Patricia Churchland once talked to the Dalai Lama. You can guess what they talked about from knowing it was Pat Churchland. She tells Religion Dispatches about it.
Then what about religions that believe in reincarnation, where the soul survives bodily death and is reborn in another body?
What would it be, this thing? If the brain is the repository of memories and skills and thoughts and perceptions, what would this thing be that goes off somewhere else and gets born in a squirrel or something? I actually had a conversation about this with the Dalai Lama many years ago and he was very interested in the brain. He asked a group of us to come and talk to him about it and teach him about it.
He and I got into this long conversation about reincarnation and I presented him with my reservations about such a thing. Something is left, namely the body, and as that disintegrates small creatures make use of the bits and pieces and in that sense it’s reincarnated, but there isn’t anything else, some nonphysical thing that has feelings and thoughts and memories and personality that goes into the little critters or into a person. What gets transferred from parent to child is information in the DNA, but that’s not quite what he had in mind either.
I think he was actually moved by this discussion. Of course, he didn’t immediately change his mind and say, “Oh, yeah, you’ve got to be right.” Which is fine—it takes time to get used to these things. But, I think it did motivate him to be very worried that there perhaps was not this nonphysical thing that had all the properties of personality and mood and temperament and learning that got transferred.
One would hope so, because what would it be, exactly? I’ve been wondering that for years – what people think they mean by it. What do they mean by thinking they’ve been “reborn” many times? What is the self in that thought? I think the self is, as Churchland says, “memories and skills and thoughts and perceptions”…which are accumulated over a lifetime, not born. A clone wouldn’t be you, and being reborn isn’t anything.
Interesting, given that Tibetan Buddhists believe that the Dalai Lama himself is a reincarnated soul.
That was what made the discussion particularly awkward. I told him, “I don’t think you could possibly be reincarnated. They may have identified something about you that was wonderful when you were a baby, but it can’t possibly be that something that was once in the Buddha got put into you. What would that thing be?”
It was a very frank conversation. The great thing about him was he didn’t want to stop this conversation. He wanted to know and he just pressed for more and for more. I was blown away by that.
New age books and even the Buddhists talk about how we are not our minds, that instead there is an “eternal Self” or “observer” that is really us. Aren’t your findings at odds with that?
I think different circuitry is involved in the brain when the mind is thinking about something and when there is a kind of observation of those thoughts. I think it’s just different parts of the brain doing different things. There’s not a separate self in the sense that it’s a non-physical brain beyond the brain. The part of the brain that controls an eye blink reflex is very different than the circuitry that is thinking about that reflex. At one and the same time those two things can happen, so you can have a reflex of blink and be mentally observing that blink, so that’s just two different circuits in the brain doing what they normally do.
We’re all our own Omniscient Narrator.