Philosophy of Religion Series: Can Naturalism Make Room For Reincarnation?

By R.N. Carmona

When one normally thinks of reincarnation, one has in mind a caricature, the spirit of a Jane Doe coming to inhabit a frog, unbeknownst to anyone, but arguably Jane Doe herself. This, however, is an oversimplification. While reincarnation is often considered an idea lauded by Eastern mystics, modern day science can be marshaled in to lend support to the idea of reincarnation, though in ways completely unexpected. For instance, one would usually hear the usual tripe: since matter and energy cannot be created nor destroyed, one’s consciousness must live on after death. The argument I want to offer is more intricate.

Firstly, I want to begin from the finitude of brain states, an extension from the limits of phenomenal experience. I do not disagree that there is accompanying phenomenal experience for any interaction between an object and our senses. I do disagree that what it is like for me to smell roses is peculiar and markedly different from your experience of smelling a rose. I happen to think our experiences are roughly equal. Whether you or I like the smell of roses or not involves more than just the phenomenal experience. In other words, there’s a lot of background noise that explains why you like the smell more than I do. Perhaps I associate the smell of roses with wakes and funerals rather than with candlelit dinners and weddings. The noise is not what I want to focus on.

Instead, I would like to focus on mental states themselves and argue that though there are potentially innumerable brain states, they are finite. Even if we capture every brain state of every organism in the universe, and include also the correlate states of organisms that are conscious though lacking a brain, the total number of mental states do not stretch infinitely. Furthermore, the combinations of brain states, right down to the size and function of my brain or your brain, in particular, are finite. To put it another way, let us say that there is a limitation in the communication between one’s prefrontal cortex and cerebellum. This may result in autism or schizophrenia (Watson, Thomas C et al. “Back to front: cerebellar connections and interactions with the prefrontal cortex.” Frontiers in systems neuroscience vol. 8 4. 4 Feb. 2014, doi:10.3389/fnsys.2014.00004). With these particular disorders, there are a number of hallmark behavioral traits. This gives some credence to the idea that brain states are fundamentally finite and do not, as it were, stretch on forever.

Unfortunately, we are no longer so taken by behaviorists and know that human beings are a lot more than simply a finite set of behaviors. We have our preferences, things we are repulsed by, idiosyncrasies, and personalities to speak of. Even then, I think that the combination of traits that make you you, no matter how multifarious, are finite. This implies that given a long enough time, some sentient being, whether homo sapien or something very similar to our own species, will come to believe in the same you you believe you are. This, to my mind, is how naturalism makes room for reincarnation.

Perhaps not in the next generation of life, or even in the next ten generations, but at some point, a sentient being will be born who believes, perhaps mistakenly, that they are me. To believe this, you need only believe that mental states, whether tied to a brain, or to intricate nervous systems, are finite. If such states are finite and the combination of such states and functions are finite, then there are only so many identities to go around. Given a long enough time, someone will come along and believe that they are exactly who Napoleon thought he was.

This, in fact, falls on the horns of a dilemma Buddhists have. Recall, Buddhists hold to the concept of anattā (no self). While I may have thrown around the word ‘identity’, this need not imply that I believe identity to be real and substantive. In fact, I think it is entirely illusory and that if we interact with enough people, we will find that we have more in common than we would like to admit. Some of us have delusions of grandeur; we have god and savior complexes, see ourselves as fixers, and believe that there is no problem we cannot solve. Others choose to mind their business, to not take on a deep personal investment in the struggles even loved ones go through, and instead choose to let the people around us work through their own problems. In one way or another, it is likely that my two brief sketches of identity resonate with my readers. Either you are one who suffers from delusions of grandeur and you base even your romantic relationships on this futile attempt to save everyone. Or, you are someone who has no deep personal investment in the problems even the people closest to you have; this isn’t to say you refuse to help when asked, but you prefer to let people find their own way. If one of the two people I have described describes aspects of you, then you are further to committing to the premise that mental states are finite and that therefore, identities are limited.

Buddhists have long struggled to reconcile the idea of reincarnation with anattā, but a resolution isn’t difficult to come by. Before offering a solution, I defer to Wildman:

In fact, the anattā (no-substantive self) doctrine of most forms of Indian Buddhism means that there is no jīva (soul) that persists from life to life through death and reincarnation, as there is in most forms of Hinduism. The consequences for samsāra and nirvana of this view are complicated, and perhaps mind boggling, and Buddhists have spent enormous effort in debate over them, both with Hindus and among themselves. So it is not surprising that many Buddhists do not hesitate to picture life and death in rather Hindu terms, as re-enfleshment of an enduring soul, despite their characteristic no-self doctrine. Many Buddhist intellectuals will not do this, however, and their more subtle approach is not registered at all when the word reincarnation is used as the comparative category to comprehend both Hindu and Buddhist versions of the implications of samsāra for living beings.

Wildman, Wesley J. Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future For The Philosophy of Religion. State University of New York Press. Albany, NY. 2010. 133. Print.

My resolution is that while there is no self, no concrete identity, what persists are the illusions of a self or an identity brought about by the limited combinations of mental states humans experience. This is why so many of us come to have exactly the same ideas about ourselves, despite the fact that we are different people with vastly different past experiences. This is why mental and cognitive disorders feature an array of hallmark symptoms. To illustrate this even better, think of the way genes encode phenotypic features. Straight thumbs, for instance, are expressed with a capital S whereas hitchhiker thumbs are recessive alleles expressed with a lowercase s. This peculiarity, assuming you have it, does not belong to you. There are other people who have hitchhiker thumb and they have it because gene expression in their genomes have resulted in this phenotypic feature. Likewise, our mental states, the manner in which brain regions communicate with one another, and the way in which our particular neurons fire in our brains create the same illusions of a static identity, packaged with a linear life narrative that we can literally draw a straight line through from our first memories in childhood through today.

There is no substantive self that persists, a soul as it were. There is, however, a persistent illusion in all of us and I do not put it passed a being eons from now to think that s/he is exactly who I think I am. Furthermore, I do not discount the idea that s/he will feel, phenomenologically speaking, exactly as I do. There is this sense that I am. Whether or not identity is real, the illusion is powerful enough to lead me to believe I am unique and that there will never be another exactly like me. This is folly. So while there is no substantive soul in me or in my cat, there are a number of mental states, resulting from brain and nerve interactions, that make both of us feel like we are a unique individuals never to be replicated. I conclude that it is far likelier that since there are not infinite mental states to go around, there are not infinite illusions to go around either. What we refer to as the soul or identity has its boundaries and limits. There will be another you, so in that sense, even after death, should the universe persist, you will live again with no recollection of the you you are right now.

This may seem particularly discomforting for some readers. For others, they may think that this idea is not developed enough. I admit, the argument is very bare bones and could use more flesh. That, however, does not mean the argument is unsound. I happen to be convinced, first and foremost, that mental states and what we call identities do not stretch to infinity and that therefore, there are only so many yous to go around. As such, you will live again or be reborn. This is how naturalism makes room for something as mystical as reincarnation. The lesson is that naturalists should shun the habit of dismissing an idea because it is religious or prima facie supernatural. There might be a kernel of truth to the idea of reincarnation. That remains to be seen, but my argument is certainly a good place to start.

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