I was watching something on TV the other night (okay, okay: it was Ancient Aliens) that reviewed a really astonishing kind of psychic phenomenon… and then proceeded to handle it in a wholly whimsical, even childish manner. I believe the first time I was ever exposed to the idea that people can remember scenes and events from a life prior to their own was in Blackwood’s Magazine (praised be its memory), the oldest literary monthly of them all. I learned style and taste by combing through those pages, and I rue to this day the inevitable demise of “Maga” (which came, I think, in 1976).
Anyway, as I recall the story, it involved the case of an Australian who remembered a Scots castle down to the last detail. This young person was visiting the British Isles for the first time, and was staggered to find the very structures he had dreamed about, though in a somewhat dilapidated form. The author, who chanced to encounter this unique tourist, was enough of a local historian to realize that the recalled differences were indeed accurate images from earlier centuries. By the way, the piece was presented as entirely non-fictional.
The phenomenon was called a “racial memory” in that presentation, and the suggestion was made that memories may somehow be passed down through our DNA (since the Australian visitor was actually a descendant of the castle’s one-time inhabitants). The incidents highlighted on the TV show, in contrast, did not seem to involve cases of shared genetic material (or they may have, and the producers chose to suppress that “minor detail” in order to spin a more spectacular theory). Let it stand, for the sake of argument, that you or I might somehow be born with clear memories of the Battle of Waterloo even though we had no progenitors there. That’s a really fascinating condition that we cannot presently explain… but what in the world does it have to do with reincarnation?
The reincarnation of A in B would require B to recall every detail of A’s life, not just a castle or a battlefield; or if most memories have been washed away in the River Lethe, then why did any at all remain? Why, in fact, does a small handful of images covering a very brief period typically haunt the “receiver”?
And if this is the universal fate of all souls—to hop from a dying body into one just getting born—then what happens in generations that have more bodies than their predecessors did? Or fewer? Do some bodies not have any soul at all—or do some souls shuttle between a dozen bodies and earn overtime? Do excess souls chat quietly in a cosmic waiting room, hoping that abortion doesn’t catch on?
If you have a metaphysical belief in the reality of the soul, then each individual must have a single, unique soul. This is a moral necessity, if you also believe that the ultimate end of human life is to serve the cause of goodness. The murdering tyrant must answer for his atrocities in another dimension that won’t let him off scot-free, as likely happened in this world. The tyrant’s martyred victim who died protecting innocent children must also have his snapped thread caught up in the weave of a greater reality. If belief in an immortal soul is not subordinated to a conviction in the triumph of goodness, then it’s mere, pathetic paganism that ascribes understanding to cows and makes the life-extending favors of demons worth cultivating. Such debased belief is worse than none at all.
I often talk and write about Boy That Cried Wolf Syndrome. If you air out an idea in a context which ends up trivializing or infantilizing it, then no sensible person will ever hear the idea mentioned again without laughing it off. There’s a heck of a lot we don’t understand about ultimate reality; but thanks to the way popular culture keeps sensationalizing the troublesome corners that don’t fit under contemporary science’s umbrella, thoughtful people are not going to take a serious look at those corners for a very long time.