The Case for Reincarnation
Alleged Evidences of Reincarnation
1. “Past Life Memories”
A person S possesses self-referential veridical information
about a formerly existing person S*.
2. Similarity of Physical Features
A person S has physical feature(s) similar or identical to the
physical features of some formerly existing person S*.
3. Similarity of Character or Personality
A person S has a character or other personality features similar or
identical to the character and personality features of some formerly
existing person S*.
4. Similarity of Practical and Theoretical Skills
A person S possesses practical and theoretical skills similar to or identical to
some formerly existing person S*.
5. Similarity of Self Perception
A person S perceives himself as a formerly existing person S* perceived
6. The Existence of widely divergent degrees of
moral, spiritual, intellectual, and practical skills.
7. Reincarnation makes human suffering or the
various inequities of life intelligible.
Raynor Johnson on Reincarnation
Raynor Johnson (a Christian reincarnationist) believes that
factual observations support the idea of pre-existence, and pre-
existence in turn supports reincarnation.
A. The life situations into which people are born are vastly different and
B. There are widely different degrees of spiritual and moral
development among people who are roughly the same age.
C. There are widely different degrees of artistic and scientific skills
among people who are the same age.
D. A very high level of artistic and scientific skills are exhibited by some
people at a very early age.
E. Members of the same family often exhibit vast differences in their
mental, moral, and artistic characteristics.
Johnson believes that the observational facts (A)-(E) are best
explained by supposing that human persons have existed prior to
their present life.
Johnson intends an argument for pre-existence. The form of
argument Johnson suggests is inference to best explanation.
Inference to Best Explanation
(1) If hypothesis H provides the best explanation for some observational
fact(s) F, then F makes H probable.
(2) Hypothesis H provides the best explanation for observational fact F.
(3) Hypothesis H is probable.
Replace H with the pre-existence hypothesis and F with the facts
(A)-(D) and we have Johnson’s argument for pre-existence.
Potential Problems with Johnson’s Argument
The second premise of Johnson’s implicit argument is true only
if there is no other hypothesis that provides an equal
explanation for the facts Johnson cites.
Johnson does not adequately engage alternate hypotheses.
Inequities may simply be the result of chance.
The possession of high degrees spiritual and moral
development, as well as advanced artistic and mental skills, at
an early age, may be the product of genetic coding, or genetics
and favorable environmental factors.
Differences of “profound kind” in mental, moral, and artistic
qualities between members of the same family may be
explained by the complex character of genetic inheritance.
Since these alternate hypotheses would also lead us to expect the
facts cited by Johnson, there is no obvious reason why pre-
existence provides a better explanation of these facts.
A possible virtue of the pre-existence hypothesis is that it is a single
hypothesis that would lead us to expect all of the cited facts,
whereas more than a single hypothesis would likely be needed to
explain the entire set of observations.
One alternate hypothesis could combine chance (including random genetic mutations) and
the laws of genetic inheritance to explain the facts, in much the same way that a Darwinist
explains the existence of diverse complex living organisms in terms of the laws of biology
and natural selection operating on random variations thrown up by nature.
The remaining virtue of the pre-existence hypothesis is that it is
compatible with the belief that the universe is overall a just place,
for the inequities in life would be explained by a person’s own
actions in the past, not bad luck.
Johnson’s case for pre-existence appears to depend largely on
investing the universe with a particular moral quality, goodness
Johnson’s Argument for Reincarnation
“If the case for pre-existence is considered a strong one, then the
idea of reincarnation presents no logical difficulties.” ~ Johnson
Johnson thinks that the probability of pre-existence makes
reincarnation plausible (perhaps even probable).
However, if Johnson’s case for pre-existence is not strong, then
he loses his reason for affirming the plausibility of reincarnation.
Johnson on Past Life Memories
Johnson also considers one of the common objections to
reincarnation, namely the apparent fact that not everyone recalls
having lived a past life.
Observational Datum: Memory of past events is less frequent
the further back in time we go. Our memories of events in our
present life seems to terminate around age two.
Predictive Extrapolation: We should not typically expect
anyone to have memories of a past life. So the absence of
such memories does not count against reincarnation.
Question for Discussion: Does the occurrence of apparent past
life memories still count in favor of reincarnation?
C.J. Ducasse’s Defense of Rebirth
Ducasse on Absence of Past
Life Memories. . . .
The absence of memories of
having existed at a particular
time t does not provide
evidence that we did not exist
at t. If it did, then we would
have to conclude that we did
not exist during the first few
years of our present life, for we
have no memories of that time
period. But this is absurd. So
absence of past life memories
would not disconfirm rebirth.
Second Objection: Laws of Heredity Sufficiently
Explain Mental and Physical Characteristics of Persons
Ducasse Appeals to McTaggart’s Defense
McTaggart’s Argument: Hats are well-suited to the heads of
their owners, but not because there is any causal connection
between the hat and the head. Hats are not made for their
heads, nor heads made for their hats. Adaptation is due to a
person’s choice of some particular hat from those available.
Hence, “ there is no impossibility in supposing that the
characteristics in which we resemble the ancestors of our bodies
may be to some degree characteristics due to our previous lives.”
It is possible that we are reborn in bodies whose biological
ancestors had mental and physical characteristics similar to
those we acquired in a previous life.
Clarifying McTaggart’s Argument
Ducasse explains that McTaggart’s Argument does not
involve a defense of the idea of the rebirth of personality,
“the habits, skills, knowledge, character, and memories”
which a person acquires during his or her life.
What Gets Reincarnated?
Acquired Skills, OR Native Aptitudes
Habits, and and
Ducasse favors the idea of the rebirth of a core of negative
and positive dispositions and aptitudes. It is individuality,
not personality, that is reincarnated.
Third Objection: Our sense of personal identity depends
on memorial continuity.
Ducasse’s Response: We only need partial memorial
continuity for our sense of personal identity, not the
preservation of a comprehensive span of memories. We
have no memory of our earliest years, and yet this fact does
not impair our sense of identity.
“If, on each day, [a person] had a stock of memories
relating to, let us say, only the then preceding ten years, or
some other perhaps shorter period, this would provide all
that would be needed for a continuous sense of identity.”
The objections to reincarnation considered are ultimately not
good objections to the idea of rebirth (understood as the
rebirth of “individuality” in Ducasse’s sense of the term).
These objections do not provide good reasons for believing
that no life after death is possible, nor that such a significant
form of survival cannot be imagined.
Unlike Johnson’s Argument, Ducasse’s argument is not
intended as a proof of reincarnation, but a defense of
reincarnation against prominent objections.