Another Perspective on Reincarnation

It occurred to me that I ought to discuss another perspective on reincarnation that has drawn attention in some circles.  This is less relevant to my “Legends of the Fall” series than the other reincarnation-oriented posts have been, so while I’ll put this in my “Reincarnation” series, I will leave it out of “Legends of the Fall”.

One thing that is very easy to forget about reincarnation–or any other theories of life or continued existence after death is that they are all interpretive frameworks.  They are interpretations of phenomena; interpretations that may be useful, and may even be true, but interpretations, for all that.  Quantum physics gets pulled into discussions of spirituality–especially Eastern or Eastern-flavored spirituality–way too much, and often in wildly inappropriate ways.  Still, a quantum example here is perhaps of use.

According to quantum physics, light, like all other electromagnetic phenomena, can be viewed either as a wave or as particles (photons).  The curious thing is that light isn’t a wave that seems to be a particle, or a particle that acts like a wave; it really is either a wave or a particle, depending on the experiment one conducts.  If one sends a beam of light through a diffraction grating, it behaves exactly like waves, even if one sends a single photon through.  If one switches to using a photon counter, one counts discrete photons, with no evidence of waves.  

This dichotomy tends to provoke the question, “But what is light really?”  The answer is, “It depends on the experiment.”  In short, a light beam is really a stream of particles, if you’re looking for particles; and it’s really a wave if you use experiments that observe waves.  Put it like this:  the underlying reality of what light actually is lies beyond our perception.  We can perceive it as a wave or as particles, and each of these is part of the truth; but the full truth is beyond our ken.  It’s like the Blind Men and the Elephant.

To use an analogy:  depending on how we turn in front of a light source, our shadow changes shape.  To two-dimensional inhabitants of the plane on which my shadow falls, “I” (which they can perceive only through my shadow, which to them is solid and substantial) change shape.  They might wonder what my “real” shape is.  The answer, of course, is that my true, 3-D shape is something they can never perceive; and that therefore, from a 2-D perspective, any of the projections is equally “accurate” as a representation of me.

Same with the afterlife.  Weed out all the fakes and questionable cases, and there are genuine incidences of children accurately recalling verifiable data on the lives of dead people; there are reports of near-death experiences; there are accounts of various states of those near death, and visions of the dead, in which case there is verifiable information that rules out fakery.  That these phenomena are observed, all but the most rigid and close-minded skeptics (or “Skepdicks”, as Chris Knowles refers to them) would agree.  What they mean, however, is another matter.  This is obvious–the only way to verify them is to die oneself–which (Flatliners aside) is notorious for being unrepeatable and not something from which one can reliably return!

Thus, to say that a child is observed to give accurate information on the life of a person who died before the child was born, and which information the child would have no natural (non-paranormal or non-supernatural) way of knowing is one thing.  To say this indicates that the person whose life the child remembers was, in fact, a previous incarnation of said child, is quite another.  The former is an observable and verifiable phenomenon; the latter is an interpretation–and not the only possible one–of the phenomenon.

After all, other interpretations could be posited.  Perhaps the child had a clairvoyant (or perhaps postcognitive–on the model of precognition, but the opposite thereof) experience of another’s life.  Maybe the child telepathically derived the information from another person who knew the deceased.  Perhaps the child is unconsciously in contact with the spirit of the deceased.  And so on.

Just for the record, and to end the suspense, my interpretation of such phenomena is that I don’t have an interpretation of such phenomena.  In short, I believe that at least some such phenomena are authentic.  There are indeed some cases of children (and sometimes adults) with such inexplicable knowledge where there is no normal or natural explanation.  I am, however, strictly agnostic–or perhaps, better, zetetic–as to what causes the phenomena or what they mean.  They may be indicative of reincarnation; they may not.  I just don’t know, and I don’t claim to have any way to know.  What I do want to do in this post is to look at one possible interpretation of such “past life” experiences, based on the ideas of Charles Williams.

Charles Williams (pictured above) was an English novelist and a member of the Inklings, becoming especially close to C. S. Lewis.  Unlike J. R. R. Tolkien, whose works tended towards high fantasy, and Lewis, who wrote children’s books (The Narnia series) and science fiction (the Space Trilogy), Williams wrote novels in a more metaphysical, mystic, and even quasi-occult vein.  Like Tolkien and Lewis, however, Williams was a Christian, and did work theological themes into his novels.

One aspect of his personal theology was his idea of co-inherence.  To oversimplify, this is the notion that in God, everything He has created is interconnected at a fundamental level.  Everything we do affects everyone and everything else, even though we may not necessarily know it.  In some ways, it’s not unlike a Christian version of the teaching of the Heart Sutra.

One particular implication of Williams’s view was what  he called “exchanges” and “substitution”.  In short, through this co-inherence, we can in a literal sense bear each other’s burdens, intercede for one another, and take each other’s fears and difficulties upon ourselves.  It’s important to stress that to Williams this is not metaphorical.  It’s not a matter of helping a loved one or a friend out by doing things for them; it’s that under some conditions a person might literally take another’s pain or fear or other difficulties upon himself in a seemingly supernatural way.  This is possible because we all co-inhere in each other.  This idea particularly presents itself in Williams’s novel Descent into Hell.   One theme running through it is the interconnection of the dead and the living.  After all, given the interconnectedness of everything, what we call time and space are no longer barriers to interaction and interconnection.

Building on this notion, one can derive an alternate interpretation of the phenomena that are classically described as “reincarnation”.  This use of Charles Williams’s ideas in this context, by the way, is not my original idea, but I’m not quite sure where I came across it.  It may have been somewhere in the writings of Robert Farrar Capon, but I’m not sure.  In any case, the notion is this:  For reasons we can never understand, some people in some circumstances have a “bond” or “connection” with some person from the past, someone who has died.  Through the co-inherence or interconnectedness we all share, this is easily possible across the gulfs of time and space.  In some cases this bond or connection may be so strong and vivid that one (or both) of the affected persons may actually share thoughts, feelings, and ideas.

Thus, it may be that instead of having lived once before as X and remembering what I did when I was X, rather I have an empathic link to X and am experiencing what he (or she) experienced, misinterpreting it as memories of a past life.  Conversely, if X had vivid experiences coming from me, it might be what would be erroneously interpreted as prophecy.  In either case a particularly intense bond might be thought to be possession or some other paranormal phenomenon.

Why such a bond would occur is something we couldn’t answer.  Then again, in cases of supposed reincarnation, there’s usually no clear notion as to why person X is reborn as person Y.  This is especially interesting in that the concept of karma (at least as simplistically understood) would seem to imply patterns in rebirth; but as far as I know, no one has ever discerned such patterns in cases of purported memory of past-life experiences.  In any case, assuming the framework of co-inherence, it may be that such bonds allow individuals to bear each other’s burdens or intercede for each other across the expanse of space and time.

As I said before, I am agnostic as to exact meaning of past-life experiences.  It’s no secret that I’m not too keen on the notion of reincarnation as such, since I take a Dharmic view of the undesirability of rebirth.  On the other hand, my preferences have no effect on what the actual situation is, metaphysically speaking.  Traditionally, orthodox Christianity has rejected reincarnation; but as I’ve said before, I think there is a possibility of reconciling Christian thought with reincarnation without going too far off the reservation of orthodoxy.  Metaphysically, I think it’s possible to do so; and as I will discuss eventually, given aspects of human evolution, it may be desirable to do so.

Having said all that, I make no claim to esoteric knowledge or to any privileged information regarding the afterlife.  I don’t know what (if anything) happens when we “have shuffled off this mortal coil”.  My faith and hope are that we continue and that we ultimately come into God’s presence, and that all wrongs will be redressed and all things put right.  Whether this will involve rebirth or “going to Heaven” or what, I don’t know.  I do have faith and hope that we will ultimately come to a better place, and that, in the words of the old hymn, “farther along, we’ll understand why”.  I do think there is some metaphysical reason to believe at least that there is continuation of the consciousness after death, given some of the characteristics of consciousness (more on that in the future); but I make no claims to being able to demonstrate any of this.

Finally, I’m not trying to attack the notion of reincarnation.  People I respect believe it’s true; and ditto for the opposite view.  I do think that this is perhaps one other way of looking at it.  Certainly, Christians all too often try to dismiss anything–such as past-life memories–falling outside their narrow theological framework as fraud or the work of the Devil.  For those who take these phenomena seriously and who are willing to go a little off the theological beaten path, I think Williams’s vision, as well as having other attractive aspects, is an interesting paradigm for viewing them.

Part of the series Reincarnation

Posted on 14/09/2012, in Christianity, metaphysics, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Anirudh Kumar Satsangi


    Among the ancient Greeks Socrates, Pythagoras and Plato made reincarnation an integral part of their teachings. According to Dr. Granville Dharmawardena of Colombo University reincarnation may be defined as the re-embodiment of an immaterial part of a person after a short or a long interval after death, in a new body whence it proceeds to lead a new life in the new body more or less unconscious of its past existences, but containing within itself the “essence” of the results of its past lives, which experience goes to make up its new character or personality.
    In the seventeenth century Rene Descartes divided everything in the universe into two realms as “Res Extensa” (matter) and “Res Cogitans” (mind). Gathering knowledge within the realm of Res Extensa was called Science and the phenomenon of reincarnation got pushed into the other realm Res Cogitans which was not considered suitable for scientific probing. Science developed in the framework of Res Estensa is known as “Classical Science”. Classical science had tremendous material achievements because it helped all round growth of technology which brought about prosperity to mankind. The air of frame work of Classical Science was blown out by Henry Becquerel in 1896 by the discovery of Radioactivity. The discovery of Theory of Relativity by Albert Einstein in early 20th Century gave it further blow. The advent of Quantum Theory and the Uncertainty Principle did the rest. It is significant to note that Einstein’s discovery fall entirely within the frame work of Res Cogitans as it did not involve any experiments or measurements. Gravitation Force Theory of Newton is also an example of such observation and intuition work involving no experiments and measurements.
    Modern Science enhanced man’s knowledge surpassing the restrictions imposed by the five senses and took us to hidden areas of nature and profound changes had been introduced in procedures of science. Our ability to understand everything by way of perceptible mental pictures is reduced and it became necessary to imagine models with components which behaved in ways that had no counterparts at all in the world familiar to us. In most cases mechanisms involved in these models not only are imperceptible but also consist of elements that operate in ways never known in the world that we actually experience through sensory inputs.
    Modern science tied up the two realms, Res Extensa and Res Cogitans and made us to understand that they are not independent and cannot be completely studied independently. Within the establishment of modern science some of the aspects of nature that did not strictly adhere to the realm of Res Extensa, which were therefore earlier condemned as unbecoming of scientists to talk about have become respectable. Reincarnation falls into this category
    Reincarnation is a very old belief and a large fraction of the world population believes it. For example Rene Descartes’ statement “What I have said is sufficient to show clearly enough that the extinction of the mind does not follow from the corruption of the body and also to give men the hope of another life after death” in 1641 confirms his belief in reincarnation. About 20 percent of those in the Western World whose religions shun reincarnation nevertheless believe it. According to opinion polls this percentage is rising.
    Lisa Miller, Religion Editor of Newsweek says that Americans are becoming more Hindus. According to 2008 Harris Poll 24% of Americans say they believe in reincarnation
    Steven J Rosen writes in The Reincarnation Controversy, Uncovering the Truth in World Religions (New Age Books) that belief in reincarnation allows us to see ourselves as architects of our own future. Rosen raises certain queries,‘ what is it that reincarnates from one body to another? Is it the soul? the mind? the intellect? To understand this we should suggest answer to these questions. We all know that there are four fundamental forces in the universe viz., gravitation force, electromagnetic force, weak nuclear force and strong nuclear force. I have written a paper entitled ‘Gravitation Force is the Ultimate Creator’ and presented it at the 1st International Conference on Revival of Traditional Yoga held in Lonavla Yoga Institute, Lonavla in January 2006. In this paper I have defined soul (individual consciousness), mind and body. According to this every point of action of Gravitational Force Field is individual consciousness or soul, electromagnetic force as the force of mind and weak and strong nuclear force as the gross material force which constitute physical frame of body.
    Consciousness is All Intelligent and pervades everywhere. Although all other remaining three forces are also intelligent but they are subordinate to Gravitational Force. THIS DESCRIPTION WILL HELP TO UNDERSTAND ‘WHAT IS IT THAT REINCARNATES FROM ONE BODY TO ANOTHER.
    According to Buddhism this is not the supreme atman or soul that ties one life to another, instead it talks about past lives as evolvement of consciousness, emergence of a new personality from the same stream of consciousness.
    Contrary to popular belief, reincarnation is not an exclusively Eastern notion but that has flourished in cultures around the world. It is still an integral part of some sects of the Jewish tradition; Kabbalistic Jewish wisdom tradition has reincarnation ideas embedded in it one way or another. Reincarnation is mentioned in numerous places throughout the classical texts of Jewish mysticism. “As long as a person is unsuccessful in his purpose in this world, the Holy One, blessed be He, uproots him and replants him over and over again”. (Zohar I 186b)

    Gnostic and Early Christians also believed in reincarnation; only later on church removed all such texts and blended those heretics. History records that early Emperor Justinian in 545 A.D. was able to apply the full power of Rome and his authority to stop the belief in reincarnation. However, the Bible contain no condemnation of the principle of reincarnation, and in fact, when Christ was asked when Elijah would return, He answered that Elijah had returned, referring to John the Baptist. At one place it is also mentioned, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3).

    Sakina Yusuf Khan writes in an article A Night Of Forgiveness published in The Speaking Tree: “It (Shab-e-Barat) is also a festival associated with the dead. It is believed that the souls of the dead are set free on this night to visit their relatives.” What this indicates? This is a belief in reincarnation, of course in subtle body. The Koran says, “And you were dead, and He brought you back to life. And He shall cause you to die, and shall bring you back to life, and in the end shall gather you onto Himself.” Among the followers of Islam, the Sufis especially believe that death is no loss, for the immortal soul continually pass through different bodies.
    Unaccomplished activities of past lives are also one of the causes for reincarnation. Some of us reincarnate to complete the unfinished tasks of previous birth. This is evident from my own story of reincarnation:
    “My most Revered Guru of my previous life His Holiness Maharaj Sahab, 3rd Spiritual Head of Radhasoami Faith had revealed this secret to me during trance like state of mine. This was sort of REVELATION.
    HE told me, “Tum Sarkar Sahab Ho” (You are Sarkar Sahab). Sarkar Sahab was one of the most beloved disciple of His Holiness Maharj Sahab. Sarkar Sahab later on became Fourth Spiritual Head of Radhasoami Faith.
    Since I don’t have any direct realization of it so I can not claim the extent of its correctness. But it seems to be correct. During my previous birth I wanted to sing the song of ‘Infinite’ (Agam Geet yeh gawan chahoon tumhri mauj nihara, mauj hoi to satguru soami karoon supanth vichara) but I could not do so then since I had to leave the mortal frame at a very early age. But through the unbounded Grace and Mercy of my most Revered Guru that desire of my past birth is being fulfilled now.”
    I am one the chief expounder and supporter of Gravitation Force Theory of God. This is most scientific and secular theory of God. This is the Theory of Universal Religion. I have given Higher Theory of Everything. Sometimes back I posted this as comments to a blog on:
    ‘Fighting of the Cause of Allah by Governing a Smart Mathematics Based on Islamic Teology’
    By Rohedi of Rohedi Laboratories, Indonesia. Rohedi termed my higher theory of everything more wonderful than which has been developed by Stephen Hawking. Some details are quoted below:
    @anirudh kumar satsangi
    Congratulation you have develop the higher theory of everything more wonderful than which has been developed by Stephen Hawking. Hopefully your some views for being considered for Unified Field Theory are recognized by International Science Community, hence I soon read the fundamental aspect proposed by you.
    I have posted my comments to the Blog of Syed K. Mirza on Evolutionary Science vs. Creation Theory, and Intellectual Hypocrisy. Syed Mirza seems to be a very liberal muslim. He responded to my comments as mentioned below.
    “Many thanks for your very high thought explanations of God.
    You said:
    “Hence it can be assumed that the Current of Chaitanya (Consciousness) and Gravitational Wave are the two names of the same Supreme Essence (Seed) which has brought forth the entire creation. Hence it can be assumed that the source of current of consciousness and gravitational wave is the same i.e. God or ultimate creator.
    (i) Gravitation Force is the Ultimate Creator, Source of Gravitational Wave is God”
    Whatever you call it, God is no living God of any religion. Yes, when I call it “Mother Nature” is the God generated from all Natural forces and Gravitational force is the nucleus of all forces or we can presume that Gravitation is the ultimate guiding principle of this Mother Nature we call it non-living God unlike living personal God of religions. I can not believe any personal God would do so much misery created for its creation. Hence, only non-living natural God can explain everything in the Universe. When we think of any living personal God, things do not ad up!”
    I have also discovered the mathematical expression for emotional quotient (E.Q.) and for spiritual quotient (S.Q.).
    Austrian Scientist Rudolf Steiner says,
    “Just as an age was once ready to receive the Copernican theory of the universe, so is our age ready for the idea of reincarnation to be brought into the general consciousness of humanity”.

  1. Pingback: Reincarnation: Index « The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

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