The doctrine variously called transmigration of souls, metempsychosis, palingenesis, rebirth, and "reincarnation" has been and continues to be widely believed. Although some of these terms imply belief in an immortal soul that transmigrates or reincarnates, Buddhism, while teaching rebirth, denies the eternity of the soul. The word rebirth is therefore the most comprehensive for referring to this range of beliefs.
In one form or another the doctrine of rebirth has been held in various cultures. It was expressed in ancient Greece (Pythagoras, Empedocles, Orphism, Plato, and later, Plotinus); among some Gnostics and in some Christian heresies such as the medieval Cathari; in some phases of Jewish Kabbalism; in some cultures of tropical Africa; and most notably in such Eastern religions as Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sikhism.
Some European philosophers, notably Arthur Schopenhauer and J. M. E. McTaggart, have incorporated the doctrine into their metaphysics. The origin of the doctrine of rebirth as a religious belief is obscure.
There is evidence, both in Greece and India, that it was not characteristic of early Aryan cultures. It is virtually certain that in India it goes back to prehistoric times; it was then taken up by Brahmanic religion and appears as a new doctrine in the Upanióads.
Views vary about the scope and mechanism of rebirth. It is part of Indian thought, for instance—but not of African beliefs—that men can be reborn as animals and even as plants (not to mention as gods and spirits).
Rebirth can take place not merely on Earth but also in a multiplicity of heavens and purgatories. Thus, although the prevalent belief is that rebirth occurs immediately upon death, this does not entail immediate earthly reincarnation, a feature that helps to make rebirth theory incapable of empirical disproof.
|mechanism of rebirth|
In the Buddhist Tibetan Book of the Dead, however, a transitional period (bardo) of forty-nine days between death and rebirth is postulated. During this state the individual is translated to a realm where he perceives the divine secrets; for the impure, these are so frightening that they flee back to earth and are reborn.
In Indian thought, there is a fairly large amount of speculation about the embryological mechanics of rebirth. Thus the Samkhya school of Indian philosophy holds that the mental aspect of a person bears the impression of previous deeds (karma) and that it accordingly becomes associated with a particular fetus.
But since during the period of fetal development the growing body is not capable of supporting the mental aspect, a "subtle" (unobservably refined) body is postulated. Thus the continuous element throughout rebirth and until liberation is the mental aspect associated with the subtle body.
In Buddhism it is held that the fetus results from the interaction of the sperm and material in the mother. These combine in a suitable way when associated with conscious states, as a further element in the process, to produce the right sort of individual to fit previous karma.
Broadly speaking, then, rebirth theory implies that the genetic endowment of a person does not fully determine his early development but that a mental or spiritual factor associates itself with a suitable organism at conception. Thus karma is often taken to function through the homing of a soul upon a morally and physically appropriate fetus. McTaggart, in urging this, uses the analogy of chemical affinities.
A number of arguments in favor of the theory have been propounded; they can be classified as metaphysical, empirical, and theological. It is convenient to record here those arguments that do not depend too closely on metaphysical conclusions peculiar to particular philosophers, such as the argument for rebirth as accounting for knowledge of the Forms, as in Plato, and the complex metaphysical argument in McTaggart that depends in part on his theory of causation.
In Indian sources, two main metaphysical arguments have been employed. It may be noted that there has been relatively little explicit discussion of the issue in Indian philosophy, since no school was concerned with denying the doctrine, except the Materialist school, which was extinct by medieval times.
(1) A Buddhist argument can be expressed as follows. All states have prior causes; some conscious states are not caused by bodily states; therefore the first physically uncaused state of an individual must have a prior nonphysical cause. But the existence of God is not admitted; hence there must be an empirical conscious state prior to conception and birth.
This argument applies indefinitely in a backward direction through previous births. (It may be noted that the argument is consistent with the Buddhist denial of an eternal soul, since the mental states of an organism are no more permanent than the physical ones.) (2) There is a Hindu argument from the eternity of the soul, which has been used in modern times by Radhakrishnan.
|virtually everlasting succession of bodies|
Souls are eternal, but the normal condition for a soul is to be associated with a body. Hence it is likely that the soul in the past and future has a virtually everlasting succession of bodies. Thus metaphysical arguments attempting to establish the eternity of the soul have been taken to imply preexistence as well as postexistence.
Empirical arguments are as follows. (3) Children have instinctive capacities, which suggests that there must be learning prior to birth. Similarly, it is sometimes argued that child geniuses, such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, indicate prenatal training. (4) Some people claim to remember past births, as in the case of Bridey Murphy.
This claim is commonly made in the East for yogis and persons of deep spiritual insight, such as the Buddha and Buddhist saints. (5) The déjà vu experience and claims to knowledge of people and places that are not based on previous experience in this life have been cited as indicating rebirth.
|déjà vu experience|
A counterargument is used against the objection that most people have no memories of such previous lives: Death is a traumatic experience (and so is birth), likely to cause amnesia. (6) The soul is indivisible and thus cannot derive from the parents, since it would then have to be a combination of parts.
The three important forms of theological argument are as follows. (7) Hindu and other scriptures and theologians are reliable in other matters and so ought to be reliable with respect to the teaching of rebirth.
(8) Rebirth, associated with karma, provides a solution to part of the problem of evil, since inequalities and sufferings are the result of people's past deeds. (9) The doctrine of rebirth provides the possibility of a long process of self-perfection, which harmonizes well with the religious vision of the world as a theater for moral striving.
The following are the objections that have been or can be brought against the arguments for reincarnation. Three objections to argument (1) are, first, the concept of emergent characteristics obviates the difficulty in explaining the cause of psychical states, although perhaps at the expense of being obscure.
Second, the first premise (that all states have prior causes) is arguable, and it might be that nonphysically caused mental states are simply not caused. Third, the existence of God cannot be ruled out. (2) The plausibility of the argument depends on the plausibility of arguments for the eternity of the soul.
Further, in Indian religious thought there is the possibility of mokóa, or nirvaña, a state of liberation in which there is no more rebirth. Consequently, it is inconsistent to hold that embodiment is necessary to souls.
The Buddhist denial of a permanent self occasioned the criticism that there is nothing carried over to another life that would ensure individual continuity—the reply being that, on the Buddhist analysis, the individual in his present life is only a series of events, so that there is no essential difference in considering a succession of lives as constituting an individual series.
The following are objections to the empirical arguments. (3) Modern biology can sketch alternative explanations of instinct and genius in children. (4) Although some people seem to remember past lives, the evidence is not so unambiguous as to be conclusive; and if saintliness is a condition for remembering previous births, it would be difficult to verify such a memory—it would be hard to conduct an "experiment" in becoming a saint. (5) Similar problems arise with the evidence of déjà vu experiences.
As to whether death is a traumatic experience, there is no evidence. (6) The creation of souls by God is compatible with the argument concerning the indivisibility of the soul; but in any case the argument depends on a soulbody distinction that may not be acceptable.
The objections to theological arguments are the following. (7) The validity of particular scriptures and theologies on matters of detail is especially suspect. (8) The argument that rebirth explains the existence of evil could not by itself be conclusive, since the problem of evil exists only for those who believe in a good God. (9) A similar consideration applies to the argument that rebirth allows the possibility of self-perfection.
Although believers in rebirth have scarcely touched on the matter, the theory of evolution also presents considerable difficulties to the traditional doctrine of a virtually infinite series stretching back into the past.
In Indian mythological cosmology, however, there are periodic destructions of the cosmos, and during these periods embodied souls continue to exist latently; no doubt a similar assumption may deal with the above biological difficulties by arguing that before the emergence of life, souls existed latently, or in other parts of the cosmos. The problem remains, however, that this account would not be easily, if at all, checked by empirical evidence.
The hypothesis of reincarnation presents interesting problems about personal identity. If personal identity is analyzed in terms of memory, there would seem to be only a vacuous distinction between saying that A is reborn as B and that A and B are separate persons.
C. J. Ducasse, however, has argued (A Critical Examination of the Belief in a Life after Death, p. 225) that memory of any given life may be regained at some time or other in the series, and this would hold the series together.
If bodily identity were held to be necessary to personal identity, rebirth could scarcely be meaningful, as it involves causal action at a distance in the transition from A's death to B's birth or conception.