Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Pythagoras on reincarnation

To: Ana B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Pythagoras on reincarnation
Date: 22 June 2004 12:37

Dear Ana,

Thank you for your email of 13 June, with your second essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, looking at Pythagorases views on reincarnation. In your essay, you raise a number of interesting points. I enjoyed reading this.

In unit 6, I speculate about the connection between the Pythagorean view of numbers and the doctrine of reincarnation. To my knowledge, there is no hard evidence to support the link. What I describe, in the final paragraph as a potentially 'spectacular confirmation' in AI theory is way beyond anything that the Presocratics might have imagined. The best evidence is from the Phaedo, and Socrates' criticisms of the 'attunement theory'.

Your point about the impossibility of constricting the infinite variety of human subjectivity to numbers and equations is well taken. In AI there are two schools of thought. One school holds that there is, in principle, a program that could be written for the human brain, e.g. mine or yours. In that case, it could really happen that my brain program (as Daniel Dennett speculates at one point in his book 'Consciousness Explained') is uploaded onto disc, then downloaded into a freshly grown brain/body. A perfect recipe for immortality! (This became the plot for an Arnold Scharzenegger film, I forget the title.) This would seem to imply that 'highly individualistic emotions...can be calculated through a theorem', which I agree seems improbable.

On the other hand (there is always an 'other hand') it could be argued that this reaction is not much more than a 'gut feeling'. Think of the amazing sounds or pictures that come out of a digital CD or video. Your favourite record is just a number which can be written down (on a very big piece of paper). Of course, the fact that the sounds or images are produced by a number does not show that the experience of hearing or seeing those sounds and images can itself be defined as a 'number' or program. It does show that imagination or gut feeling is not always a reliable guide to what is possible or impossible.

According to an alternative view of AI which is becoming increasingly popular, the human brain is not like hardware programmed with software, but works like a 'connectionist' or 'neural' network. Neural nets are trained to respond to specific stimuli, rather than programmed. For example, you point the camera at the platform of a subway station and the pattern of light and shade is interpreted as 'busy' or 'not busy'. Each time the neural net responds incorrectly, it 'learns' from its error. This could be described as a 'tuning', even though there is no formula which could be written down which captures this tuning - unlike a computer program, or a guitar tuning.

Your other concern with reincarnation is goes against our experience of individual human growth. By contrast with the previous point, this is an objection which Pythagoras and his followers might have thought of.

A possible reply (which you suggest yourself) is that human beings are psychologically different by nature in the way that they respond to given situations. This difference can be observed in human infants at a very early age. It is possible, or at least not inconsistent with the observed facts, that this difference is partially or wholly accounted for by the subconscious effects of past lives.

Another question to ask, however, is whether this is something we should *want*. Given that I will have no conscious memory of my past life, why should I care whether 'I' am reincarnated or not? What interest is it to me that the pattern of my psychological reactions is somehow imprinted onto a new-born baby somewhere if *I* am not there?

One last thought. One of the strange things about death is that it is hard to state what death is, in terms which do not imply a notion which is even more mysterious. To die - from a subjective point of view, which is what concerns us when we think about our survival or non-survival - means to lose consciousness and never wake up. 'Never' is a long time. It means after I have lost conscious, an infinite length of time must pass before I could be truly described as 'dead'. In other words, to comprehend death, the permanent cessation of 'my' consciousness, we have to comprehend infinity. Not an easy thing to do.

As a corollary of this, I think that part of the appeal of the idea of reincarnation is the feeling that, however improbable it might seem, given sufficient length of time there is always the logical possibility, however, remote, that we might come back.

All the best,

Geoffrey