The notions of rebirth and reincarnation are crucial to the Buddhist worldview : ‘rebirth’ can be considered as a crude English translation of ‘Punarbhava’ ( re-emergence of self, Sanskrit). Those amongst us who seek scientific explanations for non-scientific concepts might find it difficult to frame any testable or falsifiable hypothesis in the support or the denial of the notion of the Buddhist philosophical self and its re-emergence. However, even though a concept cannot be framed in scientific terms, we still may employ scientific reasoning to study it.
Although we can define concepts like life and death with degrees of scientific objectivity, such definitions are essentially useless in a spiritual context that combines philosophical and rational understanding. It is when we apply these concepts to our own existence that its philosophical significance emerges, and to a large extent the same applies to the concept of rebirth. This perhaps explains why nearly a quarter of all Western Europeans stated that they believe in reincarnation in the oft quoted European values survey(1) in 2006. Despite the fact that reincarnation does not exist in either Christianity or science, the two traditional sources that have generated philosophical viewpoints in western Europe. Figures are higher in the Nordic countries and eastern Europe, and in addition, another 20 to 25% or so indicated that they did not know and maintained an open mind on the issue.
Despite scientific debates on the significance of findings suggestive of evidence of reincarnation (e.g. Dr. Ian Stevenson and Jim B. Tucker’s work at the University of Virginia medical school) (2), alternative possibilities for holding completely non-supernatural views can emerge from the sociological point of view. For instance, viewing life on Earth as an interconnected web can also produce significant insights into the life-and-death of individual entities as local phenomena within a much broader web of interconnected living beings. In this sense, reincarnation can be thought of as a process by which the broader process called life renews itself as it regenerates its worn out parts. Ancient Hindu and Buddhist philosophy often talk of models of cyclical processes applicable to various phenomena, which perhaps loosely fits with this line of reasoning.
The other possibility is to view consciousness itself as a globally participative process, in which individuals contribute with their thoughts and actions, creating ripples and effects that are perhaps referred to as Karma within Buddhism. Perhaps, if consciousness can be considered as the essence of our existence, then reincarnation simply implies the biological emergence of an entity capable of independent thoughts which can affect the process of consciousness itself effected through various mechanisms that can be referred to as Karma. In this sense our individual lives and deaths are perhaps insignificant events in the bigger scheme of consciousness at the supra-species level In terms of biological hierarchy.
As the horizons of science expand, perhaps the limits of spiritual reasoning will, too.
(1) Popular psychology, belief in life after death and reincarnation in the Nordic countries, Westernand Eastern Europe. Nordic Psychology, 2006, 58 (2) 171-180
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