Monday, January 09, 2006

Reason and spirituality, part 1 (llama)

There seems to be a fundamental flaw in the buddhist and hindu belief in reincarnation.

The theology behind reincarnation is simple - individuals earn merit, or karma, as they live their lives. Accrue enough good karma in this life and you can come back as a higher life form in the next. Treat people badly, violate various precepts, or just ignore your spirtual self and you accrue bad karma. Accrue more bad karma than good karma and your role in the next life will be in lower in stature. Once you have accrued some maximum amount of good karma you can achieve enlightenment and thus free yourself entirely from this cycle of death and rebirth. If you accrue enough bad karma, presumably, you are doomed to be born again as some terribly lowly creature, like a dung beetle or a talk show host.

By 1 AD the global human population is estimated to have been about 300 million individuals. As of 2000, that number had swelled to over 6.1 billion. So for every 1 of us back at the time of Christ there are now 20 of us living today. Where are these extra souls coming from? The cycle of reincarnation is, for the most part, a closed loop. There may be a small decrement of souls as a few each year achieve liberation, but by and large the rest of us are floating in the same sea of life that has existed in perpetuity. If we have a 5.8 billion more people in the world now then in the past, then that implies that there must be a decrease of 5.8 billion lower life forms.

Have we, as a species, eliminated that many other creatures over the last 2 millenia? I suppose it's possible... but is xenocide the kind of thing for which we would be rewarded with good karma? To my knowledge the theology of reincarnation does not address where the world's souls come from or if more are constantly being created, but I think the implication is that it is, in fact, a mostly closed system. No one gets in, and only the liberated get out. This doesn't jive with a 20 fold increase in the human population. I could probably rationalize this discrency if I wanted, but that's all it would be, a rationalization. In the search of spiritual truth, the eastern concept of reincarnation is, at best, incomplete.


-E said...

there are 6 types of being. i don't remember off hand all 6 but i do recall demons and perhaps demigods/gods being in the mix. so, there are beings other than the known animal kingdom involved. i can look it up when i get home (i kept all my religion text books).

naughtyloki said...

Do some math, Boddhisatva. I killed approximately 400 insects last night just going to get something to eat. The real question is what happens to the karma balance when one is hit by a vehicle moving at 45 miles an hour. Does one get penalized for causing grief, does one take a step toward enlightment by serving as an example for others, or is it a wash?

pacatrue said...

One thing to remember in the Buddhist tradition is that souls are nothing like the Western idea where this unique mental thing moves from body to body. Souls don't actually exist at all in such a sense. This was supposed to be the central insight of Buddhism in fact. In Western scientific terms, a soul is something like an emergent entity. It arises from the connections between things, from the becoming and dying that is the world, and there is no essence. Therefore, I am not sure the Buddhist at least has to say there is a closed system at all. There is no reason that more of these essence-less souls could not come about. Reincarnation, in my understanding, is instead more like a certain pattern of behavior which keeps appearing. If you think of it this way, karma makes more sense. It isn't that you have this thing, this soul, which does stuff and then gets punished or rewarded. Instead, the soul does stuff and in doing said stuff become better and worse. It has often been observed that our character changes to become more and more like our actions. We believe what we have already done.

Now, how we become a beetle, I got no idea.

Killer Llama said...


I think you must be referring to Hinduism. Buddhism... at least in its original form, does not recognize gods and demons (from what I remember). Hinduism does, of course, have an entire pantheon. If we were to accept that there are gods and demigods that are further enlightened than humans, then the swelling of human ranks becomes more believable as the entire population of souls "regresses towards the mean", to borrow a statistical phrase. That does require that humans are the mean, however, and not at the top of the karmic pyramid. Is there any rational reason to believe that a horde demigods and gods exist?

Yes, I suspect that if we were to add up all the various entities roaming around the earth today, 6 billion humans would be a very small drop in the ocean. Especially if one consideres things likes insects or even bacteria. It makes me wonder, though, how something like an amoeba, cockroach, or even a cow can accrue good merit. What does a cow do all day but chew cud and deficate?


I was counting on you to add to this discussion, as you are certainly the most learned individual on this subject that I know. Certainly I didn't mean to imply that karma leads to reward or punishment... that would require some mechanism or entity outside the universe to render judgement on spirits, which is clearly not compatible with Buddhist thought.

I don't understand what you mean by "the becoming and dying that is the world." "Becoming and dying" nescessitates something lives; but we are trying to explain how a soul comes to inhabit a living body, or even if a soul exists at all. This seems circular to me. Souls are required to inhabit all things, but the "becoming and dying" of all things are required to produce souls. The only way this can be true, imo, is if a soul is created each time a living thing is created, and that soul inhabits that living thing. But if that is the case, where does reincarnation fit in?

But let me place aside these questions for now... regardless if there are demigods in Hinduism, regardless of where exactly souls come from in Buddhism, and regardless of exactly how many "lower" creatures have died to balance out the exponential growth of humans... both Hinduism and Buddhism provide an explanation of how human life comes to be. The transference of souls from one living thing to another... or, to put it another way, the transformation of a spirit from an old form into a new one... this idea explains how and when a human would come into being.

However we don't need to look to religion to explain why there are so many more humans now than before. As the human race as progressed intellectually, we have made vast improvements in public health. There is a very well known set of curves in the field of public health that shows how, in "primitive" societies, many children die from infectious diseases and manlnutrition, so women tend to have lots of babies as way of maximizing the chance that at least one will reach adulthood. Thus death and birth rates are high. As sanitation and potable water systems improve, death rates plummet, but women continue to have lots of babies - due to cultural norms, religious teachings, economic considerations (more kids = more hands on the farm). It's not until several decades later - once economic and education conditions have improved that the birth rate falls to match the new death rate. In the mean time, women are producing lots of babies and very few of them are dying. This is a major factor of what has lead to the human population explosion over the last 2 millenia.

Thus the exponential human growth is a result of improvements in public health, and would have occured whether or not there was a fresh crop of dogs or dolphins with good karma ready to be reborn as humans, or whether or not some demigods have been partying a little hard are are getting demoted.

We don't need an explanation for the physical state of the world, we need one for the spiritual... but Buddhism and Hinduism, by invoking a cycle of death and rebirth of the spirit, imply a physical outcome through their spiritual explanations. I'm sure it is not difficult to mold the Eastern spiritual traditions into a shape that would accomodate the current state of the physical world, but then we are just changing spiritual teaching because they are contrary to indisputable physical evidence. To me, this implies that the theory itself has failed.

-E said...

karma is more hindu than budhist, although there is certainly a lot of fluidity there... especially since at one point a great deal of india was buddhist. but, i didn't take hinduism, so, this is based on what i remember from intro to eastern religions. i did take religions of china and japan, but we didn't really discuss the buddhist concept of the soul... i would have to go do some research to make more informed comments. also, the buddha was tempted by Mara who i believe was a deamon, but i suppose one could argue that mara is a representation of suffering...
i must admit, buddhism never really caught my attention... i mean, it is interesting and all, and i did well in class, but i haven't done a lot of reading on the subject outside of class.
the only thing i guess i can add, is that you may be looking at this from a western perspective... for instance in judaism you do not have a nephesh(usually translated as soul)... you are a nephesh. perhaps something similar applies here.

Sammy Jankis said...

Jesus says that he doesn't like you questioning such things. It leads to unrest among the little people.

He tells me that if you need answers, just pop in The Little Mermaid and watch it. Then all will be right in the world.