Reincarnation and Relativized Identity
MacIntosh (J.J.)
Source: Religious Studies, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Jun., 1989), pp. 153-165
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. There are five main claims that may be made about life after death:
    1. We are reincarnated in the self-same body we had in life.
    2. We are reincarnated in another body. (For my purposes in this paper it is a matter of indifference whether this is thought of as reincarnation1 in another world, or as reincarnation2 in this world: the arguments I shall be examining apply equally to either case. Throughout the paper the term 'reincarnation3' used without qualification should be taken to mean 'reincarnation4 in a different body'.)
    3. We are revived, or continue to live (or to have conscious existence) in a disembodied form.
    4. We are not exactly reincarnated, because this life is a kind of dream which we are having, and a future life, whether a bodily life or not, will involve waking up (as it were) from this dream or dream analogue.
    5. There is no life after death.
  2. It is not difficult to find subscribers, present and past, to each view. Picking more or less at random, for
    1. we have, for example, St Paul (on some readings, at least), St Thomas, Peter Geach, and a number of other modern writers;
    2. we have Pythagoras, Plato sometimes, John Hick, and apparently5 a very large number of Eastern thinkers;
    3. we have Plato in another mood (or perhaps Socrates), Descartes, and - at least for the logical possibility - Peter Strawson;
    4. we have, primarily, Kant6;
    5. we have Lucretius, Spinoza, Voltaire, and a wide variety of contemporary thinkers: perhaps most practising philosophers in the western tradition.
  3. Identity requires a continuant, and there are a number of well-known arguments in the literature which show that the incorporeal soul is not acceptable in this role.
    • Thus option (c) above is not a live option.
    • Given that, I shall argue that option (b) is also untenable.
    • Writers who eschew (c), such as John Hick, Terence Penelhum, Langtry, and an earlier version of myself, cannot consistently opt for (b), even as a logical possibility.
    • If (c) is untenable, it will follow that (b) is as well7.
    • We will thus be left with the orthodoxy of (a), the implausibility8 of (d), or the truth (as I believe) of (e).
  4. Can we tell a coherent, non-question-begging story in which reincarnation9 in a different body occurs?
    1. At first glance it seems clearly possible.
    2. Do a little digging, add some elementary identity theory, and it seems impossible.
    3. Dig a little more, relativize identity, and we see that retaining the impossibility seems to require an assumption - that human beings have essential properties - that not all philosophers are prepared to make.
    4. Finally, we shall see that this seeming requirement is indeed merely a semblance, and that relativizing identity does not, in fact, save reincarnation10 as a logical possibility.


In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 5:
  • I say 'apparently', for in his interesting article "Perrett (Roy W.) - Rebirth" (Religious Studies XXIII (1987), 41-57) Roy W. Perrett argues persuasively that in Indian religions the type of rebirth that is invoked does not (and could not) involve personal identity.
Footnote 6:
  • Kant offers this possibility in the first Critique (A778=B806 – A780=B808).
  • He emphasizes that it is merely a possibility, one which cannot be known to be true : but it seems likely that it represents his belief about the matter.
  • See "MacIntosh (J.J.) - The Impossibility of Kantian Immortality", 1976.
Footnote 7: Footnote 8:
  • In 'The Impossibility of Kantian Immortality', op. cit., I have argued that Kant's version of this story is not only implausible but impossible, but my argument there does not touch the general case.
  • (Indeed, I do not think that there is a sound argument available that defeats the general case.)

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