In reading Siddhartha, a thought occurred to me about the idea of reincarnation. It's a topic that comes up often enough in culture, literature, and religion to wonder about what motivates it and what it might be unconsciously correlated to, even if there's no good reason to suspect it's an actual real phenomenon (at least "real" as defined by how the various religions describe it). My apologies to any readers who've not read the book by Herman Hesse called Siddhartha; all of the examples I'm going to use in this post will come from it, so they may be a little less comprehensible.
Hesse explicitly describes Siddhartha as dying and being reborn at least once, and implicitly at each of the stages of transformation in his life. Consider for a moment our "self" or "soul" (whatever you want to call the mental thing that dies with our body), as the pattern of responses, habits, views, opinions, and practices in relation to the external and internal world. All of that soul is contained in and described by the neural patterns flashing about inside ones head, and by the changes that one makes on the outside world (i.e. the symbols that one externalizes; for example art, literature, engineering, and science; or even other external objects not created by that person but which have symbolic significance). These patterns, and these external manifestations of them, are potentially more transient than the medium which houses them. With that in mind, it seems legitimate to say that a person, or a part of a person, does indeed die when they make some major transformation in their life.
For instance: the suffering, self-hating merchant-Siddhartha (that is, the collection of mental patterns that compose him) does indeed die at the river bank, though his body lives. And since that body has housed the patterns of the Samana-Siddhartha, and since he has a powerful symbol of those patterns before him in the form of the river, it seems legitimate to say that he is "reborn" in that form. Whether you want to say "reborn" or "reawakened" I think is of little significance, by the way. But since the medium, the body, has also contained other patterns in the intervening time, the Samana-Siddhartha is reborn with the benefit of those experiences.
In this light, it makes some sense to speak of reincarnation; death and rebirth of selves; though in the context of the same body rather than spanning different ones. I'll leave speculation on that to others; but speaking of "old souls" becomes a useful concept with this understanding. I'm reminded of my thoughts on the "dimensionality of souls," which I thought I had already blogged about, but evidently not. No time like the present:
In thinking about Hofstadter's "On Souls and their Sizes" discussion, in which he makes the controversial but well-supported claim that its legitimate to consider the souls of humans and other animals as being "larger" or "smaller" than one another, I got to thinking: "If souls can have sizes, what dimensions could they be measured in?" That is, in what ways can souls be larger or smaller than each other? I came up with four, with a caveat for more.
The most intuitive dimensions to consider might be called "breadth" and "depth." The Breadth of a soul asks: "how much the soul has taken into itself?"; "how many concepts does it have, and about how diverse of a subject matter?"; and "how much of the world has it experienced?". Breadth is therefore a measure of the richness of the soul's experience. But breadth only speaks of quantity of subject matter; a broad soul could be very dysfunctional and unintelligent without the dimension of Depth.
The Depth of a soul can be said to "measure" how interconnected its concepts are. How well has the soul integrated the things it has leaned and absorbed? How many levels of abstraction has it created from the things it has experienced? What connections has it drawn, and how valid are they? A sub-dimension to Depth might be added called "clarity" that speaks of how well organized the interconnections in this Depth are, and how accessible the interconnections are; i.e. how easily the soul can slide from concept to concept, in other words Fluidity. I'm liking all these water-metaphors, by the way.
Those two seem pretty obvious, and I suspect that anyone who does any thinking at all about such things will come to the same conclusions. The next two are less obvious, and I draw specifically from what I've learned from Daniel Dennet for the first: the Spatial dimension.
Dennet claims that it’s valid to consider the effects/marks that a mind/soul makes on the world as a part of that mind/soul. In simpler animals, things like marking territory with scent serve as externalized mental symbols; it frees the mind from having to remember the specific characteristics of the geography by making a simple and easily recognizable mark on it. Thus, a piece of the mind exists outside the body. The situation gets a lot more complex with humans, given all our various modes of symbolism. Without belaboring the point, consider that an author who has a book successfully published could be said to have pieces of their self distributed all over the surface of the earth. It’s pretty easy to think of space in those terms, but consider the n-dimensional space of the Internet: something published online is instantly accessible from every corner of the globe... what does that mean for the "Spatial dimensionality" of a soul?
Lastly, and returning to the point that got me off on this tangent, we can speak of the "lastingness" or "time-dimensionality" of a soul. Depending on what we officially grant "soul status," and with the Society of Mind idea in mind (where minds are composed of lots of competing "agents" (sub-souls) that vie for control of resources and ultimately the body), we can see little souls being born and dying continuously within a person throughout a their life. A person who's kept a population of these agents alive consistently for a long period of time can be said to have an "older" soul. Of course, allowing for agents to be re-awakened or reborn complicates our consideration, but no matter.
For instance, again consider Siddhartha. While he was wasting away in his merchant lifestyle, the older parts of him were dormant or dead. The living part of him had very little past, it was stuck in a cycle of birth and death that could be measured in days or months rather than years via gambling, alcohol, and absorption in frivolity. Therefore the merchant-Siddhartha could be called a "young" soul. When he laid this cycle to rest and the seeker-Siddhartha was reborn, he again became an "old" soul. The concepts of "oldness" and "youngness" get a little twisted out of their normal usage by using them in this way; but I think that it's an understandable analogy.
Stated in another way, the time-dimension can be thought of as follows. If a person makes plans, sets goals, and follows through on them, they can be said to be affected by their past self. Thus the self of their past lives on into the present. Likewise, if a person is motivated by thoughts of the future, of how their future-self will be, Their future-self can be said to be living in the present. The amount of time thats encompassed in this way could be said to be the "age" of the soul, but again age seems like an concept thats inadequate to the task of describing the concept. The best word I've got is "time-dimensionality," which doesn't quite roll off the tongue. At any rate, I think you'll get the idea.
Thus: the four-dimensional soul. I mentioned a few other "sub-dimensions" already, and I certainly think that one could identify many other ways one might wish to measure a soul, so I'm not suggesting confining consideration of souls to these specific dimensions. I do however think that they are useful concepts to use when thinking about minds, selves, and souls.
At any rate, there's still one chapter left in the book, so I'm interested to see what other thoughts it stirs. Hesse is good.