Rebirth and Personal Identity

Geplaatst door

Titus Rivas   (publicatiedatum: 12 September, 2011)


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.

Impersonal rebirth
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death (known as Vatsiputriya or Pudgalavada), but nowadays most Buddhists consider this school as little more than an outdated early sect.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].
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 itself.

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 well."
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.

Spiritual personalism
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 always evolve."
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 personal self.
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, 2005).

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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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.


Titus Rivas
Athanasia Foundation
Darrenhof 9
6533 RT Nijmegen
The Netherlands