Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Reincarnation and its Critics, Part 1: The Increasing Population



This is the first part of an intended series of posts addressing alleged problems with the concept of reincarnation. Perhaps I should state my own position at the outset.  It is that I think it is very likely that reincarnation occurs. Why do I think this?  First of all, and most importantly, because of the evidence and the fact that it is very difficult to dream up alternative hypotheses to explain this evidence.  And, secondly, because I do not find the objections to reincarnation, and more generally an afterlife, convincing.  In regards to the latter, see this post of mine.

I shall refer to the environment we find ourselves in-between lives as the otherworldly realm.  But it shouldn't be imagined that this necessarily refers to, or consists of, simply one place or one type of environment.  Indeed, it may 
consist of many different realms or realities, possibly of radically differing natures. Regardless, when I employ the phrase otherworldly realm, I simply mean any environment that we happen to inhabit before or after our present lives on Earth.

So, what is this evidence? I recommend people read this excellent summary in the form of young children recollecting previous lives.  It is written by a certain Jesse Bering, an associate professor in science communication at the University of Otago who is himself sceptical that reincarnation occurs and indeed sceptical that there is any type of afterlife at all. 

Incidentally, it is only the critiques of the spontaneous memories of apparent previous lives that I will be considering in this series of posts.  I will not be addressing the critiques of reincarnation based on alleged memories of past lives elicited from hypnotic regression.  Memories elicited from hypnotic regression are far less reliable, and indeed, there has been far less success in corroborating such alleged memories.  

The Population Problem

Currently, the world's population is around 7.9 billion*. In the year 2000, it was 6.1 billion.  In 1900 it was 1.6 billion.  In 1500 it was 450 million (0.45 billion).  In 5,000 BCE (7 thousand years ago) it was 5 million (0.005 billion)*. Many people claim that such dramatic population growth is incompatible with the idea of reincarnation.  

Unfortunately, people generally tend to be unforthcoming as to why they think there is an incompatibility here, but I think there's a number of assumptions they're making.  Let's list them:

  1. All the souls that exist are currently alive on Earth.  This suggests no souls are currently dwelling in any otherworldly realm.
  2. Everyone reincarnates. 
  3. No souls are ever created nor destroyed.  Hence, the total number of souls is fixed at a specific number throughout time.  
  4. There is no inter-species reincarnation.  
  5. There are no other planets or parallel Earths or anywhere else where we can reincarnate.
  6. We can only reincarnate sequentially in time.  Hence when I die -- say in 2051 or whenever -- my next life will commence at or after this time.  I cannot have my next life, say, commencing from 470 BCE.
  7. Souls can't merge into each other so that hitherto different souls now occupy the same body.  Nor can the same soul occupy more than one body.

The late philosopher, Paul Edwards, in his book Reincarnation: A Critical Examination held that should reincarnation occur all these assumptions are reasonable.  Indeed, he held that to deny any of them would themselves be assumptions and "noxious ad-hoc assumptions" at that.  Thus, to deny that people reincarnate straight away, and instead hold that they dwell in some otherworldly realm in-between lives, constitutes a noxious ad-hoc assumption. So he thinks the basic default reincarnation position would be to accept all of the seven above.  Contrariwise, the failure to do so is simply a desperate attempt from those who subscribe to reincarnation to try and circumvent the growing population problem.

All the souls that exist are currently alive on Earth?

I do actually find 3 through to 7 plausible.  Moreover, as I hope to make clear, accepting 3 through to 7 doesn't pose any difficulty for reincarnation in any case. So I won't be contesting them (I might or might not explain why I find 3 through to 7 plausible in subsequent blog posts in this series).  However, accepting 3 through to 7 does mean we need to reject 1, but I shall shortly argue we have excellent reasons for doing so. I shall also argue we can accept 2 without it constituting a problem for reincarnation.  But if we were to reject 2, this then allows no upper limit to the total number of souls that might exist. 

Those familiar with the evidence for reincarnation will know that the evidence doesn't bear out "1".  That is, most of us do not immediately reincarnate.  There can be months, years, decades and even centuries between lives*.  Moreover, around 20% of those that can recollect a previous life also recollect the time between lives*.  Of course, sceptics do not find such evidence compelling, but it's not as if people are simply making an assumption here, noxious or otherwise.  They are letting the evidence guide their beliefs. 

There are other aspects to this we should bear in mind, though.  For the sake of argument, what if prior to any research we all agreed that reincarnation, should it happen, should occur immediately after death?  Given that the evidence contradicts this expectation, this would then give us some reason to doubt the evidence.  Contrariwise, if our prior expectations are that we would spend time in some otherworldly realm in-between lives, and since the evidence implies that we do, then clearly this gives us greater confidence in the evidence than we would otherwise have.

However, Paul Edwards failed to advance any reasons why, from an a priori perspective, we should think reincarnation would work the way he thinks it should. My suspicion is that he is simply averse to the existence of an otherworldly realm.  But, regardless of whether we feel such aversion or not, it is my position that we should indeed expect to dwell in some otherworldly realm in-between lives.

To understand why I think this w
e need to bear in mind none of us can simply reincarnate forevermore, at least not on this planet.  Human beings, at least in their present form, have only been around 200,000 years or so and they will become extinct sometime in the future.  So if reincarnation occurs there will, for all of us, be a first life and a last life. Might our souls be created with the onset of our first lives, and destroyed at the end of our last life?  That would contravene "3" above that no souls are ever created nor destroyed.  But if we, for the sake of argument, accept that souls can be created, then why can't they be created on a continual basis? This would then mean that an ever-increasing population might then be a result of the continuous creation of souls. 

So, in order to subscribe to "1" and for it to create a problem for reincarnation, sceptics would need to suppose souls are not created at the onset of their first life.  Rather, souls would need to originate from some otherworldly realm at the onset of their first life and return there after their last life but never enter this realm in between lives.  I certainly concur with the notion that souls inhabit an otherworldly realm both before their first life and after their last life.  But I don't see how the belief that we would never enter such an otherworldly realm in-between lives could be justified. 
If such a realm exists, why wouldn't we be able to enter into it in-between lives?   

Hence, even from a philosophical perspective, it seems to me that the idea that we all simply reincarnate straight away is implausible.  Moreover, the evidence vindicates this conclusion.  And it's not just all the research into reincarnation that tells us most people do not reincarnate straight away.  There is other evidence too.  For example, near-death experiences and mediumship communications that intimate an otherworldly realm that people enter into after death. 

I conclude that both from a philosophical perspective, and in terms of the evidence, "1" is untenable.

So is an increasing population a problem for reincarnation?

Does the population argument still have force?  Let's take a look.

Let T = the total number of souls that exist.  We're assuming this is a constant and of course cannot be less than 7.9 billion, the current population of the Earth.

Let E = the souls currently on Earth

Let A = the souls currently inhabiting the otherworldly realm.

So T = E + A.

Hence the population living on Earth can increase so as long as it's matched by a corresponding decrease in the population in the otherworldly realm.  Is this problematic?  It's very difficult to say since we have no idea of the value of T!

One possibility is that T -- the total number of souls -- is hugely large, perhaps a trillion.or more.  However, since it has been estimated that only roughly 117 billion people have ever lived*, this not only means that most souls have not been reincarnated (contravening "2"), it also means that most souls have never lived any lives on Earth whatsoever!  But why would this necessarily be problematic?  Why can't there exist trillions of souls with only a very small subset of these ever living on Earth who regularly reincarnate?   The rest perhaps subsist in differing areas in the otherworldly realm who may not even have any knowledge of Earth. 

Another possibility is that the total number of souls (T) might be much smaller, but as the population of the Earth increases, they spend less and less time in-between lives.  Such a possibility is argued for in the following paper 
Can Population Growth Rule Out Reincarnation? A Model of Circular Migration.  

As the author concludes, a reincarnation model where T is relatively low and adheres to 2 through to 7 above, can be reconciled to the historical facts of human population growth if we suppose the average time in between lives continually decreases as the population rises.  But is it plausible that thousands of years ago the time between lives was, on average, vastly longer?  Perhaps this might not seem so implausible if we bear in mind that, prior to human beings evolving, none of us ever had any lives at all on Earth.  Presumably, we simply subsisted in the otherworldly realm, then with the appearance of human beings, we initially on rare occasions get born on the Earth.  As time progresses, and the population increases, we become incarnated more and more frequently.  Again, is this plausible?

One factor that will surely strongly influence how rapidly we will be able to reincarnate is the availability of fetuses that souls can "inhabit". With a rapidly increasing population, there will be more readily available fetuses.  Hence, given that at least some people desire to be reincarnated and their desire has some causal influence, then one might expect, on average, that 
with an increasing population, people will more rapidly reincarnate.  It is interesting to note in this context that research reveals that the median time between lives varies between differing cultures.  Indeed, while the median average across all cases investigated worldwide is just 15 months in-between lives, in the West the median time is something in the order of 35 years!*  This is an astonishing difference and I imagine many factors account for this.  But might one of those factors be the fact the West isn't undergoing rapid population growth?


I think we can conclude that the growth in population doesn't pose any difficulty for the notion that we reincarnate, at least not in any obvious way.  Indeed, we can even accept reincarnation occurs and, at the same time, accept 2 through to 7 above.  However, accepting 2 through to 7 imposes a constraint on the total number of souls that can exist. 

But it is also conceivable that the total number of souls is extremely large, most of whom have never had any lives on Earth (hence rejecting 2).  This, in turn, might suggest that reality -- and I'm not just thinking of our material reality here, but rather the whole of reality -- is vastly greater in scope than we can possibly imagine.  I have no idea whether this might be the case or not, one can only speculate.

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