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Reincarnation, Closest Continuers, and the Three Card Trick: a Reply to Noonan and Daniels1

  • J. J. Macintosh (a1)


In Religious Studies xxvi (1990) Harold W. Noonan and Charles B. Daniels severally take issue with my ‘Reincarnation and Relativized Identity’. Both make valuable points but both, I think, have somewhat missed the point of my original article. In that paper I singled out five different views on the possibility of life after death: (1) that we are reincarnated in the self-same body we had in our pre-mortem state; (2) that we are reincarnated in another — in a different — body; (3) that we continue to exist (with or without a temporal gap) in a disembodied form, which may or may not culminate in re-embodiment; (4) that pre-mortem life is a dream from which postmortem life is the awakening; (5) that none of the above holds: there is no life after death.



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2 Noonan, Harold W., ‘The Possibility of Reincarnation’, Religious Studies, XXVI (1990), 483–91 (hereafter Noonan);Daniels, Charles B., ‘In Defence of Reincarnation’, Religious Studies, XXVI (1990), 501–4 (hereafter Daniels);MacIntosh, J. J., ‘Reincarnation and Relativized Identity’, Religious Studies, XXV (1989), 153–65.

3 I take this position to be consistent with texts such as I Corinthians 1535–44 and Philippians 3.21–2: a body may be altered without ceasing to be the same body.

4 It is important to distinguish this position from that held by, for example, St Thomas Aquinas. For Aquinas the soul (somewhat mysteriously) survives bodily death, but is not identical with the deceased person. Geach sums the matter up clearly: ‘Aquinas…says in his commentary on I Corinthians that my soul is not I, and if only my soul is saved then I am not saved nor is any man. Even if Christians believe there are “separate souls”, the Christian hope is the glorious resurrection of the body, not the survival of a “separated soul”’ (Geach, P. T., God and the Soul (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969), p. 40).

5 ‘Can death be sleep, when life is but a dream’, asked the young Keats in 1814:


Can death be sleep, when life is but a dream,

And scenes of bliss pass as a phantom by?

The transient pleasures as a vision seem,

And yet we think the greatest pain's to die.


How strange it is that man on earth should roam,

And lead a life of woe, but not forsake

His rugged path; nor dare he view alone

His future doom which is but to awake.

(The Poetical Works of John Keats, ed. Garrod, H. W. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), p. 539.)

Though clearly not without his doubts on the matter (‘I long to believe in immortality,’ he wrote to Fanny Brawne in 1820), he returned to this theme shortly before his death: ‘Is there another Life? Shall I awake and find this all a dream? There must be we cannot be created for this sort of suffering’ (Keats to Charles Brown, 30 Sept. 1820, The Letters of John Keats 1814–1821, ed. Rollins, H. E. (2 vols, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1958), II, 302).

6 That (3) should be rejected is argued for vigorously in Penelhum's, TerenceSurvival and Disembodied Existence (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970), and Kant was at least suspicious of its possibility: ‘matters of opinion are always Objects of an empirical knowledge that is at least intrinsically possible…To assume rational inhabitants of other planets is a matter of opinion; for if we could get nearer the planets, which is intrinsicall possible, experience would decide whether such inhabitants are there or not; but as we never shall get so near to them, the matter remains one of opinion. But to entertain an opinion that there exist in the material universe pure unembodied thinking spirits is mere romancing — supposing, I mean, that we dismiss from our notice, as well we may, certain phenomena that have been passed off for such’ (Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Meredith, J. C. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952), Part 2, §30 (91), p. 467). Nowadays, of course, the rejection of (3) is a philosophical commonplace. For an interesting discussion of the way in which this has come about see U. T. Place, ‘Thirty Years On — Is Consciousness Still a Brain Process?’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, (1988) 208–19.

7 Terence Penelhum has suggested more strongly that in the presence of large numbers of people who in some sense satisfied our reincarnation intuitions it would be ‘ridiculous’ not to agree that they were identical with the pre-mortem people with whom we would supposedly be inclined to identify them. He continues: ‘It would be wholly irrational, if such events took place, to retain the naturalistic conception of the person if one had had it previously, or to continue to hesitate about adopting the Christian conception of the person if one had been hesitating. The only reason why it is not irrational to do either of these things now is that these events have not happened, and are still in the future even on the Christian view’ (Butler (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985), pp. 145–6). Reincarnation and similar thought experiments are skewed if we concentrate on how nice it would be to survive. For a case where identity matters, and so it is important that the closest continuer is not identical with the original see A. J. Budry's novel Michaelmas.

8 For the reason behind the qualification ‘putative’ see §6, ‘Yet Another Problem’.

9 It is usually assumed that there should be some strong qualitative similarity between R1's q-mentalstates and those of O. Following Nerlich, (‘On Evidence for Identity’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, XXXVII 1959), I argued in ‘Reincarnation and Relativized Identity’ that the assumption that such similarity is relevant needs, but does not receive, support.

10 Notice that this is not merely a matter of us having evidence for the identity: it is the case that fulfilment of the conditions yields identity.

11 See ‘Reincarnation and Relativized Identity’ for details. The general case is discussed in Brian F. Chellas and Krister Segerberg, ‘Modal logics with the Macintosh rule’, Auckland Philosophy Papers, 1991.3.

12 See, for example, Terence Penelhum's already cited Survival and Disembodied Existence, as well as his later Butler;Hick, John, ‘Theology and Verification’, in Theology Today, XVII (1960), as well as chapter 15 of Death and Eternal Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1976);Langtry, Bruce (‘In Defence of a Resurrection Doctrine’, Sophia, 21.2, 1982);MacIntosh, J. J., ‘Memory and Personal Identity’, in Coval, S. and Macintosh, J. J., eds, The Business of Reason (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.) The general point is discussed in Hirsch, Eli (The Concept of Identity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), and has been the subject of an interesting recent article by Kolak, Daniel and Martin, Raymond (‘Personal Identity and Causality: Becoming Unglued’, American Philosophical Quarterly, xxiv (1987), 339–47).

13 See, e.g. Noonan, H. W., Personal Identity (London: Routledge, 1989), p. 15 and pp. 205–6, where Noonan stresses the need not only for a causal connection but for the right kind of causal connection.

14 Noonan makes this point in his first paragraph, getting us off to a false start straightaway, for it is simply not the case that ‘It has been supposed by many’ that the kind of reincarnation I was discussing occurs.

15 Noonan, p. 483. Noonan also characterizes it as a ‘mere appeal to logic’ (p. 491); but why should an appeal to logic be ‘mere’?

16 ‘Richard Swinburne's Reply’, in Shoemaker, Sydney and Swinburne, Richard, Personal Identity (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984), p. 133.

17 For a fuller account of this strange case see Gridgeman, N. T., ‘Circumetrics’, The Scientific Monthly, LXXVII (1953), 31–5. Unhappily the bill was delayed long enough for adverse publicity to mount, and it was defeated in the Senate.

18 Prior, A. N., Objects of Thought (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), p. 88.

19 These are essentially the views discussed in ch. 7, ‘The Reduplication Problem’, of his already mentioned Personal Identity.

20 For a well-argued suggestion that they are infelicitous even in the standard case see Oaklander, L. N., ‘Shoemaker on the Duplication Argument, Survival, and What Matters’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, LXVI (1988) 234–9, as well as ch.7 of Noonan's Personal Identity.

21 Doyle, A. Conan, ‘The Sussex Vampire’, in The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes.

22 Noonan in fact thinks that the kind of causal connection required by Parfit is too weak (Personal Identity, p. 205), but a causal dependence that is too weak is still a causal dependence.

23 Nozick, R., Philosophical Explanations (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1981), p. 41. That this entity ‘exhibit[s] complete psychological similarity’ is controversial. See §6, ‘Yet Another Problem’.

24 By Kolak and Martin.

25 It is worth emphasizing that ‘brain transplants’ are not brain transplants. What is important to the continuing identity of mammals is their central nervous system (CNS). A ‘brain transplant’ is really a cranium, limbs, and torso transplant, a CLT transplant, not a CNS transplant. As Parfit notes: ‘When I am given someone else's heart, I am the surviving recipient, not the dead donor. When my brain is transplanted into someone else's body, it may seem that I am here the dead donor. But I am really still the recipient, and the survivor. Receiving a new skull and a new body is just the limiting case of receiving a new heart, new lungs, new arms, and so on’ (Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), p. 253). It is important to resist such turns of phrase, as it also to resist idioms such as Noonan's ‘the person occupying Robert's body’, since they import unacceptable assumptions about the nature of human persons into the discussion. Our language is thoroughly infected with Cartesian dualism, and so it may feel quite natural to speak of having a brain, or having a body. But there is something strange here. There is a sense in which we have our CLT (for we could, in principle, lose it), but there is no such sense in which we have our CNS. (And it is the CNS that is the animal.) We have a body just in the sense in which lizards or cows have bodies. If the locution strikes us as strange in those contexts (I think it should) then we owe ourselves an explanation if it doesn't strike us as strange when human animals are being discussed. On this matter see further Long, D., ‘The Philosophical Concept of a Human Body’, Philosophical Review, LXXIII (1964), andThe Bodies of Persons’, Journal of Philosophy, LXXI (1974), as well as Williams, B., ‘Are Persons Bodies’, reprinted in Problems of the Self (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973).

26 Closest continuer theorists sometimes write as if it were important whether or not the gap is large in terms of human sensibilities. Let it, then, be large.

27 Noonan, , pp. 487–8.

28 Noonan, , p. 486.

29 Philosophical Explanations, p. 59n.

30 Penelhum's point, noted earlier, about how people would react in the presence of large numbers of apparently reincarnated people, seems to me to be substantially, even if more temptingly, the same sort of point. People can be wrong in large numbers as well as on their own.

31 Philosophical Explanations, p. 659 n. 9.

32 Philosophical Explanations, p. 60.

33 Compare Penelhum: ‘The second source of our instinctive preference for saying that our heroes have changed bodies rather than experienced some radical upheaval in their memories is more familiar. It is the deep commitment of most of us in our interpretative thinking to psychophysical dualism. We seem to believe in an independently identifiable purely psychical entity which inhibits the body and can leave it and go to another. An examination of our story and our identification practices shows that such a concept is not coherent and not borne out by the imaginary events’ (Survival and Disembodied Existence, p. 87).

34 See, e.g. Kaplan, David, ‘On the Logic of Demonstratives’, Journal of Philosophical Logic, viii (1978), 8198. On Shoemaker's defence via non-rigid designators see the exchange in Inquiry between Andrew Brennan and B. J. Garrett (Brennan, A., ‘Best Candidates and Theories of Identity’, Inquiry, xxix, 423–38;Garrett, B. J., “Best-candidate Theories and Identity: Reply to Brennan”, Inquiry, xxxi, 7985;Brennan, A., ‘Reply to Garrett’, Inquiry, xxxi, 8792).

35 Personal Identity, p. 159.

36 This is true in general, but particular conditions give rise to a great variety of differing results. For example, flatworms that readily regenerate whole worms from quite small fragments may die as the result of a small wound. See further Chandebois, Rosine, Histogenesis and Morphogenesis in Plananan Regeneration (Basel: S. Karger, 1976).

37 For further details see, e.g., Hyman, L. H., The Invertebrates: Echinodermata, The coelomate Bilateria, iv (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1955), ch. 15.7, ‘Class Asteroidea’, pp. 245–412.

38 This option is discussed in detail in Robinson's, Denis subtle and ingenious paper, ‘Can Amoebae Divide Without Multiplying?’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, LXIII (1985), 299319. Robinson points out one interesting result: assuming this solution, in the ordinary course of nature the number of amoebae in the world can only diminish, never increase.

39 Daniels, , p. 501.

40 I have discussed this matter at greater length in ‘Theological Question Begging’, Dialogue, forthcoming.

41 Daniels, p. 502.

42 , Ockham argued that this is true even for a necessarily omniscient knower (Tractatus de Praedestinatione et de Praescientia Dei Respeclu Futurorum Contingentium, Q2, art 4 in Opera Philosophica, II, 530, ed. Boehner, Philotheus, (New York: St Bonaventure, 1978), translated Adams, M. and Kretzmann, N. as William Ockham: Predestination, God's Foreknowledge, and Future Contingents, (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1969), p. 87). We might, however, note Calvin Normore's word of caution: ‘This seems plausible where X [the knower] is a fallible creature but less plausible where X is God’ (‘Future Contingents’, in Kretzmann, N. et al. , eds, The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), P.372).

43 To be mistaken is to believe p when p is not the case: (Bp & ~ p). The possibility of being mistaken concerning one of your beliefs involves believing something that logically may be false, whether or not it is in fact false: (Bp & ◊ ~ p). In the range of cases under consideration we are dealing with propositions which are necessarily true if true at all: (p → □ p)- But then we have:

(1) (p → □ p) → (◊ ~ → p → ~ p) taut

(2) (◊ ~ p → ~p)→((Bp& ◊ ~ p)→(Bp& ~ p)) taut

(3) (p → □ p)→((Bp & ◊ ~ p)→(Bp & ~ p)) 1, 2, syll

I.e. for the class of propositions under consideration, if it is possible that you are mistaken in your belief, then you are mistaken. The result follows equally, of course, if we interpret the possibility of being mistaken in one of our beliefs as (Bp & ◊ (Bp & ~ p)), since this entails (Bp & ◊ ~ p).

44 Compare Austin: ‘dreams are narrated in the same terms as waking experiences: these terms, after all, are the best terms we have; but it would be wildly wrong to conclude from this that what is narrated in the two cases is exactly alike’ (Austin, J. L., Sense and Sensibilia (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962), p. 49).

45 Daniels, , p. 504.

46 Thanks to Deborah Brown for bringing the relevance of this point to my attention by way of her ‘Swampman of La Mancha’ (Canadian Philosophical Association Meetings, May, 1991). See further: Davidson, Donald, ‘Knowing One's Own Mind’, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, LXHI (1987), 441–58, andStich, Stephen, ‘Autonomous Psychology and the Belief-Desire Thesis’, The Monist, LXI (1978), 571–91.

47 Those unfamiliar with the liquids of Twin Earth should consult in the first instance Putnam's, ‘The Meaning of Meaning’, reprinted in H. Putnam, Philosophical Papers, II: Mind, Language, and Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975). Briefly: the inhabitants of Twin Earth resemble us exactly: they have qualitatively indistinguishable mental histories and current states. However, what they call ‘water’ is not H2O, but a complex chemical which Putnam abbreviates as XYZ, whose behaviour in all relevant respects duplicates that of water. Before the eighteenth century at least, terrestrial and Twin Earthian neuro-physiological states would have been identical when the belief ‘water is wet’ was uttered. But the terrestrial beliefs would have been beliefs about H2O, while the Twin Earth beliefs would have been about XYZ.

48 ‘Knowing One's Own Mind’, pp. 443–4.

1 I have benefited considerably from conversations with my colleague, Ali Kazmi, while writing this reply.


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