Born in a squirrel

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.


  1. says

    When I believed in reincarnation, I thought of it sort of like a life is like a role playing game, and while you’re living in it, you think of the experience as complete and the character you’re playing is you. When you die, you’re You, with all the memories of that life, plus all the experience of all the other lives you’ve lived. Kind of like when you read a novel (or even better-write a novel) and you’re really into it, you feel what the characters are feeling, you get really sucked in, and you kind of get to live lives in a vicarious way and get new experiences, except with reincarnation, you really would be experiencing those things directly. The purpose of it was to learn and grow and experience stuff (both pain and pleasure) and gain compassion, understanding and improved morality. I never thought it through more than that–or had any idea of a mechanism by which it could happen–or even questioned how I concocted the model in the first place. (Once I did those things, of course, I stopped [make] believing it was true.)

  2. Acitta says

    Buddhism does not postulate a soul. “Anatta” “selflessness” or “soullessness” is a primary doctrine of Buddhism. The other significant doctrine is “dependent origination”. Buddhism teaches that everything including ourselves is a effect of previous causes and a cause of further effects. There is no essence in any of this. Rebirth occurs as a result of dependent origination. “Cyclic existence” continues until ended by enlightenment. These philisophical ideas were explored in tedious detail by the 2nd century Buddhist sage Nagarjuna, founder of the Madhyamika school of Buddhism. Madhyamika philosophy is foundational to the the sect of Tibetan Buddhism that the Dalai Lama heads. He discusses this in “The Middle Way: Faith Grounded in Reason” and other of his books.

  3. Francisco Bacopa says

    Couldn’t souls be data? I believe that there are souls, that souls are potentially multiply realizable supervenient properties. As of yet, I have found that souls are always in a close relationship with a physical body that interacts with a vast physical world. I also have noticed that if the physical stuff gets too much messed with, the soul changes or dies even as the body persists. I have seen someone progress into dementia enough to know that when Nietzsche said “Your soul will be dead even before your body” I know he was right.

    How much data is my soul? A few petabytes if we want it all with memories intact. But maybe my core dispositions and a handful of memories might be 5 terabytes.

    Maybe if there were magic people my soul could be uploaded to a couple of hard drives and then as much of what I was as a squirrel could handle would be downloaded to a fetal squirrel. I do not believe this happens.

    I believe that souls are not things. There is no “soul stuff”. Souls are like rainbows. They are not “out there”. Each instance of seeing or recording a rainbow is a unique interaction between a complex system capable of seeing or recording light, a light source, and water droplets. No two people have ever seen the same rainbow, we can only experience our own unique rainbows under similar conditions. And when those conditions change, no more rainbows.

    Souls are the same. Change the brain and body too much or change how it is able to interact with the world, the soul is gone. Death is the point when you know for sure it is gone. As far as I know it is impossible to create digital simulations of once living people. If you could I would think the soul could survive death.

  4. Claire Ramsey says

    Once on Star Trek Captain Kirk and his crew happened up on a place where small invisible flying pancake-shaped things landed on them and adhered to their necks. (We could see the flying pancakes b/c they created a pancake shaped blurry spot). I thought they made a good image of a soul waiting to get reinstalled in a new person.