Back in 1996, Carl Sagan made brief reference to then more rarely encountered cases of ‘past life memory’. Over the past quarter-century more than 2500 such cases have appeared as documented, first, in para-psychology journals and more recently in mainstream ones. Finally, commercial press has taken note of them and counselling psychologists have advised parents of children apparently exhibiting such behaviors to more or less ignore them, as they always seem to pass away with age. Sagan suggested at the time that such cases ‘might be worth a closer look’, though he doubted both their ultimate veracity and verifiability.
Given the epistemic structure of consciousness that Sagan shared with many persons who live in our own historical epoch, it would be difficult to accept at face value the idea that such a serial experience as multiple existences could be historically accurate or biographically real. But such an idea is of course an ancient one, and one not at all foreign to many of the world’s belief systems. Indeed, as we are with many things, it is we, as scientific-minded moderns, who are in the minority to this regard. From reincarnative world systems to social contract cosmologies, the idea of multiple lives is common-place and unworthy of much comment. The vast majority of human experience as an evolutionary consciousness has simply accepted the sense that one lives, dies, and returns to live again as a matter of course.
It is equally transparent that today we tend to view these beliefs as rationalizations against a fundamental mortality and finiteness that we observe in the world-as-it-is. Yet we are being asked, in reference to these other vantage points, if there is yet not a difference between finiteness and finitude, a difference between the structure of perception and the nature of consciousness. Parts of modern philosophy suggest that there is a difference, without reference to the idea of past lives or any other such possibility. The death which is mine own, which cannot be shared, and towards which I run headlong, is a horizon that is neither public nor finite in any objective sense. It cannot be identified simply because the precise timing of our personal deaths cannot be known in advance. In this, our death is a radically ‘subjective’ event. It cannot be said to be an ‘experience’ in any mundane sense of the term. Indeed, it is also commonplace for the philosopher to state that ‘I cannot experience my own death, only that of others’. Furthermore, no matter how many passings to which I have myself been witness, this does not alleviate from me the burden of having to face down my own death, nor does it exempt me from the problem of the Other itself. No matter how many others die, not only must I still myself die but there remains yet more others to remind me that the otherness of the Other itself lives on.
Perhaps this is one of the experiential sources of the idea of past lives. A person dies, perhaps even a loved on, an intimate, but most of the time, these persons are recalled to memory by the living-on of other persons. It is not that the dead are summarily ‘replaced’. Freud, in a poignant letter to Binswanger from 1929, points out that in fact we never make substitutions of this sort, and in not doing so, this is in fact the manner in which we remember the beloved dead. More common than even this is the facticity of resemblance. We often tell ourselves that we know many people, but fewer characters, as individual persons who are different from one another nevertheless exhibit many of the same traits, especially if they hail from a similar cultural background. Although the old ‘culture and personality’ school of mid-20th century anthropological psychology has fallen out of favour, there remains something of this in our casual bigotries towards ‘the others’. As telling as this is, it is also sage to note that we stereotype ourselves for the sake of convenience as well, not wishing to disassemble our own society for fear of worse to come.
And I think that this is the more essential reason that lurks behind our general unwillingness to examine the phenomena of childhood past life memory. To begin to take apart the sense of selfhood that animates our current life journey – I am one thing, in one time and place, in the world as it is known at present etc. – is tantamount to placing the entire notion of existence at a parallax. It raises the kinds of questions that might betray us to bitterness, resentment, and perhaps even ressentiment: Why these few persons and not others? Do only a select and insignificant number of persons get to ‘live again’? If I have one at all, is it possible that my soul is new and not old? What does that mean, if anything? How could old souls reanimate? Is it a random process of regeneration? Is it a fifth elemental force of organismic evolution, so far overlooked? Why do such ‘memories’, if that is what they are, fade or are superseded over time? If such souls are old, would not their accumulated wisdom wish to express itself? Or is anything we do in this life patently predicted by what we actually have already done, outside of our current ken, in past lives that all of us have once lived?
This last question is the one that is truly offensive to any modern person who shares as sacred the idea that we are free beings, and that our will alone is what should determine our destinies. So not only is the nature of existence called into question by these growing numbers of cases but more radically, so is our conception of human freedom, itself a very recent invention and, judging by world politics, also a very fragile one.
Although ‘old souls’ and ‘past lives’ appear to us as at best romantic reveries – and I use both as plot devices in my Kristen-Seraphim saga – there is yet no plausible current-life experiential explanation for the memory content exhibited by these children. It is also difficult to imagine a scientific manner of further investigating them other than what has already been done to confirm the accuracy of the memories in question. Could we imagine travelling back in time and confronting the previous ‘host’ in order to interrogate about a future life of which they would presumably have no knowledge? The entire data set confounds not only experiential life but also rational discourse as we have developed it over the past four centuries. From the point of view of the work I do, such cases serve to underscore the human ability to step back from our lives as lived and examine their serial selfhood as it is in a singular life. For we already know we do not remain the ‘same’ people throughout the life course. This would be an unmitigated disaster, and the prolonging of adolescence into one’s thirties in some regions today is testament to this. Beyond this, we are placed squarely in the imagination which, being also uniquely human, commits us to the wonder of all things both present and perhaps also not quite past.
G.V. Loewen is the author of over thirty five books in ethics, aesthetics, religion and education and more recently a ten volume adventure saga. He was professor of the human sciences for over twenty years.