Remembering Past Lives

In Helen De Cruz & Ryan Nichols (eds.), Advances in Religion, Cognitive Science, and Experimental Philosophy. New York: Bloomsbury. pp. 169-196 (2016)

Authors
Shaun Nichols
Cornell University
Robert M. Kelly
State University of New York, Buffalo
Claire Robinson-White
Champlain College
Abstract
The aim of this chapter is to address the role of memory in past-life convictions. Although it is commonly accepted in the modern media - and popular western culture more generally - that people believe they have lived before because the memory contains detailed verifiable facts, little is known about how people actually reason about the veracity of their previous existence. To our knowledge, the current project is the most extensive research that probes the role of memory in past life convictions. More specifically, we explore two questions. First, to what extent does memory lead to past-life belief, and is this conviction based on external validation or via the episodic sense of personal identity contained in the memory? Second, what is the conception of self on which one's current self is taken to be the same as the past-life self? In what follows, we propose that memory plays an important role in convincing people that they have lived before. Fundamentally, this memory is episodic insofar as it represents the event as happened to the encoder. This memory contrasts with semantic memory - memory of facts...Further, we contend that it is the episodic sense of personal identity (rather than external validation) that typically contributes to the belief in a past life. Finally, we argue that the conception of self implicated in past-life belief is the non-trait conception. Of course, this fits naturally with the idea that the belief in a past life issues partly from the episodic sense of identity, since it is the non-trait conception of self that is implicated in the episodic sense of identity... Our proposal in this chapter can be construed as a psychological extension of Reid's point in the context of past-life belief. People assume that they are the same person as someone in earlier times, despite large variations in the traits between those individuals, and they think this partly because of the testimony of their episodic memory. If our account is correct, then it makes the belief in a past life less bizarre, at least psychologically. For we are suggesting that the episodic sense of personal identity that led to your conviction that you existed at the time of your sixteenth birthday celebrations some decades ago, is also involved in other people's convictions that they existed 200 years ago. This proposal is also situated in recent cognitive approaches to the study of religion and religious experiences, which suggests that extraordinary convictions are often underpinned by the ordinary processes of social cognition (e.g. see Barrett 2000; Barrett 2007; Boyer 2001; Lawson and McCauley 1990; for reincarnation, see White Forthcoming-a,-b).
Keywords past life beliefs  memory  cognitive science of religion  personal identity  experimental philosophy
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