Curt J. Ducasse

C. J. Ducasse

(1881-1969), French-born, highly respected Professor of Philosophy at Brown University. Awardee of the Carus Lectures prize (American Philosophical Association). Contributed to the "Journal Information for Philosophy and Phenomenological Research", "Causation", "Immortality" (Edited by Paul Edwards), "Philosophical Dimensions of Parapsychology" (edited by James M. O. Wheatley). Ex-student of Josiah Royce. Pursued a career in philosophy but retained a strong interest in logic - so much so that he took the initiative to create the Association for Symbolic Logic with its Journal of symbolic logic. Among his many important papers on survival are "How the Case of The Search for Bridey Murphy Stands Today" Journal of the ASPR 54: 3-22, and "What Would Constitute Conclusive Evidence of Survival After Death?" Journal of the SPR 41: 401-406. His books included "A Critical Examination of the Belief in Life After Death", "Paranormal Phenomena, Science and Life After Death" (Monograph), "A Philosophical Scrutiny of Religion", "Nature, Mind, And Death", "Truth, Knowledge and Causation", "Philosophy As a Science: Its Matter and Its Method" and "Philosophy of Art".

A Critical Examination of the Belief in a Life After Death - Part 5

Chapter 21: Difficulties in the Reincarnation Hypothesis

1. The materialistic objection to any form of life after death | 2. The objection that we have no memory of having lived before | 3. The objection that memory is indispensable to identity of person | 4. The objection that, without memory of one's acts, nothing is learned from their consequences | 5. The objection that wisdom' virtue, knowledge, and skills are not innate, but are gradually acquired after birth

 - Curt J. Ducasse -

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          THE MERE fact that the reincarnation hypothesis, in one form or another, has been treated with respect by some thinkers of high eminence, and even has been accepted by some of them, does not prove that reincarnation is a fact. Moreover, critics of the doctrine have advanced various objections to it, purporting to show that it can not possibly be true. We must now consider them and decide whether they do or do not establish the impossibility. And, if we find that they do not really do so, we shall then have to ask whether any empirical evidence at all exists that shows or tends to show that reincarnation occurs.

1. The materialistic objection to any form of life after death

The first objection likely to suggest itself to the contemporary Western educated mind would be that a mind cannot exist without a living body, nor therefore pass from a dying body to a living one born later. This objection, if sound, would rule out not only metempsychosis, but also the possibility of any form of survival. But it need not detain us here since, as we saw in Part Ill, the basis of it consists not of established facts, but only of one or another of the materialistic interpretations of the facts. And, as we took pains to make clear, these interpretations are in no way authoritative but amount only to this: that in them, a legitimate program - that of searching for material causes - is illegitimately erected unawares into the metaphysical dogma that none but material causes can exist at all. Moreover in Part IV, various facts were cited which lend some empirical support to the hypothesis that the mind survives the body's death.

The question before us in the present chapter is therefore only whether, if survival is indeed a fact, any good reasons exist for believing that it cannot take the form which the reincarnation hypothesis describes; namely, in its most plausible version, that, following the body's death, there is first a period of discarnate existence whether short or long; and then rebirth, in an infant body, of such of the capacities of the mind of the deceased person as had constituted the basis for acquisition by it of the other capacities it did acquire - and indeed also for acquisition of various others which it did not in fact acquire because external circumstances presented no need for them, or no opportunity to acquire them.

2. The objection that we have no memory of having lived before

A prima facie plausible objection to the reincarnation hypothesis is that we have no memory whatever of having lived before our birth. But if this objection has any force at all, then it has far too much; for, since we have also no memory of the first few years of our present life, it would then follow equally that we did not then exist. Indeed, the case is really worse than this, for we have also no memories at all of the great majority of the days of our life. My own belief, for example that I was alive and conscious on say, the third of December, 1930 is not based on my memory of that day, for I recall nothing whatever in connection with it; and probably nobody else recalls having observed me on that particular day. That belief of mine is in fact only an inference, based on the vacuous premise that human consciousness is continuous - except for periods of unconsciousness in dreamless sleep, in anesthesia, in coma, or otherwise!

It may be said, of course, that although we have no conscious memories of our days of early childhood, or of most of our days since then, yet memories of them persist subconsciously and can be made manifest by automatic writing as induced in her patients by, for example, the late Dr. Anita Muhl, or by the techniques of psychoanalysis; or by suggestions of age-regression, given under hypnosis. But then we naturally find ourselves led to ask how far back such revival of memories can be made to go. Memories of the intra-uterine experiences of the foetus have apparently been obtained; and in some cases, purported memories pertaining to past incarnations. If the latter are dismissed as mere inventions of the mythopoeic faculty, induced by the suggestions of age-regression, then, on the very same ground, it will be necessary to dismiss also alleged memories of intra-uterine experiences; and indeed, also abnormally obtained memories of the years of infancy and even of subsequent years, except where the reality of the events purportedly remembered happens to be in some way independently verifiable. But then, what shall we say about the few reported cases where it is claimed that verification was made also of facts purportedly remembered from an earlier incarnation? We shall return to this claim farther on, when we come to ask whether any positive empirical evidence exists in support of the reincarnation hypothesis. At this point, however, we are concerned only with the allegations that absence of memory of earlier lives is empirical evidence that we had no such lives; and the outcome of the preceding remarks is that absence of memory of an event, and especially of a long past event, never proves that one did not experience the event. Positive memories can be evidence concerning one's past, but absence of memories of it proves nothing at all about it.

3. The objection that memory is indispensable to identity of person

Another objection to the transmigration hypothesis is that personal identity is wholly dependent on memory; and hence that, without memories of earlier lives, there is no difference at all between rebirth of "one" person, and death of one person followed by birth of a different person(1). This objection, however, would be easily disposed of by the supposition that, although memory of earlier lives is absent during any one life, such memory is periodically regained at some point during the interval between consecutive lives; or, possibly, is regained at the end of the series of earthly incarnations if the series does have an end. The supposition that, at some time, memory of earlier lives is recovered suffices to make rebirth of one person mean something different from death of one person followed by birth of another person. Absence now of such memory entails only that we cannot tell now which of those two possibilities is the fact.

(1) Leibniz; Philosophische Schriften, ed. Gerhardt, IV. 300.

4. The objection that, without memory of one's acts, nothing is learned from their consequences

An objection which has been made to the transmigration hypothesis - or at least to the assumption usually coupled with it that wisdom is gained and moral lessons learned gradually from the consequences brought about by right and wrong acts - is that, without memory of the act, or thought or feeling or attitude, which brought about a given consequence, the relation of cause and effect between them is not perceived; and hence that no moral lesson is learned or any wisdom gained from such features of our lot in the present life as are consequences of right or wrong conduct in preceding lives.

A sufficient answer to this objection is that perception of the consequences of our conduct is one way, but not the only way, in which growth in wisdom, virtue, or ability, can be brought about by those consequences. An act of which we retain no memory may nevertheless have the remote effect of placing us eventually in a situation conducive to the acquiring of the wisdom, virtue, or ability, lack of which made us act as we did in the forgotten past. If, as the Karma doctrine of the Hindus asserts, our conduct in one incarnation automatically tends to have this very sort of consequence in one or another of our later lives, then lack of memory of those past lives does not prevent our growing morally and spiritually, in this indirect manner, owing to the nature of our conduct in unremembered earlier lives. Moreover if, as already suggested may be the case, memory of preceding lives is regained in the discarnate interval between incarnations, this would make growth in wisdom possible not only in the manner just described, but also by discernment of some of the consequences of certain of one's acts in earlier lives.

5. The objection that wisdom, virtue, knowledge, and skills are not innate, but are gradually acquired after birth

It may be objected, however, that whatever such growth we achieve in a given incarnation, whether in the indirect manner described, or directly out of perception of the consequences of acts done in the present or in a previous incarnation, that growth anyway does not carry over from past lives to the present one. For children are not born with knowledge that fire burns, but have to learn it again in this life no matter how many times in past lives they may have touched fire and got burnt. Similarly, children have to be taught not to lie and not to take the property of others; they are not born with ready-made mathematical or musical or other skills, any more than with a ready-made moral conscience, but acquire all these by processes open to observation. No matter what they may have learned in past lives, their education - moral, intellectual, aesthetic, and of other sorts - certainly seems to have to start from scratch in the present life.

Reflection, however, makes evident that what has just been said is not quite the whole story. Skills, habits, knowledge, and other varieties of what psychologists call "conditionings" indeed have to be painstakingly acquired during the years of life. But what we come equipped with at birth is not these things; it is only certain instincts and certain aptitudes - an aptitude being a capacity to acquire, when subjected to the relevant stimuli, certain more determinate capacities of the kinds mentioned above. In these native aptitudes, human beings differ considerably one from another. One person will learn quickly and easily what another, even with great effort, is able to learn but slowly and imperfectly.

In this connection, it is useful to dwell on the fact that if any one of us, had been taken away in early childhood from the family where in fact he grew up, and had been placed instead among the Pygmies of Africa, or among the Eskimos, or among the Chinese; or indeed, in his native country, in a family markedly different in economic, cultural and social respects from that in which he was born; then he would, on the basis of his very same stock of native aptitudes, certainly have developed a personality vastly different from his present one. Reflection on this indubitable fact is likely to make the personality he now calls his Self appear to him analogous rather to some particular one of the various roles which a given actor is capable of playing. And this reflection is then likely to lead a person to identify his true Self with his native set of basic aptitudes, rather than with the accidental particular personality - i.e., the particular memories, skills, habits, and so on-generated through the interaction between those aptitudes and the particular environment in which his body happens to have lived.

It is true that, when discussing reincarnation, Professor James H. Hyslop writes: "It is personality that we want, if survival is to be in any way interesting to us, and not only personality, but we want a personal consciousness of this personal identity"(2). But in the light of the remarks just made this demand, though natural enough, appears rather naively wilful.

(2) Borderland of Psychical Research, Turner & Co. Boston, 1906, p. 368.

The supposition just considered, that if reincarnation is a fact then what a man brings to a new birth is not a developed mind or personality but only certain aptitudes, has commended itself also to some other writers who, however, have worded it somewhat differently. Professor Broad, for example, suggests that what transmigrates, if anything does, might not be a mind but only something which he calls a "psychogenic factor," the nature of which, however, he does not describe beyond saying that, from combination of it with a brain, a mind emerges-somewhat as common salt emerges out of the combination of sodium and chlorine, neither of which by itself has the properties of salt(3) .Again, Professor Francis Bowen, in an article in the Princeton Review for May, 1881, quoted at considerable length by E. D. Walker(4), offered a similar hypothesis, wording it, however, in terms of Kant's distinction between man's Intelligible Character, which is noumenal, and his Empirical Character, which is phenomenal - a distinction only alluded to in the particular passage of Kant's Critique we cited earlier, but which Kant formulates explicitly elsewhere in a different connection.

(3) The Mind and its Place in Nature, Harcourt Brace & Co. New York, 1929, p. 535
(4) Reincarnation, A Study of Forgotten Truth, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1888, pp. 102 ff.

But if transmigration is to be conceived as a process of growth, it is necessary to assume that the activities and experiences of each incarnation result not only in the acquisition of particular skills, tastes, habits, knowledge, etc., on the basis of the aptitudes (or "psychogenic factor," or "Intelligible Character") brought from past lives; but in addition result in some alteration of that stock of aptitudes itself-enhancement of some of them, deterioration of others, perhaps acquisition of new ones, and possibly loss altogether of certain others. And Broad indeed postulates for the psychogenic factor capacity to be modified to some extent by the experiences and activities of the mind which has resulted from the combination of the psychogenic and the bodily factors.

6. Native aptitudes, heredity, and growth of the self. It may be contended, however, that a person's native aptitudes or anyway some of them are a matter of heredity; and that if they are derived thus from his ancestors then they are not derived from strivings or experiences of his own past lives. But McTaggart, whose favorable opinion of the transmigration hypothesis was cited earlier, argues that the facts of heredity are at least not incompatible with transmigration. "There is no impossibility," he writes, "in supposing that the characteristics in which we resemble the ancestors of our bodies may be to some degree characteristics due to our previous lives." He points out that "hats in general fit their wearers with far greater accuracy than they would if each man's hat were assigned to him by lot. And yet there is very seldom any causal connection between the shape of the head and the shape of the hat. A man's head is never made to fit his hat, and, in the great majority of cases, his hat is not made to fit his head. The adaptation comes about by each man selecting, from hats made without any special reference to his particular head, the hat which will suit his particular head best." And McTaggart goes on to say: "This may help us to see that it would be possible to hold that a man whose nature had certain characteristics when he was about to be reborn, would be reborn in a body descended from ancestors of a similar character. His character when reborn would, in this case, be decided, as far as the points in question went, by his character in his previous life, and not by the character of the ancestors of his new body. But ... the character of the ancestors of the new body, and its similarity to his character." would be what "determined the fact that he was reborn in that body rather than another."(5) And in answer to the question as to how each person finds the body most appropriate to him, McTaggart refers to the analogy of chemical affinities.

(5) Some Dogmas of Religion, Edward Arnold, London, 1906, p. 125.

McTaggart, it must be emphasized, is not contending that some of the characteristics - or let us say more specifically, aptitudes - which a person possesses were gained in an earlier life and brought over to the present one at birth. He is contending only that this supposition is not incompatible with the inheritance of aptitudes from one's ancestors.

But the compatibility of the two, or not, turns on whether heredity accounts for every aptitude a person is born with. If it does, then the supposition that any aptitudes at all are brought from a past incarnation becomes wholly idle. Indeed, no room at all is left for it, since if something did have a certain origin, then it did not have a different one!

The assumption. however, that heredity does account for all of a person's native aptitudes is a good deal more sweeping than present-day knowledge of heredity warrants. Hence, if a given aptitude a man has does not happen to be traceable to his parents or known ancestors, his having brought it over from an earlier life remains conceivable.

But just what, in McTaggart's simile. the "hat" and the "head" may respectively consist in literally, can become clear only in the light of analysis of the notions of an "aptitude" and of the corresponding "skill."

An aptitude, it will be recalled, is the capacity to acquire a specific capacity under given circumstances; and the specific capacity concerned is a skill in so far as it is voluntary. Moreover, that a given person did possess aptitude for acquisition of a given skill is shown by his having in fact acquired it. But the factors on which his having acquired it depended are several.

One was possession by him of such bodily organs of sensation or of action as may be necessary for exercise of the skill concerned. For example, no matter how musically gifted otherwise a man may be, he cannot acquire high skill as a violinist if his fingers are short, thick, and stiff.

A second factor consists in possession of psychological aptitude for acquisition of the skill concerned, in addition to such bodily aptitude as the skill may require.

The third factor consists of the external opportunities or/and stimuli which the person in view has had for acquisition of that skill. A man's capacity to acquire ability to swim, for instance, would have no opportunity to realize itself if he were to spend his whole life in the desert.

And a fourth factor is interest in acquisition of the skill concerned. Aptitude and opportunity for acquisition of the skill might exist, yet interest in acquiring it might be lacking. Or the interest might exist but remain latent in the absence of external circumstances that would arouse it. Or the interest might exist and be patent, but the person might have no aptitude for acquisition of the particular skill. The interest is therefore a factor additional to the other three.

Which of the four factors, we may now ask, would constitute the "hat" in McTaggart's simile, and which of them the "head"?

The first factor - bodily aptitude - is plausibly a matter of biological heredity and would therefore be part of the "hat." Whether or how far the second factor - psychological aptitude - is also purely a matter of biological heredity is dubious. So when, as often is the case, a given aptitude is not traceable to the parents or the known ancestors, the supposition that it has been brought over from an earlier life remains possible. The aptitude concerned would then be part of the "head."

The third factor - the external circumstances which permitted acquisition of the skill for which aptitude existed - would evidently be another part of the "hat." And the fourth factor - existence of latent interest in acquisition of the skill concerned - can, like the aptitude for that skill, be supposed to be a carryover from an earlier life and thus to be part of the "head." Indeed, that interest, which amounts to a craving to acquire that skill, can be supposed to operate as the quasi "chemical affinity" McTaggart invokes, by which the aptitude to acquire that skill is brought to incarnation in a family that provides not only the appropriate bodily heredity, but also eventually the kind of external circumstances necessary for development of the particular skill concerned.

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Contents | Preface | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16 | Chapter 17 | Chapter 18 | Chapter 19 | Chapter 20 | Chapter 21 | Chapter 22 | Chapter 23 | Chapter 24 | Chapter 25 | Chapter 26

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