July 01, 2008

For a compelling philosophical argument in favor of reincarnation, see Sri Aurobindo

INTEGRAL REVIEW June 2008 Vol. 4, No. 1 [10:18 AM]
Integral Time and the Varieties of Post-Mortem Survival 1
Sean M. Kelly

Abstract: While the question of survival of bodily death is usually approached by focusing on the mind/body relation (and often with the idea of the soul as a special kind of substance), this paper explores the issue in the context of our understanding of time. The argument of the paper is woven around the central intuition of time as an "everliving present." The development of this intuition allows for a more integral or "complexholistic" theory of time, the soul, and the question of survival. Following the introductory matter, the first section proposes a re-interpretation of Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence in terms of moments and lives as "eternally occurring." The next section is a treatment of Julian Barbour’s neo-Machian model of instants of time as configurations in the n-dimensional phase-space he calls "Platonia." While rejecting his claim to have done away with time, I do find his model suggestive of the idea of moments and lives as eternally occurring. The following section begins with Fechner’s visionary ideas of the nature of the soul and its survival of bodily death, with particular attention to the notion of holonic inclusion and the central analogy of the transition from perception to memory.

I turn next to Whitehead’s equally holonic notions of prehension and the concrescence of actual occasions. From his epochal theory of time and certain ambiguities in his reflections on the "divine antinomies," we are brought to the threshold of a potentially more integral or "complex-holistic" theory of time and survival, which is treated in the last section. This section draws from my earlier work on Hegel, Jung, and Edgar Morin, as well as from key insights of Jean Gebser, for an interpretation of Sri Aurobindo’s inspired but cryptic description of the "Supramental Time Vision." This interpretation leads to an alternative understanding of reincarnation—and to the possibility of its reconciliation with the once-only view of life and its corresponding version of
immortality—along with the idea of a holonic scale of selves leading from individual personality as we normally experience it, through a kind of angelic self (a reinterpreted "Jivatma"), and ultimately to the Godhead as the Absolute Self. Of greater moment than such a speculative ontology, however, is the integral or complex-holistic way of thinking and imagining that is called for by this kind of inquiry.

[Keywords: Aurobindo, Barbour, complex holism, complexity, death, Fechner, Gebser, integral, Morin, Nietzsche, reincarnation, soul, survival, time, Whitehead. 1 I would like to thank Michael Murphy and Frank Poletti for inviting me to present these ideas, which have been incubating for a long time, at the Esalen conference on Survival. I am also grateful to Eric Weiss for the many hours, over many years now, of shared deep metaphysical inquiry, and also to Cynthia Morrow, Jorge Ferrer, Robert McDermott, Lisa da Silva-Ward, and to the editors and reviewers of Integral Review for their helpful feedback on earlier drafts of this paper.]

What is it that gives ultimate value to a life? What is it that makes anything in life, and the whole of a life, really matter? If all is impermanence (Heraclitus, Buddhism), if to be is to be finite—a "being-towards-death" (Heidegger)—with, as James puts it, "the great spectre of universal death, the all-encompassing blackness" (2002, p. 139) as the constant back-drop of every hour of life, what difference could it make how well we live our lives? What difference, in short, whether we live in love, wisdom, and beauty, or in their dark but presumably equally transitory counterparts? The natural human, which feels its kinship with the larger cycle of life, is perhaps content with the fact of biological continuity, with the sense of its insertion in an unbroken line of ancestors and descendants, and even with the genetic and biochemical solidarity shared by all forms of life. A more philosophically elevated view is represented by the idea of participation in the Heraclitian or Stoic Logos or the Chinese notion of the Tao. The person of culture, similarly, will find solace in the thought of participating in the history of ideas, will recognize spiritual ancestors in the realms of intellectual, ethical, or esthetic endeavor and will perhaps aspire to their own cultural progeny. The natural and cultural dimensions of the human experience, however, cannot of themselves circumvent the fact that this Earth and all of its life forms, as indeed our sun and the entire physical cosmos within which they are embedded, are finite beings, with beginnings in time, and bound to inevitable death.

Religious or spiritual traditions, of course, have always provided answers to the above questions, answers which are either ignored or denied by the perspectives of a strict naturalism or a restrictive humanism. There is a general consensus among these religious traditions, despite significant differences in other respects, concerning the belief that physical death does not spell the end of the personality or soul. Whether or not it is thought to have pre-existed the birth of the body, the personality or soul is more often than not pictured as surviving its death. It is with the particulars of survival, however, that the significant differences among traditional teachings become apparent. For the traditions of the Indian subcontinent, as for Buddhism, many indigenous traditions, and most religions of antiquity, the soul is believed to reincarnate. 2

In this view, the value of any one life, and the value of any element of a given life, can only be determined through consideration of the series of lives to which the individual life belongs. What you do in this life for good or ill matters because your actions flow from choices made in previous lives and will determine, or at least set the parameters for, choices to be made in future lives. The series of lives is said to be bound together by the law of Karma or its analogue, which, whether or not one believes in a transmigrating soul, provides continuity both before and beyond an individual life, and therefore also gives a ground for its value and meaning.

While some ancient Christians may have believed in reincarnation, the vast majority have, for the better part of two millennia, believed that we are given only one life. Or at least, we are given only one life on Earth—I leave aside the belief in the resurrection of the body—which is to be followed by some form of Eternal Life. The quality of this second Life—in its most dramatic form, whether in Heaven or Hell—is in some way directly linked to the manner in which one lives the first, and only, earthly life. The value or meaning of this life, therefore, as of any significant action or experience within it, rests in the fact that it is of potentially eternal consequence. What happens now, though itself transitory, is an opening to the everlasting.

These two views of life and survival—the traditional reincarnationist and the once-only with its afterlife—appear to be highly incompatible, and I have yet to encounter any attempt to reconcile them. The bulk of the relevant literature is devoted to arguing the case for one or the other of the standard views (for a compelling philosophical argument in favor of reincarnation, see Aurobindo, 1991; for a Christian-based refutation of reincarnation, see Valea, 2007)...

An Integral or Complex-Holistic View
The metaphysical alternative that I will focus on in this last section is based largely on the philosophies of Sri Aurobindo and Hegel, though I will draw as well from the work of Jean Gebser and Edgar Morin when I turn to more specifically epistemological considerations. So far, with the possible exception of Fechner, the theoretical schemes we have entertained have brought us to the threshold, without fully crossing over, of what I would consider an integral view of survival—a view, that is, which is capable of accommodating, through the consistent application of a single generative principle, apparently mutually exclusive views (including in particular the mainstream Christian, or "once-only" view, and the idea of reincarnation). The articulation of such a view, I have suggested, must involve a correspondingly integral view of time. Aurobindo and Gebser, as we shall see, each have very suggestive things to say in this respect. As for a potential candidate for the generative principle that might exemplify the meaning of "integral," I have proposed in other contexts the principle of "complex holism," which I derived primarily from a sustained dialogue between Hegel and Jung (see Kelly, 1993) but which has since been significantly inflected by Edgar Morin’s work on the principles of complexity (see Morin, 1977, 1980, 1981, 1982)...

To my knowledge, Aurobindo’s understanding of "integral non-dualism" represents the richest, most creative, and far-reaching application of the principle of complex holism... [Aurobindo’s main argument can be summarized as follows: The universe is engaged in the evolution of consciousness. This evolution depends upon the emergence of ever more realized individuals who carry the process forward. If the spiritual gains of individual lives were lost at death, evolution could not proceed. Therefore, "the rebirth of the soul in the body becomes a natural and unavoidable consequence of the truth of the Becoming and its inherent law. Rebirth is an indispensable machinery for the working out of a spiritual evolution; it is the only possible effective condition, the obvious dynamic process of such a manifestation in the material universe." (Aurobindo, 1951, p. 672)]

[2 I will not always repeat "soul or personality," though I am aware of the problems associated with the term soul in connection with Buddhist traditions in particular.]
Sean M. Kelly, Ph.D. is Professor in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. He has published numerous articles on Jung, Hegel, transpersonal theory, and the new science and is the author of Individuation and the Absolute: Hegel, Jung, and the Path toward Wholeness (Paulist Press, 1993). Sean is also co-editor, with Donald Rothberg, of Ken Wilber in Dialogue: Conversations with Leading Transpersonal Thinkers (Quest Books, 1998) and co-translator, with Roger Lapointe, of French thinker Edgar Morin's book, Homeland Earth: A Manifesto for the New Millennium (Hampton Press, 1999). Along with his academic work, Sean has trained intensively in the Chinese internal arts (taiji, bagua, and xingyi) and has been teaching taiji since 1990. Email:

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