The Wheel of Reincarnation

Could reincarnation be real?

Reincarnation is the religious or philosophical concept that the soul or spirit, after biological death, begins a new life in a new body. This doctrine is a central tenet of the Indian religions and a common belief of pagan religions found in many tribal societies around the world. I don’t think there is a “spirit” or “soul” separate from the information encoded in our brain. But if there is, what can it be?

Yesterday I found via Hacker News an interesting article titled “Hacker irked by reincarnation.” Yaniv Aknin mentions research by Dr. Ian Stevenson from the University of Virginia, who dedicated much of his career to research of reincarnation, and says:

“Dr. Stevenson seems, to the best of my ability to assess, as a reasonable researcher with reasonable methods who was never properly refuted. And he found some ‘disturbing’ (i.e., unexplainable, ‘supernatural’) results in his research. However, hardly anyone seems to have noticed or cared and hardly anyone continues his research today (I know Jim Tucker continues his work directly and that other researchers in the past and present also looked at the topic, but overall it seems to me like awfully too little).”

“OK, fine, so we have established evidence of reincarnation and we’re ignoring them. Uhm, what?! Hello? Am I missing something? Did a respectable member of the scientific community say (for several decades) that he found thousands of cases that are impossible to explain by modern science, cases that should shake our understanding of physics and/or biology and/or psychology and/or whatnot, and the collective response is to ignore this guy? How can the relevant scientific community look itself in the eye? Isn’t this an interesting and important subject? You think proof that actually P = NP would be big? How about friggin’ reincarnation!”

“To some extent, things like this undermine my (otherwise very strong) belief in science as a whole. What other grand truths are already known to a few, and we just didn’t hear of them because we are all collectively waiting for a bunch of old Professors to die or for someone to pick up where a deceased researcher left off? What kind of price might humanity be paying because this avenue of research is ‘weird’ or ‘unsexy’? What if rebirthing is possible, and the obvious logical reservations1 are somehow solvable, and we’re just ignoring it?”

I sympathize with the sentiment expressed in the last paragraph and wish to add that academy is often a very conservative environment, where you must do dull politically correct research or else, and in most of today’s academic research departments “politically correct” means bovine ultra-rationalism (aka ultra-bovine rationalism). In today’s academy, imagination and visions are considered as juvenile sins of losers who will never achieve tenure, but I support research on reincarnation, and I am definitely interested in the results.

At the same time, I don’t think there is a “spirit” or “soul” separate from the information encoded in our brain. Or, in other words, the “spirit” or “soul” is the information encoded in our brain. When the brain dies with the body, this information is lost. However, soon we will be able to copy the information encoded in the biological brain and paste it into an alternative substrate (for example a robotic brain). When this technology, known as mind uploading, will be fully developed (I think this may happen before the end of the century, but not much sooner) we will be able to reincarnate the dead in new bodies.

I believe future civilizations will develop spacetime engineering and scientific “future magic” much beyond our current understanding and imagination. Gods will exist in the future, and they may be able to affect their past — our present — by means of spacetime engineering. Future magic will permit achieving, by scientific means, most of the promises of religions — and many amazing things that no human religion ever dreamed. In particular, future Gods will be able to resurrect the dead by “copying them to the future.”

This is consistent with the materialist assumption that a person is completely defined by the physical processes in her/his brain. I make this assumption, and I don’t think a concept of “identity” not based on physically encoded information makes much sense. Perhaps there is a unique “signature,” color” or “flavor” of self, different in different persons, but I assume this “something” is part of the information encoded in the brain. For these reasons, I am very confident in the feasibility of mind uploading, and very skeptical of reincarnation.

But I try to keep an open mind, so I wonder what could be the physical bases of reincarnation. We dedicate so much time and effort to speculating on how to engineer immortality and resurrection — it would be fun if nature had already provided a mechanism for immortality embedded in the fabric of reality.

One possibility that I can see is that our brains may be receivers. A TV works according to the laws of physics, and generates the moving images that we see, but it generates them from a broadcast signal from outside. Similarly, our brains may be constantly receiving yet undiscovered  “signals” broadcasted from “elsewhere” (some higher order dimension, quantum reality or whatever) and self may be more in the broadcast signals than in the brain. If so, when the physical brain dies, the self would live on as a disembodied “soul,” and perhaps under certain conditions it may be picked up by a new biological brain receiver that somehow becomes able to receive the appropriate “frequency.”

Imagine a 19th century scientist studying a modern TV. He would find some very advanced and incomprehensible electronics that evidently does something, and he would notice that removing components alters the behavior of the TV. He would probably conclude that the moving pictures are stored somewhere inside the TV, without even thinking that the TV could be a receiver of broadcasts from outside. We may be in a similar situation in our preliminary studies of the brain/mind system.

If this model is valid, then we are not stored in our brains, but somewhere else. Perhaps we and all persons (and animals, and ETs) who ever lived are stored in “Akashic records” in some still hidden dimension of reality.

“The akashic record is like an immense photographic film, registering all the desires and earth experiences of our planet. Those who perceive it will see pictured thereon: The life experiences of every human being since time began, the reactions to experience of the entire animal kingdom, the aggregation of the thought-forms of a karmic nature (based on desire) of every human unit throughout time,” writes Alice A. Bailey in Light of the Soul.

If Akashic records exist, I am sure that future science will find them and learn how to read them. This, together with other “magic” technologies that we will develop, will permit bringing back to life all persons and all sentient beings who ever lived.

The Wheel of Reincarnation
In this 8-meter (25-foot) tall Buddhist relief from the Dazu Rock Carvings in China, built sometime between the years 1177 and 1249, Mara, Lord of Death and Desire, clutches the Wheel of Reincarnation, which outlines the Buddhist cycle of reincarnation.
  • A decade ago, I made the acquaintance of a religious fundamentalist with many interesting (and some frustrating) ideas. One of his ideas was that our brains function something like modems. I don’t think it’s the case, but it’s thought provoking.

  • Giulio Prisco

    @Lincoln – I don’t think it’s the case either, but it is certainly thought provoking. As Haldane said, “The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it’s stranger than we can imagine.”

  • RW

    The author needs to understand that science is very useful in understanding our physical world, however A branch of science, “Quantum Physics” gets a bit murky and often leave us with more questions than answers (study the double slit experiment).

    To counter the authors belief I can personally attest (after having had a REAL out of body experience as a youth) that there is a part of us, call it our spirit if you will, that exists outside of our physical body.

  • Taiwanlight

    This is reminiscent of the ideas of Rupert Sheldrake who posited that somewhere in space there are what he called ‘morphogenetic fields’ which, as it were, broadcasting to our brains that which manifests as our minds(and also affects the development of us and other organisms).

  • Dominic Civitillo

    Religion,God,reincarnation,morality,the field of emotions,intuition,what could be,the ephemeral,mood,are all beyond the scope of scientific rationality based on perception of reality,but what we can not percieve,as our feelings,the unknown that is left to the immagination,a universe of the unknown,what we wish to be,and it is with immagination that we rationolize,the immagination is beyond the universe.