Reincarnation and the Soul
What’s entailed by believing in an immaterial soul that inhabits or animates a material body? From a scientific point of view the problem comes down to: how are these two qualitatively different substances supposed to interact? Descartes tried to locate their interaction in the pineal glad, but what went on there took place behind the curtain, so to speak. Unless the soul was at least in part material, it couldn’t interact with the body; but if it was in part material, it would be subject to dissolution when the body died. An immaterial soul can’t exert force on a material body without violating the laws of the conservation of energy. (We can’t fudge this by invoking metaphors like “spiritual energy” without throwing out just about all of physics.) So how do we understand the concept of an immortal soul, either in the Western context of Heaven and Hell or the Eastern context of reincarnation? How can reincarnation or any form of life after death be true?
I believe we grossly misinterpret religious language when we ask questions about their truth as if their truth was the truth of a scientific hypothesis that can be proven or falsified. Reincarnation isn’t true or false the way the theory of evolution is true or false. Reincarnation is true or false the way Anna Karenina is true or false. That is, does it truly and deeply engage our emotional reality, our feelings about love and loss? The novel’s truth has nothing to do with whether Anna Karenina was a real or a fictional person. Stories, mythologies and religious narratives aren’t true or false by virtue of their correspondence (or lack of it) to reality. They remain true as long, and only so long, as they speak meaningfully to us within our particular cultural and historical context. Most of want to believe in a universe in which Justice and Love are key
players; however we are no longer inclined to personify those eternal qualities and their conflict in our life in the form of Athena and Aphrodite, as did the Greeks two thousand years ago. It’s not that in the interim we gained new facts that proved to us that the old myths weren’t true – rather they simply ceased to be stories that resonate for us now the way they did then. We do a disservice to both science and religion if we confuse the two kinds of truth they embody. The truth of the Catholic religion and the efficacy of the Mass is not dependent on whether we can, through mass spectrometry, detect the presence of hemoglobin in the chalice. John Bunyon’s (1678) Pilgrim’s Progress no longer rings “true” to most people today not because it’s in any sense been proven wrong, but because the imagery it employs to describe a spiritual journey and the pitfalls along the way now seem trite and clichéd.
Reincarnation is a story that arose and helped organize the ethical experience of millions of people for thousands of years on the Indian subcontinent. Whether that story will be able to have the same resonance in 21st century America is an open question. But we do Buddhism a disservice when we confuse which kind of truth it can hold for us. Unfortunately, when the Dalai Lama says that “if scientific analysis were to conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims,” (2005 pp2-3) he is conflating the two kinds of truth - leading us to believe that there is in fact only one kind of truth at issue and that Tibetan Buddhist beliefs in reincarnation, rebirth, disembodied luminous consciousness etc are hypotheses open to scientific proof or falsification. There is often within any given religious community the feeling that the truth at issue must not be reduced to “mere” metaphorical truth. As Flannery O’Connor once famously retorted to Mary McCarthy regarding the Mass, “If it’s just a metaphor, to Hell with it.” Yet I would like to believe that reincarnation and the transformation of wine into the blood of Christ in Catholic Mass are both true – but not true in any sense that science will ever prove or disprove.