ME : Tony Kelly
I have given what might loosely be called a proof of reincarnation which doesn't depend on arbitrary belief or on the dubious interpretation of supposed memories. Summarising it: I'm alive and aware now and might be expected to be in this state of being alive and aware for something like an average lifetime before I die. Now if I first came into existence at the beginning of this life, and if when I die I cease to exist for ever after, it's remarkable that, of all the vast stretch of time from the remote past to the immensely distant future, during most of which I have no existence at all, the present moment of time by sheer chance falls in the tiny period during which I am actually alive and aware. It's so improbable a chance, in fact, that it can be rejected. So the fact that I am actually alive and aware now in the face of this extreme improbability means that I must also have been alive and aware during the infinite past, and will also be alive and aware during the infinite future.
But who am I who am eternal? And what in fact is proved or disproved? What is disproved are all possibilities in which there is any special or unique change. An actual time of coming into being would be a special change as would be a time of ceasing to exist for ever after; so too would be a change involving the escape from a cyclic existence into ‘a state of perfection’ (whatever that might mean) or into a state or unstate called Nirvana' (whatever that might mean). All such changes would be special, or indeed unique, and so they can't occur within a finite time from the present moment, which is the same as saying that they can't occur at all. So my present life must be an essentially unspecial life in a series of unspecial lives. This is not to say each life is identical with others, or that all lives have been or will be in human form, but rather, that no life in the infinite series of lives could be picked out as being in any way specially different. Of course I might, let's say for the moment, have been a king or a queen in a past life, or a beggar, or a rattlesnake, or a fly or a gooseberry bush, but all these are essentially variations on a theme, a continuous evolutionary chain all the way from an atom and what went before to what I am now. None of them requires a sudden break; no point in the chain or chains is a special point. So let's look back into history..... Who is that queen who emerges from the mists of the past? Was that me? Or what of the beggar at the town walls? Was that me instead? What if I were both the queen and the beggar at her walls? Was I the fly that bit the beggar's nose? Or was I the whole swarm of flies?
Let's not become entangled looking for answers to these questions (There probably aren't any) but let's think about the questions which are far more interesting than any hypothetical answers. If I have any special connection with a particular person, creature or gooseberry bush in the past, I know nothing of this connection, not in all the infinite past. Will I sometime in a future life perhaps acquire a memory of my past lives? No, I won't, because if at some time in the future I were to begin to remember my past lives and had not done so before, this would be a ‘special’ change, a unique event, and a change which is special or unique may not occur within a finite time from any specified time, such as the present. So there is nobody in the past, human or otherwise, with whom I can identify myself, and nobody in the future who will identify themself with me. Those people, those creatures, of the past were not me, and the creatures who people the future will not be me. Yet, I've shown (and summarised the argument above) that I live and am aware for all time. So how should we resolve this apparent contradiction?
Let's suppose there is a lake and a wind upon it, and the wind makes waves on the surface of the lake. We see a wave travelling the surface, reaching the shore, and finally vanishing into the shingle of the lakeside. We look again and see many more waves travelling the lake surface towards the shingle shore. Which of these new waves is the re-enactment of the wave that previously perished on the shore? It isn't a sensible question, is it? No particular wave now corresponds with any particular wave in the past or with any particular wave in the future. Each wave lives for only a few moments on that shimmering surface. But the water that spilt onto the shingle shore is nevertheless there again in the lake and is still coming in waves on the surface. The waving is as old as the lake; but the individual waves and their individual identities are ephemera in the unchanging and everchanging flux.
Waves on the lake are objective things that I can look at, point to, think about and feel about. But what if I were a wave? Which one would I be? Not the one that had died on the shingle shore; not the ones yet to be raised by the passing wind. No, I'd be one that was coming now over that surface. Now? How long is now? All time is fictitious except now. ‘Now’ is the only time in which I have ever lived. And how, as a wave on that surface, would I know I was travelling? It would look for all the world as though I was still, and all around me was flux. I see other waves, always the same distance in front of me or the same distance behind; I give them names, and call them ‘them’ or ‘they’ as the occasion demands. Now and again, a reed is growing up through the water or the rocky outline of the shore juts into the lake and the waves are reflected, and then we encounter each other and I interact with you; that's how I learned that your name was ‘you’. But I remain unchanged. True, you saw me as I bounced off that rock and said I changed, but I saw you change then; I'm still me, aren't I?
I don't want to push that analogy too far; just so far as to make it meaningful when I say that you live and die, but that I endure for always, and what you might say are changes in me, I experience as changes in you and in them (Do help yourself to the pronouns you need!)
Many years ago, intrigued by who I was, I tried to track myself down through meditation, discarding all that was not me until I arrived at the ultimate point of myself. I failed. I didn't at that time learn anything from that failure, thinking that it probably needed some technique I didn't then know about. But there was another possible reason for my failure which I didn't then consider, namely: that I am not a point. Even if I pretend that I am a dweller within my body, and even if I can imagine that I am more in some location than in another (more in my head than in my heel for instance) the more I try to pin down a point where I am, the more I realise I am the watcher of the point, or the watcher of the watcher, or..... all the way to the last term of that infinite series, and the watcher of that last term, and the watcher of the watcher, and..... (That's not rational; I only did it to show you that, even if it were, it would still be nonsense). I'm neither definable, observable, nor spatial.
Take a look at a newspaper photograph of somebody smiling and cover up most of the picture until all that's left is the smile, still recognisable as a smile. Now cover up some more of it. Has the smile gone? Then it must be in the bit you've covered up, mustn't it? So uncover that bit, and cover up the other bit instead. Has it gone again? So it seems the smile must be in two parts. But if this were so, covering up one part would leave the other still on show. No, the smile is not in two parts or many parts, but rather it hasn't a precise location; it's the very concept of ‘position’ which is suspect. Let's take this further and look at the newspaper under a magnifying glass to try to discover the very essence of ‘face' or ‘expression'; wherever we look, we see nothing except black dots of various sizes, and not one of those dots shows us anything at all of face' or of expression'. But as we stand back from the picture and look not at one, but two, three, four... hundreds... of dots we find more and more that we gain the feeling of ‘face' or ‘expression'. We can even draw boundaries, more or less accurately, in the photograph saying which parts of the picture contribute to ‘face' or ‘expression' and which to something else such as background. But we can't pinpoint it, and the reason we can't pinpoint it is precisely and significantly because it isn't a pinpoint. Neither am I (Take care with the pronoun!)
Instead of thinking about a newspaper photograph, let's think about ourselves. I feel that a lot of me is associated with my head, and a bit of knowledge of anatomy would ascribe this to my brain rather than to the outer shell. I'm a collection of memories, many of which, no longer available to conscious recall, contribute to my feeling of identity. These memories, both conscious and unconscious, are stored in my brain. Now suppose part of my brain is damaged, say by a blow to the head or by an electrical discharge such as might be administered in electro-convulsive therapy. Depending on which bits of brain are damaged we might expect certain memories to be obliterated and others to remain intact. But what actually happens is that there's general confusion, some memories do vanish for a time, but then reappear. So particular memories are not stored in particular places but are spread throughout the brain rather like a smile in a newspaper photograph is spread throughout some dots. Getting rid of some of the dots more or less randomly over the picture doesn't either eliminate or miss the smile; it makes the whole smile less certain or clear. So too, damaging or altering brain cells doesn't specifically destroy or miss particular memories, but rather renders the whole memory less certain or clear. Now it's obvious that if I try to locate myself at a point I must necessarily fail because I'm not a point but a pattern.
However, let's not overrate the brain, which in some respects resembles a calculator. A lot of my experience is spread all over me, which is obvious when, for instance, I have a pain in the guts or feel seasick or, in the other extreme, when someone is writing runes of magic with her fingers all over my skin. Then I'm an all-pervading feeling.
Am I only my body (and all its thoughts and feelings) though? Consider learning to ride a bike. At first, it's an awkward machine; its control demands all my attention, and even then with all my attention on it, progress is a series of mishaps. But after a time the bike is so much a part of my body that I can ride without giving it any conscious attention at all. Learning to use legs was the same. How about becoming familiar with an artificial limb? Or with an implanted organ? Or an electronic pace-setter? Or mind-changing drugs? How much of this is me, and how much not me?
Let's suppose we built a robot capable of many of the things we do. Let's suppose we included in its programs the ability to construct more robots out of raw materials (such as copper, gold, silicon and other such delicacies) and let's suppose we set one or two of these robots loose somewhere. They would, of course, use their facilities to discover sources of their raw materials and means of maintaining and renewing their power supplies. Let's suppose these robots were not quite perfect so that, sometimes, when they put a new robot together, there was an error in the new robot. Most of these errors would mean that the new robot would be a write-off, but every now and again the result would be an accidental improvement on the original pattern. Now let's suppose that these robots made so many replicas and near-replicas of themselves that they ran low on raw materials. They would now compete with each other for what was available, and many would be destroyed in the competition. A few would have the advantage when an error in their making had been an improvement on the original, and these would tend to win the battles for resources, so that the originals would soon be eliminated, and then the next in their turn as ever-better robots got the upper hand in the battle for materials or energy. Every trick, every new strength, every new power of artificial intelligence which cropped up by accident in the errors and was thereafter perpetuated would gradually become characteristic of the evolving robot society. Even group strategies and alliances would evolve. These metal and silicon things would be behaviourally indistinguishable from people and would even fight us if we threatened their survival (actively or passively). Would they be conscious' (whatever that means)? Would they be aware? When they sent their first space ship off to explore the planets or even the stars, would we still say "They're only bits of metal and silicon"? We might even have to negotiate peace treaties with them (since it would be, perhaps, to our mutual advantage). Would they be sentient?
Now, suppose I did this experiment with carbon and hydrogen and oxygen and phosphorus and suchlike instead? Would the results be sentient? Am I? I am, but I don't know about you (Take care with the pronouns!)
Let's think about familiar organic things again. Consider the tiny one-celled animal called an amoeba. When an amoeba divides into two (as they are wont to do) who is who after the division? And if I were an amoeba how would I experience the change, and which of the two daughter cells would I be, and who would be the other one? Now it's a deep mystery (which I haven't unravelled) that after the experience I am still only one amoeba, and I know the other one as you, or as her.
Now we're not very different from these creatures except in size and complexity. Whatever processes and events have led to my being alive and aware now in this, my present style, and however this style will come to an end, the result, for me, will be and can only be me. And it has always been me for ten thousand million years and more. And however the atoms are mixed and re-organised, whatever the patterns that were made, the mixing was always... absolutely always... in the past.