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The reincarnationsts say that to have to keep being reborn, and get our just desserts for the sins we committed in our past lives, ensures not only perfect justice - so that bad things happening to good people are satisfactorily explained - but also gives us an opportunity to put things right without having to roast in Hell for all eternity, the fate of wayward Christians.
And, say the reincarnationists, what else but having lived previous lives, explains a child prodigy like Mozart, who was obviously a musician in his previous life.
But is justice served if we suffer in this life for things we did in previous lives we don’t remember? It might make sense if we remembered, but we don’t.
The reincarnationists get around this by saying that the self that is reborn is an impersonal self which, nonetheless, has been annealed by all it has experienced and done in its previous lives, which represents a sort of unconscious memory. Besides, say the reincarnationists, just because we don’t remember something, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, like being born, for none of us remember being born, but we were. Yeah OK.
But the reincarnationists seem to want to shift their, like, goalposts, whenever they are trapped by their own logic, for, having used common logic to infer that we are reborn because it just wouldn’t be fair if we didn’t suffer for our sins, they are caught in a bind by the fact that we don’t remember our past lives, since it definitely isn’t fair to suffer for something we don’t remember having done.
So the arguments of the reincarnationists cannot be falsified, which bespeaks that they are not rationally held in terms of Karl Popper's Principle of Falsifiability, whereby a proposition is only valid if it can be falsified through any of the conditions supporting it changing, or being found not to be true.
The word “karma” is from Sanskrit, meaning energy, and a word much beloved by reincarnationists who, licking their chops, use it to rationalize the evil we do, which we must atone for in our next life. Thus our evil deeds create a build-up of bad karma that can only be dissipated in the following life, through atonement or suffering on the part of the perpetrator of the evil.
The problem is that punishing in this life, a doer of bad deeds which he did in a previous life, and which he is now suffering for, creates more bad karma, which, in turn, which means someone else must inflict suffering on the punisher in his next life, which creates yet more bad karma, and so on. The result is an unending string of bad karma through lifetime after lifetime after lifetime. Does this make sense?
Assuming reincarnation, it means there’s someone out there somewhere who is the reincarnated spirit of Hitler, and thus living a life of unremitting suffering, and even horror, because, unbeknownst to him, he is atoning for all the bad things Hitler did. But because his memories of being Hitler have been erased, he is a different person from Hitler, which means Hitler got off free from all the things he did.
Since, under the laws of Karma, the sufferings we undergo are our punishment for wrongs we did in our previous life, the deaths of the eleven million people who perished in Hitler’s concentration camps were their deserved punishment for the bad things they did in their previous lives. Since Karma must be allowed to run its course, we shouldn’t help anyone in trouble, or otherwise alleviate their suffering, for if we do, we are interfering with their Karma, and so are preventing them learning the lessons that will make them better beings.
So the moral implications of a belief in reincarnation are, to put it mildly, problematic.
Despite the logical inconsistencies of reincarnation and its dubious, if not abhorrent morality, it isn’t out of the question that it may be true, there being, after all, untold evil wherever we look.
Reincarnationists, with the desperation of drowning men, have seized on accounts of psychiatric patients hypnotically regressed by their therapists to periods before they were born, who have told of their previous lives, and even of periods between those lives. Unfortunately for the reincarnationists, most of these previous-life stories were found to be regurgitations by the patients from books they read, or films they saw.
What, then, about those few cases where there was no connection to a book or film? Well, how about that the patients were influenced by suggestions from their therapists eager to elicit the sort of information they wanted, for people under hypnosis are in a state of mind amenable to suggestions, and are also amenable to invasions from mischievous disembodied spirits.
Ian Stevenson in his book “Twenty Cases Suggesting Reincarnation” told of his researches in the Indian sub-continent into children, who remembered their past lives, which, on investigation, appeared authentic, for the details of the deceased people, whose spirits were allegedly reincarnated in the children, had been as the children described them, even though the children could not possibly have known the deceased, or about them, when they were still alive.
However, there were some cases where the deceased had died after the child was born, which ruled out reincarnation, but not an invasion by the disembodied spirit of the deceased. So this presupposed that all of the cases Stevenson investigated could have had a similar cause, namely spirit invasion, which, along with the fact that his researches were in an area of the world where a belief in reincarnation was pervasive, was why Stevenson was careful to say that his cases suggested reincarnation, so didn’t prove it.
The reincarnationists say smugly that most of the world’s peoples believe in reincarnation, which, if true, shouldn’t come as a surprise, since reincarnation is part and parcel of Hinduism and Buddhism, most of whose adherents live in teeming Asia. But what is surprising, is that an alleged thirty-per-cent of Americans believe in reincarnation, despite America being the most Christian nation on earth.
What could be reincarnation’s attraction among the peoples of the West? for Europeans are, similarly, being drawn to reincarnation’s lure. Could it be that, being the narcissists and egotists we who live in the West have become, we cannot bear thinking that our preciously cultivated selves will disappear like a blown-out candle? So we latch on, like engorged ticks, to any doctrine that promises us that our selves, our precious selves, will continue to live, and so we'll continue to enjoy the creature comforts and lifestyles that are as much a part of us as our arms and legs.
But we ignore that the doctrines of Hinduism and Buddhism stress that the material world is illusion, and that our personal selves, our egos, are equally illusory, to be snuffed out when we breathe no more, leaving just an impersonal self at the whim of impersonal karmic forces.
So we comfort ourselves with the western variant of reincarnation, the one espoused by the Theosophists, in which our personalities will continue, to become more perfect with each subsequent incarnation. It's all so wonderfully simple and as comforting as warm milk, never mind it not passing muster in terms of morality, justice, or logic.
And we don’t trouble to ask ourselves how it is, that, despite that we are all becoming more perfect with each successive incarnation, we seem as blood-thirsty and violent as our club-wielding forbears in the caves of fifty-thousand years ago, notwithstanding our iPhones, Blackberrys, BMWs, lap-top computers, eBook readers, Brooks Bros suits, air conditioned offices, and packaged cruise-ship holidays.
Reincarnation’s illogic extends to numbers, for the numbers of us are increasing exponentially, so that the one billion or two billions of us who inhabited the globe fifty years ago - a number that took a couple of hundred thousand years to reach - have now become six billion almost overnight, to become nine billion in another fifty years. So if we are each supposed to have lived countless many times, where have all these billions of new souls come from? for the mathematics are such that they couldn’t, and won’t, all have lived before.
And if we continue the way we are going, by polluting our planet with the consequences which Al Gore lays out in his film “An Inconvenient Truth”, we humans will, for all intents and purposes, become as extinct as the Studebaker in one hundred years or less. Which means there will be almost no bodies for all those disembodied spirits floating out there in the ether to be reincarnated into. How do the reincarnationists get around that?
However, reincarnation, although not making sense literally, does make eminent sense if looked at metaphorically, for we are all genetically a continuation of our forbears - a sort of reincarnation of them - since we inherited our physical characteristics from our mothers and fathers, who, in turn, inherited their physical characteristics from their mothers and fathers, and so on. The same goes for our intelligence and, to some degree, our psychology.
As to karma, the Bible puts it very well, when it says that the sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the sons to the third and the fourth generation, a dynamic captured succinctly in Philip Larkin’s famous poem, “This Be The Verse”, which says:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.
But our karma isn’t restricted to what our mums and dads did to us, for it extends to the effects on us from decisions and actions taken by the leaders, and other movers and shakers on the world’s stage throughout history.
Take just the twentieth century. The First World War begot Hitler and the Second World War, the consequences of which have shaped our world of today. If Dr Alexander Fleming hadn’t discovered penicillin, or Dr Jonas Salk hadn’t come up with the polio vaccine, many of us would not be alive today, or might never have been born because the people who might have become our mums and dads would have died before they could have become our mums and dads, and so on and so on……………
“As ye sow, so shall ye reap”, says the Bible. What could encapsulate more perfectly what karma is? Our actions and words come back to haunt us, as we all know; as Hitler, about to be incinerated in his Berlin bunker, belatedly learned; and as George Bush, five years after baying "mission accomplished" to the world in a flying suit on an aircraft carrier, later realized.
This all does represent a sort of poetic justice without the need for a simple-minded bromide like reincarnation - a dogma for the self-absorbed and the half-educated. As to justice generally, who says there has to be justice? for it may merely be a concept dreamed up by jelly-bellied idealists.
How more comforting to believe we'll dwell for all eternity in the playing fields of the Lord, than that we must endure the travails of life on earth for goodness knows how many times.
Isn't once enough?