I don’t believe in reincarnation in the sense that I could be (unwittingly) the reincarnated soul of Marie Antoinette, but I think that there may be a germ of insight, perhaps even wisdom, in reincarnation myths.
There, I’ve said it. I’ve probably lost half my small readership right there. Let me try to explain, before I lose the other half. It’s not as bad as you think.
‘Here’s the thing’, as I am told young people say these days:
I am very taken by David Hume’s views on the self (as I am by many of Hume’s ideas). He was unable to find that he had any persistent self, no matter how hard he introspected (is that a word?). All he could find was ‘bundles of perceptions’. There is no perceptible separate watcher – a homunculus sitting in an armchair, as it were – watching those perceptions on a High Definition screen with SurroundSound. The perceptions just happen. And they are tied together – identifiable as the perceptions of David Hume – by occurring in the presence of the memories of the physical human body that bears that name.
There is a continuity to the stream of perceptions. They succeed one another, blend together and overlap. But that lasts only for as long as consciousness does. It is interrupted, usually at least once a day, by sleep, anaesthesia, concussion.
We say that we ‘return to consciousness’ but really it is not a return but rather a completely new stream of consciousness. The only connection to the previous one is that it occurs in association with the same human body, and hence that it has essentially the same set of memories.
We do not remember returning to consciousness. Or at least I don’t. Daniel Dennett explains this nicely in relation to peripheral vision. He says that we can’t perceive the boundary of our visual field (try it!) because to perceive a boundary we need to be able to see both sides of the boundary and, by definition, we can’t see the far side of the boundary of our visual field. Similarly, we cannot perceive the instant of regaining consciousness because to do so would require our being conscious of not being conscious immediately before waking up, and that is a contradiction. This only applies to dreamless sleep because when we wake from a dream we were conscious on both sides of the boundary, and we quickly realise that what went before was a dream.
So in a sense, the world is just full of streams of consciousness, each made up of a series of overlapping sensations and thoughts, with most streams lasting no longer than about sixteen hours. We can, if we wish, group those streams of consciousness based on the human body with which the stream is associated, but that grouping is fairly arbitrary. We could just as well have grouped them by the day on which they commenced, by length, or by mood.
Well, perhaps it’s not entirely arbitrary. Apart from memory and a shared body, there is one other thing tying a body’s streams of consciousness together, and that is that each stream cares very much about future streams that will be associated with that body. So Tom, as he goes to bed, cares more that tomorrow he has to wake up 15 minutes earlier to get to an 830 meeting at work than he does that Rajesh in Mumbai is going into hospital for a triple bypass operation, even though the stream of consciousness that is Tom-today is as distinct from Tom-tomorrow as it is from Rajesh-tomorrow. This chauvinistic, body-centric caring is easily explicable by evolution. Animals that cared about their future states of consciousness – particularly about whether the animal would be healthy and happy in future – survived better than animals that did not. We can’t fight it. That’s just the way our nervous systems are configured. But neither can we draw any metaphysical conclusions about the existence of some spooky continuous self or ‘soul’ from it.
If one is a Cartesian Dualist, one believes that there is a ‘soul’ attached to a body, that is non-physical – whatever that means. Although Dualism was the predominant metaphysical view for the last few millenia, it appears to be a minority view now. One can be an Immaterialist – denying the existence of matter and asserting that everything is mental, or one can be a Materialist – asserting that minds are just physical phenomena that we don’t properly understand yet. But either way, most people are Monists – meaning that they believe the world is basically only made of one fundamental kind of ‘stuff’. I feel quite fond of Dualism, if only because it is quaint, old-fashioned and a minority view – which is always attractive to me (which is why I’m typing this with a non-Microsoft word processor on a non-Microsoft, non-Apple operating system). But try as I might I just can’t believe it, so I’m afraid I’ll have to leave it aside and plough on with my Monist biases.
What about before we were conceived then? Nobody seems to feel any big deal about the fact that there are no streams of consciousness associated with their body before they were conceived. I wasn’t conscious then, so I wasn’t around to notice the fact that I wasn’t conscious. Nor can I identify my first conscious moment, probably because of the Dennettian boundary problem already mentioned. I suspect that ‘my’ body gradually attained consciousness, and gradually attained memory, over the first months or years of ‘its’ life.
I feel similarly about what will happen when this body dies. Since I don’t believe in a Christian, Islamic, Valhallian or Olympian after-life, I think that there will simply be no subsequent streams of consciousness associated with this body, and no streams of consciousness that share memories with streams of consciousness of this body. It’s Just As Well really, because after a few years, the body will have been gobbled up by worms and/or fish and/or bacteria and there will be no body left with which streams of consciousness could associate themselves.
And yet…. there is something in being human that makes it almost impossible to comprehend that the consciousness of this body will cease forever. Perhaps it’s an evolutionary advantage to feel that, or maybe it’s just random. But it’s there, and I think that that feeling accounts for why nearly all cultures have developed some sort of after-life mythology.
Some deny the cessation by believing in an after-life – a continuation of the ‘same’ consciousness. It’s by no means obvious what ‘the same’ means here. My guess is that it means there will be future streams of consciousness that share memories with the body’s pre-death streams of consciousness. Some deny the cessation of consciousness, or at least mortality, by considering their children or grandchildren to be continuations of themselves. Others deny it by looking at their achievements – their legacy to the human race.
Here’s my answer:
After the death of this body, ‘I’ will still be conscious because every consciousness is an ‘I’. In other words, ‘my’ consciousness won’t cease because at any point in time, all those that are conscious will be conscious, and all those consciousnesses are ‘mine’ because every stream of consciousness is of a ‘me’.
‘My’ streams of consciousness don’t stop happening. All that stops is that there are no more streams of consciousness associated with this particular body, and this set of memories. So – and here’s the wibbly-woo, new-agey bit – ‘I’ become those other streams of consciousness, because they are all ‘I’. We were never really separate, it’s just that each individual stream of consciousness is locked in its own perspective for as long as it lasts – sixteen hours or so.
There’s all sorts of metaphors one could use for this, and they’re all wacky, but they have to be, since we are dealing with the indescribable. One I like is the idea of consciousness as some sort of fluid that is subject to conservation laws in the same way as energy, momentum, angular momentum, electric charge and matter. So whenever a stream of consciousness ends, because of sleep, death or whatever, the amount of consciousness it contains is released and flows into other streams. It’s a metaphor, alright (!?!), so don’t go reaching for those scientific instruments or ectoplasm-detectors or whatever they had in Ghostbusters to try to catch and measure this fluid.
Another metaphor is that in a sense ‘I’ am imprisoned in my own consciousness, unable to perceive what another perceives, no matter how close I am to them. When my stream of consciousness ends – usually around 11:15pm – ‘I’ am set free and can become someone else – another ‘I’. For some reason I visualise a bird – probably a dove (how twee) flying out from a cage whose door has been opened.
It is key to this perspective that consciousness is fungible, not hypothecated (after all what’s the earthly use of studying finance if you can’t insert technical financial terms at strategic points in a philosophical discourse, just to show off). In other words it’s like money. We can no more say that the consciousness from my stream of 29 May 2015 became that of Elton John on 30 May 2015 than we can say that my deposit in the bank paid for part of a particular customer’s home loan. That dismisses the possibility of my being Marie Antoinette right off the bat.
But just as all of a banks liabilities fund all of its assets, the consciousness that is liberated when I go to sleep tonight will replenish the consciousness of all streams that are going at that time. So I am connected to Marie Antoinette not because her consciousness – as a discrete entity – became specifically mine (with many other users in the 200 years between), but because we all share in the same cosmic pool of consciousness, that is particular to no body, and is drawn upon and supplemented billions of times per day as streams commence and end, be it by sleep, waking, death, birth, fainting, or other cause.
In that sense, ‘I’ am Mahatma Gandhi, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Elvis Presley, Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson, Florence Nightingale, Elie Wiesel, Hypatia of Alexandria, Lucretia Borgia, George Best, Babe Ruth, Don Bradman, Peter Paul Rubens, Ludwig van Beethoven, Albert Einstein, John Cleese, Graham Chapman and, more importantly – many billions of other less famous people – clever, challenged, creative, dull, kind, cruel, indifferent, confident, shy. ‘I’ may be dogs and bandicoots and other animals too. But that’s the subject of another essay.
Arguably, a problem with this perspective is that consciousness will not persist indefinitely – at least not in this universe. We can be pretty confident that when the universe finally approaches heat death, no life will remain. So where does the consciousness go then? Well, that’s where the whole idea being a metaphor comes in handy. One great thing about metaphors is that you can drop them when something doesn’t fit, and pick them up again a little later. No metaphor fits every situation, because if it did, it wouldn’t be a metaphor (it would be the thing itself). So we drop it and think of something else, just as Shakespeare did when he realised that seas don’t generally fire arrows at you. Oh, no wait….
But why bother with a metaphor at all?
One might object that it’s silly to use a metaphor to orient oneself towards experience, especially when one knows that the metaphor will fail in some instances. My response to that is that every single one of our beliefs is a metaphor, and fails in some instances.
I tell myself I am sitting on a stool in front of a table to type this. The stool is solid and brown and the table is solid and purple. Yet that’s all metaphor too. The atomic theory tells us that what I’m sitting on is mostly empty space, and has no intrinsic colour. It has no integrity either, as it is constantly exchanging particles with its surroundings. But that too is only a metaphor, as quantum mechanics casts doubt on the whole notion of persistent particles, and who knows what even weirder theory will replace quantum mechanics and reveal it to be the crude metaphor that it undoubtedly is. It’s turtles all the way down, and there’s no reason to suppose that there’s a bottom.
Metaphors are neither true nor false, but they can be useful. We are story-telling animals, and stories – aka Metaphors – are the only way we can make any sense of life. They give it a shape that we can handle. Quantum mechanics is a useful metaphor if we want to make a laser (but not if we want to explain a black hole), and my metaphorical idea of this stool is useful if I want to have the experience that I call ‘sitting down’. So my metaphor of consciousness as a shared, universal, substance is useful to me if I want to think about inconceivable issues such as the non-existence of a persistent self, the lack of any conscious processes of this body before it was conceived and after it dies, and the relationship of all we people, and other animals, to one another.
Metaphors are also sometimes called myths, and they are just as good when they have that name.
Is this all just avoidance?
I can’t help pre-empting criticisms. It’s a vicious habit I picked up, I don’t know when but a long time ago. The wisdom of the ages says don’t bother, because it makes one’s writing longer, more complex, disjointed, ugly and harder to read. And critics rarely pay attention to one’s pre-emptions anyway. I can write “most dogs have fur that cause allergies to some people, but poodles don’t”, and some eager person will still sometimes respond “aha, but what about poodles? Got you there!”.
But since, like many people, I am my own worst critic I can’t help the odd pre-emption (of my own self-criticism), so I’ll allow myself one (or is it two? Did I already do one? We addicts are hopeless). Here it is.
Isn’t this all just some pathetic attempt to rationalise one’s way out of a fear of death by postulating some ridiculous Universal Consciousness? Why not just admit that when a body dies, it has no more conscious experiences, and that’s that?
Well Andrew (I reply), I’m glad you asked that question. Firstly I’d just like to observe that I did already say that (I believe) a dead body has no more conscious experiences, and there will be no more conscious experiences that have any memories of experiences that the body had. So this myth/metaphor doesn’t seek to deny or avoid that.
Nor is the myth relevant to fear of death, at least not for me. I used to fear death when I believed in a personal after-life, because I feared the punishments that had been threatened in that after-life if I didn’t conform to the strict expectations laid out in a rather large book of unrealistic rules. In fact I even feared the alternative of being ‘rewarded’ with eternal happiness, because I was convinced that no matter what treats and delights that reward comprised, I would be excruciatingly and agonisingly bored within a few billion years. But once I ceased to believe in an after-life, I ceased to believe in the possibility of such punishments, and hence I ceased to fear death. That is different of course from the fear of how one gets there (‘dying’), as I imagine that being squashed under the wheels of a Land Rover or being eaten by enraged Koalas is rather uncomfortable, albeit only for a short while.
No, the purpose of the myth, as far as I understand it, is twofold: first to escape the niggardly narrowness of the first-person perspective that is imposed on us by our bodily structure; second to open up possibilities for contemplating the mystery of consciousness, a phenomenon that no amount of scientific investigation seems ever likely to be able to explain. Given how mysterious and indefinable consciousness is (as opposed to mere brain activity that interprets sensory data, processes information and generates physical actions including speech), how unnecessary to the evolutionary account of the human brain it is, and how we (ie David Hume and I) are unable to detect any subject (‘self’) of this consciousness, it appears less ridiculous to me to regard consciousness as something primal, something universal that transcends individual bodies, than as an inexplicable phenomenon that arises in association with lumps of meat that are configured in just the right way.
Does that sound like a Humph! ? It wasn’t meant to. Ah well, if it is so, let it be so.
Marie Antoinette, 16 October 1793.