Reincarnation & Mind


In most religions, life after death is presumed to be a good thing, because most people believe in heaven and think that’s their destination. If one believes their after-life road leads to hell, it might not seem so great a scenario. The typical atheist response to ideas of an afterlife is that the person cannot accept the idea that they will cease to be and so fabricates a version of immortality. This criticism fails with Buddhist doctrine (hereafter referred to by its Sanskrit name, dharma[1]). It fails because rebirth is the worst news possible. Samsara (the opposite of Nirvana) is taught to be a state of suffering. The consciousness will find new forms and wander forever, believing in and seeking a solid existence it cannot find. Thus it will suffer.

(This topic is discussed as karma in the Buddhist Science section of my book, Buddha is an Atheist).

Reincarnation is a prison sentence. It is not good news. The mind will find itself in forms of terrible distress, war, starvation, poverty, and terror. A consciousness can be reborn as an animal or worse, and will. There is no notion that being a person now ensures a human rebirth. And though many people think life is not suffering, they have not lived in places where it most definitely is. People are short-sighted and see little beyond their own lives. Tell someone existence is suffering and they will deny it. Show them photos of torture victims or someone with terrible burns. Tell them the story of a friend who lost their child. Ask them if that constitutes suffering. Ask them if their condition is immune to such occurrences. Ask them if they will die and if their friends will die. Cancer doesn’t care. Natural disasters don’t care. Just watch the news. Suffering is real.

This reverses the normative Western good news idea of life after death. It also reverses the logic that it would be taught as a false belief. Why teach a false belief in reincarnation only to say that it is terrible, that one should strive to transcend that state through meditation, to not be reborn. Life after death here does not qualify as consolation. Buddhist rebirth offers no succor to the dying man. Here it is meant to inspire fear, to instruct the dying to see through the illusion of the self and turn the karmic package from seeking rebirth. Also, so that when it inevitably does, because the round of rebirth is quite difficult to overcome, the mind will find a rebirth that wants truth and wants liberation from the cycle of suffering. It will seek, and hopefully find, a rebirth with some kind of dharma. Because this mind has been on a path of Buddhism in particular, it will have an easier time finding the same path again due to karmic predisposition. That is why it makes the most sense to train in the Buddhist path and seek the Buddha again.

This is not to say that Buddhism is the sole path to spiritual truth, or even the most effective. But it is more readily available than more mystic paths and less distorted (some feel) than theistic paths.

Reincarnation is obviously a hard pill to swallow for Westerners, even for Christians who actually preach it in a skewed manner. Reincarnation means to take another incarnation, or body. What is heaven, if one leaves their body behind? It requires another body since we have the old one still here with us. Heaven is reincarnation.

Here is a story from my own life. When I was living in Dallas, some five or six years after I fell away from Christianity, I developed a sudden desire to meditate and study Buddhism. It came from no life experience I had before. Now to the atheist mindset, it came from some random mentation, perhaps a neurological misfire. But this explanation is thin gruel; it does not satisfactorily explain the intensity of need that I suddenly had. It was no small matter. I felt a burning desire to leave and seek other Buddhists, most especially a teacher or mentor. The Buddhist explanation is that the karma awoke due to causes and conditions, which is what it felt like. I simply had to find the path I had left behind in the previous life, an explanation that satisfies fully in a spiritual sense. In a current paradigm scientific sense, it does nothing. Or maybe gets an embarrassed laugh.

Materialists would claim that such a thing is impossible – death ends it all. There is nothing more. But science has not penetrated the veil beyond death and cannot make such a claim. It needs to be said again and again. The certainty of atheists that death is extinction speaks volumes of arrogance. Most atheists believe very strongly in science, but fail to admit the shortcomings of it. In this case, it has not yet proven anything.

The deification of reason is a primary difficulty of atheism.

To say that science has no bias is absurd. Science has a bias to science, obviously, and by extension, or by reduction to principles, to rationality, scientific method and investigative procedures of the physical. This has several consequences. The investigative procedures focus, mostly, on the physical (mass-energy), rather than the mental. There is a presumption that science can understand the mind through investigation of the brain. Thus far, there is no evidence that the mind is explicable through the brain. It is, however, highly correlated. In other words, specific neural states can be strongly associated with subjective mental reports of states. The physicalist bias has led to a de facto belief that the neural state thus correlated is the causal factor. Certainly, events can be stimulated by manipulating the brain, but there is no proof that the relationship is uni-directional. An off-the-cuff analogy might be the water system of earth. Water flows down from the mountains to the lakes and oceans (brain system), where it evaporates into the sky (mind system), then turns to rain and falls back to earth.

It could be said that psychology, with its woeful track record, ill understands the mind. Freud caused immeasurable damage, though that’s only my opinion. Psychiatry has a somewhat better, though still imperfect resume, especially with her poster child Prozac. There is wide disagreement on why anti-depressants work and what they do. Seritonin re-uptake is involved, but the mechanics are debated. Psychiatry has mediocre results with schizophrenics and psychotics. The medications control symptoms to an extent, but have such unpleasant side effects that few stay on them. With sociopathology, psychiatry is helpless.

The point? When neurobiology can develop solid controls for these conditions, then it can claim, but not prove, an ontological understanding of mind. Until then, the claim is unsupportable. The connections are undeniable and some causal factors are clearly evidenced, but this is far from proving the functionalist theories.[2]

[1] Dharma means truth, teachings, or experience. In this sense, it means Buddhist teachings and that will be the general mode of its usage in this book.

[2] Functionalist theories are a principal subset of physicalist theories of brain/mind.

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