Faith had believed in reincarnation for as long as she could remember. But recently, her interest in her past lives had reached a new level. Now that she was visiting the medium mystic Marjorie, for the first time she had information about what her past lives were really like.
Most of what Marjorie told her was about her previous incarnation as Zosime, a noblewoman who lived at the time of the siege of Troy. She heard about her daring escape first to Smyrna and then on to Knossos. She was apparently both brave and beautiful, and she fell in love with a Spartan commander, whom she lived with at Knossos for the rest of her life.
Faith didn't check the real history of Troy to try to verify Marjorie's story. She did not doubt that hers was the same soul that had lived in Zosime. She did, however, have a nagging concern about what this all meant. Much as she enjoyed the idea of being a Greek beauty, since she didn't remember anything of her life in Knossos or have any sense of being the person Marjorie told her about, she couldn't see how she and Zosime could be the same person. She had found out about her past life, but it didn't seem like her life at all.
Source: Book two, chapter XXVII of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke, 1706.
Baggini, J., The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, 2005, p. 193.
If you're reading this blog, and especially if you've read my post on The Truth About Souls, I take it we can quickly get through the dismissal of unfounded and unscientific beliefs in reincarnation. Despite being a part of ancient religions for billions of people, there's just no evidence that it exists or affects our lives in any meaningful way. So, unlike Faith, we really should just give up on the idea already. Baggini brings this up, however, because of Faith's "nagging concern about what this all meant." What it all means is part of a broader discussion of personal identity, which I first took up in my original evaluation of John Locke, and have since covered multiple times in other thought experiments, but which still requires just a bit of further clarification. First, let's note what I said in my original post on Locke**:
(**As a reminder, these evaluations from the survival of the fittest philosophers take their italic text from wikipedia summaries of the philosophers, which are then followed by my own critique of their ideas.)
Locke's theory of mind is often cited as the origin of modern conceptions of identity and the self. He was the first to define the self through a continuity of consciousness. Locke defines the self as "that conscious thinking thing, (whatever substance, made up of whether spiritual, or material, simple, or compounded, it matters not) which is sensible, or conscious of pleasure and pain, capable of happiness or misery, and so is concerned for itself, as far as that consciousness extends.” He does not, however, ignore "substance," writing that "the body too goes to the making of the man.” The Lockean self is therefore a self-aware and self-reflective consciousness that is fixed in a body. Destruction of the body in the form of Alzheimer’s, amnesia, or stroke, leads one to lose that continuity of consciousness by the self. That doesn’t change the identity of the individual. Identity is therefore independent from consciousness. Identity lies at the Mind x Body intersection. One helpful analogy is to say identity is like a river. Not the water that flows through it, but the channel that actually forms the river. When storms occur and water is high, the river is deepened. When drought occurs, the river slows and silts up. When earthquakes or glaciers reshape the landscape, the riverbed may hold no water at all. If we know the events that carved the river, we can recognize its identity no matter what state it is in. Likewise, we can recognize identity when we know the events that shaped it. If you know the river and are told the volume of water that will flow its way, you know what the river will look like. If you know a person and are told the events that will occur to them, you will recognize how they handle it. This is how we know people after long absences, and this is how changes during brief separations can surprise us.
In the original book where Locke explains how his definition of identity is tied to consciousness, he actually does acknowledge the types of instances I raised where consciousness or memory is lost or impaired. However, rather than admit that this forces him to locate identity outside of consciousness, he says, "To this I answer that we must be careful about what the word ‘I’ is applied to." Locke's position is that whenever consciousness is lost, this changes or splits the identity of the self. Locke says that this is what allows us, for example, to write laws that do not "punish the madman for the sane man’s actions, or the sane man for what the madman did, because they treat them as two persons." It allows us to say someone was "not himself" or "he was beside himself." For Locke, the change in consciousness causes a change in person, and he uses this line of thinking to attack people who believe in reincarnation because they must believe there is no separation between "same person" and "same consciousness." Locke finds such a joining problematic on the grounds that:
"In our present state of knowledge it is hard to see how it can be impossible, in the nature of things, for an intellectual substance to have represented to it as done by itself something that it never did, and was perhaps done by some other agent. . . . Until we have a clearer view of the nature of thinking substances, we had better assume that such changes of substance within a single person never do in fact happen, basing this on the goodness of God. Having a concern for the happiness or misery of his creatures, he won’t transfer from one substance to another the consciousness that draws reward or punishment with it. . . ."
So it appears Locke didn't have a problem with the dualism required to believe in an "intellectual substance" that could be transferred from one consciousness to another, but he had a problem believing God would do so because it wouldn't be fair for Him to reward or punish one part of that soul for actions taken by another part. These are the kinds of intellectual hoops one must jump through to hold onto Christian Gods and souls while rejecting the reincarnation of Eastern religions.
Looking past this feeble religious argument--and the question of whether Locke had a coherent definition for consciousness, or the fact that "he was beside himself" is a figurative rather than literal statement—we can see that Locke is only considering personal identity from the perspective of the individual, of what the word "I" refers to. But this, to me, is a narrow and one-sided view of the self. In contrast, when I state that "identity is independent of consciousness," I'm not allowing any supernatural reincarnation in the door, I'm simply taking an objective and independent view of identity as if it were composed of some composite from the perspectives of the self AND others as they develop over time. If one were to draw a Venn diagram of this view of personal identity, the entire area would contain a circle that only the self can know, and a circle that only others can know, with some overlap in the middle of what both perspectives can see. This kind of "individual + social + time" view of identity is akin to the "nature x nurture" picture we study when we look at the life of any biological organism. A full grasp of any identity must account for all the perspectives that observe that identity. I could go on and give further illustrations of this important distinction for such a "multi-level" view of identity, but I'm sure you already get it so let's save the elaboration for future thought experiments. I have a feeling this issue will rear its head again and come back to life...