it is making incompatible claims about the nature of life after death.
With this argument in mind, the endorser of reincarnation must come up with some criteria of the soul to attach one body to another without begging the question otherwise he has provided no real reason to worry about our soul in the future. If I have no connection to my soul once my current life is over, what reason do I have for caring for and worrying about my soul more than any other soul? How are those future beings really me in any sense? I will look at possible responses to this problem in my second paper most likely.


Joshua Adams said...

I like where you are going with this argument it seems great. The only thing I would ask is why should we care, when it seems our soul can't be harmed. For example, with the idea of reincarnation you are talking about there is no mention or talk about a soul being able to be destroyed. It seems that souls keep going on from life to life until they reach their period of enlightenment. I understand there is a connection to each person since it is the same soul, but you would have no memory of your former self, and all you might do is set your soul back a bit on its' way to enlightenment if you have no care about it in the future. Since it seems there is no real way to "damn" your soul under this view, it seems like it almost doesn't matter whether you care or not

Zach Wrublewski said...

It seems like a large part of your argument hinges (in some way) on your assertion that "The soul cannot be described as the personality, for it is obvious that a person could have two distinct personalities in two different lives." I'm not so sure this is obvious; for most that believe in reincarnation, I think, there is some thing similar to what we refer to colloquially as personality (psychological traits or dispositions), and this travels with the soul, or is "written on" the soul in some way.

Given this, I think it might be possible for those that believe in reincarnation to postulate that this personality is essential to the soul in some way, and that this is what must be relevant to you.

I think, however, that you have a fairly strong argument against this: shift the burden of proof to the believer. I think you're trying to get at this sort of strategy toward the end of your post, but I'm not certain (if the phrase "we have" in the quote "we have no real way of connecting my soul to any other soul or body from the past or future" means we don't yet have an explanation, then you seem to be proposing such an argument. If you're stating that there is not a way to connect souls to bodies, then you have a stronger claim that would necessitate argumentation against the possibility that a body (or soul) can be connected to a soul.

Anonymous said...

Hi my name is Ted Christopher and I wrote a paper this summer which addresses the larger objective evidence for reincarnation. With this survey-ish coverage of the objective evidence comes some of the possible import.

The paper was written somewhat tersely as it was directed at scientist/insiders. If you have any questions you can e-mail me. If nothing else you probably enjoy the spectacular behavioral examples.

If you are interested the paper it can seen be had at,
(Cureus changed formatting and this derailed some of my paper's formatting so scribd is the place to see it).