A Dialogue on Reincarnation

January 6, 2004

Published on KurzweilAI.net January 6, 2004.

Ray: You mentioned that you believe in reincarnation.  I know that this is the belief of many traditions.  But as you know, following a "tradition" is not always the most reliable way of achieving the truth of the matter.  There are a lot of traditions that have arbitrary and nonsensical beliefs.

So I was wondering: do you really believe in reincarnation, or are you just accepting without critical reflection this belief from a tradition that has provided you with a lot of other benefits?  Or to put it another way, what evidence do you have for reincarnation?

One concern I have with this belief is that it can be viewed as yet another rationalization for death.  As I mentioned, our religious traditions have gone to extensive lengths to rationalize death.  It is obvious to me that death is a tragedy, but up until very recently, it has appeared that there was nothing we could do about it, other than to rationalize that it must, after all, be a good thing.  This view would apply to reincarnation. 

One might argue that what’s the harm in rationalizing death?  The harm is that in rationalizing something that is tragic, we fail to take the urgent action needed to avoid the tragedy, something which is now becoming feasible.  As Dylan Thomas wrote: "Do not go gentle into that good night,. . .Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Steve: My reincarnation conjecture was in response to Amy’s [Kurzweil, Ray’s daughter] statement [below], which blew me away. Ethan [Kurzweil, Ray’s son] had already expressed skepticism to me about the desirability of immortality at a previous luncheon, but Amy’s reason for rejecting it took me totally by surprise: "So boring."

I suppose I’m rather Cartesian in my outlook towards life. As far as evidence of reincarnation, I’ve read books that purported to offer some, but really I didn’t much care about such "evidence" one way or another. There are certain basic assumptions which I seem to be forced into&#8212and from there, logic dictates the rest.

When I was little, my parents like to tease me by saying that if they hadn’t married, I would never have existed. I never could buy that. The idea that my inner Self began at a particular time and will end at a particular time is unimaginable to me. Now I could just say that’s just a subjective delusion or defense, but in the end, I know I wouldn’t be true to myself if I went down that path, because the belief in my own timelessness is just too strong. I could make believe that I don’t really believe it, I could decide that it is a foolish belief, but I know in my heart that no matter what, I do believe it, and so to me it makes more sense to just accept it as an assumption and see where I go from there.

I don’t know if Amy’s comment about boredom is just a statement about her own current state of mind or an insight into the human condition. If one does believe in reincarnation, it is a small step to believe in higher beings for whom life is much more interesting than that of humans. In that vision of reality, evolved beings such as Amy would seek a birth on this planet to confront particular goals&#8212and facing death would of course be one of the main ones. But her stay here would be a relatively short one&#8212and then back to having fun.

In many traditions, various beings attain immortality. For those who do it by purifying their nervous systems, life is very, very good, and these fortunate individuals attain great powers, visit celestial beings and do all sorts of things as they wish. These people are admired by all. However, occasionally, not-so-evolved beings get the immortality trick done, and their feelings are much more mixed. They feel jealousy as their friends ascend to heaven, and need comforting.

So depending on your world view, and your own condition, physical immortality may not necessarily be a blessing.

However, all in all, if you offered it to me, I would take it. Fear of death is built in too, I guess, and maybe I’m proud enough to think I could use the time to make it all worthwhile.

But it is a question worthy of thought. It is obvious to me that we all wish for things, which if achieved, would not be to our benefit.

Ray: Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

I do think Amy’s statement is insightful. It is important to understand my perspective&#8212my "vision of the future"&#8212in its totality. Most futurists make two mistakes. They think linearly whereas the trends are exponential. And they consider one trend on today’s world as if nothing else were going to change. Amy is essentially correct, that if we simply extended human longevity to hundreds of years, our psychology could not handle it. We would indeed be gripped with a deep ennui. But extending human lifespan is not the only radical change in store. We are also going to merge with our technology and expand our cognitive and emotional capabilities, as well as the depth and richness of our intellectual, relational, artistic, sexual, and emotional experiences many fold, ultimately by factors of trillions as we go through this century. So boredom will not be an issue.

With regard to reincarnation, I’d say several things. Your starting intuition, that "my inner self" is essentially timeless, is reasonable. We do need to go beyond science when we consider the nature of consciousness, which is to say the nature of one’s self. Science is about objective observation and deductions thereof, whereas consciousness&#8212the self&#8212is about subjective experience. There is a gap there. An intuition of a "timeless self" is in my view reasonable.

But then you claim that from there, logic brings you to reincarnation. But there is no logical bridge from "timeless self" to "reincarnation." You jump from an essential "timeless" mystery about the self to an ornate system of reincarnation, with greater beings, celestial powers, babies coming back to planets, etc. It’s no more logical than stories of heaven, or other attempts to explain in language essential ineffable truths.

A problem I have with these views is that it gives a concrete reality to levels of reality that have no basis, but nonetheless effect people’s activities in this life (often negatively, but that is not my main point).

Let’s start with what we do know. There is a reality that we experience every day. We can call it physical reality. Now some philosophers say that this physical reality is really a dream, and so on. But regardless of its true nature, we do directly experience it, and so we can say that it exists.

Another reasonable intuition is that "reality matters." People suffer. Suffering can be alleviated. Our actions have consequences. It makes a difference how we act in this world.

Another insight that is quite consistent with how we act and feel is that death is a tragedy. We don’t celebrate it. We are saddened by it. We feel it as a great loss. There is a loss of experience and knowledge, not only in the departed, but in those of us left behind. We don’t reward murderers. We despise and punish them.

These are insights we can have some confidence in, in contrast to claimed logical deductions about ornate systems of reincarnation, heaven, etc. that we cannot experience.

While I respect your views and the tradition they stem from, I don’t really believe that you really firmly believe that reincarnation or any other such "system" is the only possible explanation. You may find the explanation comforting, but if you really consider your true beliefs, you would have to admit that you don’t really know this to be true. As a mental experiment, consider the situation in which somehow, a different truth were revealed to you. Put aside how it would be possible for any such truth to be "revealed," but just imagine that somehow this happened. Would you be totally shocked? Or would you shrug your shoulders and consider that now you have a deeper insight?

So I come back to what we really know and can have confidence in. There is a reality to joy and to suffering, and to the suffering, and loss of knowledge and experience that illness and death brings. And there is joy and gratification in knowledge, discovery, friendship, and experiences that enable us to grow. And we can move in this direction in the world that we know exists, rather than in metaphorical realms.

I would not describe physical immortality as inherently a blessing, nor a curse. Rather, we have the opportunity and responsibility to embrace the growth of knowledge and experience, and to alleviate suffering and destruction. The problem I have with many of the common traditions regarding death is not only that they are "deathist rationalizations," but they encourage passivity. To the idea that "death is natural," I would point out that it is natural for our species to push beyond its boundaries. We did not stay on the ground. We did not stay on the planet. We did not stay with our biological life expectancy (which was 37 years in 1800). And we are not staying with the limitations of our bodies and brains.

Steve: I don’t think we are in disagreement. But once you open the door to timelessness of consciousness, what happens after death becomes a legitimate consideration in deciding whether you want physical immortality in your present body, as it may be modified. If you offered me physical immortality as a “Wallerstein brain” in a jar (a human brain maintained in a jar interfacing to a virtual reality through its sensory and motor neurons), I, and I think most people, would reject it no matter how good the virtual stimulation might be. This rejection is based on an inner calculation (which I believe the brain constantly makes in making all kinds of decisions) weighing the risks that such stimulation not being "real" means it may prove unsatisfactory in the long run and weighing of the odds of some sort of preferable reality coming to pass through natural means. It is true that death is painful and hence we seek to avoid it, but after all, birth is painful too, and I don’t think we would advise anyone against that.

Finally, the future you paint below is only one future: you have pointed out many times the risks of technology leading to unfortunate outcomes if certain science is misused.

I’d like physical immortality for myself, I think; I’m just suggesting some caution may be advised.

Ray: Steve, a relevant quote:

A mind that stays at the same capacity cannot live forever; after a few thousand years it would look more like a repeating tape loop than a person. To live indefinitely long, the mind itself must grow. . . . and when it becomes great enough, and looks back. . . .what fellow feeling can it have with the soul that it was originally? The later being would be everything the original was, but vastly more.

      – Vernor Vinge

Steve: What fellow feeling indeed? I think that is the great mystery, the thing that binds the infinite distinct points on the time line into the sense of "I."

Ray: When I think of myself back in junior high school or high school, I feel a bit of kinship to that person, but at the same time it also seems like someone else.

Steve: Strange, isn’t it?

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