20 May 2019

Karma & Rebirth Reconsidered: An Inquiry into the Buddhist Myths of a Just World and an Afterlife

My new book is finished and now on sale.
Karma & Rebirth Reconsidered: An Inquiry into the Buddhist Myths of a Just World and an Afterlife. Visible Mantra Press. £29.99. Purchase online.


In this book, Jayarava combines historical scholarship with philology and philosophical enquiry to re-examine the religious myths of the just world and the afterlife as they manifest in Buddhism, i.e. karma and punarbhava or rebirth. 
Taking a multidisciplinary approach he begins with an exploration of the psychology of religious beliefs, seeking to understand why the supernatural is ubiquitous across all human cultures. Drawing on evolutionary psychology, linguistics, and cognitive metaphors the book outlines a theory of religious belief which explains why belief in the supernatural continues to seem intuitive and natural to so many. 
The central part of the book looks in detail at historical instantiations of the karma and rebirth doctrines. Some early inconsistencies led to doctrinal innovations and polemical tracts, but no consensus on karma or rebirth ever emerged amongst Buddhists of different sects. Modern Buddhists sects have very different views on the details of karma and rebirth, even while insisting on the just world and afterlife myths per se. 
A critique of Vitalism opens the way to reconsideration of karma and rebirth from a contemporary point of view. Scientific inquiry shows that, although they remain plausible to many, the just world and afterlife myths are no longer tenable in any form.


This book consists of six main sections, each consisting of several chapters.

Before getting into the more detail, I attempt to present some recent ideas on two subjects that will always be in the background as we assess religious doctrines. In the opening remarks I note that one of Dharmacarī Subhuti’s criteria for religious belief is that it be compatible with reason. The first section of the book, Compatible With Reason, explores what reason is and how it works. This is important because classical theories of reason are now acknowledged to be inaccurate and misleading. So establishing some basic understanding of reason is important before setting off.

Chapter 1 is an introduction and chapter two is this outline. Although I expect readers will already be familiar with karma and rebirth, in Chapter 3, Karma & Rebirth: The Basics, I give a bare outline of the two doctrines. This chapter can be skipped over by the well informed. 

Chapter 4, Of Miracles, reviews David Hume’s discussion of miracles and his method for evaluating testimony regarding miracles. Hume lays down some ground rules for reasoning about the claims made by religious people. Since both karma and rebirth break the laws of physics, and can be considered as miracles, Hume’s criteria are highly relevant to the criterion that belief be compatible with reason.

In Chapter 5, Facts and Feelings, I explore the neuroscience of decision-making. Classic theory of reason suggests that emotions play no role in reasoning. Contrarily, research by Antonio Damasio shows that emotions, or at least the interplay of emotional and cognitive processes, play a central and decisive role in reasoning. Break that link and we are unable to make decisions. Importantly the salience of information is encoded by emotions, by how we "feel" about it.  Belief involves decision-making, so understanding how we make decisions is important to this discussion.

Staying on this theme, in chapter 6 An Argumentative Theory of Reason, I review recent research by Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier that attacks the classic theory of reasoning from a different direction. Mercier and Sperber point out that most people are very poor at solo reasoning tasks, but that they do much better in small groups. Reasoning, in this account, is not our first line approach to constructing arguments, but only comes into play when we wish to critique or deconstruct someone else’s argument. When reasoning, we all employ confirmation bias, but as a feature rather than a bug.

Bringing this section to a close, in Chapter 7 Reasoning and Beliefs I try to show how Chapters 5-7 constitute the beginnings of a theory for understanding religious belief. Using an example taken from a heterodox economist, I look at how beliefs distort the way that we interpret new information.

In the next section, Religion is Natural, Chapters 8-13, I expand on the theory of religious belief and look at myths such as the just-world and the afterlife. The central proposition here is that religious ideas are intuitive and thus seem “natural”. They are therefore understandable. Such myths emerge from our evolutionary psychology. The two ideas have some distinctive features, but they are closely related. Chapter 8, The Horrors of Life, deals with the myth of the just world. I tackle the idea of justice, the problem of evil, and related ideas such as the moral universe. The desire for an ordered and regular world is entirely understandable for a self-aware species trying to scrape a living in a capricious environment. However, I argue that our experience of the world should convince us that the world is not just. Rather it is amoral and indifferent to us. Chapter 9 looks at the myth of the afterlife and how it interacts with the myth of the just world. The afterlife is how religions get around the injustice of the world. Justice is delivered in the afterlife and often in the form of “balancing”. The image of the balance is literal in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which perfectly illustrates the concept. However, karma is also seen in terms of metaphors of accounting and balancing the books.

When thinking about Buddhist myths of the afterlife I thought it would be useful to see it against the broad backdrop of other afterlife beliefs. However, I found that most discussions of the afterlife do not look at the structural features of the afterlife per se, but rather discuss beliefs according to each religion. They thus fail to see that the afterlife is few variations on a theme. In order remedy this, Chapter 10, A Taxonomy of Afterlife Beliefs, takes a broad approach to the afterlife based on features rather than religious beliefs. There are two basic kinds of afterlife: single destination and cyclic. Buddhism is a hybrid of these: cyclic if you do nothing, and single destination if you practice Buddhism.

Chapter 11 explores Thomas Metzinger’s conjecture that out-of-body experiences might have given rise to the idea of a soul. Several kinds of experience, which we might broadly call religious, make the idea of a mind-body duality seem plausible or even inevitable. I argue that a mind-body duality is necessary for any afterlife to take place. Something about the mental life of the person has to survive the death of the body for there to be an afterlife. However, mind-body dualities have long been abandoned by scientists for good reason: all the evidence we have refutes such a duality.

Nevertheless, in Chapter 12 Secret Agents, I explore the thesis for belief in mind-body duality and supernatural agents put forward by Justin L. Barrett. Barrett argues that evolution has primed us to hold just such beliefs as an indirect consequence of survival mechanisms. For example, it is important to distinguish agents from objects because in nature agents are often prey or predator, or in some way dangerous. And it is better to err on the side of mistaking objects for agents than vice versa. It is better to avoid 100 sticks that look like snakes but are not, than to fail to avoid a single venomous snake.

Finally, in this section, in Chapter 13, Metaphors and Embodied Cognition, I introduce the theory of cognitive metaphors developed by cognitive linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson. This allows us to deconstruct the language associated with religious experiences. How we (unconsciously) frame our experiences through language, through the conventions of our society, affects the way we interpret our experiences. In particular, the language of the mind-body duality is deeply embedded within English along with a raft of related metaphors. Understanding the language of religion is a key to understanding what makes religion seem plausible.

We now have a working theory of religious belief and a number of useful tools for evaluating information we may encounter. In the section Evolution of Rebirth & Karma, Chapters 14-18, I begin to explore karma and rebirth directly. Beginning in Chapter 14, Rebirth Eschatologies, I revisit the category of cyclic afterlife beliefs and flesh out how such beliefs work. I explore the notions of “this world” and “the next world” as we encounter them in early Buddhist texts. I note that Buddhists often use the word loka, i.e. “world”, to mean the world of experience.

In Chapter 15, Rebirth in the Ṛgveda, I review work by Polish Scholar Joanna Jurewicz, on the first accounts of rebirth in India. Although, classically, rebirth is thought not to be mentioned until much later, Jurewicz points out that a Ṛgveda verse does seem to mention being reborn amongst one’s family. It seems likely that a cyclic afterlife was a regional feature of India rather than specific to any one religion.

There is some evidence that both rebirth and karma developed over time in Buddhism. In Chapter 16, with help from Gananath Obeyesekere, I explore this development and outline the changes that seem to have occurred overtime. The point is that the belief in rebirth did not emerge fully formed and that change over time was an important feature of the Buddhist belief system. Buddhist eschatology incorporates a number of elements from Brahmanism (devas, asuras, pretas). I follow this up in Chapter 17, Escaping the Inescapable, by showing how Buddhist karma changed over time. In particular, I look at a post-canonical change from karma being inescapable, to the institution of practises that allowed Buddhists to avoid the consequences of their actions.

Finally, in this section, in Chapter 18, I deal with the figure of Yama and the idea of Hell. Yama is a figure Buddhists adopted from Vedic religion. Originally, he is a promethean hero who is celebrated as the first man to discover the route to rebirth amongst the ancestors in the afterlife. This Yama lives in the sky. The Buddhist Yama is the king of Hell, a place of torment and torture for people who have lived extremely immoral lives. The emergence of Hell as a concept, let alone a place, is an interesting phenomenon. I explore the sparse evidence on the subject and the question of how the hero became king of Hell.

In the Section, Conflicting Traditions of Rebirth & Karma (Chapters 19-23) I focus on Buddhism. When we explore the Buddhist tradition in detail we find a range of conflicting opinions and theories about karma and rebirth. In this section, I rely frequently on internecine polemics written by Buddhists about other Buddhists. However, I begin in Chapter 19, Karma & Dependent Arising, by outlining a problem that seems to have driven a great deal of later doctrinal speculation and innovation. I show that as they stand in the suttas the doctrines of karma and of dependent arising are incompatible. One requires that consequences follow actions are a considerable remove, and the other denies the possibility of action at a temporal distance. Sectarian solutions to this problem are associated with the various Abhidharma schools. They all attacked each other’s theories and never reached a consensus. Opposition died out along with the sects that vanished with the decline of Buddhism in India beginning by about the 7th Century. The conflicts often centred on three key ideas, which I treat separately: in Chapter 20, The Antarābhava or Interim State; Chapter 21, Manomaya kāya, and Chapter 22 Gandharva. In each case I show that these ideas were hotly contested amongst the different Buddhist sects. Each was quick to point out the flaws of the others. All views had valid criticisms levelled against them.

I finish this section in Chapter 23, The Problems of Seeking Singularity, with some reflections on how we look at history. We are usually taught some tidy version of history in which there are differences, but these are only on the surface, beneath which is a broad and deep unity. An actual reading of the historical texts reveals intractable disputes on many fronts. As with the distorting effect of religious beliefs generally, how we approach history affects how we interpret it.

In the section on Vitalism (Chapters 24-28), I take a long digression. A reader could skip this whole section and move onto the next without losing the main thread. Why include several chapters critiquing vitalism in a book on karma and rebirth? As already noted, the idea of a mind-body duality underpins all myths of the afterlife. Similarly, the afterlife underpins the just-world myth, since justice is delivered after death. Just so, the idea of Vitalism, that life is engendered by some external “spark” underpins our views of life and death. In Chapter 24, I introduce Vitalism as The Philosophy That Wouldn’t Die. Vitalism has a long history in the Western world. It takes in ideas about spirits and life. However, vitalism has been abandoned by scientists and most philosophers because the evidence refutes it and it has less explanatory power than more recent ideas.

In Chapter 25, Crossing the Line Between Death and Life, I outline modern attempts to understand the origins of life. I try to show that we are now at the point where, given the conditions, life was no accident, it was inevitable. Chemistry follows a kind of slope of energetic feasibility. Under the conditions of the early earth, the chemistry of metabolism was the most energetically feasible path. It was followed by replication and life, as we know it, got started and has never ceased. No supernatural elements are required for life.

In Chapter 26, Spiritual, I return to the methods of cognitive linguistics. I take apart the concept of “spiritual” and highlight specific frames and the associated metaphors. The whole thing is based on medieval ideas about life. Language does change, but it can be deeply conservative. The language of “spiritual” is anachronistic and references frames that are not relevant to the Buddhist project.
Chapter 27, The Antarābhava as a Vitalist Concept, revisits the idea of the interim state in light of the critique of vitalism. The interim state depends on mind-body dualism and vitalism. If vitalism is not a helpful way of looking at the world (anymore), then neither is the interim state a helpful way of trying to understand life and death.

To close out this section, in Chapter 28, The Science of Reincarnation, I review some of the arguments made for reincarnation by a group of Western researchers, whose “evidence” consists entirely of interviews with young children. The methods employed are deeply flawed and the resulting conclusions don’t explain anything. The “scientists” simply assert that reincarnation is the only explanation for the stories told by infants. Worse, for Buddhists, they assert a form of reincarnation consistent with Hindu conception of a soul travelling from body to body, and inconsistent with the metaphysics of Buddhism.

The final section of the book, Karma & Rebirth Reconsidered (Chapters 29-31) draws together all these many threads and argues that when we consider all the evidence that karma and rebirth are simply not plausible. I begin, in Chapter 29, Objections to Naturalism, by making a defence of naturalism. Experience suggests that those who reject my arguments often do so on the basis that they do not believe in naturalism. I try to anticipate and neutralise these objections to clear the way for the reader to take in the following arguments confident that they are grounded in reality. However, I also note that many of the strongest arguments against karma and rebirth are not scientific, but historical. The chaos of conflicting views already outlined never did produce a consensus.

Chapter 30, On the Impossibility of an Afterlife, recapitulates and expands on the most popular essay on my blog (it has twice as many page views as the second most popular essay). The basic idea comes from an argument outlined by physicist Sean Carroll. I take a slightly different approach to Carroll, but the conclusion is much the same. The laws of physics, and particularly the laws of thermodynamics, rule out any afterlife in which any information about us is preserved. There is simply no possibility that rebirth can be a genuine phenomenon. As a myth, it has informed Buddhism for centuries, but it does not survive scrutiny.

The argument in Chapter 31, The Logic of Karma, is one that I developed independently. I show that the Buddhist theories of karma that we have available all fail to explain how actions can be connected to consequences over time. The explanations are all flawed and it is very easy to show how. This leaves us with no viable theory of karma. Since there can be no afterlife in which moral and immoral acts are balanced out, the idea of karma leading to better and worse rebirths is already in tatters.

The myth of the just-world and the myth of the afterlife are just myths. They are not real. We are born once, live one life, and after death, there is nothing. I understand that the conclusions I arrive at will be shocking and repugnant to some Buddhists. In technical terms, the view is ucchedavāda or “annihilationism”. This is traditionally a wrong view, but we now know that it is the inescapable conclusion of understanding how our world works. There is no life after death.

Despite this, I see no reason to succumb to nihilism. The world is not just, but human beings and human societies can be. There is no afterlife, but that simply means that our actions in this life count for more, not less. Life becomes more meaningful in this view, not less. Everything we do counts. If we are to leave a positive legacy as a result of our one life, then we have to work hard to make a positive difference. There is no scope for drifting or vagueness. The imperative to change ourselves and to change the world, is all the greater. But in the end this is how things are. Deluding ourselves with fantasies that life is fair or that we will not die, only gets in the way of facing up to our responsibilities.

Other Words

So this is my book. It is what it is. It started life as essays on this blog that appeared over a number of years. It is therefore eclectic in scope and content. Had I set out to write such a book my choice of terminology might have been more consistent. My interest in the secondary literature might have been more comprehensive. Also I have to emphasise that despite my enthusiastic engagement with this subject, I am an amateur and and outsider. I have all the usual foibles of the autodidactic. These will be obvious to the professional scholar, though I hope that they will find something here to provoke thought and rethinking.

There have been very few attempts to see Buddhism in a broader context. Buddhism scholars tend to discuss sectarian Buddhism in isolation even from other sects of Buddhism. My experience of comparative religion tracts is that Buddhism is vastly simplified and homogenised before being compared to other religions and even then there is little in the way of critical thinking. So the approach here is quite unusual, especially to a general reader who is used to reading books on Buddhism which are written by starry-eyed enthusiasts and scholars who are critical only in a very narrow sense. I used to be starry-eyed too - some of my early blog essays attest to this. But then I really started reading Buddhists texts and to really pay attention to what they said. And gradually I began to see clearly. I went from being starry-eyed, to becoming a star-gazer in the tradition of Galileo Galilei.

And this book is one result of that.

My next writing project is a book provisionally entitled The True History of the Heart Sutra. To some extent it will begin to answer some of the questions left open by Karma & Rebirth Reconsidered. What is Buddhism without these doctrines? My short answer is that it's experience and the investigation of experience, especially the experiences of the dissolution of the self and the cessation of conscious sensing and cognising. These experiences are subject to very different interpretations from the complete denial of being to affirmation of absolute being; from transcendental liberation to a rigid form of determinism.


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