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Soul power

Faith had believed in reincarnation for as long as she could remember. But recently her interest in her past lives had reached a new level. Now that she was visiting the medium mystic Marjorie, for the first time she had information about what her past lives were really like.

Most of what Marjorie told her was about her previous incarnation as Zosime, a noblewoman who lived at the time of the siege of Troy. She heard about her daring escape first to Smyrna and then on to Knossos.She was apparently both brave and beautiful, and she fell in love with a Spartan commander, whom she lived with at Knossos for the rest of her life.

Faith didn't check the real history of Troy to try to verify Marjorie's story. She did not doubt that hers was the same soul that had lived in Zosime. She did, however, have a nagging concern about what this all meant. Much as she enjoyed the idea of being a Greek beauty, since she didn't remember anything of her life in Knossos or have any sense of being the person Marjorie told her about, she couldn't see how she and Zosime could be the same person. She had found out about her past life, but it didn't seem like her life at all.

Many people all over the world believe in various forms of re- incarnation or rebirth. There are plenty of reasons for thinking that they are mistaken to do so. Let us suppose, though, that we do have souls and these are reincarnated. What would follow from that? This is the question Faith is grappling with. Despite the somewhat suspicious nature of the story Marjorie told her – why is it our past lives always seem to be as interesting, powerful people with colourful lives? – Faith does not dispute its veracity. The question she asks is: if I do indeed have the same soul as Zosime, does that make me the same person as her?

Faith intuitively answers 'no'. She has no sense of being the same person as Zosime. This is not surprising. When we look back at ourselves in the past (rather than at our past selves), what gives us a sense that we are the same person is a certain degree of psychological connectedness and continuity. We remember being that person, doing the things she did, holding the beliefs she held and so on. We also have a sense of how our current selves grew from that person.

If our souls did inhabit other persons in previous lives, we have no such psychological connections with them. Marjorie needs to tell Faith what Zosime did and thought, as Faith does not remember being Zosime; nor has she any sense of having grown out of Zosime. Without these connections, how can it make sense to talk about Zosime and Faith being the same person, even if they do share the same soul?

If these thoughts are on the right track, then even if we have souls that survive bodily death, this does not necessarily mean that we will survive bodily death. The continued existence of the self seems to depend on psychological continuity, not some strange immaterial substance. The continued existence of the soul no more guarantees the continued existence of the self than the continued existence of a heart or other organ does.

But now consider what it is like to look at a photograph of yourself as an infant. To know what that person was like, you usually have to ask someone who was an adult at the time and who remembers. 'What was I like?' you ask them, as Faith asks Marjorie, 'What was I like at Troy?' Your psychological links with that toddler may be so weak as to be almost non-existent. Does that mean you are, in a very real sense, no more the same person as your baby self than Faith is the same as Zosime?

from The Pig Who Wants to be Eaten by Juian Baggini (page 193)

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