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Buddhism

What’s the evidence for reincarnation?

Things used to be so much simpler

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I’ve believed in reincarnation longer than I can remember. It must have started in a previous life. I’ve never really examined my core belief. It’s just been there, part of the furniture. But a new book has stung me into examining that comfy old sofa. Do I really need it? Is it time to chuck it out?

The book is Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright, an American popularizer of evolutionary psychology and author of best-sellers including Non-Zero and The Moral Animal. Wright has spent much of his literary career trying to construct a scientifically-valid moral philosophy to replace the Baptist faith he lost as a teenager. Now, in Buddhism, he has finally found it.

The book should really be called ‘Why my version of Buddhism is true’. Wright’s Buddhism is secular and naturalistic. He assures us early on that he’s not championing ‘the most exotically metaphysical parts of Buddhism – re-incarnation for example’. He tells us Buddhism has some shockingly radical ideas – there is no self, emotions are usually delusions – but re-assures us that these ideas are supported by modern science, and would ‘fit easily into a college psychology or philosophy course’ (indeed, he ran such a course at Princeton and you can do it at Coursera in September).

Wright’s secular, naturalized Buddhism is all the rage among western intellectuals. There is Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, who (like Wright) is a follower of Vipassana meditation minus reincarnation. There is Owen Flanagan, a leading virtue ethics philosopher, who proposes a Buddhism shorn of ‘the mind-numbing and wishful hocus pocus that infects much Mahayana Buddhism’. There is Sam Harris, New Atheist provocateur, who thinks Buddhism is ‘unique among the world’s religions as a repository of contemplative wisdom’, but still says ‘there are ideas within Buddhism that are so incredible as to render the dogma of the virgin birth plausible by comparison’.

And there is Stephen Batchelor, who spent many years practicing Buddhism in Korea and India, and is now trying to develop a secular Buddhism. In After Buddhism, he writes: ‘I find it disturbing when Western converts to Buddhism with a background and upbringing similar to my own [ie rational humanist] uncritically adopt beliefs – in karma and rebirth for example – that traditional Buddhists simply take for granted.’ Unlike Flanagan or Harris, Batchelor doesn’t argue his secular Buddhism is superior to animist Buddhism: ‘My approach simply reflects an embedded cultural worldview that I could no more discard than I could wilfully cease to comprehend the English language’. Secular rationalism is simply the core belief he grew up with.

I want to address three questions. First, does a naturalistic Buddhism make sense? Second, is reincarnation utterly incredible? Third, does it really matter what we believe about the afterlife?

Firstly, does a naturalistic Buddhism make sense? I don’t think an entirely materialist-mechanistic Buddhism makes sense, unless it finds a place for free will and moral choice. As Richard Gombrich argues in his excellent What The Buddha Thought, the Buddha’s teachings on karma – as ye reap, so shall ye sow – makes no sense if we don’t have free moral choice.

Can one remove reincarnation without the building of Buddhism collapsing? Yes, but it challenges the Third Noble Truth – that it’s possible to attain a permanent end to suffering in Nirvana. That was the whole aim of the Buddha’s teaching, if I understand it correctly. Very few people actually do seem to attain Nirvana (in the sense of a permanent liberation from the self and from suffering). I’ve met a lot of Buddhists, but never an Enlightened person. Have you?

Either the Buddha was selling us a dud; or the journey to Liberation takes place over many lives; or the dharma only brings us occasional release from suffering, rather than permanent Liberation. Wright writes: ‘The object of the game isn’t to reach Liberation and Enlightenment on some distant day, but rather to become a bit more liberated and a bit more enlightened on some not-so-distant day. Like today!’

OK, but this is a different game. This is not the game the Buddha was playing when he sat under the bodhi tree and refused to move until he was Liberated. This is not the Great Crossing – there is no other side we can realistically hope to reach. And a bit of me wonders, if there is no Liberation, whether it’s worth it to forego the attachments of this life and sit on that cushion for many, many hours. If there is just this one life…maybe just go for it, play the game of this life, this world, attachments and passions and all. Sure, it will hurt, but it will be over soon.

Removing reincarnation also removes the Buddhist explanation for suffering and misfortune – that they’re karmic retribution for past misdeeds. It means that bad things happen to good people because life is random. The universe is not moral, bad people live wonderful lives without punishment, good people live awful lives without reward. Deal with it. This secular Buddhism seems close to the pessimism of late Stoicism – life is tough, the universe is amoral, but wisdom helps us bear it before we die.

Second, is reincarnation a ridiculous belief? Well, it’s certainly weird. How the hell would it work? You’d need some cosmic filing system, to match your soul with its virtues and vices to the proper re-birth. Most species don’t have the capacity for moral choice, so what decides their rebirth? Why is the human population growing?

Materialism, by contrast, is very clean – when you’re dead, you’re dead. No need for an elaborate soul-clearing system. That’s why most academics are publicly materialists, although 25% of people in both the US and UK believe in reincarnation, including a quarter of Christians and many Jews (particularly Kabbalists). Materialism has its own weird stuff to explain, of course – like how matter becomes conscious. But reincarnation is still a very weird theory.

I think I’ve tended to accept it, perhaps, because my two greatest spiritual heroes – Plato and the Buddha – both argued for it. If they were so wise about ethics and psychology, maybe they were right about the metaphysics too. Maybe when you reach their level of spiritual awakening, re-incarnation doesn’t seem so fruity. Some contemporary meditation masters say they remember past lives, such as Sharon Salzberg and Russel Williams. But the Buddha himself said we shouldn’t take things on trust just because of ‘the seeming competence of the speaker’.

What about scientific evidence? There was a Canadian psychiatrist called Ian Stevenson, who headed up the University of Virginia’s psychiatry department, and spent most of his life investigating cases where children claimed to remember past lives. He was given $1 million by the inventor of the Xerox machine to carry on this work. Stevenson spent decades travelling the world and investigating cases, and claimed to have discovered around 3000 reliable instances where children knew things about previous existences that were corroborated by ‘former relatives’.

According to Stevenson’s findings, people tend to be reincarnated around two years after they die, usually in a place near where they previously lived. They may retain desires and fears from their previous existence (if they drowned, they might retain a fear of water). They tend to forget their previous life by the age of six or so. Stevenson also suggested birth marks relate to death-wounds from the previous existence.

All rather strange, although some leading Skeptics are quite open to his research. Jesse Bering, author of The Belief Instinct, researched Stevenson’s work and decided: ‘I’m not quite ready to say that I’ve changed my mind about the afterlife. But I can say that a fair assessment and a careful reading of Stevenson’s work has, rather miraculously, managed to pry it open.’ Sam Harris also says he found Stevenon’s books ‘interesting, and I cannot categorically dismiss their contents in the way that I can dismiss the claim of religious dogmatists’.  Others, however, suggest Stevenson could be very prone to confirmation bias – he was looking for evidence to support his pre-existing core belief, after all. And why did none of the children recall previous existences as animals?

Finally, does any of this matter? Does it matter what we believe about the afterlife?

Certainly, humans have traditionally believed that our beliefs about the afterlife matter. The ancient Greeks venerated the Eleusinian Mysteries above all other rituals precisely because they thought initiates ‘died with a better hope’ for the afterlife. The Mysteries reduced their death-anxiety by improving their hope for the afterlife – just as psychedelics do, according to recent trials.

Christianity is also founded on the central idea that Jesus’ sacrifice enables the resurrection of the faithful in heaven. If that belief is not true, ‘if in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable’, says St Paul. The belief in posthumous judgement animated medieval culture, inspiring its great cathedrals, its vast economy of penance and indulgence, its constant reminders of death.

Since the decline of Christianity, western culture has embraced a more Epicurean view – death is the end, there is no God and no eternal judgement, so get the most pleasure from this life while you can. But in fact our faith in the finality of death can make us somewhat neurotic about success and status – we’re anxious to leave something behind us once we’re gone (a family, a book, a selfie). I’ve wondered how western culture might change if our beliefs about death change, as presumably they will.

I think my beliefs about the afterlife inform how I live and feel. The near-death experience I had when I was 24 helped to heal me from PTSD because it gave me the strong belief there is something in me beyond the ego, which can’t be harmed and doesn’t die.This helped me overcome my ego-anxiety. 

Groundhog Day – would you behave differently if you knew you had multiple lives?

Since then, my faith in the afterlife has somewhat faded but never gone. It occasionally makes me more detached about my ego. I reflect that I have been many different people, of many shapes, sizes, sexes, colours and talents, so why get anxious about this latest incarnation? In mystic moments, I imagine life as a computer game where we get infinite rebirths – would we live differently if we really believed this? Would we get less wound up, and stop to appreciate the beauty of the game?

No, probably not! We’d get just as absorbed in the game, just as caught-up in the movie, just as attached and emotional. The fact is, our beliefs about death don’t affect us much, because life is so damn absorbing. We barely think about death until we or one of our loved ones die. When you compare religious and non-religious cultures, there’s just as much wrong-doing, and cruelty, and avarice, and vanity in both. Any belief can be held wrongly – a belief in reincarnation could make one lazy, or unkind, or proud of one’s position in the social hierarchy.

I think Stephen Batchelor is right – the truly radical thing in Buddha’s teachings is that he said our beliefs about the afterlife are of secondary importance. Don’t get hung up on it. We can’t know for sure. Practice the dharma now, see what happens, see if it makes life better. He is supposed to have said:

Nowhere does a lucid one

hold contrived views about it is or it is not,

How could he succumb to them,

having let go of illusions and conceit?

The priest without borders

doesn’t seize on what he’s known or beheld,

Not passionate, not dispassionate,

he doesn’t posit anything as ultimate.

Science can be a powerful ally on the spiritual journey

Last month I attended a conference at Oxford University’s Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion called Religion, Society and the Science of Life. The premise was that there is something called the ‘new biology’ which is perhaps more sympathetic to religious or spiritual views of existence than the ‘old biology’.

What is this ‘new biology’? No one really laid it out at the conference, but from what I gathered, it refers firstly to the rise of systems biology. Computational analysis has given us a picture of nature as ‘a system that operates at a very wide range of scales’, as Cambridge plant biologist Ottoline Leyser put it, ‘and the whole system is soaked in feedback’.

If Darwinian biology studied life at the level of competing species, or competing genes, the new biology studies how systems interact from the very small scale (cells, DNA) to the very big (planetary eco-systems). The emphasis is now perhaps more on interdependence and feedback loops within holistic systems rather than Darwin’s war of all against all. Perhaps that view is more sympathetic to holistic spiritual visions than the more reductionist and mechanistic ‘old biology’. 

However, the ‘new biology’ can also refer to the rise of synthetic biology – the ability to create new forms of life, to de-code and edit genes. This seems to me more of a super-Darwinian vision, in which we can upgrade our genetic fitness not slowly, over generations, but instantly through CRISPR (a new genetic editing system, recently used to eradicate illness-carrying genes in human embryos). It is an exhilarating vision but also one that raises the prospect that humans will be surpassed by a superior species – homo deus of some sort – or we’ll mess up and wipe ourselves out by creating a super-virus. You can now order CRISPR gene-editing starter-packs on the internet…Yes, for $100 you too can make your own species! 

Universities as universes

The conference was a good attempt to get different disciplines to talk to each other. That’s what universities should be: ‘communities where you always recognize that someone else’s questions are as interesting as yours’, as Rowan Williams puts it in this interesting new book. I’m reading the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s book, God, Philosophy, Universities, in which he talks about the medieval university as a place offering a universal vision of existence –  of the cosmos, human biology, and man’s purpose in the cosmos.

That universal vision broke down in the 17th century, when Aristotelian science was supplanted by the mechanical materialism of Descartes, Hobbes and the rest. Disciplines became increasingly specialized and compartmentalized, with completely different and sometimes clashing visions of the universe, man, and man’s purpose. There’s rarely any effort to combine those visions into a universal vision – the faculties simply don’t talk to each other enough, and when they do, it’s with suspicion or incomprehension. 

If there is any over-riding vision for modern universities today, it is probably materialist utilitarianism: there’s no God, no afterlife, let’s try and make money, expand the economy, and maybe improve society. In the UK, 97% of the £3 billion the government gives to university research goes to sciences, with only 3% going to the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Only one in ten undergrads study the humanities – by far the most popular degree is business studies and other vocational degrees. If there is any sense of purpose in this vision, it’s the blind drive for economic growth: get up the career ladder, get tenure, win funding, attract publicity, expand your department, attract more students, build more buildings.

What’s lacking in this vision of academia is any real understanding of consciousness, how it arises, what it’s for,  how it relates to the consciousness of other humans, animals, the natural world and the cosmos. Nor is there much understanding of how to transform consciousness, how to help it flourish and even reach enlightenment – a mission that was central to the first universities in ancient India and ancient Greece. 

Let’s imagine, for a second, a future model of the university in which the study of consciousness and the transformation of consciousness is central, rather than marginalized and excluded. For one thing, it would have a much greater sense of the importance of the arts and humanities. 

On science and spirituality

Personally, I have faith that science and spirituality are not at war with each other, that they both lead to one truth. I don’t believe that God – a word that denotes a higher dimension somewhat beyond our comprehension at present – requires us to believe in absurdities. I think both science and spirituality are driven by the hope that it all makes sense in the end, that our minds are moving towards greater understanding of ourselves and the cosmos.

One reason I think people mistakenly believe science and spirituality are enemies is because they confuse the empirical method with the worldview of naturalism and mechanical materialism. One of the key-note speakers at the conference was Massimo Pigliucci, prominent Skeptic blogger and recent convert to Stoicism (he’s just written a book called How To Be A Stoic). Massimo took issue with an Aeon piece I wrote on ecstatic experiences recently, and he wrote

Despite his skepticism of disenchanted materialism, Jules does bring in science when it seems to favor his take on things,

Massimo equates the scientific method with the worldview of disenchanted materialism. If I don’t believe the latter, I must be against the former. This is a standard mistake, highlighted by Rupert Sheldrake in his banned TEDx talk: ‘There’s a conflict at the heart of science between science as a method of enquiry based on reason, evidence, hypothesis and collective investigation, and science as a belief system or worldview. And unfortunately the worldview aspect of science has come to inhibit and restrict the free inquiry which is the very lifeblood of scientific endeavour’.

I think William James was right that we need a more ‘radical empiricism’ which is open to human experiences as a valid source of data – experiences of happiness, meaning, despair, transcendence and so on. If we accept subjective experiences as valid data, then we’d accept that most humans have occasional experiences of a higher dimension of mind, spirit or power which they describe with God words or spirit words. This is a common aspect of human nature which we need to include in any biological description of homo sapiens. We could then try to work out what this dimension is (not easy) and how we can access it in ways that help people flourish (somewhat easier). 

My intellectual heroes – James, Frederic Myers, Aldous Huxley and others – saw no contradiction between science and spirituality. They developed a sort of evolutionary spirituality, in which homo sapiens unfolds her spiritual potential from culture to culture and religion to religion. Wisdom –  sapiens – is a golden strand in our evolutionary code. We’re not quite sure where the sapiens came from – the biologist Alfred Russell Wallace thought it comes from a spiritual dimension which occasionally intervenes in evolution, while a few conspiracy-theorists have suggested wisdom-teachers like Pythagoras or Dionysus are really visiting extra-terrestrials, intervening benevolently in our cultural evolution. Pythagoras did have a golden thigh, after all, which sounds like a cyborg to me.

Anyway….we do at least have some idea how to develop the golden strand of sapiens in our minds and culture, so we can rise up the ladder of the helix.  I hope humans are just at the beginning of our evolutionary journey, and that we will develop more advanced forms of spirituality in which we don’t kill people with different definitions of the divine. Universities may have a role to play in that spiritual evolution, as far-fetched as that sounds today!

Crossing the Is / Ought divide

One of the challenges of combining science, ethics and spirituality is the Is / Ought divide. Can one go from an ‘Is’ – a scientific description – to an ‘Ought’, a moral prescription? Many Skeptic philosophers like David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche have insisted you can’t, which has led to the sense of ethical confusion today. Must we try and pin our ethical or religious theories to the latest scientific evidence? Not easy when the evidence changes so quickly. 

And yet many contemporary thinkers, including me, have arrived at a sort of empirically-supported virtue ethics, in which the good life for individuals and cultures is the life in which we fulfil our natures as rational, social, political and spiritual animals.  The virtue ethics of Aristotle, the Buddha, the Stoics, and Christian philosophers like Thomas Aquinas are all based on models of human nature and theories of how to train the mind and body to find flourishing and liberation. They’re both ethical and biological systems – and also, at a deeper level, systems of physics and metaphysics, theories of consciousness, what it is, what happens to it after death. They’re universal theories. 

Findings from empirical psychology, psychiatry, sociology and neuroscience can help support classical virtue ethics. For example, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Positive Psychology have tested out some of the techniques for self-transformation from Stoicism, Buddhism and Aristotelianism, and found that they ‘work’ – they help some people change chronic habits of depression and anxiety.

The empirical science of ecstasy and transcendence, which goes all the way back to William James, has also found that homo sapiens often has ecstatic experiences – moments where humans go beyond their ordinary self and feel powerfully connected to something greater than them. Psychologists have even developed scales to measure the depth of a person’s mystical experience. Psychology and neuroscience is increasingly finding that such experiences are good for us. So we can incorporate our yearning for ego-transcendence into an expanded virtue ethics (as, say, Iris Murdoch does in The Sovereignty of the Good). 

In both Philosophy for Life, and The Art of Losing Control, I described how recent findings from the psychology and the social sciences support this sort of expanded virtue ethics, how scientific evidence gives us hope that we can free ourselves from suffering and find flourishing in this life. I tried to build an agnostic model of virtue ethics, where people can accept the usefulness of both Greek philosophy and ecstatic practices as a means to flourishing, even if they don’t believe in God or a higher power (although I, broadly, do). 

But we also need to be honest about the limits of empirical science. CBT and mindfulness may help some people overcome emotional problems, but that doesn’t mean it makes them more virtuous people (as Stoicism and Buddhism claim). It’s difficult for science to measure how a person behaves all the time, whether they behave virtuously, without following them around their entire life or keeping them in a confined space (like a monastery).

This point was well made by the philosopher Owen Flanagan in his 2011 book, The Boddhisattva’s Brainwhich explores how contemplative science can tell us some useful things about Buddhist virtue ethics, but not whether the dharma actually makes people good, let alone whether it helps them reach Nirvana. 

Likewise, we can try to assess if ecstatic experiences help people flourish, but we can’t know for sure, because we don’t know what happens to consciousness after death. Socrates drinking hemlock, or Jesus dying on the cross at 33, appear to be a non-optimal outcomes from the point of view of their personal flourishing in this life. But they would argue it led to a greater flourishing in the next life.

Empirical psychology, then, can provide some support for virtue ethics theories, but they can never be entirely ‘proven’, because not everything can be precisely and objectively defined and measured.

A systems theory understanding of religions and revelations

Let me end with two things that I didn’t see discussed at the conference, which I think usefully connect the ‘new biology’ with spirituality. The first is to consider how systems theory help us understand individual and communal flourishing.

When I was mentally ill, I was stuck in a toxic feedback loop of rumination. I had a toxic idea of my self as damaged, broken and unloveable, which made me relate to other people in an avoidant and defensive way. This made other people react to me with suspicion and hostility, and it became a feedback loop – reinforcing my toxic idea of self and my alienation from the world. I was caught in a whirlpool of ego. 

I then had a near-death experience, which broke the loop of fear and rumination. It felt like some external force hit me and re-set me, a sort of external shock, like a spiritual meteor, although it may have been something within my own mind manifesting. Anyway, the experience helped me realize I was causing my own suffering through my thoughts. I couldn’t control what others thought of me, but I could learn to accept myself, and this gradually changed the feedback dynamic between me and other people (wisdom epigrams like ‘you get back what you put in’ refer to this sort of feedback loop between people’s intentions and other minds).

So that’s one point: mental illness can be understood in terms of getting stuck in feedback loops of rumination and alienation, and people are sometimes liberated from these loops by mystical-type experiences. That seems to be what happens in psychedelic therapy, for example. In Alister Hardy’s database of spiritual experiences, one often finds people saying they felt more and more cocooned in a loop of negative rumination, and then suddenly a spiritual experience breaks them out of the cocoon and they feel re-connected to their soul, their body, to other beings, and to the sparkling wonder of existence.

I subsequently became fascinated with the idea of nature as a self-regulating organism, and the idea – which one finds in many different cultures – that when a civilization becomes alienated, out-of-balance with nature and with the gods, when it worships itself and forgets its dependence on nature and the spirit-world, the eco-system seizes on individuals to act as regulators, to bring the system back into equilibrium. The shaman, prophet, artist and visionary are all figures who are seized by the eco-system (or the spirit world if you prefer), and used – possessed – as regulatory mechanisms to bring the alienated civilization into a new equilibrium with the spirit-world. 

Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, introducing tools to shift human consciousness and culture

This systems theory of religion and revelatory experiences isn’t entirely original. The work of Stewart Brand, Brian Eno and David Byrne incorporates systems theory into their exploration of communities, religion and the arts. Stewart Brand helped to organize the first Trips Festival in 1969, developing the idea of the rave as a self-regulating system in which he acted as the Regulator, tweaking the system to produce communal ecstasies (this is described in Fred Turner’s excellent book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture). He saw his mission as introducing new ideas and tools into the system – like the idea of the Whole Earth – which would then help the system to find a better equilibrium.  It’s interesting to think of religions as systems of information-sharing and consciousness-connection which form new holistic systems through collective ecstatic experiences.

DNA and the forgiveness of sins

The second idea which I think usefully connects spirituality with the ‘new biology’ is the idea, in classical Greek culture, that we carry around the sins of our tribe within us, and we somehow have to pay the karmic debt for these sins. I think this is an interesting way of understanding DNA – the double helix is our long ancestral history, and it contains both unfulfilled potential and inherited curses. The spiritual journey involves developing the potential while healing or breaking the curses.

I’ve inherited a genetic or epigenetic disposition to anxiety and other emotional problems, possibly from my mother, who possibly inherited it from her mother, who possibly inherited it from my great-grandfather, who either developed it during World War I, when he was gassed in the trenches, or perhaps inherited it from his ancestors. It’s hard to know where it began, but it’s there, in our genes, and a lot of my spiritual journey in this particular life is trying to work with these tendencies in my mind, in order to change the story, change the tune, while also helping other people going through similar stuff.

How do you change the story? Through things like wisdom, philosophy, spiritual practices, and also through therapeutic psychedelics. One way to understand the healing use of psychedelics – particularly ayahuasca – is that they give you the capacity to see your personal and family history, and to change bits of the story so that they don’t just repeat themselves over and over. It’s the spiritual version of CRISPR, the gene-editing technology. You see the emotional loop, and you can go snip, I want to change that loop so it doesn’t keep replicating.

Perhaps psychedelics can help break ancestral patterns of violence and suffering. But that doesn’t mean they’re essential to spiritual growth – Jesus suggested we just need to take the Eucharist, believe in Him, and we will be liberated from all ancestral sins going back to Adam. The Buddha and the Stoics, meanwhile, suggested we just need the wisdom to realize the emptiness of our thoughts and we can be liberated. Anyway, God knows what gene-editing is going to do to our understanding of the meaning of sin and suffering. Who needs karma or original sin when you have CRISPR!