Rebirth
Perrett (Roy W.)
Source: Perrett - Death and Immortality - 1987, Chapter 8
Paper - Abstract

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Philosophers Index Abstract

  1. I argue for the metaphysical coherence of the general Indian account of rebirth.
  2. Two arguments for pre-existence are considered, one for the pre-existence (and, by analogy, post-existence) of the consciousness series, and one for the pre-existence of the agent. Both are found to be plausible, given certain qualifications.
  3. Furthermore the notion of a beginningless agent (conceived of as a locus of basic actions and abilities) is one which would be non-vacuous in terms of personal significance.

Author’s Introduction
  1. Traditional Western conceptions of immortality characteristically presume that we come into existence at a particular time (birth or conception), live out our earthly span and then die. According to some, our death may then be followed by a deathless post-mortem existence. In other words, it is assumed that
    1. we are born only once and die only once; and
    2. that - at least on some accounts - we are future-sempiternal creatures.
    The Western secular tradition affirms at least (i); the Western religious tradition - Christianity, Judaism, Islam - generally affirms both (i) and (ii).
  2. The Indian tradition, however, typically denies both (i) and (ii). That is, it maintains both that we all have pre-existed beginninglessly, and that we have lived many times before and must live many times again in this world. The Indian picture, then, is that we have died and been reborn innumerable times previous to this life and (failing our undertaking some spiritual discipline) we will be reborn many times in the future.
  3. This is sometimes called the Indian belief in reincarnation1. The difficulty with this usage is that the term 'reincarnation2' suggests a belief in an immortal soul that transmigrates or reincarnates. However Buddhism, while affirming rebirth, specifically denies the existence of an eternal soul. Thus the term 'rebirth' is preferable for referring to the generally espoused Indian doctrine

Author’s Conclusion
  1. To sum up then. I have argued for the metaphysical coherence of the general Indian account of rebirth. To this end two arguments for pre-existence were considered.
    1. The first of these was for the pre-existence (and, by analogy, post-existence) of the consciousness series. Given certain qualifications, the argument was found to be sound.
    2. The second argument for the pre-existence of the agent was also found to be plausible (given, once again, certain qualifications).
    However, neither argument establishes the pre-existence or post-existence of persons (unless one is unwisely willing simply to identify these with the consciousness series of the first argument). But this is to be expected when we remember the rather different conception of the nature and value of personal existence operating in the Indian context. Nevertheless the notion of the pre-existence and post-existence of the beginningless agent (conceived of as a locus of actions and abilities) was argued to be not only a metaphysically coherent view, but also one which would be non-vacuous in terms of personal significance.
  2. Of course, the Indians consider the doctrine of rebirth to be more than just a metaphysically coherent theory. Typically they regard the existence of the beginningless cycle of birth, death and rebirth (samsdra) to be a disagreeable fact. The eschatological goal of the Indian religio-philosophical tradition is complete freedom (moksa) from this cycle. In keeping with our general account of the agent as a locus of actions and abilities, complete freedom in this tradition is conceived of as a state of non-action wherein those abilities which individuate the agent are nevertheless retained. The agent in such a state does not necessarily cease to exist, even though such an agent is no longer aware of himself as an individual. Once again the basic conception of the nature and value of personal existence presupposed here is very different from the traditional Western view and hence so too is the treatment of the notion of immortality. Of course, there still remains the philosophical matter of the nature and value of this Indian goal of complete freedom. But that is another question.

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