|Rebirth and Personal Identity|
|The notion of reincarnation can indeed be reconciled with a personalist philosophy.|
|Rebirth and Personal identity: Is Reincarnation an Intrinsically Impersonal Concept?|
by Titus Rivas
You should know that in my previous life I was already the very same person I am now! 'Kees', a Dutch boy with reincarnation memories
Some Westerners associate the concept of reincarnation with the loss of personal identity. This is an oversimplification resulting from a
strong influence of the Buddhist anatta-doctrine on contemporary Western spirituality. The notion of reincarnation can indeed be
reconciled with a personalist philosophy. Spiritual personalists may
benefit a lot from reincarnation research. Rather than giving up on
their personalism, they could extend it to the notion of a truly
personal evolution over several lives on earth.
Some spiritualists, Swedenborgians, Christians, Muslims and others
appear to regard reincarnation research as a threat to a realistic and
positive perspective on personal survival after death. It seems that in
their view, reincarnation theory could only be compatible with an
impersonalist stand on personal identity. Accordingly, reincarnation
would imply that death is followed by a radical disintegration of
personality, or loss of self. Only certain memories, personality traits
and skills would be 'recycled' during the formation of a fundamentally
new person. In a sense, the theory of reincarnation would be remarkably
similar to the materialist theory of extinction after death in that the
person as such would really be irreversibly destroyed. The consolation
offered by reincarnation for the eternal loss of a person would be very
bleak indeed, adding a new bizarre dimension to life rather than taking
away the apparent absurdity of death. However, this particular concept
is not the only rationally conceivable perspective on reincarnation.
Most Buddhist views about personal identity can be summarised by the
Pali term anatta, which literally means 'no soul' (Sanskrit an-atman).
There used to be a minor Buddhist current that did accept some type of
personal survival after death (known as Vatsiputriya or Pudgalavada),
but nowadays most Buddhists consider this school as little more than an
outdated early sect. [Addition of May 1st 2006: However, there are a
few Buddhist scholars who believe the original teachings of the Buddha
were not impersonalist, see this site].
The Buddhist teaching of anatta has to a considerable extent influenced
contemporary Western spiritual theory. This doctrine teaches that there
cannot even be a real personal identity during a physical lifetime as
there is no constant, substantial self. In this ontological
anti-substantialism, Buddhism is quite close to the fashionable
so-called process-metaphysics in the West, of scholars such as Alfred
North Whitehead. The (mainstream) Buddhist position on personal
identity implies that reincarnation cannot be a personal process, as
there never is a real substantial self in the first place. For a
Buddhist, rebirth is ultimately just as non-personal as any human life
Forms of substantialism
Popular as process-metaphysics may be, substantialism is not rejected
by all serious contemporary philosophers. In general, substantialism is
the theory that there are one or more things in reality, known as
substances, which cannot be reduced to events or processes. Substances
in this ontological (rather than chemical) sense remain constant in
their ultimate, irreducible and un-analysable identity with themselves
(their essence), although they may change in their temporal properties
or actions (their existence). For substantialists, substances are the
ontological realms within which events or processes take place, whereas
supporters of process metaphysics deny that we need any such
substantial ground for events and processes. Traditional examples of
things or entities that are believed to be substances are: a God or
gods, human beings or animals in general, subjective experients or
selves, physical atoms, matter, or the universe. Both in the East and
in the West, a great many educated persons, including the author of
this paper, continue to endorse some form of substantialism, as they
believe the reasons for it remain more valid than the arguments offered
for process-metaphysics. Generally speaking, there are three major
ontological positions that involve a notion of a substantial self. One
of these is the holistic type of personalism, which holds that a person
is an indivisible whole consisting of a body and mind or personality.
Except for the possibilities of a literal resurrection of the 'total
person'(which is part of the creed of Jehova's witnesses; see: Morse,
2000, p. 267) and of (divine) emancipation of the emergent soul from
its body (William Hasker, personal communication), this holistic or
emergentist personalism typically seems incompatible with personal
survival after bodily death, let alone personal reincarnation. Holistic
or emergent personalism is related to the Aristotelian view, see Morse
(2000, p. 203): "For Aristotle, as the soul is an intricate
materialistic part of the body, when a person dies, the soul dies as
A second type of substantialism also accepts that there is a
substantial self, but claims that this self is ultimately not personal,
but transpersonal. This theory is often expressed by the equation Atman
(soul) = Brahman (God), and it amounts to the assumption that our real
Selves - which would go beyond our individual personalities - would all
be identical and consist of one single divine spiritual essence or soul
(noetic monism). The theory is typical for certain currents within
Hinduism such as Advaita. It is compatible with a notion of 'personal'
reincarnation, in that both the transpersonal Atman and the individual
personality dependent on it (jivatman) may be assumed to survive death
and be reborn. Certain Western authors such as Aldous Huxley have
clearly been influenced by this transpersonalist type of
substantialism. More recently echoes of this theory can be found in the
literature of channelling, e.g. in the books about the entity named
"Seth", channelled through Jane Roberts.
A third type of substantialism amounts to the theory that there is a
plurality of ultimately irreducible individual souls rather than just a
single divine one. There is a personal conscious subject, self or "I"
who sees, thinks, feels, wants, etc. The physical body is not part of
the real person in this spiritual sense and personal identity of the
personal self cannot be affected by bodily death. Also, as the personal
self is substantial, even radical inner change (of its existence) will
never be able to disintegrate it (in the essential sense) into more
than one personal experient.
Within Indian philosophy, this position, which may be termed spiritual
personalism, is supported by the Dvaita interpretation of Vedanta and
other pluralistic currents such as Jainism or the logical realism of
Nyaya-philosophy. Within European or more generally Western thought it
is defended in the Monadology of Leibniz and in Athanasia by Bernhard
Bolzano, and also by major Christian and modern thinkers such as
Augustine, Descartes, Oesterreich (1910), John Foster (1991), the
Jewish mystical movements of Kabbalah and Hassidism (Morse, 2000) (and
the present author) (Rivas, 2003a, 2005). Don Morse (2000) even traces
it back to Socrates and Plato; 'Socrates stated that the soul was
substance and could not vanish but merely changed form. He stated that
all substances are indestructible, but their forms can change.'(p. 200)
and "Plato said that the soul is neither created nor destroyed. Every
soul has been here forever and will exist for eternity." (p. 202).
Applied to the context of previous lives, spiritual personalism can
only make sense of rebirth if it is conceived of as a truly personal
phenomenon. There is even a whole spiritualist (or perhaps more
accurately spiritist) movement, Kardecism, which accepts personal
reincarnation and is based on the writings of Hippolyte Leon Denizarth
Rivail, better known by his pseudonym Allan Kardec (1804-1869). Don
Morse (2000, p. 292) writes about Kardecism: "It differs in that with
each incarnation, the spirit retains its individuality and spirits
It is important to note that a personal self should be conceptually
distinguished from its personality. A personality may be seen as an
acquired (existential) pattern of psychological structures, attitudes
and skills of a substantial personal self, which (essentially) always
remains identical to itself. A personality is dynamic and changes over
time, and in certain pathological cases a personal self may possess
several personalities simultaneously though it can only be conscious in
one personality at a time. Thus, changes of personality and even
dissociation are fully compatible with the notion of a substantial
In the context of reincarnation we will expect certain changes of
personality through the processes of death, rebirth and childhood, but
this does not mean those changes imply a new or different personal
self. We would remain ourselves just as much as we remain ourselves in
the course of a single earthly lifetime. During one life we start off
as children and after about two decades we normally become adults,
which we remain until as a consequence of reincarnation we become
children again, though hopefully at a somewhat 'higher (dispositional)
level' of personal evolution.
The reader will not be surprised to learn that spiritual personalism is also the author's position.
Other positions reconcilable with some kind of personal reincarnation
Recently, a fourth approach to personal identity is proposed by Peter Novak (1997).
It was partially adopted by Donald Morse (2000) during the development
of his own personal theory of survival after death (chapter 15).
However, Morse acknowledges "there are certain aspects of the theory
that are difficult to reconcile with existing beliefs" (p. 331).
Novak defends what might be termed a kind of mental dualism, which he
traces back to ancient theories of the kind found in the Gnostic
literature. A personal mind would be composed of two distinct parts
that may be identified as an individual conscious spirit and
unconscious soul. In a sense, we might also term this position
'spiritual holism' in that a person would be non-physical and consist
of two clearly distinguishable spiritual components. The difference
with mind-body holism lies in the idea that after death the two parts
of the personal mind may both survive separately and ultimately
reunite. A person's conscious part or spirit would reincarnate without
recollections of its previous life, whereas the unconscious portion or
soul would contain memories of one's past incarnation.
Yet another, fifth approach was recently presented by Geoffrey Read. It
is in fact an exponent of process-metaphysics in that it does not
accept the validity of the concept of ontological substances. However,
Read is convinced that human survival and reincarnation are personal,
due to the 'individuation' of the psyche; "the higher [more complex]
the species of the developing organism, and the longer it survives, the
less the likelihood of the associated psyche being replaced by another.
In short, this psyche is now in command of a new organism. We say that
it has reincarnated." (Hewitt, 2003, p.351).
Summing up, apart from holistic personalism and other
non-reincarnationist positions, only Buddhist anatta-doctrine and its
Western counterparts (with the exception of Geoffrey Read's specific
brand of process metaphysics) are by definition incompatible with any
type of personal rebirth. Therefore, it is incorrect to assume that the
idea of reincarnation would automatically have to imply destruction of
a personal soul or ultimate loss of personal identity. If we accept
that we are spiritual entities, which are not identical with our bodies
and irreducible to ultimately impersonal events or processes, personal
reincarnation turns out to be a coherent notion. The author is a
supporter of the third position (traditional spiritual personalism),
but accepts that personalism concerning reincarnation may also manifest
in other ways.
Empirical support for impersonalism or personalism?
The main empirical evidence for reincarnation consists of cases of
young children who claim to recall their previous lives (Stevenson,
1987; Rivas, 2003b). It is sometimes assumed that this type of cases
shows the validity of the anatta-theory of rebirth. The children
involved would never completely retain their previous personality,
which would demonstrate that only fragments of a personality are reborn
and integrated into a whole new psychophysical 'person' as defined by
Buddhism. On the other hand, personalists may point out that the
children themselves clearly claim to be spiritually identical to the
persons whose lives they seem to remember. It would seem far-fetched to
believe they are correct about the accuracy of their imaged memories
and at the same time radically misinterpret their origin. Similarly,
memories of an intermission period between two incarnations suggest
that there is a continuity of individual consciousness ranging from one
physical life to another (Rawat & Rivas, 2005).
However, empirical findings should primarily be interpreted within an
ontological context rather than the other way around, because the
categories used in our empirical theories ultimately depend on a more
general, metaphysical analysis, which precedes empirical research. This
metaphysical analysis may in principle be corrected by logical
argumentation, but never by 'raw' empirical data, as such data can only
make a theoretical difference after they have been categorised
ontologically. Thus, all the empirical data collected by reincarnation
researchers can in principle be covered by both impersonalist and
personalist conceptualizations of rebirth. The question of which theory
should be regarded as the right interpretation has to be treated as
part of a more general problem of personal identity within the
philosophy of mind, rather than tackled ad hoc in the special context
of reincarnation research.
For instance, once we accept the philosophical, analytical arguments in
favour of anatta, no amount of empirical data will be able to falsify
them conclusively. Similarly, for a personalist, it is possible to
interpret the apparent reduced level of mental functioning in infants
in terms of a personal soul's (temporary) functional regression related
to an immature brain, rather than in terms of basic psychological
disintegration, let alone substantial loss of personal identity.
Similarly, the absence of conscious recollections after the maturation
of the brain in many of us can be explained by a process of amnesia
caused by the temporary functional regression. Also, the presence of
memories of a previous incarnation in young children can be regarded as
the result of specific psychological characteristics of those memories
that stimulate their recollection as soon as the brain allows this.
Purported empirical evidence against the indivisibility of the
conscious subject, such as data from multiple personality cases or
split-brain experiments, falls short of demonstrating that when a
person's psychological functioning becomes somehow partially
dissociated, the conscious subject will be divided as well.
Consciousness (in the sense of subjective awareness) is a private and
personal phenomenon, whose presence cannot be directly established by
others. Therefore, any behaviour shown by a person could in principle
be caused both by conscious and non-conscious psychological processes.
More importantly, the literal, ontological (rather than functional)
division of a non-holistic, irreducible conscious subject is not a
coherent notion, because one of the main aspects of the concept of such
a substantial self is precisely that it is elementary and indivisible.
In other words, either the 'self' is an impersonal or emergent
phenomenon and therefore it could be split or destroyed, or it is a
(non-emergent) substance and then any evidence for its supposed
ontological divisibility (or destruction) must a priori be interpreted
differently. Empirical data cannot be conclusive here, because, as said
above, the real debate about personal identity and the substantiality
of the self is not an empirical, but a philosophical (ontological)
issue that can be decided by analytical argumentation alone.
Similarly, Buddhists commonly accept evidence for consciousness after
death and before rebirth. Tibetan Buddhists have even developed a
theory of several so-called Bardos (intermediate states), which shows
that they do not so much reject data that suggest personal survival as
reinterpret them in the light of anatta-doctrine.
In other words, it is possible to agree on the evidential strength and
scope of certain empirical data in the field of reincarnation research,
and at the same time to disagree fundamentally about the ontological
framework needed to interpret these findings.
It is sometimes supposed that general consensus is the main criterion
by which to judge the maturity of a specific scholarly field. This
criterion is certainly misguided in this particular case, and both
impersonalist and personalist theoretical traditions within
reincarnation research could be further developed in a sophisticated
spirit of mutual tolerance and friendly empirical cooperation. For
instance, data about the evolution of personality traits, skills,
capacities, attitudes, etc., in the course of more than one physical
lifetime, can be gathered and shared despite fundamental theoretical
differences. The same data that would show an evolution of impersonal
karma according to most Buddhists may also be used within a spiritual
personalist theory of a truly personal evolution (Prasad, 1993; Rivas,
Spiritual personalists may benefit a lot from reincarnation research.
Rather than giving up on our personalism, we could extend it to the
notion of a personal evolution over several lives on earth. Losing
one's present physical body and adopting a new one may be accompanied
by changes in one's psychological functioning, but this should not be
confused with an ultimate disintegration or loss of personal identity.
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- Hewitt, P. (2003). The Coherent Universe. An Introduction to Geoffrey Read's New Fundamental Theory of Matter, Life and Mind. Richmond: Linden House.
- Huxley, A. (1970). The Perennial Philosophy. New York: Harper Colophon.
- Morse, D. (2000). Searching for Eternity: A Scientist's Spiritual Journey to Overcome Death Anxiety. Memphis: Eagle Wing Books.
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- Rivas, T. (2003b). Three Cases of the Reincarnation Type in the Netherlands. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 3, 527-532.
- Rivas, T. (2005). Reincarnatie, persoonlijke evolutie en bijzondere kinderen. Prana, 148, 47-53.
- Roberts, J. (1994). Seth Speaks: The Eternal Validity of the Soul. Amber-Allen Publishing.
- Stevenson, I. (1987). Children Who Remember Previous Lives: A Question of Reincarnation. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
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I wish to thank Chris Canter and Rudolf H. Smit for their constructive comments.
This paper was published in 2005, in the Journal of Religion and Psychical Research, 28, 4, 226-233.
6533 RT Nijmegen
|advaita, anatta, philosophy of mind, personalism, reincarnation, impersonalism, substance dualism, rebirth|