Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.



Essays by Me

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From International Philosophical Quarterly, 37:4, December 1997.  A review of Paul Edwards, Reincarnation: A Critical Examination. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1996. Pp. 313. $28.95.  As published the review was untitled.

Anthony Flood

July 29, 2009


James A. Sadowsky, S.J.


According to the notion of reincarnation that Paul Edwards chooses to discuss, the human being, or soul, has lived in an infinite number of bodies that are discontinuous with each other.  The arguments that believers in reincarnation offer fall into two main classes: the ethical and the empirical.  The ethical argument presents reincarnation as the solution to the problem of evil: why do those who have done no wrong in this life suffer nonetheless?  The empirical argument attempts to show that reincarnation provides the best explanation of purported memories of a prior life: if these memories are genuine, then the bearer of those memories must really have lived those lives. Several chapters are devoted to the (in my opinion) successful demolition of these argu-ments.

As Edwards points out, the moral argument presents the sufferings of this life as the effect of misdeeds in a prior life.  The law of Karma, in other words, is presented as a causal law: evil deeds produce suffering in the same way that excessive drinking harms our health.  Now, while excessive drinking may arguably be immoral, it is not because it is immoral that it damages our healthindeed, it is probably the other way around.  While murdering people may cause misery to the perpetrator in the form of guilt or remorse, it clearly does not cause misery in the same way that heavy drinking does. There is no evidence that immoral acts committed in this life produce the kind of effects that the reincarnationist is talking about.  What reason is there to suppose that they do so when committed in a prior life?  In general there is no sanction for immoral acts as such unless conscious agents intervene to bring them about.  But then we are no longer talking about a lawquite the opposite.  In the last analysis the miseries that the reincarnationist is talking about happen because of the operation of physical laws and because people get in their way. What caused my son to be run over?  He was run over because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  There is no why about it.  At most you can ask for what motive someone ran him over or why someone who could have prevented it failed to do so. But to ask why physical laws operate as they do is the grossest form of anthropomorphism.  The laws of nature are not options like the laws of parliament.

Another problem with the whole system arises from the fact that there was no first life that we lived: each life was preceded by another.  So we never did start off with a clean slate.  As Edwards puts it, reincarnationists are replacing one unfair universe by an infinite number of unfair universes.

Another difficulty with Karma to which perhaps Edwards should have paid more attention is the inability of most of us to recall the deeds of a previous life for which we are being rewarded or punished.  This is like hanging an amnesiac and calling it punishment.  Or as Leibniz put it: what good does it do Leibniz to come back as emperor of China if he does not remember that he was Leibniz?

It is impossible to summarize in this space the empirical arguments in favor of reincarnation.  The so-called evidence, according to Edwards, is the result of fraud or faulty methodology, wishful thinking, or various combinations of these.  I could not agree more.  It just shows how right Barnum was!

One argument that Edwards uses against reincarnationism is the population-argument. Accor-ding to that theory the number of human beings has always been constant.  This is because there is no creation of souls.  If that is true, it is in conflict with the fact that the human population is constantly increasing.  Suffice it to say that the various at-tempts to answer this involve assumptions that, to put it mildly, are epicyclical.

Edwards asserts correctly that reincarnation presupposes substance-dualism.  Since according to him the latter theory involves trafficking in illicit substances, it provides another reason for rejecting the idea of reincarnation.  Substance-dualism, however, does not entail reincarnationism.  Many Christians have been substance-dualists, holding that, after the separation from their bodies owing to biological death, they shall be at the last day united to bodies essentially the same as the ones they have during this life.  This implies that there is an interval during which we exist without our bodies.  According to Edwards this is impossible because we cannot act without a functioning brain.  I agree with Cajetan that there is no proof that we can act in the absence of a functioning brain.  I do not think, however, that there is any proof that we cannot.  For all we know, this dependence may be the result of our union with the body.  How do we know that, once separated from our bodies, we shall not be able to think?

But let us suppose that Edwards is right about this.  It is true that a being cannot act unless it exists.  That would be like a grin without a lip.  But what says that a being cannot exist unless it acts?  A substance-dualist could allow that we exist inactively between the death of our present bodies and the resurrection, at which point we shall once again have a brain which will be as identical with our present one as a floppy disk copied from the original is identical with that original.  Indeed, in the early centuries of our era, many Christians held just such a view.

New Age types really need to read this book. Unfortunately, they are the ones least likely to do so.