Think 9:77-85 (Spring 2005) ©Berel Dov LernerThree students, namely Walid, a Druze man, Fatimah, a Muslim woman and Sigal, a secular Jewish woman are eating lunch in the cafeteria at the Western Galilee Academic College.
WALID: I’m thinking of studying some philosophy next year. Aren’t you two taking the philosophy of religion course? How is it?
FATIMAH: I’ve got to admit it’s a bit strange. I’m not completely at home at home with the idea of talking about God so casually. It’s not that the lecturer is disrespectful, but he doesn’t seem to always appreciate the gravity of the topics he discusses. A few weeks ago he developed some ideas based on the example of God playing chess against a human. A very religious Jewish student came up to him at the end of class and asked to be excused from attending further lectures. The student said he just couldn’t bear the frivolous way that philosophers talk about God.
SIGAL: It’s amazing how closed-minded people can be!
FATIMAH: Maybe you are also a bit closed-minded in your own way?
SIGAL: What do you mean?
FATIMAH: Well, suppose someone were to give a series of lectures about medical ethics and all of the examples discussed involved members of your own family. Imagine; the lecturer would constantly mention your mother by name and make witty observations about whether she should have aborted you, under what conditions you would consider having her taken off a ventilator, or whether the public should have the right to know if she is HIV positive. Wouldn’t that disturb you? Maybe that religious student feels very close to God. He is just as bothered by the way some philosophy professors talk about God as you would be hearing them talk about your mother!
WALID: Heavy. So what did the heretic lecturer have to say today?
FATIMAH: I was just trying…
SIGAL: Ok, ok, you’ve made your point. Today’s lecture was about life after death. Excuse my candour, but the whole thing seems ridiculous to me. People simply are their bodies. When the body dies, the person goes with it!
FATIMAH: Well, that’s quite an assumption. Why can’t there be a soul that survives the body’s death?
SIGAL: Look at it this way. The continued and proper functioning of whatever it is you call a soul is obviously dependent on the state of the body. My soul’s powers of reason are promptly dissolved by a few ounces of vodka swallowed by my body. If my body were to stop breathing for the next few minutes, I would never think another conscious thought again. When my body dies completely, I can only assume that my ‘spiritual’ functions will die with it.
FATIMAH: Not so fast. Maybe death allows the soul to be freed of the limitations imposed by a damaged body. It may sound silly, but think of the body as being like a kind of shoe. When a high-heel breaks off, you start hobbling around as if you had sprained your ankle. But just kick off your shoes and you can start walking barefoot again! Maybe that’s what happens when people die and their souls no longer suffer from their bodies’ ailments. The soul kicks off its broken body, and may resume its spiritual life unhindered.
SIGAL: That sounds like a very problematic ‘maybe’ to me. I’ll grant you that your thesis may be logically possible, but where is the evidence for it?
FATIMAH: I could just as easily dismiss your thesis as merely ‘logically possible’. What evidence can you offer?
SIGAL: But the burden of proof is on you, Fatimah. My thesis only talks about human bodies, and you already believe in the existence of bodies! However, your thesis requires that I believe in a whole new category of beings, in souls that can survive in a disembodied state. It is easy to prove that some kind of thing exists; all you have to do is produce an example of it. But how can I be expected to show that disembodied souls do not exist? Should I take you on a guided tour of the entire universe and show you how we never come across an example of a disembodied soul? Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to demand that you introduce me to one single existing disembodied soul? Anyway, I’ve got another problem for you. Suppose that disembodied spirits or whatever it is that is supposed to survive death really do exist. You still have to deal with the problem of personal identity. All through this semester, we’ve been eating lunch together every Wednesday. How do I know that you are the same Fatimah I ate with last week, and how do you know that I’m the same Sigal who ate with you last week? We recognize each other as soon as we see each other’s face, each other’s body. We’ve always known each other as embodied human beings. Now suppose I were to die tomorrow, and simultaneously with my death, a new incorporeal spirit would somehow come into existence. Why would it even occur to you to identify that particular entity as your dearly departed Sigal?
FATIMAH: I think that you should have paid more attention to today’s lecture. There is a respectable body of philosophical opinion, reaching back to John Locke in the 17th century, which sees personal identity as involving the continuation of memory, or perhaps of cognitive skills and character traits. Imagine if some disembodied spirit managed to communicate with me, claiming to be my late grandfather. Suppose it demonstrated knowledge of all of the most intimate details of my late grandfather’s life, told jokes just as my grandfather used to, let me beat him in chess in the same transparent way that my grandfather used to, and so on. Would it be wrong of me to identify that spirit with my grandfather?
SIGAL: All right, I can see your point, but how can you even begin to imagine a disembodied spirit? Everything has got to be somewhere. Just where would your grandfather’s spirit exist? Can you talk about something lacking any material presence having a location?
WALID: Just a minute, I’ve been holding my tongue long enough. I can understand how Western philosophers might get all confused by the idea of surviving death, but have you considered the transmigration of souls? Sigal, you should be happy with the idea, because transmigrant souls are embodied, while Fatimah will be pleased to know that transmigrants posses memories and character traits that survive from previous lifetimes. Most importantly, I’m not just talking about a theoretical possibility; transmigration of souls is a fact of life! I don’t think of myself as being particularly religious, but just ask any Druze student, we all know of cases of transmigration. There was a border policeman from my own village who was killed in Lebanon. Years later, a Druze boy showed up from the Golan who knew every intimate detail of the policeman’s life. The widow and her family are convinced that the boy is the fallen policeman, and I see no reason to disagree! If you had met him, your technical worries about identity would melt away.
SIGAL: Look, I don’t want to sound disrespectful, but we’ve all heard Druze stories about the transmigration of souls, and it’s just too weird for me.
WALID: But you do agree with me that such things occur among the Druze — what’s your explanation?
SIGAL: I would have to look into the details before suggesting an exact explanation. I do know that some people, such as psychics and tarot-card readers, are very good at picking up information from a person’s manner of speaking and body language. Maybe something like that is involved.
WALID: So you are saying that these kids are deliberately faking it?
SIGAL: Deliberately? Not necessarily. Some neurosis might be behind it, driving them to assume the identities of deceased people and to subconsciously gather appropriate information about them.
WALID: I see. When people experience something that you don’t understand, you call them crazy.
SIGAL: Look, here’s my problem: why is it that these stories always involve some Druze boy from a village in Lebanon or the Golan? Why don’t any Jewish kids from north Tel-Aviv ever announce that they are fallen soldiers returned from the dead? If the transmigration of souls was an objective, independent element of reality, I would expect to find it everywhere, but I don’t. That’s why I say that the ‘transmigration of souls’ is simply a psychological disorder refracted through the lens of culture.
FATIMAH: Nice metaphor, but what does it mean?
SIGAL: Well, suppose someone has to deal with a lot of stress in his or her life, or perhaps they suffer from some kind of mild brain dysfunction. The outward symptoms of the disorder and its meaning for patient will depend on the cultural background of the victim. Western girls read about supermodels and become anorexic, Druze boys learn about the beliefs of their culture and bear transmigrated souls.
WALID: Even if I accepted your psychological explanation of transmigration — which I don’t — I still wouldn’t call it a ‘disorder.’ It’s not at all like anorexia, which puts a tremendous strain on families and can be fatal to its victims. These transmigrant kids enjoy a certain harmless celebrity and the grieving families find some solace. Everybody wins!
SIGAL: I can certainly agree with you that even I would rather deal with a transmigrant son than with an anorexic daughter. However, I must still insist that no matter how benign or even benevolent it may seem, a delusion is a delusion, and people whose lives are built upon self-delusion are not psychologically healthy.
FATIMAH: OK Sigal, here’s a thought for you; Walid, are there any gay men in your village?
FATIMAH: I asked if there are any gay men in your village, do you know any gay Druze men?
WALID: I don’t know what that has to do with anything, but let me think. I did once see something in the paper about a Druze homosexual, but no, I never met one and I am sure that there aren’t any in my village.
FATIMAH: Sigal, what do you say to that?
SIGAL: It can’t be true. I’ve read that about four percent of all human male populations are gay, and Walid’s village is no exception.
WALID: So where are they all hiding?
SIGAL: In the closet. Or perhaps, lacking role models or social recognition, they simply become unhappy people who have no idea how to act as their true selves.
WALID: OK Fatimah, now I get it. Sigal, you’ve been set up! You assumed that Druze ideas about transmigration must be false and that they must give rise to neurotic self-deception. But Druze beliefs could just as easily be correct and help people gain true self-understanding. Suppose some kid in north Tel-Aviv were to begin recalling a genuine previous lifetime. He might have recurring dreams about living an adult life, about dying as an adult. He might feel a compulsion to visit some strange family. He might discover himself feeling surprisingly at home in places he’d never been before. Lacking the role models and social recognition afforded by the Druze community, he would never be able to make any sense of it at all. He would probably try to repress the whole thing and end up on some psychoanalyst’s couch.
FATIMAH: There may not seem to be many transmigrants in north Tel-Aviv, but there are certainly plenty of neurotics!
SIGAL: Touché! Maybe that’s my real problem; I have to come to terms with my latent transmigratory tendencies!
WALID: So that’s it, Sigal the skeptic believes in the transmigration of souls!
SIGAL: Come now, do you think I will give up that easily? Why should I prefer your supernatural explanation over my psychological explanation?
WALID: That brings us back to the question of evidence. I must still insist that your psychological explanations cannot account for the objectively accurate, in-depth knowledge of previous lifetimes demonstrated by transmigrants.
SIGAL: I’ve never interviewed or even met any alleged transmigrants, and I haven’t even read any serious research about them. I can’t really pretend to have an informed opinion regarding the evidence you’re talking about. But you know what Walid? Now that you’ve gotten me to start entertaining ideas from outside my customarily scientific world-view, your evidence for transmigration is looking weaker by the minute.
WALID: Why would that be?
SIGAL: Up to now we’ve been discussing the phenomenon of Druze ‘transmigrants’ as if there were only two basic avenues of explanation available. Either they can be explained away in scientific terms as being unusually perceptive yet delusional misfits, or we can embrace the traditional Druze explanation and admit to the reality of the transmigration of souls. No doubt Walid could cite cases that would be very difficult to explain in the conventional scientific framework. But that doesn’t mean I have to accept transmigration!
FATIMAH: Of course not. Just because you don’t have a good scientific explanation available at the moment doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to devise one in the future. You may be better off leaving a phenomenon unexplained than accepting what you believe to be a patently bad explanation of it.
SIGAL: That’s an important point, but I’m on to something else. Faced with the problem of Druze transmigrants, Walid expects me to abandon the framework of my customary materialistic and scientific world-view. But as soon as I do begin considering paranormal explanations, there is no reason why I have to agree that transmigration is the best paranormal explanation available.
WALID: What else do you have in mind?
SIGAL: How about telepathy? Perhaps the young boy from the Golan was simply picking up information about the deceased from the thoughts of the bereaved? When people ask the boy questions in order to test him, it would only be natural for them to be thinking of the answers in expectation of his replies.
WALID: Again you seem to imply that transmigrants are charlatans.
SIGAL: I’m not saying the boy is a sham. For some reason, he has found himself overwhelmed by other peoples’ thoughts regarding the deceased. His culture offers him self-understanding in terms of the transmigration of souls, so of course he takes that role upon himself.
WALID: But can you accept telepathy?
FATIMAH: Well, for Sigal it’s an issue of intellectual damage control. I can see how belief in telepathy might wreak less havoc upon her scientific world-view than would belief in the transmigration of souls. All that telepathy requires is that one person have access to the current thoughts of another. In order to believe in transmigration, Sigal must be prepared to accept the notion that a new-born baby can somehow incorporate the soul of a recently dead adult. That poses some serious difficulties. If the transmigrant eventually remembers so much from his previous life, why wasn’t he born knowing how to talk? How does the soul pass through space from one person to the next?
WALID: Souls in space? Five minutes ago you adopted Locke’s claim that memory establishes personal identity. Now consider this. Suppose I die tomorrow. Instantaneously, a beautiful baby boy is born who somehow remembers all of the events of my life, just as if he had lived them himself. That should be enough to convince a Lockean such as yourself that my personal identity continues in him. There is no need for you to talk about ‘souls passing through space’. All that you need is someone with my memories, not someone with my soul.
FATIMAH: Technically you may be right. Locke did distinguish between ‘souls’ and ‘persons’. Perhaps he left room for the possibility that someone could be thought of as the continuation of a particular person’s existence while not necessarily possessing that person’s original soul. But what do you want from me? You are the one who insists on talking about the transmigrations of souls.
WALID: Fatimah, when did you become such a skeptic?
FATIMAH: I am a believer, but who ever said Muslims are supposed to believe in transmigration?
WALID: I’d be the last person to tell you what Muslims are supposed to believe in! However, Sigal, I remain unconvinced by your theory. You admit that you don’t know much about the kind of evidence that’s around, and I don’t think that all of it can be explained away by telepathy. For instance: What would you say about a transmigrant who knew where the deceased had hidden some precious object that no one else could find? Mere telepathic access to the thoughts of the living could not account for such a feat!
SIGAL: That would considerably complicate matters, and I am starting to enjoy the idea of blaming all of my neurosis on psychological baggage from past lifetimes. We’ve got to find an opportunity to carefully examine the evidence together — that sounds more like science than philosophy! Anyway, it’s time for our next class.