Reincarnation and Personal Identity

John Harney
Magonia 19, May 1985.

Most people know what reincarnation is. That is, most people would say that the statement that we live a succession of lives in different bodies is either true or false. For it to be true or false it must be meaningful. But will this apparent meaningfulness stand up to attempts to analyse it? Apparent memories of past lives are usually obtained by means of the procedure known as hypnotic regression.
Subjects are asked to recall earlier and earlier experiences until, finally, they are asked to recall events which happened before they were born. This sometimes produces seeming memories of past incarnations.

Sceptical scientists criticise such reports by saying that the subjects have invented such stories out of a natural desire to please the hypnotist. If the story of a past life seems to be accurate, then it is said that the subject must have obtained the details, either consciously or subconsciously, from books, documents or other historical material.

But let us suppose that the subject’s account of experiences in a past life is demonstrated to be very accurate and that it throws new light on certain historical questions. Let us further suppose that it is demonstrated that the subject could not have obtained the historical facts by any normal means. Does this, then, prove that the subject is the same person as the historical person whose experiences have been recalled?

Here we are faced with the problem of personal identity. Now the usual criterion for personal identity is bodily identity, so that P2 at a time T2 is the same person as P1 at an earlier time T1, if and only if P2 has the same body as P1. However, we also have the criterion of psychological continuity, as favoured by John Locke, whose version of the psychological theory has been summarised by Richard Swinburne as follows:
According to Locke, memory alone (or “consciousness”, as he often calls it) constitutes personal identity. Loosely – P2 at T2 is the same person as P1 at an earlier time T1, if and only if P2 remembers having done and experienced various things, where these things were in fact done and experienced by P1. (1)
Locke actually distinguished between these two kinds of identity – physical and psychological – by distinguishing between a 'man' and a 'person', as in the following passage:
But yet the soul alone, in the change of bodies, would scarce, to anyone but to him that makes the soul the man, be enough to make the same man. For should the soul of a prince, carrying with it the consciousness of the prince’s last life, enter and inform the body of a cobbler as soon as deserted by his own soul, everyone sees he would be the same person with the prince, accountable only for the prince’s actions; but who would say it was the same man? The body too goes to the making of the man and would, I guess, to everybody, determine the man in this case, wherein the soul, with all its princely thoughts about it, would not make another man: but he would be the same cobbler to everyone besides himself. (2)
In the case of reincarnation our criterion is not bodily identity but psychological continuity. This means that P2 should be able to remember the actions and experiences of P1. Cases in which this seems to happen are revealed by hypnotic regression. However, it is possible to have false memories. Quite apart from reincarnation, cases in which people seem to remember events which demonstrably never occurred are quite common, for example when witnesses in a courtroom disagree with one another. In some cases they are perjuring themselves, but usually their memories of the events they are trying to recall are false or hopelessly distorted. In such cases though, we do not usually suppose that these witnesses are not the same persons as those who were present at the events in question, because we have evidence of bodily identity. For example, if the police were satisfied that I was not physically present when a certain crime was committed they would certainly not call me as a witness. Thus in all practical, everyday circumstances we equate personal identity with bodily identity.

However, most of us would agree that there are two aspects to personal identity, depending on whether it is the identity of oneself or that of another which is in question. For example, when considering the concept of reincarnation most people would be inclined to say: “One day I shall die and eventually I either shall or shall not be reincarnated, and if I am reincarnated I either shall or shall not remember my previous existence.” So it seems that memory is not an absolutely essential factor when it is a question of whether I have been or shall be reincarnated, but it is essential in the case of some other person.

Let me try to clarify this apparent difference between the identity of one’s own self and other selves. The feeling that most of us have is that there is something “special” about one’s own identity, even though we try not to be self-centred and are careful not to fall into a solipsistic state of mind. Suppose, for instance, that a person who has met me some time ago meets me again and recognises me by noting that my physical appearance, manner of speaking and character are pretty much the same as he remembers them from our last meeting. He thus recognises me as being the same person as the one he met on a certain previous occasion. This is all very well, but most of us feel that there must be some further fact, transcending these common-sense criteria, which is essential to our continuity as conscious individuals.
As Derek Parfit says, some people “…believe that the nature of their own identity through time is, somehow, such as to guarantee that…questions about their identity must have answers. This belief might be expressed as follows: “Whatever happens between now and some future time, either I shall still exist, or I shall not. Any future experience will either be my experience or it will not”". (3)

So here we have the problem that if I am a person P1 at a time T1 and if at a later time T2 there is a person P2 who, in the judgement of expert investigators and reliable witnesses, satisfies all the usual criteria for being the same person as P1, then I might or might not really be that person. Now this is a very difficult idea to grasp, even it seemed fairly obvious before we started thinking about it, but the problem can be highlighted at the expense of introducing a complication into our notion that a person P1 might be reincarnated as a person P2 who is really the same person as P1.

Let us imagine that investigators have satisfied themselves that there are good grounds for believing that P2 is a reincarnation of P1. Let us further imagine that it is then discovered that an entirely independent series of hypnotic sessions has established that another person, P3, has an equally good claim to be a reincarnation of P1. What could we say about such a situation? There would appear to be four possibilities:

1. Neither P2 nor P3 are reincarnations of P1
2. P2 is a reincarnation of P1
3. P3 is a reincarnation of P1
4. P2 and P3 are reincarnations of P1.

If we accepted option 2 before P3 came into the picture, we will have trouble in finding a good reason for now going for option 1. If we still accept option 2, or if we change our minds and go for option 3, then we must state our reasons for deciding between these apparently conflicting claims in such a way that our choice will not seem to be entirely arbitrary. It might seem a good idea then to go for option 4. We can say that both P2 and P3 remember a previous life as P1 and that the available evidence supports their claims (thus fulfilling John Locke’s criteria for identity of “persons”). Thus it is reasonable to assume that P2 is the same person as P1 and P3 is the same person as P1, although we have to concede (although some philosophers would not agree) that P2 is not the same person as P3.

It is a very weird situation, but we can learn to live with it. However, remembering the discussion in the previous paragraphs, we then have to ask ourselves: What if I were P1; would I be reincarnated as P2 or P3? Could I be both? It seems not. Let us imagine that as P1 I am told by a great wizard that I am going to be reincarnated as as two people at the same time and that one of these persons, P2, will have a happy life and the other, P3, will have a miserable life. I would then be inclined to say: I hope I shall be P2. If I am P2 then I cannot be P3. Logically, it seems like tossing a coin; the result can be heads or tails, but not both at the same time.

It is possible to introduce any number of further complications into our philosophical speculations about the meaning of the concept of reincarnation, which would take us even further away from the simple concept of a person having a series of consecutive lives in a succession of bodies, but some people may insist that such problems do not arise in reality and that it never happens that more than one person seriously claims to have been a particular person in the past, and that past lifetimes which are recalled never overlap. It would indeed be interesting to know whether or not such complications ever occur and, if so, what kinds of explanations are put forward to account for them. If accounts of reincarnation are simply an artefact of the human mind, it would need very detailed historical knowledge on the part of the subject who recalls a number of past lives to avoid any overlapping.

The foregoing discussion has only scratched the surface of this particular philosophical issue. For example, it has been tacitly based on the idea of personal identity as being “all or nothing”, rather than being, as some philosophers argue, a matter of degree. However, I think I have said enough to demonstrate that arguments about reincarnation are hardly likely to be settled by mere facts! We must try to agree on what we mean by this concept before we can know exactly what it is we are going to argue about. Obviously, this will be no easy task.


Shoemaker, Sidney and Swinburne, Richard. “Personal Identity”, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1984, p. 8
Locke, John. “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding”, II, xxvii, 15
Parfit, Derek. “Personal Identity”, in Glover, Jonathan (ed.), “The Philosophy of Mind”, Oxford University Press, 1976, p. 142.