This post may be so disorientingly philosophical and “out there” as to be unreadable to most readers. Just saying.
Recently I was attending an Asian festival celebration in California (I attend lots more of them in California than I ever did in Asia); and amidst the ceremonies and commotion and food I suddenly had this idea for a philosophical essay. In fact after that I was eager to leave the celebration quickly so I could write it down. It may be of little interest to dedicated followers of Scientism, and may not be of actual use to anybody else, including me; but it challenges established ideas, so I like it. My calling in life is to challenge ideas, and thereby to introduce chaos into order…until chaos starts gaining the upper hand, whereupon I will switch sides.
In previous posts, especially in “What Is Belief” (12 Sep 2015 ), I have mentioned that the great Scottish philosopher David Hume pounded away at the interesting idea, possibly even the empirical fact, that causality cannot be experienced directly, but must be inferred, and that therefore its very existence is merely an educated guess, and consequently ultimately uncertain. According to Hume, we do not even experience the inward causal force of volitional mental states directly, but simply experience an intention and then experience the apparent fruit of that intention, without actually experiencing as such any causative force in addition to these two, which links them. We consistently observe a temporal sequence, A followed by B, so we assume the existence of a causative force, and assume that A causes B. Thus causality is a very convenient axiom that we adopt for the purpose of interpreting phenomena in this world, and it generally remains unquestioned and unexamined, even by scientists; but it may be no more than a psychological gimmick, based upon a deeper psychological quirk, for interpreting Reality, with events (assuming that those exist) really being connected together by something else.
Mainly what I am trying to point out here, for the sake of “softening up” the reader for what comes after, is that causality may be an established fact for almost all of the human race, but that it is ultimately uncertain nevertheless. There is in all likelihood no way of absolutely proving its existence. For instance, all the phenomena we see around us could be a kind of projection, with no more motive force in anything than there is in events projected on a screen: it sure looks like the car is crashing through a plate glass window, but on a movie screen the “car” has no actual momentum at all. This world could all be a kind of vivid dream, or projected illusion. Some philosophers of the past have realized this possibility, and have provided God as the one who supplies all the actual power, although there are other theoretical possibilities.
In a different previous post (“Abhidhamma Studies II: Arising and Passing Away,” posted 8 Feb 2014) I pointed out that, although orthodox Theravada Buddhism accepts causality as a primary explanation for phenomenal processes, the orthodox Theravadin Abhidhamma philosophy appears to leave no possibility of causation over time. Abhidhamma scholars assert that all phenomena are arising and passing away, blinking in and out of existence a trillion or so times every second, with a cause A appearing, then totally disappearing, somehow followed by effect B—despite the fact that B is arising after A had entirely ceased to exist. Consequently, since Abhidhamma also asserts that the past is nonexistent, the result arises from a nonexistent cause, which is the same as to say that it arises from no cause whatever. Everything ceasing to exist at the end of each moment, before the next version of everything appears to assume the form of the next moment, produces a clean break with any conceivable causal force over time. To this day I am unsure how a devout Abhidhammist would meet this challenge.
This orthodox derailing of causation in Buddhist philosophy doesn’t bother me much, partly because I have a perverse love of paradox, and partly because my own best guess as to why our universe seems to exist also leaves no room for genuine causation. The two main articles on this blog which deal with my own favorite metaphysical Theory of Everything are “The Simile of the Block of Marble” and “Jumping the Shark: A Return to the Uncarved Block” (5 Jan 2013 and 15 March 2014); so anyone interested can look them up and read them, as I won’t explain the uncarved block of marble again here. Here I will just observe that, according to the theory, everything that possibly can exist, does exist, essentially simultaneously, and everything is superimposed upon everything else in a dimensionless, timeless point. Consequently, it is what the Buddhists call individual ignorance (avijjā) that filters out everything except what it is ready to see, with one moment and the next being connected by perceived similarity. There is no real connection between one moment and the next, as is implied by Abhidhamma also; rather, the peculiar form of our perceiving mind chooses a series of similar yet differing events which we call “life” or “the real world.” The lottery of possible quirks provides a direction and an underlying “theme.” So similarity and a kind of default quirk we have received produce the appearance of causality. According to the theory.
Mere similarity may seem totally inadequate as a link between one mental state, say, and the next. But the following scenario may help to show that there is possibly something to it.
It is a fairly common occurrence in science fiction stories, and it may become plausible in the “real world” within a few decades, for a human personality to be downloaded into a computer. This may be accomplished by programming a virtual, digital human brain, or by other methods. A recent example of this in science fiction is in the movie Transcendence, and in the novel Eon the author Greg Bear describes a human society in which most of the inhabitants are downloaded into computers, with no organic body or brain at all. So the philosophical question here is (and this is what occurred to me at the festival): What is the relationship between the original mind and the mind after it is downloaded? Is it the same mind, the same personality, the same person?
I think we can rule out pretty easily the possibility that the downloaded personality is the same as the one before it, by considering the possibility that the downloading process does not necessitate the death of the original organic human. As far as the person is concerned, her or his mental patterns may be in the computer now, but she or he continues to identify, with no perceived lapse of any sort, with the original analog version. The downloaded personality may “remember” events which occurred to the original, and may feel the same at first—although of course the radical difference in living situation would almost immediately facilitate a drift away from the biological version: the new mind may have many, very powerful sense organs which radically alter the entity’s quality of experiencing the world, or on the other hand the person may lose all interest in the “real world” in favor of a much more interesting virtual reality.
One aspect of this scenario which interests me is that fact that people will be downloading themselves into computers (assuming that this ever becomes possible) largely for the sake of some semblance of immortality; yet the original person still dies, and is replaced by a different mind which only resembles it, or at least resembles it at first. Is this really immortality then, or even some realistic consolation for dying? Is it accurate to say that someone doesn’t die because there is still someone very much like them? I suppose many people feel this way about their children, but even an identical twin surviving the other twin’s death seems obviously very different from the other surviving.
Many people would go for it though, considering the digitization process to be really a prolongation of themselves. The new virtual person may feel like the original, and of course have the same long term memories, regardless of the fact that it is not identical with its forerunner, but only similar. It would be considered good enough to count as a virtual continuation of the individual’s personality. The new virtual identity could be “born” long after the original person died, after stored files are activated, and far away from any place where the original person ever lived.
The point that all of this is meandering to is that, setting aside the strange idea that every moment is related to its predecessor and successor only by similarity (plus psychological quirks), the process of rebirth, alleged to function by such groups as Buddhists and Hindus, may also be no more than the similarity of two or more personalities. Much as with a downloaded psychological simulacrum, similarity and overlap of characteristics may be sufficient to warrant a feeling of identity between two entities. If there is to be found in another enough similarity with “me,” there may be some empirical validity to saying that the other really is “me,” or sort of me or a virtual me. There may be a subjective feeling of identity. Thus rebirth could be said to exist, and have a certain validity, without any empirically determined connecting principle other than similarity. A certain feeling of “me” may be sufficient to assert a quasi continuation of a being’s mentality.
This same principle of similarity could also help to explain feelings of deep empathy or compassion: To the extent that we are subjectively similar, to that same extent we are the same being. We feel the other’s unhappiness because, in a deeply fundamental sense, we are the other.
The similarity interpretation of rebirth (Buddhists don’t like the term “reincarnation” for some reason) would not rule out the possibilities of two “me’s” at the same time, however. Also it would not be the only means of explaining the possibility, at least, of rebirth. For example, there may be connections between one thing and another that are simply beyond the understanding of mere human apes, or beyond the limited flexibility of their imagination, regardless of how well educated and scientific they and their computers are. If a three-dimensional being were to insert the tines of a fork into a two-dimensional Flatland, the 2D inhabitants would sense four entirely unconnected, yet similar, metallic shapes. The shapes would be obviously separate from such a limited point of view, although clearly part of the same object from a less limited one. And we humans may be oblivious to other dimensions.
Anyway, this still would not explain how karma fits into the equation, how it could function as a connecting principle between lives. We may as well just leave it that way for now.