The Ethical Argument for Rebirth and Karma Does Not Stand Scrutiny

We see apparently good men who suffer and bad men who prosper. We find this unaccountable in a world in which a just God rules and we expect the good to get rewards and the bad to be punished. When this does not occur in this lifetime, some religions put it off to a “heaven” or a “hell” after death in which God’s judgment about our lives is carried out upon us for eternity.

Even those who subscribe to rebirth and karma as the mechanism for a progression through lives tend to add on a type of ethical element to this to explain why it is that we see bad getting away with things apparently and the good facing inexplicable obstacles and suffering. It then gets explained away as a result of that particular “person” in a past life having done good or bad deeds which are now being rewarded or punished here; and similarly, the good or bad deeds in this lifetime will carry into future lives.

A deeper review of this however makes it clear that there is no such divine ledger being kept that automatically metes out exactly what each individual has “earned” in terms of rewards or punishments across multiple lifetimes. To truly begin to understand the concepts of rebirth and karma we need to first address these unfortunate accretions that have been formed around them.

Sri Aurobindo comments on this issue: “For it is intolerable that man with his divine capacity should continue to be virtuous for a reward and shun sin out of terror. Better a strong sinner than a selfish virtuous coward or a petty huckster with God; there is more divinity in him, more capacity of elevation.”

“And it is inconceivable that the system of this vast and majestic world should have been founded on these petty and paltry motives.”

Sri Aurobindo,

Heredity and Rebirth

Modern science recognizes that there are factors that help to predetermine the physical characteristics of the individual being. These factors carry forward through physical transmission from ancestors and help to determine the capacities and physical attributes of the being. This is called “heredity”. Heredity primarily deals with physical characteristics and as a theory, it has done a good job in explaining many things. It has, however, not succeeded as well in terms of explaining issues such as personality, the phenomenon of genius or prodigy traits, or emotional character. Heredity is also not as “cut and dried” as many believe, inasmuch as different children born into the same family to the same parents can have totally different physical traits, as well as intellects.

There is of course also the debate about the influence of environment on the individual development, but that is not relevant to the current review. “Nature vs. Nurture” is of course an interesting subject that deserves its own scrutiny in its own place.

Turning to the question of rebirth, Sri Aurobindo explains that “Rebirth accounts, for example, for the phenomenon of genius, inborn faculty and so many other psychological mysteries.”

No theory of heredity can explain the ability of Mozart or Beethoven as young children to create musical compositions and play them. Nor can it be explained away by training or “nurture”. Once we get into the cases of talents and capacities that are far beyond the norm, outside the capacities of the parents and outside the specific training and focus the parents provide, it becomes even more obvious that there is something at work here beyond pure heredity or training.

This is one area where rebirth actually begins to illuminate the issue; but it does not stop there. Rebirth and karma are able to provide solutions to other issues that are not explicable otherwise, as we shall see hereafter.

Sri Aurobindo,

Occam’s Razor and the Theory of Rebirth

Occam’s razor, which essentially is the concept that when all other things are equal, the simplest explanation will tend to be the best, is a useful conceptual tool in many fields of life, and helps us avoid bogging down in needless complexity,–thereby helping us sort out theories that have “too many moving parts” to sustain serious scrutiny. This is especially helpful when it comes to practical matters in the material world, but it is not always the answer! Sri Aurobindo uses the example of the simple explanation of the “theory of the spheres” as an explanation of astronomical events. Today we have a much more detailed and complex understanding, as well as the ability to observe many more facts that need to be covered by any solution.

This becomes a question because the theory of rebirth and the corollary law of karma actually is a quite good example of “Occam’s razor”. Sri Aurobindo explains: “The theory of rebirth coupled with that of Karma gives us a simple, symmetrical, beautiful explanation of things…”

If we accepted Occam’s razor as a determining factor, we would have to admit that rebirth and karma are the best explanation we have for the facts of our existence. Sri Aurobindo cautions however, that while this may provide us “moral certitude”, it does not yet constitute certainty or absolute proof and thus, much more examination of the question is warranted.

Sri Aurobindo,

Proof, Moral Certitude and Reason

Before reviewing the theory of rebirth through the lens of our reasoning faculty, Sri Aurobindo first takes up the very question of the limitations of the reasoning faculty itself to establish the proof of anything. “After all, most of the things that we accept as truths are really no more than moral certitudes.”

He goes on to illustrate that over time, we have propounded various explanations for the astronomical events we see, each one of which was accepted as the “truth” (to the point where it became punishable by torture and death to contradict that truth during the time of the Holy Inquisition), only to later give way to a new explanation that became the new “truth” for some period of time. The Newtonian universe has subsequently been superseded by the premises of quantum physics and today the concept of the truth of the universe is far different than it was just 100 years ago.

Sri Aurobindo discusses these issues: “This is the ever-perplexing and inherent plague of our reason; for it starts by knowing nothing and has to deal with infinite possibilities, and the possible explanations of any given set of facts until we actually know what is behind them, are endless. In the end, we really know only what we observe and even that subject to a haunting question, for instance, that green is green and white is white, although it appears that colour is not colour but something else that creates the appearance of colour. Beyond observable fact we must be content with reasonable logical satisfaction, dominating probability and moral certitude,–at least until we have the sense to observe that there are faculties in us higher than the sense-dependent reason and awaiting development by which we can arrive at greater certainties.”

It is useful to explore the limitations of the reasoning faculty before we dive into the question of rebirth, because the very facts we need to review in regarding rebirth go beyond the realm of proof within the limits of the reason. We may be able to approach moral certitude, as we have done in other fields of review, but proof would have to await the action of higher and deeper faculties of knowledge.

Sri Aurobindo,

Difficulties in Proving the Existence of Rebirth to the Scientific Mind

Sri Aurobindo points out that even if we were able to elicit various proofs of the memory of past lives, it remains difficult for the scientific mind to accept these proofs, since they would not be subject to the type of physical factual scrutiny which that mind finds as its sole basis for acceptance. On the contrary, even cases that would be considered extremely positive can be explained away by those who choose to do so through any number of doubts or issues that can cloud the results.

We have of course heard of the cases where an individual is born in one country, and as a very young child is able to describe a village halfway across the world in another country to a “T” without prior exposure to that village; and that further, the child was able to describe circumstances of a past life with specific individuals who were found to be historical individuals. Even in such clear cases, however, the physical mind, resistant to anything beyond its range of knowledge, finds arguments or objections.

Harder to explain are cases where an individual not only has such clear and factual knowledge, but can even speak in a different language to which that person has not been exposed in the current lifetime.

Such cases, since they have been documented, lend tremendous weight to the idea that rebirth must exist, at least for those who have not tried to limit themselves solely to the knowledge available to the 5 limited senses.

The doubters can devise any number of excuses. “It might be maintained that they prove the power of a certain mysterious faculty in us, a consciousness that can have some inexplicable knowledge of past events, but that these events may belong to other personalities than ours and that our attribution of them to our own personality in past lives is an imagination, a hallucination, or else an instance of that self-appropriation of things and experiences perceived but not our own which is one out of the undoubted phenomena of mental error.”

While an abundance of such experiences and documentation would tend to lend weight and credence to the acceptance of rebirth, clearly it is not possible to prove things to the physical mind that it does not want to admit. There remain those today who will not recognise the fossil history of the earth and the time-frames that this history denotes; or even, that the earth is not the center of the universe!

Sri Aurobindo,

Can We Prove or Disprove Rebirth?

Sri Aurobindo discusses the question of rebirth, starting from the question of whether it can be proven or not; and by what methodology we need to evaluate it. “Rebirth is for the modern mind no more than a speculation and a theory; it has never been proved by the methods of modern science or to the satisfaction of the new critical mind formed by a scientific culture. Neither has it been disproved; for modern science knows nothing about a before-life or an after-life for the human soul, knows nothing indeed about a soul at all, nor can know; its province stops with the flesh and brain and nerve the embryo and its formation and development. Neither has modern criticism any apparatus by which the truth or untruth of rebirth can be established.”

Sri Aurobindo points out that even questions such as the historicity of Christ remain an open-ended debate for the modern intellect. How then can subtle questions that go beyond the capacities of the physical senses and outside the framework of the physical world be evaluated?

The question of rebirth then becomes for most of us, simply a matter of argument or belief without any factual basis or support to underpin it. We argue one side or the other of the matter, but without any final certainty. “One argument, for instance, often put forward triumphantly in disproof is this that we have no memory of our past lives and therefore there were no past lives!” Sri Aurobindo describes the fallacy of this argument, in that most of us cannot remember our infancy or much of our childhood, but that does not make them any less real! “How much do we remember of our actual lives which we are undoubtedly living at the present moment? Our memory is normally good for what is near, becomes vaguer or less comprehensive as its objects recede into the distance, farther off seizes only some salient points and, finally, for the beginning of our lives falls into a mere blankness.” Sri Aurobindo continues: “Yet we demand that this physical memory, this memory of the brute brain of man which cannot remember our infancy and has lost so much of our later years, shall recall that which was before infancy, before birth, before itself was formed. And if it cannot, we are to cry, “Disproved your reincarnation theory!”

Clearly we require instruments and capabilities beyond those of the physical mind and senses to experience and understand experiences that are not able to be perceived by the physical mind and senses. Similarly, the question of rebirth must then be researched and understood using different criteria and tools of understanding. Sri Aurobindo calls this a “psychical memory”.

Sri Aurobindo,

Theories About Rebirth

There are numerous ideas, theories and concepts related to the question of whether or not we are reborn in some form or another after the death of the body. Some of these ideas hold that the life we live here is simply a single lifetime with nothing preceding it, and nothing following. Others hold that the life has no lives preceding it, and after death we are then transported to a paradise of heaven, or a punishment of hell, or some kind of limbo of purgatory. For some, the after death state is “permanent”; while for others it is an interregnum preparatory to a re-entry into the world.

Among the theories that believe in a recurrent series of births, there are also many viewpoints and a diverse terminology. Sri Aurobindo discusses some of these terms and the concepts behind them: “In former times the doctrine used to pass in Europe under the grotesque name of transmigration which brought with it to the Western mind the humorous image of the soul of Pythagoras migrating, a haphazard bird of passage, from the human form divine into the body of a guinea-pig or an ass.”

Alternatively, “The philosophical appreciation of the theory expressed itself in the admirable but rather unmanageable Greek word, metempsychosis, which means the insouling of a new body by the same psychic individual.”

“Reincarnation is the now popular term, but the idea in the word leans to the gross or external view of the fact and begs many questions.”

Sri Aurobindo’s own preference was to use the term “rebirth”, “…for it renders the sense of the wide, colourless, but sufficient Sanskrit term, punarjanma, “again-birth,” and commits us to nothing but the fundamental idea which is the essence and life of the doctrine.”

Sri Aurobindo, Rebirth and Karma, Section I, Chapter 1, Rebirth, pg. 3