Birth Follows Death

The Naturalist Conception of Rebirth Behind the Notion of Reincarnation

Progress & Conservationđź”°
9 min readJun 4, 2023
Photo by Ralph (Ravi) Kayden on Unsplash

The idea of generic subjective continuity or existential passage is a sort of naturalist version of reincarnation, rebirth, or transmigration of souls. The idea has been arrived at independently by three separate philosophers — Alan Watts, Thomas W. Clark, and Wayne Stewart. All three of them make the case that what happens after death is very much like reincarnation and that this conclusion can be reached entirely through logical deduction even if one starts with secular and naturalistic assumptions.

It’s interesting to me that all three of these philosophers came to the same conclusion exclusively through rational speculation and they did so independently of one another. This makes me think that it is quite feasible that the idea of reincarnation originally emerged as a result of logical speculation along similar lines. Indeed, the notion of reincarnation first arises among the ancient philosophers (e.g. in the dialogues of Plato in the West and in the dialogues of the Upanishadic philosophers in the East). This makes it seem plausible that the doctrine of reincarnation was originally arrived at through the same sort of reasoning that we get from Watts, Clark, and Stewart and makes it likely that the idea of reincarnation was originally less of a supernatural view and more of a philosophical idea that may have been viewed through a quasi-naturalistic lens.

Reincarnation

Since I have said that the theories of Watts, Clark, and Stewart amount to a naturalist version of the doctrine of reincarnation, rebirth, or transmigration of souls, it is necessary here to briefly explain what these ideas in their traditional form entail. Traditionally, it was believed that the soul (self), as a conscious entity, transmigrated between bodies in a cycle of reincarnation. In other words, the person that dies is reborn in the body of another. However, memories of the previous life are completely erased upon transmigration. In the Greek accounts, the person who is reborn must cross over and drink from the river of Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, which erases all of one’s memories before one can move on to their next life.

Generic Subjective Continuity or Existential Passage

Alan Watts argues that we should consider the statement, “When I die, someone else will be born.” This statement is most certainly true. Some other conscious entity with a sense of being a “self,” a sense of self-identity, will most certainly come to be after I die. Watts goes on to argue that this statement is basically identical to the simplest statement of the doctrine of reincarnation: “When I die, I will be reborn but I will have no memories of this life.” Our memories are what gives us this illusory sense of the continuity of self over time. To say that another generic subject (a self) will be born after I die is fundamentally the same as saying that I will be reborn sans memories after I die. What is really the difference between those two statements? Watts, Clark, and Stewart each present a number of thought experiments to drive this point home. (For more information on this topic, check out the writings of Clark and Steward here and here as well as the clip of Alan Watts embedded above.)

Is Such Thinking the Origin of the Global Belief in Reincarnation?

Various doctrines of reincarnation or rebirth have been believed by various peoples throughout the world, from the ancient Greeks to the peoples of Asia and various indigenous tribes of Australia and the Americas — groups that were so geographically separated that the doctrine could not possibly have spread from one to the other. The idea of reincarnation seems to have emerged independently within the cultures of various peoples throughout the world. This suggests to me that perhaps many ancient philosophers of various civilizations throughout world history independently arrived at this same notion through simple contemplation of life and death. The simple logic that these three English-speaking philosophers used to independently arrive at this notion of generic subjective continuity was always available and was something that anyone who stopped to contemplate the mystery of birth and death could easily arrive at. These same notions must have occurred to many people throughout history, most of whom either didn’t write down their ideas or wrote on some medium that hasn’t survived to modern times.

Does Surviving Historic Literature Support This Hypothesis?

I believe that the historic literature does support this hypothesis, though I’m nowhere near prepared to fully defend this claim. If we look at the Vedas and Upanishads, we find that the idea of immortality seems to have evolved over time. The vedic literature instructed people to reproduce and raise children as a way to obtain immortality — you would live on in your children’s memory, being reborn in them and you would continue to exist through your progeny. In some sense, your child is a part of you, came from you, and is a continuation of you. The brahmanical ideal was “vicarious immortality through progeny.” This notion most certainly predates the Vedas and Upanishads, the earliest brahmanical texts. This seems to be one of the most primitive conceptions of an afterlife. Only later did the notion of a soul (essence of self) that transmigrates between lives emerge. The oldest of the Upanishads, the Brhad-aranyaka Upanishad, identifies the essence of a man with his semen. The act of sexual intercourse entails the transfer of some of the father’s essence into the womb of the mother, where it will develop into a child. The offspring is literally of the essence of the father. Therefore, the father lives on through his progeny. Furthermore, the memories of the father are passed on to his children in the form of the stories of his life that they retell to their children. Two big components of self-identity are the body and the memories. Since the semen and ovum come from the bodies of the parents and transform into the child, the child is the physical continuation of the parents. When the child tells their children stories about their grandparents, the memories that would otherwise be lost upon death of the parents are preserved. The key components of self-identity live on in this way. Next, the Chandogya Upanishad introduces the concept of a self or soul (atman) that survives death. The self is basically abstract consciousness experienced at an individual level. The individual self (atman) is just a particular manifestation of the Universal Self (Brahman) or universal consciousness. The Buddhist concept is similar except Buddhists warn against reifying the self. The self or soul should not be thought of as a sort of concrete immortal essence that transmigrates between bodies but as a generic experience of consciousness that continues from one life to the next.

We see here a glimpse, if we peak beyond the curtain of the texts, of two separate ancient doctrines of immortality: vicarious immortality through progeny, where you physically live on in the body of your offspring and your memories live on through the stories they tell, and a sort of immortality through something like a generic subjective continuity. It seems to me that a blurring of these two ideas of immortality or rebirth is how the ancients arrived at the notion of transmigration of souls whereby the continuity into the next life is individual (as with the first version of immortality) but also subjective (as with the second version of immortality). As soon as one reifies the self, ascribing to it an essential nature as an immortal soul, it is easy to think that it may transmigrate between lives — and humans find it nearly impossible not to reify the self since evolution has programmed us to think in essentialist terms for the sake of simplicity.

Some Thoughts

Buddhism teaches that the soul or self (atman) is illusory. On the level of conventional reality, the soul or self does exist in some sense. Whatever we are, we are experiencing something. Nevertheless, on the level of ultimate reality, the self or soul does not exist. It is merely a conventional reality and not ultimately real. What is the essence of a person? Everything that you can point to as being “the self” is actually something else. Am I identical to my body? Am I identical to my social roles? Can I be reduced to my memories? In the final analysis, all of these components of self are not the essence of the self. The self lacks any essential nature and is rather a compositional phenomena. I am a myriad of things but ultimately no thing at all. The self, stripped of all its non-essential characteristics, its accidental features, is nothing more than abstract consciousness or generic subjectivity. As I age and every cell in my body is replaced, the phenomena of self abides; so I cannot simply be my body. If I get amnesia, I am still right here. I may change my mind and my opinion on every single topic imaginable, yet here I am. My body, my memories, my opinions, and my habits — each individually — are not me. I am the experience, the awareness, the consciousness; and the phenomena of self-identity emerges only from the aggregation of these things like my bodily sensations and my memories which I experience. Each of these things plays some role in determining who I am but none of them is identical to who I am — none of these things is essential. The truest self, the ultimate self, is the generic consciousness that is shared by me and by those who come after me. My self and the self of whoever is born after I die, are essentially identical.

The Buddhist arrives at the oneness of self and other by recognizing the “emptiness” of both — they see that they lack any core or essential nature or self-essence and so do you and I. The Upanishads of Hinduism reach a similar conclusion but come at it from a different direction. The universal consciousness or Brahman (God) is identical to the individual consciousness or atman. The self in you is the same as the self in God (the sum of all things) and also the same as the self in me. The self, stripped of all accidental characteristics, becomes generic consciousness or abstract subjectivity. In this way, all conscious entities can be seen as manifestations of God as Brahman, universal consciousness. If the self is just abstract consciousness, as Upanishadic and Buddhist philosophy suggests, then there is no grounds for distinguishing between my self in this life and the self of the next lifeform born after me, so some concept of generic subjective continuity would naturally emerge.

We do not, however, find this idea of generic subjective continuity clearly espoused in the Buddhist and Upanishadic texts. Nevertheless, we see glimpses of it behind the curtain of the texts. The concept of rebirth or reincarnation was already a longstanding tradition that was strongly engrained in Indian culture for centuries prior to the composition of the oldest texts available. Already at the time of the development of Buddhism and Upanishadic Hinduism, the doctrine of rebirth had morphed into something more than mere generic subjective continuity. The idea had arisen that the life of one particular individual continued in the form of the life of another particular individual rather than all selves being identical. Nevertheless, the remnants of a concept of generic subjective continuity, back of the reincarnation doctrine, seems to be present. The Hindu texts do explicitly say that all selves are essentially identical. This is in conflict with the doctrine of individual selves as distinct from other selves, which is also present in Hindu philosophy. In addition to the concept of individual selves, distinct from other selves, there is a concept of karma, whereby the self passes on to a better or worse state of existence in the next life based upon merit or demerit in past lives.

It is my thesis that doctrines of reincarnation tend to naturally emerge from a simple concept of generic subjective continuity, which naturally arises upon contemplating life and death, and that the doctrine tends to morph into a concept of transmigration of souls because of the inherent tendency that man has towards reification (ascribing an essential identity to abstract things that lack any real essence). The generic subjectivity or abstract consciousness very quickly gets reified into an immortal soul that abides forever and transmigrates between bodies in the cycle of rebirth. Once this reification takes place, it is only natural to look to the new doctrine of reincarnation for explanations of how things are, so the idea of karma arises to explain why some people are born into poverty or with deformities while others are born into wealthy families or with good looks.

If I had a better knowledge of the historical texts and a willingness to do a deep-dive into the subject, I’m almost certain that I could make a really strong case for the thesis I am making here. However, the thesis is, in my opinion, something that cannot be proven beyond doubt. The development of the ideas here took place in prehistory, prior to any written record, and cannot possibly be discovered through archeology. We can’t really know what went through the minds of prehistoric man or what he talked to his fellow men about or how primitive philosophy and religion developed prior to recorded history. While it is my opinion that this probably must have been how things played out and how the doctrine of reincarnation came about, it doesn’t seem worthwhile to waste too much time defending this thesis since it is ultimately unprovable and merely conjectural.

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Progress & Conservationđź”°

Radical centrist, functional finance, universal healthcare, social dividend, universal basic income, land value tax, nominal GDP targeting, social democracy