Philosophy of Religion Series: Why Reincarnation is Incompatible With Naturalism
By R.N. Carmona
It is standard procedure in philosophical practice to anticipate rebuttals. In my last post, I explored reincarnation within a naturalistic framework. Strangely enough, my argument leans much too heavily on the nature aspect of who we are. Yes, if consciousness existed in a vacuum, and if the subject were sufficient to account for consciousness, then my argument would be quite forceful. A possible rebuttal takes the nurture angle, arguing that the subject is not sufficient to account for consciousness because the object is just as, if not, of greater importance when attempting to explain consciousness.
If this is the case, then identity is not so elusive after all and Buddhists and people who deny identity are wrong. How then do any of us answer the question: who are you? If you reply with “Sam,” then you have given us nothing but your name. As it turns out, your name is quite common. If your name gave us a full account of who you are, then anyone named Sam is also you. Clearly, we both disagree with this conclusion so your name is not enough. Exercises like this have been done ad nauseam, so I will spare you the runaround and just give you my answer: I am a particular experiencer. As are you.
Now, that requires some explaining and this is where the object comes into focus. What makes me unique and other than you is that I have had an innumerable set of experiences that, when taken together, you have not had. Granted, it is very possible that we share at least one experience, even if we live a world apart. There are billions of people in China whom I have never met or interacted with and I can say with all the confidence in the world that they share experiences with me: being born, coming down with a cold, sweating, shivering, scrolling on a social media app, feeling a certain emotion like anger or sadness, and so on. I can also say that not one of them shares every single experience unique to me. If they are Chinese nationals, then they probably did not grow up in the Bronx. They do not identify as Puerto Rican or American. They do not check the Latino box when filling out a job application. These experiences, however, are overly simplistic.
Experiences are characterized by a given duration of time, an array of qualitative factors that produce in consciousness any number of qualia that go well beyond simply apprehending the color red or the smell of chocolate. It is also quite possible to have an experience too often and become numb to what makes it unique. One experience a lot of us have in common is that of going to a movie theater. There are certain sights, sounds, textures, and smells that are unique to the experience, but few of us can recall the buttery aroma of popcorn somehow mixing with the dull smell of a carpet that has been sullied and cleaned one too many times. There is the scent of leather seats (if you can count yourself fortunate enough to have the new reclining seats, that is) and other people. There is the texture of the seats, one’s footwear against the carpet, in addition to one’s eyes having to adjust in a very dim setting. So if any of my readers have ever pet a tiger in Thailand or jumped out of a plane to skydive, then they have a unique experience, that if described in full detail, does not align with anything I have ever experienced.
The thing is that I, as a particular experiencer, have had a plethora of experiences in my life that are different from yours. The combination of these experiences is a huge part of what makes me me. The combination of your experiences plays a pivotal role in what makes you you. So it is not enough to say that mental states are inherently finite. While it may be the case that experiences are also finite, I need only convince you that the exact combination of my experiences and my distinctive mental states will never be replicated again and that therefore, naturalistic reincarnation is extremely improbable and dare I say, impossible. The sheer improbability of something, however, does not make a thing impossible, so it is not enough to draw this conclusion and move on.
The improbability has to be crushingly discouraging to persuade you that it is simply more likely that naturalistic reincarnation is not the case. To show this, I am going to begin with a generous initial probability that someone else in the future will have any one of my experiences. I will list as many experiences as come to mind:
- Staying awake for 36 hours straight
- Sleeping for 18 hours straight without waking up
- Fasting for three days straight in a church in the Highbridge section of the Bronx
- Eating dole whip at Disneyland about seven meters from the Indiana Jones attraction
- Riding the Nitro at Six Flags in Jackson, NJ in the front row
- Petting farm animals at Kira’s World Exotics Mini Zoo in Hatillo, Puerto Rico
- Hearing the singing of coquis in Puerto Rico
- Getting jumped on a school bus in the E. 161st Tunnel in the Bronx
- Vomiting after too many drinks on the 6 train near Whitlock Avenue
I can think of more experiences that are unique to me, but even when assigning a generous initial probability for any one of these events recurring, the likelihood of all of them recurring is extremely low. What’s more is that I have neglected a lot of variables. What was the weather like? What direction was the wind blowing and at how many miles per hour? How old was I when all of these things happened? I only specified the event and its location because it is already very unlikely that you also vomited on the 6 train near Whitlock Avenue because you had one too many drinks. I did not mention that it was Cinco de Mayo in 2016 and after 8pm. The more and more specific I get, the less likely it is you will share this experience. If I were to include the people who were on the train and some of their reactions, which were surprisingly few given the amount of people on the train, the likelihood decreases even more.
In any case, if I were to assign an initial probably of 40% to each experience, we get the following: .40*.40*.40*.40*.40*.40*.40*.40*.40 = .000262144 or .026%. I listed just nine events in my life in scant detail and the probability of you experiencing all nine events, even starting with a very generous initial probability for each event of 40%, is very low. Now imagine if I were to be as detailed as possible about as many events as I can remember in my life; I am certain that this number will begin to approach at least one thousand. I can, for example, talk about my earliest memory: waking up in my crib, an infant, hungry and so delirious (probably having a hypnogogic hallucination) that I saw a bottle floating just out of my reach as a pendulum does, left and then right, left and then right; I reached for it and my hand went through it and I started wailing. My dad then gave me an actual bottle. Or I can talk about being seven or so years old and seeing a black and white striped insect fly into my room. It landed on my black toy chest and started to crawl like anthropods do. If I did, in fact, see a flying centipede or millipede that day, I saw a yet to be discovered species, I might add; I have scoured the internet for this insect and have yet to come across anything like it. This was before smart phones, so I could not snap a picture before it fluttered its wings and flew right back out. Hypothetically though, if I did count a thousand experiences with an initial probability of 40%, we get .40 ^ 1,000 or about two thousand decimal places before you arrive at any non-zero integers. So you would get a percentage that is virtually zero.
Given how improbable it is that the combination of experiences one has had will be replicated to the tee in a person that, more or less, has the same exact mental life that one does, i.e., is a one-to-one match to oneself with respect to nature, it is therefore, extremely unlikely that another you or me will be born no matter how long the universe goes on for. The universe can continue to exist for quadrillions of years and I do not think it is very probable that someone will have the combination of our respective experiences. I am a unique experiencer because of the combination of experiences I have had, in addition to the admittedly finite mental states that occur in me. While those mental states very well do occur in other people, the probability that she and I have had the same exact set of experiences is extremely low and it is that that makes us different. It is said that experiences mold us into who we are. Given my argument here, that is likely to be the case. If you are convinced that the unique set of experiences you have had in your lifetime make you you, then I think you cannot be convinced of naturalistic reincarnation. What adds more force to this argument is that I have confined it to experiences I can remember despite the fact that experiences I currently do not recall factor into the person that I am. There are so many unconscious joys and traumas that explain a great deal about us. This starts to venture into psychology, which for our current purposes is unnecessary.
Ultimately, reincarnation is incompatible with naturalism, not because it is too mystical, but because even if we were to imagine a version of reincarnation that is consistent with naturalism, i.e., steel man the notion of reincarnation, one’s full set of experiences is very unlikely to recur in the life of another person. Even twins, though sharing a lot of the same childhood experiences, end up having different experiences that, in turn, ensure that they are different from one another. As I have shown, it is extremely improbable, despite a generous initial probability, for another person to have just nine of the experiences I have had, let alone a thousand or the actual and innumerable experiences I have had in my life. Moreover, the longer one lives, the less likely it becomes that someone else will have one’s experiences. It is even more improbable still that someone in the far future will have the same exact set of experiences and have the same mental life as a centenarian in Japan, e.g. 118-year-old Tanaka Kane, who lives in Fukuoka City. Already, you are at a disadvantage since it is impossible for you to be born in 1903, at the time she was born, and to the same parents. It is virtually guaranteed that your set of experiences will differ from hers. Therein lies identity: you are a particular experiencer with a unique set of experiences. As Dave Chapelle said when remembering his late friend Daphne Dorman: “I am someone having a human experience.” At bottom, this is who we all are, but as with most philosophical topics, the devil is in the details, specifically within the details of our distinct set of experiences.