Realincarnation: Requiem for the immortal soul

Realincarnation: Requiem for the immortal soul

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I lost a friend a few months ago. I miss him, but he is gone, though he lives on in my memory.

My friend didn’t die, but our connection did—and it happened over the subject of death.

He used to drop by unannounced late in the evening. I welcomed him in, and welcomed also his anachronistic form of socializing, just coming over rather than scheduling visits like custody negotiators. There he’d be at my doorstep. I’d offer him scotch.

Last time he came by he told me of a friend who was in the hospital teetering on the edge. In the dusk, in my living room, with smoky single malt in hand, we got to talking about death . . . and that’s how I lost him.

We found we were of different opinions about what happens after death. He declared himself a complete agnostic, arguing that there’s no way to know what happens after death, so any scenario is as likely as any other. Since science can’t prove what happens, all guesses are equally possible. He was adamant.

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Listening to his argument, a familiar one and one that I had voiced for many years as though it were the final word, I realized that for me it wasn’t. Enough else had changed in my thinking that, revisiting the question of death for the first time in a long while, I found I was now of a decidedly different opinion.

I agreed that we can’t know for certain. However, I maintained that triangulating from science’s best guesses at the way things work in other realms gives us enough grounds to speculate about which scenarios are more likely and which ones are less likely. Besides, science never proves anything anyway. It just generates refined operating assumptions, knowing that future evidence could overturn them. My point was that science doesn’t prove, it handicaps. The odds make some scenarios far more likely than others, which of course, nonetheless remain possible, since as my friend said, we can’t know anything absolute about what happens next.

My friend found my tone, my declaration, or the combination arrogant. I told him he seemed as strongly opinionated as I was. He disagreed, arguing that because he was advocating uncertainty he couldn’t be strongly opinionated. I said his was a fine position to take about death but one that is tantamount to withdrawing from the investigation. When a question is on the table and someone declares it completely unanswerable, they are in effect pulling away from the table. He found this offensive, as though I was dismissing him from the table.

I loved the conversation. I’m pretty sure he hated it. It’s sometimes hard with philosophical friends to tell when sparring is offensive and when it’s the very heart of our connection. I misjudged with him, and now he doesn’t come by anymore.

When sparring is a major attraction in a friendship, it’s often a vehicle for refining our points of view. The abrasion focuses, streamlines, and sharpens the points each participant means to make. I’ve lost that sparring partner but not the point I was making, so here it is:

The evidence suggests that we don’t actually have immortal souls that go on and do anything after we die—that we do die with death. What clearly live on are traces of the biological and cultural influences our bodies expressed. Our children carry forward some of the biological characteristics we were carrying forward. The people we have influenced carry forward our cultural influences, broadly defined. The chance that after death our souls live on is very slim compared to other scenarios.

Or to put it succinctly in a cheerful limerick:

Reincarnation is real
Just how may reduce its appeal
It’s your seeds and your deeds
Not your soul, it recedes,
Hopping off after once round the wheel.

Here’s the handicapping rationale.

My experience convinces me that I have a self, a soul, a permanent essence that lodges in my body for a lifetime and then escapes it. The centrality of “Jeremy” in my everyday thoughts persuades me of this.

Still, the evidence pretty clearly points away from my having or being a soul, because really, every aspect and feature that contributes to my sense of having a soul is a thought, an idea, a concept that would be inconceivable without my body’s capacity for symbolic manipulation. Jeremy is “good” or “bad,” “funny” or “serious,” or “Woody Allanesque” or “Brad Pittish”—all of those descriptions and the thousands more that dapple and shade my sense of self—they all rely on this human capacity to draw generalities from particulars, to represent kinds of things by means of symbolic manipulation.

Check out the inconsistencies the human talent for symbolic manipulation permits: “I am my body.” This statement feels perfectly rational, and so reveals just how easy it is to be comfortable with a preposterously ambiguous sense of what the self is. The subject in that sentence both possesses and is the object. What’s the relationship between “I” and “body”? Well, the “I” is the body. Well, the “I” is this thing that owns the body. So which is it? And an equally reasonable-sounding “I am my mind” is no better. Grammatically, either statement is as peculiar as “The ball is its ball.”

Science handicaps very low odds of our having immortal souls. The evidence does not support mind-body dualism, the belief in two distinct realms—the eternal disembodied purposeful realm and the physical, meat-and-bones realm somehow coming together to temporarily fill flesh with personality. It’s more likely to be the body’s capacity for symbol manipulation that gives rise to concepts of a soul that we imagine makes or animates the body.

After all, if soul is an impression arising from a constellation of thoughts, then a soul that lives beyond the body is about as plausible as an opinion that lives beyond the body. Do my thoughts about that movie I saw last week live on eternally? An immortal soul seems so more likely than an immortal movie review, not because it’s of a different substance, but rather because our bodies are so chronically and emotionally wrapped up in the thought of our souls. My opinions come and go, but my thoughts about myself are always with me.

At funerals, in loving memory, we say that the deceased lives on in our hearts and minds. We mean it figuratively for the most part. We hope in some way that living on means more than merely having a memory of the person. But still we recognize that the memory is a thought or an emotion, not a thing. So no, we don’t usually think of our thoughts about someone as synonymous with their bodies. For the most part we wouldn’t say, “I was thinking about Abe Lincoln, so he must be alive somewhere.” Or “I was thinking of a unicorn in my bathroom, so there must be one in there.” Symbols don’t generate bodies, they are generated by them.

When the body dies, its thoughts about itself die too. For a time other bodies have thoughts about it. And for a time after that its traceable influences carry forward, though in practice no one traces them. That is, five hundred years from now historians might be able to detect the influence any one individual had on events, even though it’s unlikely any of them would. And then for eternity those influences carry forward untraceably.

The generally simultaneous termination of our bodies and our thoughts about our selves makes it mercifully confusing for us to figure out what dying really is. Merciful in that the nature of our deaths has eluded us for millennia and we’ve been able to assume that there’s potential for a joyous afterlife in which souls reunite. Without scientific handicapping to cramp our imaginations, it’s been easy for us to harbor the belief that at death, the body releases the immortal soul—which exits the room and moves to another perhaps grander room where it waits for reunion with other souls.

With science handicapping against that scenario, now what?

Actually mostly more of the same. Even though I’m convinced by science that I am not and have not a soul, I still have this body and its own habits of handicapping. I’m still caught up in this body’s symbolic concept that it is occupied by a soul. I look forward to seeing my long-lost friends and relatives in the afterlife. Even though that’s not going to happen, it’s a nice thought—and in everyday practice, it’s the thought that counts.

Funny thing, my ex-friend told me one story that I’ll never forget. He knew a guy who knew a guy who was considering committing suicide to free his soul from his earthly body. He confessed it to his friend—the guy my friend knew—who tried something kind of risky, kind of gross, but apparently with good effect. He said to his friend, “I’m sorry to hear that, but I wonder if you’ll do me a favor. You see, I’m a necrophiliac. After you die, can I have sex with your body?” Supposedly that appalling prospect gave the soulful suicide a whole new lease on life: He was his body after all.

And now that I’ve shared this story from a friend of a friend of a friend, it might live on as vividly in your mind as it has in mine, and maybe you’ll pass it on too, an idea perhaps made immortal.

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