Robert Todd Carroll
The belief in being reborn in another body; the belief that one has lived before and will live again in another body after death.
This used to be mainly a belief in eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, but now is a central tenet of such theories as dianetics and channeling. In those ancient eastern religions, reincarnation was not considered a good thing, but a bad thing. To achieve the state of ultimate bliss (nirvana) is to escape from the wheel of rebirth. In New Age religions, reincarnation seems to be a kind of perverse goal. Prepare yourself in this life for who or what you want to come back as in the next life. Belief in reincarnation also opens the door for New Age therapies, which seek the causes of our problems today in the experiences of our previous lives. Why anyone would think that a chronic stomach ache is due to having been stabbed two thousand years ago in a Roman arena, is beyond me, but I witnessed such a spectacle on a Frontline special on New Age therapies. I suppose these beliefs are attractive because, in most cases, they can't be disproved by empirical evidence. Furthermore, the patients seem to be standing in line to be told such non-sense.
From a philosophical point of view, reincarnation poses some interesting problems. What is it that is reincarnated? Presumably, it is the soul which is reincarnated. If souls exist, then one can posit them either as existing eternally or being created. And one can posit them as either coming to an end or existing forever. One can posit them as being infused by God in the zygote at the moment of conception or as capable of free entry to a baby's body at the moment of birth. One could posit them coming and going, in and out of bodies at will. In fact, the possibilities for souls' relationships to bodies seems rather extensive. Astral projection offers one possibility. The immortal soul leaving the body and going to heaven or hell for eternity, is another possibility. We might explain child prodigies by claiming that unlike most cases of reincarnation where the soul has to more or less start from scratch, the child prodigy somehow gets a soul with great carryover from a previous life, giving it a decided advantage over the rest of us. One could explain deja vu experiences by claiming that they are memories of past lives. Dreams could be interpreted as a kind of soul travel and soul memory. But before any of these explanations should be given serious thought, one should first ponder the idea of the soul itself. This non-substantial substance is an absurdity, a self-contradictory notion. The idea of a non-spatial perceiver is as conceivable as the idea of a non-spatial earthworm.
But if we pretend for a moment that the idea of a soul is possible, we can pretend that this soul has either suddenly started existing out of nothing, or it evolved out of something else, or it has existed forever. I don't think any self-respecting believer in reincarnation has claimed that the soul evolved out of something else. So, for the purposes of argument let's assume that each soul either suddenly came into being or they've existed forever. If they've existed forever and reincarnation is correct, then the world population should remain constant. The world population does not remain constant. Therefore, either souls have not existed forever or reincarnation is not correct. If we assume that souls have not existed forever, then, by disjunctive syllogism we must conclude that reincarnation is not correct. Thus, for reincarnation to be correct, souls must not have existed forever. So, if reincarnation is correct, then each soul has suddenly come into being. But reincarnation requires that a soul already exist to be reincarnated. If souls suddenly come into being, why assume they would (a) enter bodies at all, or (b) come into being only to skip from body to body like a rock skimming a pond? One could assume, I suppose, that souls just emerge and then find a body to attach to, ride it until death, and move on to find another body, ad infinitum or ad nauseam or ad what-ever-you-want. One could assume such a thing, but why bother? What possible reason could there be for assuming such a strange, useless belief?
If one says that reincarnation is not useless, because it helps explain all those things mentioned above, then we'll have to provide an alternative explanation, I guess. For example, past life regression and deja vu experiences are best explained as recalling events from this life, not some past life. Dreams and child prodigies are best explained in terms of brain activities. My own view is that since there would be no way to tell the difference between a baby with a soul which will go to heaven or hell, or one with a soul which has been around before in other bodies, or one with no soul at all, it follows that the idea of a soul adds nothing to our concept of a human being. Hence, both reincarnation and the idea of an immortal soul which will go to heaven or hell are equally useless and meaningless.
Edwards, Paul. Reincarnation: A Critical Examination (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books).
Spanos, Nicholas P. "Past-Life Hypnotic Regression: A Critical View," The Skeptical Inquirer, Winter 1987-1988
Robert Todd Carroll