According to Buddhist tradition, all people must suffer illness, aging, and death.
This we're thinking about Reincarnation – past lives, and future selves. Maybe you don’t believe in reincarnation. But a lot of people have and still do. Schopenhauer said, "we find the doctrine [of reincarnation] springing from the earliest and noblest ages of the human race, always spread abroad on the earth as the belief of the great majority of mankind." Most Buddhists believe in reincarnation. And I’m told one out of four Americans today believe in it. It deserves to be taken seriously.
But first we should get clear on exactly what we mean when we talk about reincarnation. Here’s a definition from the Dalia Lama --- he believes himself to be the reincarnation of previous Dalai Lamas, and as he gets old is starting to think about the next one, and has been writing about it. He says, quite succinctly, "In order to accept reincarnation . . .we need to accept the existence of past and future lives. Sentient beings come to this present life from their previous lives and take rebirth again after death."
Now I have utmost respect for the Dalai Lama, but I’m not sure I get his meaning. So while we're quoting famous guys, here's Leibniz: "What use…would it be to you to become King of China on condition that you forgot what you had been? Would it not come to the same thing as if God, at the time as he destroyed you, created a King in China…” To take two examples: David Hume died in 1776, the boxer James J. Corbett died in 1933. So I'm eligible to be the reincarnation of either of them --- or countless others. But what would make it the case that I am Hume, or Corbett, or anyone else?
I grant that Leibniz’s question has to be answered. But the Dalai Lama clearly implies that there is an answe. What makes the events of your life forty years ago part of your life? Some relation those events have to what is going on with you now. Whatever it is, you have that relation to the events in your past life – the life of the person of whom you are a reincarnation. But then I'm obviously not anyone’s reincarnation, because I don’t have the same human body as any past person. And that’s the relation I have to events in my past.
And yet serious philosophers --- people like John Locke and Sydney Shoemaker --- have argued that personal identity consists in having the same consciousness, not the same body. We’ve done programs on that. So in order to get clear about reincarnation, and understand the beliefs of millions of serious and thoughtful people, including the Dalai Lama, let's assume that Locke and Shoemkaer are on the right track.
What they meant by “same consciousness" was basically links of memory. But I don’t remember what David Hume or anyone else who died before I was born did --- I mean, I remember that Hume wrote the Treatise, but I don’t remember writing the Treatise. I remember that Corbett knocked out John. L. Sullivan in the 21st round. But I don’t remember knocking Sullivan out. So I’m not Hume. And I’m not Gentleman Jim Corbett. And, in fact, I’m not a reincarnation of anyone like me. I’m just me -- which, I might add, keeps me quite busy.
But on many views of recincarnation there is a difference. Although most of us don’t remember past lives, there is evidence that some of us do, and perhaps all of us are capable of it. So you don’t forget everything, at least not beyond the possibility of remembering.
And then, of course, there’s Karma. Memory is one form in which our past consciousness affects our present consciousness. But there are lots of other ways in which our past actions and thoughts influence us -- cause us to be different that we would be otherwise. Karma is this same sort of influence; you are what you are like, in part because of what the people of whom you are the reincarnation were like and what they did.
So let's suppose I am the reincarnation of David Hume. He died in 1776. In Edinburgh. I was born in the 1940s. In Nebraska. As a naturalist, scientific kind of guy, I don’t see how what he did could have affected me in any special way. Do I have to believe in immaterial souls to understand reincarnation?
Maybe not. If you're an up-to-date scientific naturalist, you should be aware of how strange the universe is turning out to be. There are all sorts of influences, actions at a distance, that we don’t understand. Quantum events zillions of miles apart can be “entangled”, so that the properties of the two events correlate and complement each other in strange ways. And nobody really understands consciousness. Maybe it involves these deep physical connections we don’t understand. So maybe I can't just dismiss out of hand that reincarnation may be onto something, just because I fance myself Mr. Science.
Does that sound like I believe in reincarnation? Well, I did once. I wouldn’t mind being re-convinced.