I commented in a previous post that “The only school of “alternative” thought which I have not yet found to be intellectually undermined is the Buddhist approach to re-incarnation” and Anticant obligingly provided me with an antidote. I’ve been reading “Reincarnation: A Critical Examination” by Paul Edwards on and off since it arrived.
I’ve always thought a Hereafter was at least possible, and for a lot of my adult life I’ve considered it to be probable. There’s internal coherence to the Hindu and Buddhist world views, but they fall down when you test some of their underlying assumptions using nasty practical empirical science. (The one world-view that has never made any sense to me whatsoever is paradise, judgement day, heaven and hell). So during my adult life, my position on life after death veered from the conclusion that reincarnation made absolute sense to dragging it along like a comfort blankie while I got on with my real life. I think I even put Buddhist down on the 2001 census. I certainly wasn’t going to put Jedi.
I like Buddhism. I like its practicality. The techniques it teaches, such as meditation, produce real quantifiable changes in the people who practice them. I like the idea of the soul taking several lifetimes to explore different things. I like the idea of karma, that every action has a consequence and that you cannot escape the consequences of your acts. (This is very different from the judgement / punishment view of Christianity, where there is an external deity keeping score. Karma as consequences is more mechanistic and simpler, like a law of nature rather than the whim of a petulant despot). I look around me and I can see karma working on a small scale, and I was comforted by the idea that it worked across lifetimes too. I like the idea that I chose my own parents, that I might get a second chance with lost loves, that I might yet be a mother, that I can catch up next time with what I don’t do this time. I’ll miss Buddhism, but oddly enough I am more interested in it now, not less.
Buddhism, or a Buddhisty theory of reincarnation, provided answers to the questions that I asked, and the aforementioned comfort blankie of course.
Edwards argues simply and fairly clearly that:
- there is no credible evidence for reincarnation and even the best cases evaporate into delusion, wishful thinking or fraud under close examination
- the mind requires the brain to exist, and consciousness does not survive the death of the brain
Edwards also deals with things like Near Death Experiences, (feelings of warmth, love and total understanding, culturally specific spiritual figure at the end of a tunnel of light, etc); Astral Travel (which he debunks as bunk); remembered past lives, (which never produce information not available in this one), and so on.
Ultimately, of course, it comes down to a matter of belief, but religion is essentially a ritualised version of “here be dragons” and as science maps out more and more of the unknown, the remaining dragons are left balancing on smaller and smaller islands. Edwards argues that the dragon of reincarnation no longer has a foot to stand on. Being an Oriental Dragon, it has no wings and cannot fly. Or that’s my metaphor, and I’m sticking to it.
I am trying to absorb various truths. When I die, I’ll go out like a candle. There are no second chances, if I don’t do it this time then I won’t get to do it at all. The people who I know who’ve died have stopped. And the big one: life really is a bitch and then you really do die.
As well as the truths, I now have all sorts of other questions swirling in my mind. How can morality have merit if it is merely a human artefact? What practical meaning remains to the word “spirituality”? What merit is left in Buddhism if you take out reincarnation? Does this mean the Dalai Lama isn’t cool any more?
Oddly there is one question I am pretty clear on which is why are there no pre-20th century cultures which are entirely irreligious?
It seems clear to me:
- that religions provided creation myths and an explanation for why stuff happened and
- that religious belief provides just enough of an advantage to individuals and societies in times of crisis for there to have been a very slight selective advantage in a strong religious faith.
Dawkins is such an evangelist for atheism that I rather like the idea of religion providing an evolutionary benefit. It seems highly likely to me that dogs have gods.
At the moment I veer between two contradictory feelings. Sometimes I am shocked by how dramatically the stakes have been raised: as the the saying goes, “there ain’t no justice, just us”. We cannot rely on any external checks and balances to iron out the world’s problems. If we don’t sort it out here and now, then it won’t be sorted out, and that’s not all right. And then I veer towards nihilism: in the long run we are all dead and nothing is remembered. How can justice matter if the victims can neither know nor care?
It is this spinning around which is making me giddy.
Edwards’ book, incidentally, is irritating in a number of ways. It is printed on very odd paper and the whole thing turns into two parallel tubes when you are reading it. It is appallingly badly proof-read, which is unforgivable in a second edition. He promises to discuss various subjects such as childhood prodigies and extremes of talent, but doesn’t, and he fails to discuss Out of Body experiences at all, refering the reader in toto to Susan Blackmore. It is however also fun, witty and sarcastic. I just wish it had been better edited. Or edited at all, really.