A RATIONALIST LOOKS AT REINCARNATION
First posted 12/09/08
A RATIONALIST LOOKS AT REINCARNATION
by Jeffrey A. Corkern
A lot of people say a lot of things about what happens to people after they die.
Some people say you go to Heaven. Some people say you, ahem, don’t, if you picked the wrong religion to believe in. Some people say you merge into Nirvana, if you've lived your life just right. Some people say you are reborn somewhere else, to live yet another lifetime.
And some people say nothing at all happens, that your existence just blinks out like a light bulb, and you vanish back into the Great Emptiness you came from.
One thing every single one of these people has in common.
Not one of these people has even the SLIGHTEST shred of hard scientific evidence to support his belief.
No postcards from Paradise. No hellos from Hell. No notes from Nirvana. Not even any echoes from the Great Emptiness.
Nothing. Zero, zilch, nada, nil, the big goose egg, baby.
This complete lack of hard scientific evidence is more than a little strange, given the importance of this subject. You’d think that, well, SOME group of believers would have gone into a lab by now and at least TRIED to prove whatever it was they believed in.
Particularly the Great-Emptiness people. Those guys above all should’ve done this. This is such an odd thing I can’t help commenting on it. Those guys pride themselves on their scientifically based beliefs. They can cite experiment after experiment to back up their beliefs in evolution, the Big Bang theory, the germ theory, so on and so forth.
It would accomplish one of their goals so well. As a general rule, the Great-Emptiness people hate religion. What would be more destructive to religion than hard scientific proof souls don’t exist?
Don’t get me wrong here. I am the hardest of hard-case rationalists. I also think that, where possible, ALL beliefs should be based on science. I am in total agreement with the Great-Emptiness people on that point. If you believe something and want to convince ME to believe it---you have to be able to back it up with EXPERIMENT, baby. You have to cite refereed scientific papers published in reputable journals, man.
It is VERY weird to see these Great-Emptiness people, these believers in hard science, insist souls don’t exist, but, when asked to produce scientific data to back that assertion up, fall into COMPLETE silence.
At least when it comes to citing experiments. The lack of data won’t stop them arguing souls don’t exist. They won’t even admit the possibility they could be wrong on this subject. I have found ways of coldly, objectively, LOGICALLY demonstrating people act like they have souls. When I demonstrate these ways, these Great-Emptiness people get upset like you wouldn’t believe. These guys profess to be total believers in logic and reason, and yet, when logic and reason demonstrate there is a very strong possibility they could be totally dead wrong, they boot logic and reason right out the window. They are RIGHT, and it is flatly impossible for them to be WRONG.
Which is a real red flag, you know. When somebody refuses to admit there is even the slightest possibility he could be wrong—a phenomenon I have observed over and over and over again with these people-you are talking to a RELIGIOUS fanatic, man. He’s only fooling himself he’s a believer in science, in coldly objective logic and reason. I gotta tell you, man, these Great-Emptiness people, in the final analysis, have a granite, unshakable FAITH that would turn any creationist pea-green with envy.
But I wander from my subject.
Let us consider the problem of what happens to people after they die.
It's not an unsolvable problem, I think. As a hard-case rationalist, a firm believer in unemotional, objective logic and reason, I can find no reason why this tool can’t be applied here. There are some problems that I think really are outside logic and reason (like the existence of God, for example) but the vast majority of problems are solvable by this particular tool.
There are places you could look where, as far as I know, nobody has EVER looked, that might have the answer.
You know one place you could look to solve the problem of what happens when people die?
You could look---at people.
At human behavior. If this Universe is somehow set up so that humans survive the death of their physical bodies, there's a pretty good chance what happens to people after they die is inherent in their behavior somehow. If you look close enough, you should be able to find it in some human characteristic.
Let’s consider what properties this human characteristic should have. This characteristic should have the following properties:
---It should be universal to ALL human beings. Every single human being who has ever been should have this characteristic.
---It should be rigidly CONSTANT. Present at every stage of human culture, from primitive to highly advanced. There should never be a time or place where this characteristic can’t be found.
Is there anything that fits this bill? It seems impossible there really could be something so incredibly common in ALL human societies, ALL the time, EVERYWHERE.
But there is one thing that fits these criteria.
Stories. Fiction. This one thing is COMMON. Everywhere, all the time, FOREVER, in human societies.
I write stories. You know what happens when you read a story?
You open the book and read the first sentence---and suddenly you are another totally different person, in another totally different time, in another totally different place, in another totally different situation.
I noticed something STRANGE about that one day.
Fiction is reincarnation.
Or, rather, the act of becoming involved in fiction is reincarnation. A reader is, quite literally, born into a story.
It's more than just written stories. This odd resemblance of fiction to reincarnation shows up in all the possible ways of presenting stories. There are more ways reincarnation shows up in fiction than in the reader identifying with a character in a written story.
Let me cite a couple.
Movies and plays: We see the same actor show up over and over again in entirely different movies, each time an entirely different person, in an entirely different place, time and situation. And somehow, we just accept this. It's normal and accepted, somehow, for one person to be different people, in different places, in different times, and in different situations.
Most of the time, he's a good guy. Sometimes he's a bad guy, but whenever he tries this, an Almighty hammer inevitably comes down on his ass HARD, baby, and so he doesn't do this very often. (But there are those unfortunates who never seem to learn from this and thus spend all their time getting hammered over and over again. Not too bright, some people.)
He (or she, of course) might even show up as the opposite sex, of all things! And we STILL accept this!
Another example. Let's look at our own, personal behavior.
TV shows: We spend one hour involved in World War II. Then we spend the very next hour involved in a contemporary soap opera. Then the next hour in a galaxy far, far away.
We are reality-skipping.
We have no problem slipping out of one reality and skipping to another, completely different one. There's not the slightest jerk, not the slightest sense of dislocation or discomfort. We can do it in less than a second. We are just EXPERT reality-skippers, man. We are so very, very good at changing realities that we can stop a TV story in the middle, have a car dealer scream his lungs out at us for a solid minute, and we slip right back into the story without the slightest jolt.
Back to the written word. There's one thing that is especially strange about the written word.
People, homo sapiens, are the end product of two billion years of evolution. And evolution is VICIOUS, man. After two BILLION years of vicious, grinding, rip-your-guts-out evolution, it should be ABSOLUTELY impossible to sneak up on a human being. Homo sapiens should be like razor-edged pit bulls after going through a process like that, man. Scare one the least little bit, and your head should be ripped off and bouncing down the street the next second.
But it ain't like that.
People are EASY to distract. So incredibly minimalist an input as a line of print has the power to transport a reader to a different place and time, to totally, completely absorb him. To the point where you can just stomp right up to him with a club and whack him over the head.
This does not make sense.
Repeating. This. Does. Not. Make. SENSE!
There's one other very, VERY strange way this fiction-is-reincarnation thing pops up.
As a writer, I have critiqued many, many stories. After you do that enough, you get to the point where when you read a story, you see the writer behind the story just as much as you see the story itself.
And so often, they are writing of a time in the past. Even if their story is ostensibly set in the future, or in a place that doesn't actually exist, quite often, when you look close, what you see is resonances with a certain time in the past.
As if they were writing their stories---using their past lives as raw material. Completely unconsciously, without even being aware they were doing it.
This is a difficult thing to explain. It is easier to demonstrate what I mean by example. Fortunately, there is a certain currently popular series of stories that illustrate this point to a stunning degree.
Y'all know the Harry Potter movies?
(Here I have to get technical for a minute. The setting where a story takes place is known as the "milieu." A "milieu" is, in general, what surrounds a story's characters. It is composed of the physical place, the time in history, and the social and political environment.)
The milieu of the Harry Potter movies is, on the surface, Victorian England.
But that's not what it really is. Not under the surface.
It's Roman Empire!
Let's toss a fourteen-year-old kid into an arena, and then clap and cheer while a monster tries to kill him, oh, yeah.
That above scene is what jarred me into realizing Harry Potter lives in the Roman Empire. Up until that point, I hadn't noticed it. But that scene was a pretty solid punch. I mean, that scene is STRAIGHT out of the Roman Empire! The ONLY thing you have to do to the characters in that scene is put them in togas, and you are in ROME, man!
After that, I started looking for other connections. For other Roman-Empire resonances.
And, boy, did I find them!
The arena. That the social life of Hogwarts revolves around, just like Rome. Quidditch. That extremely violent, extremely dangerous game held in the arena, Quidditch. Teenagers flying around in wild directions at a hundred miles an hour. You know what you'd have at the end of every Quidditch game if you did that in real life?
Dead bodies on the sand.
Which is what you had in the Roman Empire at the end of every Games. As a writer, I can feel J. K. Rowling deliberately not letting anybody get killed in Quidditch, something the logic of the situation demands. (I've seen writers do this before. My comment always is "the hand of the author is showing.")
You parents out there. Would you let YOUR kid play Quidditch? The real Quidditch?
But not one single Hogwarts parent utters one single word of protest. Not one.
And this is where the deepest, most incredible resonances with ancient Rome are found in the Harry Potter stories.
In the attitudes of the characters.
Why don't the parents protest?
Because the parents approve!
What kind of attitude does this demonstrate?
A Hogwarts citizen is valuable only insofar as he can serve the interests of the State. He has ZERO value simply as a human being. So kids are deliberately put into dangerous situations, and if a kid gets hurt or killed, the system is doing what it was designed to do. Eliminate the weaklings, the drags on the State, and the quicker, the better. Preservation of human life is NOT the primary thing Hogwarts teaches. Preserving the Empire is what Hogwarts is all about. Preservation of the Empire above all.
This attitude is the attitude of a primitive warrior culture.
Harry Potter is being trained to be a soldier in a warrior culture, and Hogwarts is a military training school. The one course that gets mentioned over and over is "Defense Against The Dark Arts."
Mean, rough, NASTY place, Hogwarts. Remember the first movie? The scene in the laboratory? The kid who slips one little inch in the laboratory and gets knocked STONE-COLD unconscious?
You parents out there. What you would say if your kid came home from school and told you he'd made a tiny mistake in lab and gotten knocked out colder than an ice cube?
You think you'd complain? You think you'd sue those people who ran that school and allowed such a dangerous experiment to be done for every nickel they'd ever made?
Or another thing from the first movie.
What if you got a call from your school's headmaster and teachers, who informed you there MIGHT be a nest of rattlesnakes running around loose in your kid's school, and they were really, really worried THAT THEY MIGHT HAVE TO CLOSE THE SCHOOL!
The headmasters and teachers at Hogwarts do things that would get them tossed in jail for criminal negligence today. Not such nice people as they're made out to be, it seems.
Not very morally advanced, are they? In fact, their morality level would actually seem to be quite, um, primitive.
(I note in passing that while there were cops in Victorian England, an organized police force does NOT exist in Hogwarts. You ever see a cop show up at Hogwarts?)
As a general rule, the writers of fantasy stories try to construct a milieu the reader would just love to go to. I think a lot of readers of the Potter stories would love to go to Hogwarts.
But they wouldn't last long. First time they got knocked across a class room and slammed into a wall, they'd come flying back home quite happy to be a muggle again, thank you very much.
And the teachers and the headmaster certainly wouldn't care. All through the Harry Potter movies, the one thing that sticks out is there is NOT ONE single caring adult in Harry's life who's always there for him. He is totally alone, man. All he really has is his buddies.
The adults in Harry's life might worry about Harry---but Harry is NOT Number One on their worry list, or even Number Five, and in his guts Harry knows this, too. He's happy to be on the list at all.
And the adults don't worry about Harry because he's Harry. They only worry about him because they know he's a valuable asset of the Empire, pardon me, Hogwarts. They know he's going to fight a VERY important battle one day, that the survival of the Empire will depend on.
It is in the primitive moral attitude of the adults where this Roman-Empire resonance is most clear. Human life, as represented by the children, is not a primary concern, or even secondary or tertiary. The children, as represented by Harry, are valuable only because they are valuable to the Empire. Once that value has been protected, the children are forgotten, and everybody looks after their own hidden agenda. Which they ALL certainly have. Hogwarts is a place of CONSTANT intrigue. There are cabals fighting cabals fighting cabals, every second, all the time.
And all just like ancient Rome.
The staircases in Hogwarts are never still, are they? There's not a single place of safety or stability anywhere inside Hogwarts. You can be attacked anywhere, at any time.
(I note in passing again that, in order to be able to know and use Rome so very precisely, the writer would have had to be a VERY highly placed aristocrat. Somebody who had time to know and study Rome's history, geography, social and political structures. Your average Roman citizen wouldn't have had that much time. It would have to be somebody way, way, WAY up high in the social hierarchy.
Which is, I note with EXTREME interest, where J. K. Rowling is NOW. Once again, she is somebody way, way, WAY up high in the social hierarchy.)
And everybody who lives in Hogwarts accepts things the way they are. Nobody even dreams the least little bit there might be something profoundly wrong about the way they live. Not even Harry.
As does the reader.
And that's INSANE, man. The average reader, without a word of protest, accepts things that would have him running to the cops and the lawyers in real life. Like keeping a school open when it's known there's a monster running around loose in it. Like letting kids play a game that would get them killed in real life. Like getting a thrill from watching a monster try to kill a fourteen-year-old.
When I saw the first Harry Potter movie, I expected to hear loud screams of protest from parents about the truly savage adults who ran Hogwarts.
And not a word did I hear from anybody! Not a peep! NOTHING! In years and years, NOT ONE SINGLE WORD!
This is the most strange thing of all the strange things about Harry Potter. The way the readers and movie-goers accept this brutal world without question.
As if they already know it. As if it's familiar to them.
As if they were there, too.
Now, you could write an entire book about the many ways Hogwarts resonates with Rome, and somebody probably will one day, but I'll stop here. I invite the gentle reader to take his own shot at it. How is Hogwarts like Rome?
One last thing, and I am done. As a hard-case rationalist, I must be rigorous. There is one thing I MUST make perfectly clear.
The observation that fiction is reincarnation is no more than a correlation.
I am holding these two things up next to each other, fiction and reincarnation, and saying wow, man, these things REALLY look alike!
But, as the scientists say, CORRELATION IS NOT CAUSATION.
WHAT I HAVE WRITTEN HERE IS NOT A PROOF.
So, those of you out there who are totally convinced people go to Heaven or merge with Nirvana or whatever after you die, take comfort. I'm not disproving any of those other things. They are still possible.
(By the way, even if you did demonstrate some souls are re-born, this would still NOT prove it's not possible for other souls to go to Heaven. Or merge with Nirvana. Or whatever. So save me your outraged promises of eternal damnation, please.)
You could prove reincarnation, but it would take something that currently doesn't exist, a working soul-detector. What would have to be observed in the laboratory is a soul exiting a dying body, then rolling over and attaching to a brand-new one.
And that'll be the end of that. Problem solved, question answered.
Y'all have a good one.
Labels: reincarnation past lives soul