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Ask Dr. Cobb

February 2011 Question

I have recently discovered Process Theology and I find it very challenging, as it seems to solve some of the contradictions inherent in Buddhism. As far as I can understand, unlike in Buddhism, we do not owe our existence to past human existences and our mental life is not reactivated in new forms according to karma in future human or non-human existences. But is there any continuity of conscious existence after death since there is no permanent self to sustain it? What does Process Theology teach in this respect?

Dr. Cobb's Response

All of our religious traditions witness to the inclusion of elements from cultures whose ideas are not in full agreement with the central insights of the tradition. This is true of most forms of Buddhism. This tradition arose in India where certain ideas were deeply entrenched. These included the notion of an enduring self, a self that could even survive death and reappear in new forms. They also included the idea that what happens in one’s life now is the consequence of what one has done in the past, whether in this life or a previous one. These ideas did not fit well into the metaphysics of Buddhism, and not all Buddhists have accepted them. But in some modified form they are still widely considered to be Buddhist teachings. For example, the way that a new Dalai Lama is selected seems to presuppose a strong continuity between the previous Lama and a child born soon after his death.

Whitehead’s metaphysics is remarkably similar to that of mainstream Buddhism, but his followers lived in a culture in which the idea of transmigration or reincarnation of a person was marginal. Process theology has its own problems of acculturation, but with respect to this topic, it is free to develop the logic of the metaphysics and to interpret such empirical evidence as there is for the standard Hindu/Buddhist teaching in a way that fits better with the metaphysics.

Of course, the acculturation of process theologians in the Western Enlightenment leads some simply to deny that there is any evidence to be interpreted. However, I will assume that there is some evidence. For example, some people do seem to “remember” experiences of other people who are no longer alive. Total incredulity is usually based on a metaphysics from which Whitehead tried to free us.

In Whitehead’s view every past event plays some role, however trivial, in the constitution of present events. The “pure physical feelings” of events that are not contiguous are mediated by contiguous ones. That is, the purely physical effects of events that occurred in a distant star many years ago are mediated to my eyes by vast numbers of intervening light waves. The physical effects of an experience that I had as a child are mediated to me now by myriads of intervening neuronal events. In other words, one event has a physical impact directly only on its immediate successors, which then have effects on their successors, and so forth. That is the way pure physical feelings work and energy is transmitted.

However, Whitehead teaches that in addition to pure physical feelings there are also “hybrid physical feelings.” Pure physical feeling feel the physical feelings of antecedent events. Hybrid physical feelings feel the conceptual, propositional, and intellectual feelings of antecedent events. Whitehead speculated that these hybrid feelings could feel the conceptual feelings of noncontiguous events directly, that is, without mediation by intervening events. Historically this is called “action at a distance,” and for a long time scientists inclined to deny that there can be any such thing. However, today there are quantum phenomena that seem to require this doctrine, so that the Cartesian metaphysics to which scientists have allied themselves in the modern period has to be modified. Whitehead’s speculation fits the known facts quite well. It also provides an understanding of psychic phenomena such as mental telepathy.

Given this metaphysics, one can understand memory of one’s past experiences as at least including elements of direct prehension at a temporal distance. If this is possible, then, in principle, there could be similar relations to the past experiences of other people. Some people certainly appear to have had such “memories.” Further, the other people need not be alive. Hence, memory-like experience of someone who has died is metaphysically possible. Insofar as such memories constitute the evidence for transmigration, this evidence should be taken seriously but not regarded as demonstrating transmigration.

Let us suppose, however, that in some person’s case there is a considerable amount of “memory” of one particular past life and none of others. This certainly calls for further explanation. Obviously, any explanation I can offer is purely hypothetical or speculative. The science of parapsychology would need extensive development to provide sufficient evidence first of the phenomenon in question and secondly supportive of particular hypotheses about it before any such speculation could be regarded as a serious “theory.” However, where theory is absent, pre-theoretical speculation has a legitimate role.

It seems that vivid memories of one’s personal past do not occur at random but rather are triggered by something in the present that connects to the earlier event. We may speculate that the same would be true of “memories” of events in other lives. There might then be connections between one life and another that caused the events in that particular past life to be the ones that are “remembered.” That means that there would be real connections between the two lives, but it does not entail that the same person or psyche or self is present in both. Hence, it does not support the Buddhist doctrine that is in such tension with its own metaphysics.

The question is also about what positively might be said of continuity beyond death if there is no substantial soul. In answering we must first ask what is meant by personal identity in this life. For those who deny that there is a substantial soul, it cannot be absolute. In my eighties I am not in every sense the same “person” I was when I was a baby of two or even an adult of forty. Nevertheless, in my case, there have been no drastic breaks in the continuity of my experience from day to day. On the other hand, there are those who have gone through drastic changes or who have multiple personalities.

Whether we say that each body is associated with one and the same “person” from birth to death, or that so-and-so is a new person, or that several persons are associated with the same body is a matter of choice as to how to use the word “person” rather than a matter of truth and falsity. Where the continuity is unbroken, we can use a variety of criteria for personal identity, and they are all satisfied. In other cases it is a matter of which of the criteria we choose to adopt. For example, one may take memory as the essence of identity. In general I remember past experiences subjectively whereas my recall about the experiences of others is objective. But of course I do not have this kind of memory of the majority of my past experiences and certainly not of those of the baby with whom I may claim personal identity. And on the other hand, some people have memory-like experiences of events not in their personal past. On the other hand, if continuity of personality is the criterion, then some people really do become different people, and with many of us it is a matter of degree.

Second, given the fact that personal identity is not an absolute even in ordinary life, the continuation of such identity after physical death can certainly not be absolute. Nevertheless, there may be connections between experiences taking place after one’s death and those that participated in a considerable degree of personal identity before death. Whitehead’s doctrine of hybrid physical feeling allows us to speculate about the relevant continuities.

Metaphysically, physical death need not prevent the occurrence of experiences that have considerable continuity with those that have been occurring in a person’s life. The continuity may suffice so that by some understandings of personal identity, such identity persists. Whitehead states that the occurrence of such experiences is possible but should be affirmed only on the basis of evidence. This opens the door to speculation about the putative evidence.

My speculative interpretations of the data lead me to say that after death there could be new experiences with considerable continuity with personally ordered ones that were closely connected to a physical brain. They would consist largely of integrations of hybrid physical feelings and the propositional and intellectual feelings to which they give rise. To satisfy the demand for continuity with the experiences of a particular person, their data would be extensively the experiences of that person. Metaphysically all this is possible. If the evidence for it suffices, we should affirm the occurrence of such experiences. But the only basis for this affirmation would be empirical. The metaphysics is at least equally open to their non-occurrence.

Because of the role of the body in maintaining personal identity in this life, I judge that if experiences that do not depend on the body continue, as time passes, they will become less narrowly tied to that one sequence of personal experiences. Accordingly, evidence for continuing personal life after death does not count as evidence for the immortality of the soul. The more serious question is whether it counts in favor of everlasting personal life. But here too my judgment is negative. It seems more likely that future experience would be more inclusive and would merge into something quite different.

Even in this life the boundary of one’s body is vague and fluctuating. There is a sense in which what Whitehead called one’s “actual world,” the totality of what is directly or indirectly felt by pure physical prehensions is one’s real body. We can then say that we all share much the same body. Experiences that are based on hybrid physical feelings would include a still larger world as their bodies and might much more fully realize this universality and commonality of their bodies. This is, indeed, mere speculation. Those who are disturbed by the eventual loss of personal identity may be told that according to this speculation, as long as these future occasions cling to such identity, they can preserve it in some form.

If Whiteheadian speculation allows for some form of personal survival of death, can it also allow for this survival occurring in new living bodies? In other words, does it not open the door to some form of transmigration of the soul? My answer here is more negative. There do seem to be memory-like experiences in developed psyches closely related to brains whose data are the experiences of other persons, living or dead. But unless memory is taken as the sole requirement for personal identity, these do not establish such identity. They may show that there are unusual connections between some of the occasions of experience in a current life and those in a particular preceding life, but the kind of continuity through time normally assumed to be part of personal identity is far more disrupted by the role of a different brain than by the cessation of pure physical feelings.

hiteheadians need not deny the reality of the phenomena that have been used to support the idea of transmigration nor their importance, but the doctrine as such must be rejected.

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