This blog contains material I wrote and posted on multiply.com between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).
Sunday, 25 November 2012
I'm just climbing out of one of my phases of acute depression (some of you are aware of my problem) and my thoughts are tending in philosophical directions for the moment. I promise you that this introspective interlude will be temporary. It damn' well had better be.
Anyway, 'twas a remark by someone else on a different post on my blog which set off this train of thought. So the blame for this post should go not to me, but to jaymal666.
That train of thought was headed for a topic some of us could take seriously, others not: reincarnation. (Obviously believers of the Abrahamic religions, with the belief system of eternal heaven or eternal hell, aren’t concerned with this.)
Now, I've always believed that if we’re to discuss something rationally, we need to have, if only in our own minds, a working definition of what we’re talking about. So what does reincarnation mean? As far as I can see, one can call it one of two things:
First, one can posit that death is only a step in a cycle, and that the consciousness, or “spirit” if it be so called, is an entity independent of the corporeal body, and is blessed (or condemned, depending on one’s point of view) to be born, live, and die only to be reborn in turn. This process can be assumed to either repeat itself endlessly, or to be escapable if one achieves the appropriate “spiritual level,” the Buddhist state of “moksha” (freedom from rebirth) being a case in point.
Or, second, one can take a rather different view, to which I’ll allude in a moment.
Now, to discuss the metaphysical notion that death is a step in a process: I, as anyone who knows me will be aware, do not have any belief in spirituality or religion. Nor do I subscribe to the idea that consciousness has any independent existence from the corporeal body, which is a mass of chemicals and electrical charges. And I believe that the available scientific evidence, as apart from that drawn from anecdotes, tends to back me up on this point.
The brain is an incredibly complex organ; but it's still only an organ, as much one as a kidney or a lung, and as prone to failure as a kidney or a lung. Recently I was privileged to watch a video where a neuroanatomist was discussing the roles the two hemispheres of the brain played, and how they were as different as though they were two completely separate brains, performing parallel functions, and how the “personality” is a function of the fusion of the processing powers of these two parallel brains. This same lady discussed in detail her own symptoms when she had a stroke that impaired the function of her left brain, and left her incapable of reading or speaking, and yet feeling sensations that she had never felt when she had full control over her faculties. The evidence is impossible to ignore: we are our brains; and by a logical extension, when our brains die, so do our ‘consciousnesses’. I will leave aside the question of whether we have a ‘spirit’ independent of our consciousnesses as not germane to the discussion.
Also, the earth itself had an origin, and will one day be baked to a cinder when the sun swells to a red giant. Life on this planet began, in forms simpler than a bacterium, and will end one day. So, unless one posits that we are to be reincarnated in the form of protobacteria or viroids in the primal sludge of some planet in the Andromeda galaxy, I submit that the notion of reincarnation in the spiritual or religious sense is not tenable.
But, if we set aside the metaphysical version of reincarnation, we’re left with something else, and far more interesting.
Once part of it’s easy: the fact that when we die, our bodies are broken down by microbes and maggots (or rather more quickly by the action of fire) and the elements returned to nature, to be reused and recycled. That’s reincarnation, even if only as part of the protoplasm of a bot-fly or vulture. But there’s a far greater kind of reincarnation than that.
As most of us know, the stars aren’t forever; they are born, grow old, and die. And when they die, the material they throw off sometimes condenses into other stars, and planets. We can even see this process happening in galactic dust clouds. The Sun is a star that was formed from the debris of other stars, and the planets were formed quite similarly. Ergo, you can’t get away from it: we are the material of stars. Once upon a time, the matter that makes up your body, and of mine, was part of a star. And, it’s more than likely that, when the earth is a cremated rock spinning round the Sun’s burned-out corpse, we will once again form part of a new star.