Reincarnation: Cloud Atlas vs science

The best-selling book and new movie involve reincarnation; science, not so much!

Posted Nov 11, 2012

Hindu art, reflecting reincarnation

“Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present.” This refrain pops up regularly in the just-released major motion picture, Cloud Atlas, based on the bestselling novel by David Mitchell. To my recollection, it doesn’t appear in the book itself, but the sentiment surely does, along with this follow-on: “And by each crime, and every kindness, we birth our future.”

            As a biologist intrigued by Buddhism, currently writing a book exploring the parallels and convergences between this modern and largely Western science and that ancient and largely Eastern “wisdom tradition,” I find myself increasingly convinced that Kipling was wrong: The twain have met and for the most part, they get along swimmingly. If you’re interested in a bit more detail, here’s a piece I recently wrote for one of the more interesting new on-line magazines:

            Nonetheless, I and many other Buddhist sympathizers part company with traditional Buddhist beliefs when it comes the doctrine of reincarnation. As we shall see, there is a very limited respect in which reincarnation can in fact be interpreted as consistent with modern biological science, but definitely not in the conventional sense of Buddhism or Hinduism; that is, in which individuals (as opposed to their constituent molecules) are somehow reconstituted, complete with their characteristic personalities, either dragging along or buoyed by their prior actions – i.e., their “karma.” For those of us interested in reconciling Buddhism with science in general and biology in particular, reincarnation remains a pronounced exception.

           It is an idea, however, that persists in the minds of many people, perhaps especially those who cannot abide the notion of their personal death, but who also resist the standard Western religious imaginings of a literal heaven and hell. There is something downright grotesque about the very idea, beautifully caricatured by Vladimir Nabokov in his wildly imaginative novel, Pale Fire. At one point, the fictional poet, John Shade, wonders “How not to panic when you’re made a ghost,” specifically, being faced with the prospect of “freak reincarnation”:

“… What to do

On suddenly discovering that you

Are now a young and vulnerable toad

Plump in the middle of a busy road …”

         This, of course, is a misunderstanding of reincarnation, Buddhist or otherwise, which normally presupposes that the soul or spirit to be reincarnated is somehow inserted into a new body just as that body is born or hatched (or in some traditions, at the time of conception, or at a certain gestational stage). But it helps italicize the silliness of the concept.

            I have no difficulty, however, describing Mr. Tenzin Gyatso (born Lhamo Dondrub), as the 14th Dalai Lama, so long as this means that he is the 14th person to hold that position, in the same sense that Barack Obama is the 44th president of the United States, with no implication that he is in any way the reincarnation of George Washington!

As with reincarnation, many people are especially tempted to suspend some of their critical faculties when dealing with Buddhism and other Eastern traditions generally, partly because they are appealingly exotic. This is especially true of open-minded Westerners who view their own dominant culture with distrust and alienation. But such tolerance verging on admiration is not a route that I can follow, or recommend. I simply will not credit any faith-based assertions that defy rationality and empirical scientific fact.

            Nonetheless, a kind of bottom-line, bare-bones reincarnation does take place in the literal recycling of atoms and molecules, fundamental to the biological (and Buddhist) acknowledgment that “individuals” do not have intrinsic existence, separated and distinct from the rest of the world. But this is a far cry from the more traditional understanding of reincarnation, East and West, whereby not just atoms and molecules but some – typically unspecified – aspect of an individual is reborn into a different body, yet mystically still constituting an ineffable, nonmaterial component derived from his or her prior life (rather, lives): A soul.

            It is unthinkable for traditional Buddhists, and indeed, for most followers of the Abrahamic Big Three, to deny the existence of souls. But it is equally unthinkable, I assert, for any scientist to accept the existence of something that is immaterial, eternal, immeasurable, and also complexly and indelibly associated with each of us, distinct from each other. When I die, my carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and so forth will be recycled into other creatures, other components of this planet and the universe (and ditto for you) … but I cannot accept the fairy tale that I, like some sparkly Tinkerbell, will in any meaningful holistic sense be reborn, reincarnated, inserted or in any way incorporated into a new, temporary body, and not only that, but that the outcome – the precise kind of body “I” will next inhabit – is a direct (karmic) consequence of how well or poorly I have lived my life. Add to this the standard interpretation of karma – not only a guaranteed future comeuppance but also that my current instantiation has in some way been generated by the behavior or misbehavior of my ancestors – and the notion becomes even more scientifically and biologically absurd.

            “Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies,” we are told by a futuristic, grammar-challenged shaman in Mitchell’s bold, bestselling, time-bending-book, “an' tho' a cloud's shape nor hue nor size don't stay the same, it's still a cloud an' so is a soul.” I don’t believe this for a moment, and I bet that deep in your heart (notice, I didn’t write “your soul”!) I bet you don’t either. Nor should you. At the risk of repeating: There is no evidence, none whatever, for the existence of a soul. We all know that many “things” that are immaterial nonetheless exist: love, beauty, hate, suffering, fear, hope, etc. But the existence of a soul – mine, yours, that of the Buddha or Charles Darwin - is an extraordinary and altogether different assertion. As Carl Sagan emphasized, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and such evidence is wholly lacking.

            “The” Buddhist attitude toward reincarnation is diverse and – I must add, at the risk of seeming unkind – muddled. Buddhism typically maintains an account of the soul’s rebirth that differs from the prevailing  Hindu view, which posits a pervasive, world-wide, irreversible and permanent atman. By contrast, the Buddhist perspective involves anatman, the explicit absence of any concrete “self.” Add to this the fact that according to Buddhist thinking, aniitya (impermanence) is also universal, and the notion of a distinct and unchanging self that is transmitted from a dead or dying body into a new one is simply not tenable. Instead, the Buddha described a process analogous to a sequence in which successive candles are lit by the flame of a preceding one; as a result, the array of flames are causally linked, forming a continuing stream, but they are not identical. Sometimes, the term “transmigration” is therefore used instead of reincarnation. 

            Nonetheless, many Buddhists claim, for example, that especially enlightened practitioners can remember their “past lives,” and they quote various Buddhist texts (suttras) to buttress their position. But as far as I’m concerned, suttra-slinging warrants no more intellectual or scientific respect than does bible-beating.

            On the other hand, I am rather partial to the notion that we “birth our future” by what we do, just as from a strictly evolutionary perspective, our present – the genetic make-up that (albeit temporarily) helps give rise to our “selves” – was birthed by what our ancestors did or didn’t do. Call it a kind of reincarnation if you must. I prefer to celebrate it as natural selection.

            No one swims outside the gene pool. What each of us identifies as "our self" is only a temporary collection of genes drawn from a much vaster, shared genome, destined to dissolve back into that gargantuan, universal melting pot, and whose physical substance is shared with all matter, nonliving as well as living. Think of an eddy in a stream, not really existing independently, all by itself, but rather a temporary arrangement of "passing-through stuff," given a name for the time being, and sometimes called “bison” or “oak tree,” or “person.” This is not news to the modern biologist, nor to the practicing Buddhist, two seemingly distinct perspectives that originate very differently, yet coalesce remarkably in outlook and insight.

            Just don’t confuse myth-making and poetry, á la Cloud Atlas, for scientific fact.