Ideas

Secular Reflections on the Plausibility of Reincarnation

Reflecting on the accuracy and plausibility of various versions of reincarnation:

Executive Summary

In my view- how believable reincarnation is as an idea seems to swing heavily depending on two dimensions of enquiry.

  1. The first is what we mean when we use certain pronouns like “you”, “me”, or “I”. I can see three distinct interpretations of reincarnation in light of three meanings of “I” which I’ll unpack below.
  2. The second is how sceptical or credulous we find ourselves and our thinking to be.

If you pushed me against a wall and asked me what I truly believe as a person committed to a secular worldview, I’d say each of us is unique, distinct, discrete instance of conscious experience (that we have no good evidence to think reoccurs), that from an objective standpoint we have a beginning, middle and end, but from a subjective standpoint we only have a middle (the eternal present) that continuously unfolds, that people 1 000 years ago were conscious and so are we, so consciousness keeps reoccurring.

1. I as the conventional self

If by “I” or “me” I am referring to Shawn the person, then the idea that “I” will be reincarnated after I die doesn’t make any sense to me and doesn’t seem plausible. When I’m dead, by definition, I’m dead. My story and my self will go with me. Any way in which “I” survive will be in some kind of legacy I might attempt to leave behind, which revolves around the stories other still living people tell about me.

2. I as this discrete, continuous flow of consciousness

The next interpretation of “I” refers to this discrete, continuous flow of consciousness. Reincarnation in this context suggests “I” as the conventional self will die but “I” as a discrete, continuous flow of conscious experience will then proceed in the form of another person, as the same consciousness. I will not be “Shawn”, I will be someone else, but it’ll still be continuous in some way with Shawn, in the same way as consciousness awareness of one moment flows into another, but without the same identity. This might be consistent with standard interpretations of reincarnation. If this were the case, no one would be the wiser. For all I know I could have already lived countless lifetimes as both humans and other animals and may yet live countless lifetimes. This is an interesting idea, but it’s unfalsifiable. I have no way to assess whether this is the case or not, so it seems belief in this form of reincarnation has as good evidence supporting it as believing in resurrection- an interesting yet purely speculative idea from an objective standpoint.

3. I as an isolated instance of consciousness 

I’ll use a metaphor to explain this one:

In this version I am like an instance of Microsoft Windows running on a particular computer. Windows is a collection of software that is able to run on a wide variety of computers. When one computer stops working, that unique instance of Windows is gone forever, but Windows itself is unaffected and can continue running on countless other machines. All of these copies of Windows are running in parallel. Paradoxically they’re simultaneously:

  1. Fully isolated from each other- if one has a blue screen of death, the others keep running, there is no cross-over of content, yet they are also:
  2. Running the same software, prone to the same bugs, and functioning in highly similar ways, and also,
  3. Able to be networked together and share information and (more deeply) emotional connection.

At the level of the universe itself, at any particular point in time, there are either some machines running Windows, or there aren’t.

Similarly, (it seems we have good reason to believe) consciousness is this thing that happens as a result of certain kinds of brains existing, and (assuming my theory of mind intuitions are correct, and s solipsism isn’t) there’s a great abundance of it already happening both on our world and potentially countless others. Assuming this interpretation of the word “I”, the concept of reincarnation breaks down into potentially something else- I might have already ‘reincarnated’ in the form of my son and daughter. I am already you and you are already me. There is “consciousness at large” and we’re all connected by our common fact of subjectivity.

This seems to me to be most likely, though ultimately, (as solipsism suggests) this can’t be proven either. We just assume others are conscious, as it were, axiomatically. If we assume that 1000 years ago every human being who was alive was also conscious, and now they’re all dead, but presently we’re alive and we’re conscious, then this isolated instance analogy seems to fit the experience the best. We are isolated instances of consciousness giving rise to other isolated instances through procreation. The question of continuity between the instances of consciousness is a tough one. If I refer back to my firsthand experience, based on what I can remember, countless eons passed (13.8 billion years) since the beginning of the universe in less than an instant, and then suddenly I was, as it were, ‘summoned’ into the present experience immediately.

4. Our level of scepticism

Aside from the definitions of pronouns like “I” or “me”, a lot of this discussion also boils down to how sceptical we’re prepared to be in extrapolating from our experience into conclusions about the nature of consciousness generally.

On the most sceptical extreme, we have solipsism (the assertion that we can’t be sure that other people are conscious), and we can take things even further to assert that all you actually know for sure is that consciousness is happening right now, but beyond that, not much can be asserted. Even the content and memories of your own life are only appearing as thoughts in the present moment. For all you know, you were ‘downloaded from the matrix’ just this morning (as you woke up) with all of your prior memories ‘installed’ into you, to just live this one day. Even though your experience of waking up every day has been the same, those are just memories too. Such is how we are thrust into awareness every morning.

On the credulous extreme, we could believe just about anything. I am the reincarnated Jesus (many people have claimed this). Or in a former life I was a Ischnacanthiformes. Or I was somehow part of the consciousness that gave birth to the universe- or I am God. The abundance of options here should give us decision fatigue! This total openness tends to break down into a quagmire of “anything goes”. Humanity has come up with countless options for us to believe in.

Ultimately I land somewhere in the middle between these two extremes.

In conclusion

Though solipsism seems to be the most sceptical and rigorous intellectual position from the first-hand data I have (my own conscious experience, which is ultimately all I have to directly refer to), I have to say, the rest of you all have an uncanny ability to describe states of consciousness (thoughts, emotions, sights, sounds, sensations etc.) that are eerily similar to mine in character.

So, for the time being, I’m going to proceed further with life on the assumption that the rest of you are conscious too 🤣 and not worry further about reincarnation!

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