27 January 2012

Rebirth is Neither Plausible nor Salient.

My Great-great Grandmother (96)
with my Father (6 months)
ca. 1936
I'VE NOW WRITTEN a number of Raves on the subject of afterlife beliefs. I've looked at the notion from a variety of perspectives: phenomenological, historical, and taxonomic. Along the way I have been drawn to a particular conclusion which is this:
The idea of anything surviving the death of the body, and in particular the death of the brain, seems so incredibly unlikely that I no longer find any afterlife theory plausible.
I no longer find the idea of rebirth plausible, mainly because I don't believe in the metaphysics which underlie the idea. Following David Hume and his criteria for judging testimony, I find the falsehood of rebirth considerably less miraculous than the truth of it. More crucially I no longer see rebirth as salient or relevant in my approach to the Dharma. After a few introductory remarks I'll deal with plausibility first, and then salience. This Rave is rather longer than usual and I hope readers will bear with me. The argument is not difficult to follow, but it's best seen in a broad context.

On face value, in rejecting rebirth, I am adopting an annihilationist view (ucchedadiṭṭhi) which I imagine will please my so-called secular Buddhist readers and appal my more traditionalist readers. Coming out as an annihilationist (ucchedavādika) might be seen as rather contrary for someone who claims to be a religious Buddhist. After all Buddhism quite distinctly positions itself as a middle-way between eternalism and nihilism. However I think I can justify my position with reference to Buddhist doctrine, and show that not believing in rebirth is not necessarily heterodox, even if it goes against the received tradition! In doing so I will invoke some ideas that have become my guiding lights in this blog. Chief amongst these is the "hermeneutic of experience" the idea that we should always interpret Buddhist doctrines as referring to experience and never to the question of what exists. I define "experience" quite generally as that which arises on contact between sense object and sense faculty in the presence of sense consciousness. A key text is the Kaccānagotta Sutta which denies the applicability of 'it exists' (atthi) and 'it does not exist' (n'atthi) when discussing the world [of experience] (loka).


When I criticised the Abhidharma recently I said that the Abhidharmikas shifted their attention away from experience as the sphere of interest, towards existence and problems like trying to determine what exists (in other words they ignored the Kaccānagotta Sutta). A related change was the move to see paṭicca-samuppāda as a Theory of Everything: i.e. a single, simple explanation for every 'thing' and/or 'phenomena' in the universe. In an unpublished essay I have argued at some length that paṭicca-samuppāda was not intended to explain everything, and that it's proper domain is precisely the world of experience where ontological thinking is not relevant. [1] Experiences arise and pass away without anything substantial coming into being and nothing going out of being. It follows from this that the Middle Way itself properly applies only in this same domain.

However before the Canon was closed paṭicca-samuppāda was applied to rebirth. Rebirth, or some variation on it, was and is the most common afterlife belief in India. Some form of rebirth eschatology can be seen as far back as the later strata of the Ṛgveda [2]. I've outlined these afterlife views in my taxonomy.

In order to have any kind of rebirth something of my current psycho-physical organism must survive the death of my body. Rebirth is generally predicated upon the idea that one can recall past lives, or that at the very least one inherits habitual tendencies from a previous being. Buddhists typically reject the idea that the reborn being is either identical with, or entirely different from, the being who has previously died. But at the very least memories must be preserved in some medium for recall, and every scrap of evidence we have ties human memory to our living brain. Habitual tendencies are habits of thought and emotion both of which require a living brain, and a living body. Can an experience even be called an emotion without a body in which to experience it? In which case even the Buddhist theory of rebirth posits some form of dualism: a part of us survives death to convey our memories and habits across multiple life-times. But this aspect of us cannot be the mind which is so closely tied to the living body, and it cannot be the body since it unequivocally ceases at death (and decays back into its constituent elements. So what is it? If we are not to answer that it is a soul (of some description), then how do we answer? I don't think there is a satisfactory answer to this question. Some of this material was covered in Rebirth and the Scientific Method where I outline the kind of evidence that would cause me to change my mind on this.

By the way I also believe the question of whether the Buddha believed in rebirth to be unanswerable. Buddhist texts are almost universally acquainted with some form of rebirth. It is true that there are some minor ambiguities and contradictions, but the texts reflect the views of early Buddhists, not the views of the Buddha, and there's no reason to expect them to agree on everything. There is no objective way to extract the Buddha's actual views from the early Buddhist texts. So it is facile to insist that the Buddha either did or did not believe in any particular idea.

We also need to consider the Theory of Mind. This is the special characteristic of self-consciousness that enables us to see other beings as self-aware individuals like ourselves, i.e. to develop a theory about other minds. Theory of Mind underlies our ability to empathise. It also allows us to perceive and meet the needs of other beings, even at the expense of our own needs at times (altruism). It is true that other primates have this ability to some extent, but humans have developed it to a far higher degree. It is Theory of Mind that informs the Golden Rule about how to treat other beings. We know what is is like to suffer, and so we should not inflict suffering on others (see also None Dearer than Myself). Now our Theory of Mind errs on the side of caution in most people. The possibility that our dog or cat is self-aware in the same way that we are is moot, but we may also attribute self-awareness to trees, to mountains, and to physical processes like storms. We have a tendency to see self-awareness where it is clearly not present. This allows us, even encourages us, to imagine the consciousness of the dead person continuing without their body!

Neuro-anatomical investigation shows us that mental activity is inseparable from brain activity. Even in the case where mental activity does seem disembodied—e.g. the out-of-body experience (OBE)—scientists have shown that electrical stimulation of the angular gyrus, on the tempero-parietal junction, will create this precise effect. We now have plausible explanations for how the sense of self may be disrupted in such a way as the ego is perceived to be connected to the felt sense of the body, but disconnected from visual sense, all the while remaining tightly correlated with brain activity. Thomas Metzinger, however, has observed that having had an OBE the overwhelming temptation is to conclude that consciousness is not tied to the body: i.e. to believe in a strong form of mind/body dualism. I would add that even those who haven't had the experience personally are tempted by the testimony of those who have. The conclusions of neuroscientists, however, are profoundly non-dualistic: there is no separation between brain function and consciousness, they are manifestations of the same process.

Now Buddhists will be tempted to trot out the old charge of materialism, or arguments against epiphenomenalism at this point. However I am not making an ideological argument; I'm not arguing for strict materialism or epiphenomenalism (and anyway: I'm not a materialist). I am only arguing that the evidence shows us that mental activity and brain activity are so tightly correlated as to be inseparable: i.e. that mental activity without brain activity, while not inconceivable, has not yet been observed, and seems unlikely ever to be observed. The evidence is certainly not complete, but each observation reinforces the others and points in the same direction. What's more the testimony that points towards dualism is shown to be false, or biased. I think we've reached the point where this conclusion is inescapable.

It will be useful to review why afterlife beliefs are so potent (from my rave The Abyss of Death). All organisms are characterised by, amongst other things, an over-riding imperative to survive (apparently Schopenhauer made this observation, but I take my cue from Thomas Metzinger). Even the single-celled amoeba acts for its own continued survival. Even plants with no nervous system compete with neighbours and fight to dominate their space, and to repel invaders and pathogens. Life strives to continue. However while life itself continues, individual living organisms all eventually die. Self-awareness has given us the certain knowledge of our own inevitable death. Thus, in the mind of a self-aware living being, an irresistible force (survival) meets an immovable object (death). The result is cognitive dissonance so strong that we simply deny death - in most cases the imperative over-rides the facts.

When reasoning we use emotion to assign value to facts. Antonio Damasio describes a patient with damage to the emotion centres in the pre-frontal lobe, but whose intellect is otherwise intact. Asked to make a decision they cannot do so because they cannot assign value to facts, they get caught up in an endless exploration of the available facts without ever coming to a conclusion. [3] The strength of emotion around death makes us weigh facts in a biased way: for instance we see the corpse of a loved one, but cannot accept that they have simply ceased to be, so we imagine that their consciousness (or their soul) lives on in some disembodied state.

When we combine all of these observations we can begin to see the dynamic that is at work:
  • We believe a priori that self-awareness is not tied to the body,
  • so the idea that 'something' survives death and continues to 'live' seems plausible,
  • emotional weighting of facts makes this seem probable, and the finality of death improbable,
  • and since we don't want to believe in death, post-mortem survival seems preferable.
  • We make the leap from preferable to actually true, and it feels satisfying because we have resolved the dissonance and been consistent with our other beliefs.
The problem is that the plausibility of post-mortem survival is undermined by rigorous observations of life and living organisms and how they function. It becomes clear that the afterlife is simply a metaphysical narrative with no real-world correlates - there is no other reason to believe it other than it feels right, but it only feels right because of pre-existing biases and unbearable tensions. Whatever contradictory facts are presented, they are not assigned much emotional weight, so post-mortem survival still seems preferable however irrational. Even when it is acknowledged to be irrational.

Now the scientist is often a materialist, though not in the simplistic sense of the 18th or 19th century Natural Philosopher. Studying science makes materialism compelling because it actually explains a huge amount, and the method has produced sustained progress in knowledge for 200 years now. I say sustained, but scientific progress is a punctuated equilibrium. A lot of the time we're just collecting data, filling gaps, and concerned with details. But from time to time observations are made that force a shift in the way we see the world. We probably all know about these because the most famous scientists are associated with paradigm shifts: e.g. Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Marie Currie, Albert Einstein, and Crick, Watson & Franklin. All of these people were studying the world with the explicit notion that stuff really exists independent of our minds. In the traditional Buddhist analysis they are therefore eternalists. However the same scientists usually conclude that there is no afterlife and this is traditionally a nihilist view. Eternalism and nihilism are mutually contradictory positions. A logical contradiction like this is a sign that the terms of the discussion are flawed and we need to take a step back. And this brings us on to the issue of salience.


In my critique of the so-called Two Truths I pointed out that the only reason we needed to introduce the idea of two truths was because Buddhists began to apply paṭicca-samuppāda outside its natural domain. What I argue here is that something similar has taken place with the notion of life after death. To be explicit I am saying that the idea of rebirth is outside the natural domain of paṭicca-samuppāda. This is big claim given the history of the Buddhist tradition, but the essays I've been writing in the last couple of years have built up a case for it. My position is that paṭicca-samuppāda only really applies to the arising and passing away of experiences, especially in our unawakened state to the arising and passing away of dukkha (disappointment). This is in fact explicit in a number of texts, but specifically the Vajirā Sutta (SN 5:10; S i.136) which I have written about.

Being born is certainly an experience—though one that none of us have any memory of it precisely because at birth our brains are not fully developed. This is always the case because our head must get through the pelvis of our mother and that means leaving the womb with an underdeveloped brain. For most people our earliest memories (of this life) date from around age 3 or 4. This is also, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, about the time that Theory of Mind develops and allows us to see ourselves as an individual amongst other individuals.

The idea that we are reborn after death with memories of former lives (potentially) at our disposal, and inherited habits of mind and body, is not an experience. Rebirth is a interpretation based on anecdote which tries to explain why things happen the way they do. It's common enough to believe that beings come back after death, but certainly far from universal or obvious. Repeated death and rebirth is simply the predominant afterlife theory of India, though it is also found, for example, in African, indigenous American, and ancient Greeks socities. [4] In Christian or Islamic societies, by contrast, they subscribe to a different afterlife theory. So far as I can tell there is no objective criteria to decide between these views: we tend to just believe whatever people around us believe. Or we believe what feels right and I have already pointed out the potentially over whelming bias as far as the afterlife is concerned.

On the other hand ghosts and disembodied spirits are very much a part of the landscape in Christian countries. Friends of mine live in a "haunted" house and many people have experienced a close encounter with a "ghost" there. Most of these hauntings were actually classic sleep paralysis experiences, which highlights the distinction between an experience and how we explain and/or interpret it. Someone experiencing sleep paralysis has without doubt had a freakish and disturbing experience, but they have not experienced a disembodied conscious agent.

When Buddhists began to apply paṭicca-samuppāda to everything they did not leave out rebirth. However, like other forays outside the narrow application of paṭicca-samuppāda to experience, it caused contradictions and paradoxes: such as eternalists with nihilistic afterlife beliefs. These complications were generally accepted, though not without some juggling and competing interpretations, because Buddhists wanted (desperately) to see their most important idea as explaining everything. They still do. Speculating why this is so would take me too far from my topic, but perhaps I'll come back to it in another rave.

There is one more consideration here. Rebirth is intimately linked to the Buddhist doctrine of karma. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago (Son of the Śākyas) that the idea of being judged on the basis of your actions is one that might have come into Buddhism (and Hinduism) from Zoroastrianism. All large scale cultures seem to have a metaphysical overseer. In most cultures it comes in the form of a god who monitors your behaviour. Why do we need monitoring? In ancestral small scale societies we all knew what everyone was doing because we spent all of our time together. Privacy did not really exist. But as we became civilised and started living in larger scale communities it became impossible to keep everyone under surveillance to make sure they were keeping to the rules. Society is predicated on the idea that most people follow the rules most of the time, and if we catch someone breaking the rules we punish them somehow. One of the harshest non-fatal punishments is shunning which was practised in the early Buddhist Saṅgha for some offences (it still is). So gods like Indo-Iranian Mitra/Mithra, developed to keep a celestial eye on everyone and keep order. In non-Vedic India however the function was not divine, and not anthropomorphised, but became an impersonal built-in property of the universe, i.e. karma. However the function of karma is no different to the function carried out by judicial gods (e.g. Mitra or Zeus), or the oversight function of a mono-gods (e.g. Jehovah), and that karma is still a supernatural agency. Karma was invented to make sure that private actions have public consequences, though the astute reader will notice that the consequences are mostly private—that is divorced from the society in which the action was done—as well, since they are put-off till a future life.

Michel Foucault understood this surveillance function very well, and it forms one of the main themes of his work. In the West responsibility for oversight has passed from God and his priests, onto doctors (priests of medicine), and to the government via police and CCTV cameras. Though interestingly individuals with cell-phone video cameras are keeping tabs on us now as well! The oversight function of our society is being decentralised via technology! (Here is a fantastic example on YouTube, with commentary here) Rebirth and karma work together: karma affects the quality of our post-mortem destination (hence heaven and hell) and rebirth means that death is no escape from consequences. Interestingly the inescapability of consequences doesn't survive later developments in Buddhist doctrine and there-in lies a story!

Coming back to the main point: my rejection of an afterlife is not anihilisationist when considered within the hermeneutic of experience. I do not claim that dukkha (aka the five khandha; aka experience) does not arise and pass away; in fact like the Vajira Sutta I claim that only dukkha arises and passes away. Alongside this I argue that any afterlife belief is actually eternalistic, and problematically dualistic. Rejecting all of forms of afterlife—as talking in the wrong way and/or about the wrong thing—is the only way to keep to the middle. Hence rebirth is no longer salient, no longer relevant when considering how to live.


These arguments are not mere sophistry, or at least not only sophistry. If Buddhists do not accommodate the observations of scientists we will inevitably find Buddhism being dismissed along with other religions (and rightly so). Buddhist cosmology, eschatology and ontology is not based in fact or "reality", but in myth and superstition. Our soteriology is not much better. As inspiring as some of the myths are, we need not allow Buddhism to be sidelined as mere superstition, or to revert to anti-intellectual fundamentalism. If we accept the hermeneutic of experience, then so far as I can see Buddhists can happily co-exist with the mainstream of science and make a valuable contribution through introducing our awareness enhancing, anxiety and conflict reducing practices to people everywhere.

Some will see the death of Buddhism in my suggestions. By contrast I see a reinvigoration on a scale not seen since the 7th century Tantric synthesis in India where the collapse of civil society drove the evolution of an entirely new approach to religion that continues to thrive in India, Tibet and Japan. The synthesis of Buddhism with scientific rationalism is perhaps the most exciting cultural development the world has ever seen. As I envisage this synthesis the emphasis will be on understanding and working with experience; and belief in metaphysical processes or entities will not be required or encouraged, though, of course, people will continue to have extraordinary experiences.


  1. Jayarava. 'Is Paṭicca-samuppāda a Theory of Everything?' July 2011. Unpublished.
  2. Jurewicz. Joanna. 2006. 'The Ṛgveda, ‘small scale’ societies and rebirth eschatology.' [A revised version of her conference paper from the 14th World Sanskrit Conference, July 2006] Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies.
  3. Damasio, Antonio. 2006. Decartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. (Rev. Ed.) Vintage Books, p.192ff.
  4. Obeyesekere, Gananath. 2002. Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth. University of California Press.

In this post I also refer directly to these previous raves (and indirectly to a few others) in chronological order:
I point this out to show that I've been giving it some serious thought over some years, and that most of the points I make here are explored in greater depth elsewhere in my oeuvre.

Thanks for Sabio Lentz for drawing my attention to the writing of Michael Blume, especially the lecture on Darwin's evolutionary approach to religion. I appreciate his ideas on how religious thinking and practice came into being. However it came too late for inclusion in this essay which has been in preparation for some months now, but I don't doubt that Blume's work will feature in subsequent raves.
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