30 April 2015


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.

Comments (20)

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Friday, May 1, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

In The Hitchhiker's Guide to

In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the bowl of Petunias says: "Oh, no! Not Again!"

renemcguire's picture


Saturday, May 2, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I'm sorry but aren't the

I'm sorry but aren't the listeners interested in hearing what Robert Thurman has to say?  I think he commands a higher level of respect than he is being afforded on this show.  In my humble opinion, it's not very pleasant listening to him being interrupted, He's a great guest and thankfully his responses do not fit into a simplified   'sound bite'.

billmaggs's picture


Saturday, May 2, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I'm sorry, but as enchanted

I'm sorry, but as enchanted as I was by the show today, I was appalled at how you both treated Bob Thurman. It is one thing to remind him about the obvious need to limit rambling answers in a radio philosophy show (I had Bob as a teacher in college, so I know quite a bit about his verbal style, which involves a lot of words), but the rude way you interrupted him and treated his points with what certainly seemed like undisguised condescension was somewhat shocking and unlike the tone in other episodes of your generally enjoyable show.  
You seemed not to be debating the actual subject of reincarnation, but the entire idea that any type of scientific or philosophical thought  other than the Western standard is ridiculous. If you had stopped to listen, you might have been impressed and stimulated by Thurman's analogies as I was, and found something to really think about and learn from.  He really is a brilliant educator and writer, for all his rhetorical flourishes.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, May 3, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Having not heard the show I

Having not heard the show I can still respond to this accusation of some flaw in method. Maybe Mr. Thurman was treated badly, I don't know (the show is not aired at a convenient time in my area), but this supposed distinction between East and West is overstated every time it comes up. The West in this case is nothing more nor less than an insistence that the author of an assertion bear responsibility to respond to critical questions and observations. It is not rudeness to stop a speaker in his stride as he makes assertions couched in language meant to deflect responsibility. We are not acolytes at the teacher's knees. The point is, there is neither evidence nor rational support for reincarnation. Wishful thinking is not philosophy.

billmaggs's picture


Sunday, May 3, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Really good point, and I

Really good point, and I agree of course, there is no real difference between Eastern and Western thought, only in the tools you being to bear on a problem. You really should listen to the show, since I think there was some blame on both the hosts and Thurman for the philosophical food fight. In many other shows I've heard from these "materialists" as Thurman somewhat negatively called them, the discussion basically comes to a huge halt on some abstract idea, and some guest feels the need to supply an practical example from typical American life to keep listeners engaged. Many of these examples are not based on the idea of observation and evidence but really on your gut feelings about ethics, morality, etc. I think that thurman's main point is that for a few billion people in Asia the idea of reincarnation is just as practical as "do under others as they would do unto you" and other Western notions. Science is science, and for me quantum mechanics is essentially indistinguishable from the rather abstract as well as beautiful  analogies Thurman was using to show that the mind and the self, that most elusive of Western as well as Eastern concepts, defies our attempts to reduce it to a set of equations.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, May 3, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

My media access is more

My media access is more limited than most.
Analogy is not what you think it is. Plato shows us this in his Gorgias. It is differences, not likenesses that are most instructive and most generative of what is. Likeness, sameness, is a conceit that time is what is enduring it. We are psychologically committed to survive, but we are biologically committed to die. The cells in your body began to differentiate with the first division of the fertilized egg. It is that differentiation that generates what and who we are, not replication. And it is that differentiation that means there is no going back to the stem-cell replicant. Life that just replicates is hardly life at all, it is bacteria or fungi. Sameness is never really alive. But, equally, what becomes what it is differentiated in every part can hardly replicate itself in another life. The absurdity is patent.

David C's picture

David C

Sunday, May 3, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

In order to focus on

In order to focus on reincarnation, and not be burdened by the whole question of personal survival, a temporary suspension of physicalist convictions would be helpful.  If it is true that our existence begins sometime at or during fetal development and ends when our bodies are pronounced dead, then there is nothing left to reincarnate. End of discussion. So, for the sake of argument, one should provisionally adopt a spiritualist perspective for the discussion to go forward.
Though I bear a family resemblance with my 6 year old self, and share the same DNA, everything else about me is different. I have a whole other body and have been getting new ones about every seven years or so. Not a single cell of the 6 year old boy I once was remains. I have a few vague notions corresponding to the child?s vivid boyhood memories, but were it not for family stories and photos of that ?past life? I could just as well be that boy?s identical twin. Yet, despite the fact that I do not have the same body as my six year old self, or his memories, it?s reasonable to assume that I am the same person. Failure to recall a past life is no more extraordinary than the amnesiac fog that envelops memories of childhood.
As provisional spiritualists, we can appreciate the wisdom of the waters of Lethe. The movie ?Birth? with Nicole Kidman, explores the difficulties arising when your dead husband returns as a ten year old boy. It?s not pretty.
Presumably, our enduring selves have good reason to pay an occasional visit to our little sphere. Perhaps it is curiosity, a desire for a change of scenery, a ritual hazing, or to earn a merit badge. Who knows? Considering the limitations of a single life; one?s sex, nationality, race, etc., and the particular era that we live in, reincarnation makes a good deal of sense, if one?s desire is to explore the fullness of what it means to be human.
Putting your physicalist cap back on, if you usually wear one, the peculiar phenomenon of children who recall past lives is troubling. In a world where self and personal memories vanish into oblivion upon bodily death, this phenomenon should not happen.  And yet it does.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, May 3, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Let's leave suspension of

Let's leave suspension of disbelief to the theatre of the absurd. Your cells are not born, they are divided from the original blastocyst. Many cells die in your life, but those still living are not 'newborn', but simply sister cells to those that are no more. The complexity of medicine and neurology can't be understood without recognizing this. The body does not take orders from the DNA, any more than a town meeting takes orders from its moderator. It's a book of which every copy changes its language with the reading of every term. This explains the astounding complexity that emerges. The question is, how does the body as a whole respond in recognition of the changes of it each cell is? This is how consciousness arises, and does so from adumbrating stages of it (humans do not have a complete monopoly on it). But it needs the material existing body to be that consciousness.
Person is a characterology of changing conceit that emerges from the very rigor of sustaining it. By conceit I do not mean egotism, but a state of mind or conviction that suffers change through the effects of inadequacy or incompleteness in it. Before we learn or come to change our mind, there are moods and instabilities in our convictions intimating the coming of it. The dynamic and special rigor of that change is what person is. But there is nothing constant person is, as there is nothing constancy time is. The rest is void. You wish the void. I suppose you have that right. It seems timeless and assuages our, quite reasonable, fear of death. But you also have responsibility to explain why you do not respond to the rather glaring fact that the only constancy in life is change. It is the character of that change that is the special quality of each of us. That is why death is the most completed loss, and must be. Only such completed loss as death is can be articulated the worth of that character of changing time each of us is of it. The notion of reincarnation voids that worth. And make no mistake! That does not make dying any easier! It is an ideology designed to excuse the cruelty we endure from others. It's purport is very much here and now. It's a real gyp!    

MJA's picture


Tuesday, May 5, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

 Reincarnation to me is

 Reincarnation to me is coming from and going to and just being, One place, One past, One future, One present, One Universe, We are all reincarnation of the One, just One, be One.
United we stand,
Just me =

Guest's picture


Friday, May 8, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

That Joke at the beginning of

That Joke at the beginning of the program was hilarious.  I will be donating money in the near future.  

Bryan Van Norden's picture

Bryan Van Norden

Friday, May 15, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Fascinating show with a

Fascinating show with a lively discussion!
I'm not a materialist myself, and I actually believe in reincarnation in a certain sense.  However, I found Prof. Thurman's arguments problematic.  I think Ken should not have conceded that the mind is a form of energy.  However, let's concede for the sake of the argument that the mind is energy.  Thurman would still need a further premise:  that mind energy (which is conscious) cannot be converted into other forms of energy that we agree are not conscious (like heat energy or electromagnetic energy).  
Think about it this  way.  Suppose the mind is energy.  Okay, the body is matter, and the total amount of matter is conserved, but the body still rots.  Why can't the energy that is the mind decay into some non-conscious form of energy, while still preserving the total amount of energy in the universe?
Thurman also appealed to the broader philosophical principle (going back to Parmenides in the West) that "nothing comes from nothing." But there certainly are emergent properties that violate this principle.  There are fifty states currently in the US.  Where did they come from?  Is California a reincarnation of a previous state?  If we can't think of any states of which California is a reincarnation, perhaps it is a reincarnation of a state on another planet?  It seems easier to believe that mental states are emergent properties of lower-level physical entities, analogously to the way that political states are emergent properties of lower-level political entities.

Trevons's picture


Tuesday, May 19, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

However, there are heaps of

However, there are heaps of different courses in which our past activities and musings impact us. write my essay by essayleaks

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Monday, May 25, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

What the hell is "energy"?

What the hell is "energy"? Energy, in fact, is not an emergent property of matter. It's the other way 'round. Energy is the 'lower level'. A better way to think of it is macro and micro. Energy is the micro state of the macro matter is of it. Is mind the 'micro' to the 'macro' the body is of it? Ponder this for a lifetime, as I have, and you might just come to realize something 'big'.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Monday, May 25, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

In the midst of life we are

In the midst of life we are in...., debt.

Parallax Way's picture

Parallax Way

Thursday, June 4, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

When we are born and when we

When we are born and when we die -- the only thing that enters or leaves our bodies is the small amount of energy that we call 'the life force'. (called soul by most religions) The reason people cannot remember where they were before they were born is because they never learned to contact their own real life force but instead believe in all the things they were taught since birth -- and they think that all the foolishness that they 'know'  about life is really them, and true - no matter how many others disagree.  You see that is the problem -- ALL BELIEFS are just imagination -- truth and facts are what everyone always agrees on with no argument --  like "ice is cold!"  I can  explain everything about life and the whole cosmos using nothing but facts that all can agree on.  NO BELIEFS -- and -- NO BIG BANGS either!  Just facts we can all see and prove.  Why is it you are all afraid to hear that? 

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, October 6, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Years ago, I read some works

Years ago, I read some works by Brian Weiss regarding his research on reincarnation. During those efforts, I became aware of a book that sounded interesting but was unable to find a copy of it. Exploring Reincarnation by Hans Ten Dam is apparently out of print. Does anyone know where I might find a copy?

Johan's picture


Saturday, April 6, 2019 -- 4:15 AM

Are we recreating the ego, or

Are we recreating the ego, or some form of it? I certainly like to entertain what we call the or my mind, this co-creation... could be spit out of the endless circle. But to escape the circle all together, with our without the ego, I believe that is what they mean by Samsara. Maybe to do this you have to be "One of those Rangers from the North!" Sometimes it gives me pleasure to believe it, but logic says, it's probably just the absurd.

brrfparsons's picture


Tuesday, October 12, 2021 -- 5:14 PM

When one realizes that only

When one realizes that only the form dies at 'death', but not that which operates the form, reincarnation satisfies the conscious mind.

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, January 17, 2022 -- 1:41 PM

I come back to this old topic

I come back to this old topic, only because i think ( not believe) there is some evidence reincarnation is true. Right now I have no more than anecdotal evidence. And one exciting and disturbing experience.

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spiritual seeker's picture

spiritual seeker

Wednesday, April 17, 2024 -- 1:24 PM

Here is an excerpt from a

Here is an excerpt from a great article about Reincarnation as described by ECKANKAR, an organization that offers spiritual events all over the world.
“Reincarnation Beliefs in ECKANKAR: A Journey of Soul
Reincarnation as central pillar in ECKANKAR is fundamental to understanding karma, spiritual growth, and the meaning of spirituality Itself. In ECKANKAR we learn to experience ourselves as Soul, a being that moves from lifetime to lifetime in search of truth. The purpose of reincarnation is to learn that Soul is a spiritual being and is loved by God unconditionally. We come to realize God as a real presence in our lives.” Here is the link to the whole article.

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