A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

reader comments:  reincarnation

10 June 2010
re: a man could come back as his own daughter........it truly is very involved though not overly complicated. When the soul leaves that body ceases to maintain, replicate cells, etc. and begins to decompose. A tree also may, one spring, not bud out. that means the soul, the person who had the tree body has gone to the next birth. Just as death signals departure, birth signals the arrival of the spiritual soul or self in the womb, seed or egg. If that soul leaves we say miscarriage or stillborn only to go on where he/she desire and deserve to go. For example, one who performs abortions for sense gratification or money may very well have to experience being aborted once for each birth he or she interrupted. I told this to a call screener on a radio program and she declared "that's horrendous!" and cut me off. You tell me which is horrendous; me giving fair logic about the possible consequences or someone interfering with the progress of the eternal soul. Yes the soul is sleeping till about the 7th month (human body) but a civilized human should not slaughter a sleeping person, right? I regress. For the man to become his own daughter, he would have to leave his body ("die") then his saved semen could possibly combine with his widows ovum and by the grace of the authorities he could be placed there to become the daughter of his widow. Please communicate with me if you are interested. Thanks for the forum.

yours truly, Hamsagati das

reply: These are busy times. John Renish, editor of the Skeptic's Dictionary, was kind enough to make the following reply:  “[T]ruly very involved though not overly complicated.” Which is Mr. Gati proposing? Clearly he espouses reincarnation, and like many marriages, this one is the result of a bad decision. The quotation Mr. Gati provides is from a reasoned article on the nonsensical concept of reincarnation, an article that demonstrates there is no persuasive evidence for the soul’s existence in anything, living or dead. Followers of the Shinto religion, for example, will tell you that inanimate objects contain souls, presumably for millions of years in the cases of certain rocks, lakes, or seas. Following Mr. Gati’s assertions, we must conclude that these natural features’ souls are incalculably old and that they will someday be reborn, perhaps as sand bars, puddles, or salt pans. Those rebirths are not unlikely, but the processes involved are purely physical and have nothing to do with any transmigration of souls.

Mr. Gati, try a careful re-reading of the article at http://skepdic.com/reincarn.html, as well as the related articles cited in “See also” at the end of the article. While you’re at it, see also http://skepdic.com/soul.html, which discusses the problems with the very concept of a soul and cites additional sources, both within and outside of the Skeptic’s Dictionary. Dr. Carroll was being facetious in his suggestion that a man’s soul might end up in his daughter’s body; he clearly does not believe that the soul exists and therefore cannot be taken as literal in this context.

Concerning the souls of the unborn, philosophers and theologians have argued for centuries about when ensoulment takes place. Mr. Gati’s religious tradition presumably has one answer, but others have reached far different conclusions. For example, the Catholic Church teaches that the soul enters at conception, this despite the fact that as many as half of all fetuses die because the aren’t implanted or they succumb in utero, making the Catholic god the most prolific abortionist in creation—does that mean he is suffering his own abortion many millions of times every year? The ancient Jews believed that blood is life; following that logic, a fetus could not have a soul before the 18th day following conception. Aristotle thought it was with “quickening,” when the fetus’s movements are first felt, usually between the 16th and 25th week. Some embryological neurologists suggest that if ensoulment takes place, it cannot occur before the 26th week, at which time the fetal brain shows some electrical organization, although it’s clearly not “thinking.” Others have suggested the child’s first breath as the moment of ensoulment (soul = spirit = breath in Latin), but some Central American Indians believe that a child under age five is not a person and presumably soulless.

Mr. Gati himself seems to be of two minds about when the soul enters the body. He says the soul enters at birth, but then he backtracks, claiming the soul is present and asleep in the fetus from some earlier unspoken point. He further holds that the fetus is a person, yet he gives only his own authority that the soul determines personhood, while at the same time holding that even a tree has a soul. Does he suggest a tree is a person? Given how incoherently Mr. Gati has expressed his ideas, it is difficult to lend any of them credence. Perhaps that explains the radio show screener’s refusal to countenance them.

--John Renish, editor, Skeptic’s Dictionary


03 Jan 1998
I was on the net trying to learn more about reincarnation when I stumbled upon your wonderful Skeptic's Dictionary. I'm a fourteen year old agnostic/existentialist and I found your pages incredibly fascinating and educational. I think the best part about being skeptical is how one's beliefs don't sway the facts. I mentioned my interest in reincarnation, and I saw a lot of pages, but they were so opaque and dogmatic I couldn't attempt to learn anything about it. In conclusion thank you for putting up the wonderful, informative sites and know there are probably many people like myself who are just as grateful.

Dec 1996
You missed an interesting problem in your essay on reincarnation. You mention Buddhism as a major religion that includes reincarnation, and go on to argue that it must be the soul that is reincarnated, if anything is. One of the most basic doctrines of Buddhism is anatman (anatta), translatable as "no-soul", "no-self", "no-ego", etc. Buddhism specifically regards the existence of the soul (self, ego) as illusory. It would therefore be this illusion, if anything, which is "reincarnated"--or rather, simply continued.

Dan Clore 

reply: The reincarnation of an illusion....hmmmm....now there is a concept for the New Age. 

31 Dec 1996
I am an Engineer and not prone to illogical things, but I have had a number of things occur in my life to make me curious...maybe you could tell me where to look. About 2 years past I had a dream that still bothers me. I was an officer in the Navy and was in a plane crash in which I died. From this dream I remember the day, and a part of my service number. Could I check this somehow? The day in my dream that I died is troubling for 2 reasons.....in is almost 9 mos to before I was born, and my father in law, whom was very close to me, died on this same day ( only the year is different ). Let me know what you think.

reply: I don't know what you think is so strange or special about your dream, or why it bothers you or puzzles you. I'm not in the dream interpretation business, but if a guy dreams he dies nine months before his birth date, I'd say that is not too pleasant a thought either taken literally or figuratively. Of course, I would take it figuratively. The chance that your dream is a representation of an actual experience is about zero, but I have no doubt believers in reincarnation would take it as evidence for their belief. Figuratively, your dream expresses the notion that you were dead from the moment of conception...not a pleasant thought and one I wouldn't dwell on.

As for the part about the father-in-law...his death date appearing in your dream doesn't seem surprising since you were close to him. Also, I don't know how often dates appear in dreams, but it is often difficult to know for sure whether the source of a date [or for other dream-details] is really the dream. It is often the case that the source is something else, i.e., a waking experience which took place either before or after the dream. 

27 Jun 1997
I have come across your Skeptic’s Dictionary while surfing the net and was interested in your entry under reincarnation. I would like to remark on this entry in your dictionary.

You state: 'In those ancient eastern religions, reincarnation was not considered a good thing, but a bad thing. To achieve the state of ultimate bliss (nirvana) is to escape from the wheel of rebirth'. This is not true. Reincarnation itself is not a bad thing, it is uncontrolled rebirth that is a problem as one never knows if he/she will have a fortunate rebirth or an unfortunate one. Attaining nirvana does not break the cycle of rebirth but ceases uncontrolled rebirth. Once nirvana is reached one has control over his reincarnation.

reply: Strictly speaking, I suppose, you are partly correct. Good and bad are relative terms and in the strictest terms, there are no "bad" things according to these ancient religions. What is, is. On the other hand, like the western religions, the eastern ones have disdained human existence and created an ideal which is the negation of human existence with all its pains, woes and suffering. However, your notion of nirvana does not match what I have read about Buddhism. Nirvana is the final emancipation, the end of the line, the time for the annihilation of individuality and absorption into the One. Maybe you are thinking of the boddhisatva, who delays his or her own final exit to help others reach the promised land. Though, I have no doubt, that somewhere there is a doctrine of reincarnation which not only allows reincarnation as an inanimate object but also allows one who has reached nirvana to come back as a swan or nuclear bomb if they so desire.

Reading your passage about the soul, I feel that you are making a distinction between the mind and the soul. This is not so, the soul is the mind, not a separate entity. So what is carried on when the physical body dies is just the mind of the being. I would like you to explain the following: 'More promising is the work of those who see consciousness in terms of brain functioning and who try to treat 'mental' illness as a physical problem.'

reply: If I have been confusing, I apologize. Let me clarify my views. The soul is a fictional entity which is claimed to be a substance which can exist independently of the body. The mind is a fictional entity which is claimed to be a substance which can exist independently of the brain. Many, but not all, philosophers equate mind and soul. Philosophers who focus on these fictional entities, rather than on the brain, when trying to understand consciousness and behavior are unlikely to discover much more than a few phenomenological truths. For example, they may discover that a psychotic "mind" creates delusions of being abducted by aliens rather than being visited by the Holy Ghost because the dominant cultural motif is no longer religion but science fiction. Or they may discover that the paranoid "mind" believes it is being followed by the FBI or the CIA rather than the Devil because the dominant cultural motif for power to harm is no longer religion but the government. To me, this does not represent progress in understanding anything interesting about human consciousness or behavior. Those who will provide us with useful information in this area will be those who study the brain and discover the neurochemical and physiological processes which cause psychoses. I believe that neuroscientists are also the ones who will lead to valuable knowledge about the workings of the "normal" brain, e.g., how memory works. A work like Daniel Schactner's or those of  Oliver Sackswill help us learn more about memory and other functions of consciousness than a dozen books on the "mind" by Plato's or Aristotle's intellectual descendants. Phenomenology may describe hallucinations, but neuroscientists are likely to discover the endorphins and other chemicals which give rise to feelings of levitation, leaving the body, unity with all things, etc.

Also in your writing, you try to argue whether reincarnation is useful or useless. Surely just because a person finds a phenomenon useless does not equate with it not existing. If, say, I found PCs useless, it would not then mean that computers don't exist. If one feels that there is no benefit in believing in reincarnation then why should there be a problem in thinking that way.

reply: My point is that there is no way to tell the difference between a person with a soul which will be reincarnated and a person with a soul which will not be reincarnated and a person with no soul at all. The utility of this idea is all it has going for it, since it is not based on facts or observations. Its utility has to be found in its ability to explain things or to satisfy some personal desire. I think anything the doctrines of reincarnation or of eternal life can explain can be explained better without reference to a soul. Of course, I exaggerate when I say the doctrine is meaningless and useless: it is so to me. Obviously, the belief is satisfying to billions of people who hate this life but still want to live forever.

My opinion is that reincarnation does explain a host of issues that puzzle scientists and psychologists. One does however need to find authentic teachings on the subject to understand the subject in full.
Neil Williams
Farnborough, Hampshire, England

reply: I guess I'll just have to keep searching for those authentic teachings. 

15 Dec 1997
I have some suggestions that may counter some of your arguments against reincarnation.

You said:

"...if we pretend for a moment that the idea of a soul is possible, we can pretend that this soul has either suddenly started existing out of nothing, or it evolved out of something else, or it has existed forever. I don't think any self-respecting believer in reincarnation has claimed that the soul evolved out of something else. So, for the purposes of argument let's assume that each soul either suddenly came into being or they've existed forever."

These are not the only possibilities. You assume the relevance of time to souls. Most sources would agree that souls have no form in the three normal spatial dimensions, so it seems inconsistent that they should have any form in the time dimension either. Note the similarity with the question "what happened five seconds before time began" - questions of beginnings and ends are only relevant where there is a time axis to measure against.

reply: You're assuming that it is the "soul" which persists. In any case, if what persists is outside of time, how does it manage to move in and out of time?

"If they've existed forever and reincarnation is correct, then the world population should remain constant. The world population does not remain constant. Therefore, either souls have not existed forever or reincarnation is not correct."

That is only a valid disproof to a reincarnation theory which requires that:

  1. all souls available must be incarnated
  2. all souls reincarnate instantly, sequentially forward in time
  3. all incarnated souls reside on planet earth
  4. all souls incarnate only in humans
  5. all souls incarnate in only one body at a time

Here's an alternative model (this one was suggested by the Seth books):

Souls exist external to the normal space-time frame. They can
have nil, one, or many incarnations dipping into the timeline
at any point (including more than one in the same time), and
can incarnate into any lifeform. Incarnations may have complete, partial, or no access to the total soul's facilities, including its "memories" of its other incarnations.

Note that I am not necessarily advocating reincarnation, merely proposing a way in which it could occur which would not be subject to the problems you pointed out.
Julian Morrison

reply: Your model also assumes that it is the soul which reincarnated. I'm willing to grant that it is not the soul that is reincarnated and that whatever it is that persists can move in and out of any living or dead entity in the universe. For all I know, every particle in the universe has a "blah blah" which persists eternally and moves  from particle to particle. I have no idea what value such an assumption has, except to make reincarnation of "blah blahs" impossible to disprove.

13 Jan 1998
I really enjoyed your essay on reincarnation, but I have something to add.  You and others have mentioned that reincarnation is a ridiculous idea, and not useful, but it is also something else:  a complete and total non idea:  absolutely meaningless when we look at ourselves as individuals and ask "what are the necessary components that make up me?"
Descartes' idea that "I think therefore I am"  is some pretty powerful stuff.  I myself am incapable of imagining the concept of "me" if I have no thoughts, memories, sensations - all the things that make up me.  Without these, I am no more than an inanimate lump of rock.

This is where the whole criticism of reincarnation comes in.  If the "soul" is passed on to another body (and that soul is the true "me"), then I would expect that next body to remember my former life, what I liked to eat for breakfast as well as personality traits and such.  There should be no change at all, if reincarnation is simply the passing of "me" from one container to another.   But how many of us remember a damn thing about former lives? And how many that do "remember" these former lives are making money from these memories?

reply: You're assuming it is the "self" which persists, but what if it is the "blah blah" which has no memory, no personality?

Let's just humor these reincarnationists - yes, matter is neither created nor destroyed, so perhaps when I die one or two of my former atoms will help to make up the armor on the back of a beetle, or a lump of earwax in a gerbil.  So what?!   In conclusion, a soul without memories, personality and continuity is nothing at all.  And the concept of reincarnation is a delusion built upon an even bigger delusion.

Oh yes, and another thing:  if reincarnation were true, and the "soul" (memories thoughts and all) are passed from body to body, then why don't we see insect labor unions, poetry writing sloths and historian fruit flies?  do some slugs dream about their former human lives?
Tony Jensen

reply: We don't need to humor anyone. Those who believe in reincarnation don't necessarily believe that it is the soul which persists. They don't necessarily believe there would be any memory of past lives. They don't necessarily believe that the "self" or "personality" of any individual persists. What they believe is very mysterious.

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