As you might be able to tell from the title, I’m trying out for a new television series, kinda like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but with philosophy. It will be phenomenal.
Ok, now that I just lost almost all of my audience, what the heck am I talking about? I would like to bring back a poetical version of reincarnation. By Materialist, I mean that I am not supposed any sort of supernatural forces at play – I think that this view is perfectly compatible with saying that everything in the world is reducible to the laws of physics, for example. By Neoplatonic, I’m acknowledging my debt to Plotinus for the idea. By Buddhist, I mean that I reject the notion that an individual has a single identity; they are many identities, changing for time and context, with no one single underlying “person” tying it all together. And by Reincarnation, I mean that what we are (as multiple and as subject to the laws of physics) can be embodied at different points in space and time.
Keep in mind, this is less a strict philosophical treatise and more an aesthetic treatment of our experiences. Positing new forces in the world which would yield differing empirical outcomes is a matter of truth and falsity. Drawing new metaphors with which to experience the world is a different task, one equally important for human living, though neither the former nor the latter are reducible to the other.
So, let’s start with Plotinus. Plotinus holds that there are multiple levels of reality, which I will proceed to butcher for the sake of a quick overview (if you find this at all interesting, I do recommend Hadot’s Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision. Even as a card-carrying atheist, I still find Plotinus to be one of my biggest intellectual influences, up there with Moshe ben Maimon and Carl Sagan). There is the level of matter, where everything is disorganized and chaotic. Then there is the level of Physis, Nature, where we experience order within matter. Next is the level of Psyche, Soul, where there are many forces and flows working together. After that is Nous, Mind, which is like a single, unified, multi-faceted gem: everything reflects everything else. Finally, at the top, is (the) One, or the one-not-appearing-in-this-post.
Now, Plotinus gives some interesting thoughts on reincarnation. He is not sure whether it occurs. However, if it does occur, it’s not the soul that migrates from one body to the next. It’s the logos of a person, the rational principle that makes them what they are. Think of it like this: does it make any sense to ask what you would have been like in another time? What would you have been like as an Egyptian? In ancient Sumer? Millenia from now? Plotinus holds, in effect, that this question could have a real answer. Whatever it is that makes you, you, could be instantiated in a different time and place. That is reincarnation at the level of Nous rather than the more typical notion of souls flitting about from one body to the next.
Maybe you want to hold that this logos is your DNA, for example (hence why this is compatible with materialism). But I doubt that there is a single constituent to it. For some purposes, I might indeed say that my DNA is what makes me, me. In other contexts, it might be my personal relationships. In still others, it might be the ideas and ce I act behind. I see no reason why any particular answer should trump the others in all cases. I am a metaphysical mutt, of no single purebred self-existing substance.
But for that reason, I am tied in to things beyond this present point in space-time. More than tied-in: I am those things. When I fight for truth and freedom, I am a vantage point of the universe looking at itself, the exact same vantage point as others participating in the same task. I am reincarnated as them in the past, present, and future. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that I am part of the multiple-embodiment of those ideas. The ideas don’t exist outside of bodies, but there’s no particular reason to think that their bodies must have contiguous atoms.