Buddhist Ideas of Rebirth, Eternal Oblivion, and the Multiverse.
Ideas of reincarnation and rebirth are found in almost every religious school and culture throughout human history and on every corner of the globe. However, no culture has explored this topic more than the Hindu culture of India and its heir school of thought, Buddhism. As such, in this paper, I will be focusing on the correlations between beliefs of rebirth in the religion of Buddhism and modern-day beliefs of Eternal Oblivion after death and the Multiverse. This is a paper that should be considered a one-part thought experiment and one-part philosophy, though I will be drawing from sources of religion, philosophy, literature, and science. I will be approaching this paper from a physicalist or materialist worldview. The existence of anything beyond the material universe has yet to be proven so we will not consider it.
In this paper, I will be arguing that when considering the idea of rebirth in the Buddhist view, combined with current understandings of quantum physics and biology, one can potentially glean some understanding into human existence and the existence of multiplicity in the universe.
For all we know, consciousness is a purely material process. Physical reality is all there is. However, in recent years discoveries in quantum mechanics have led some scientists to speculate that this universe may not be all there is, that there may be a near-infinite number of universe i.e. the Multiverse. This is due to the Schrodinger equation, that reality’s true nature is one of the quantum waveforms. These waveforms hold all potential realities within them and the potential of any one moment in time and space only becomes actualized when it is measured. This actualization of the waveform is known as a “collapsing” of the wave function. Because of this fact, scientists have begun to explore the possibility that when the wave function collapses reality itself “splits” or branches into two separate realities. This would be implying that given the age of the universe, there are probably infinite parallel universes in existence and that every possible event that could happen following the laws of physics will and have happened. What this means is that every variation of reality and indeed of we could be actualized into existence without breaking any fundamental laws of the physical universe. There could be infinite variations of earth, with infinite variations of our own existences. This is where the Buddhist idea of rebirth comes into play.
To start, Buddhism has a somewhat unique and oddly modern view of what a human being is. Buddhism, unlike its predecessor Hinduism, does not posit some immaterial and transcendent Self or soul. Hence, the Hindu concept of reincarnation is not the Buddhist concept of rebirth. Reincarnation implies an eternally nonchanging soul that travels from one lifetime to another and from one body to another. Rebirth within the Buddhist context is more of a transfer of existence, a phenomenon implied by the fact that existence already exists and that it is ever-changing. This is very much in line with present-day ideas of how life works according to physics and biology. Life is by definition, a transfer of energy within the environment, facilitated by us. When taking the idea of quantum wave functions and multiverses, this makes sense on a cosmic level. If there are indeed multiple realities of us, then it would follow that when we die another version of ourselves is still alive in another world. The origin of that other person is the same as us, but it is not us. It is us only so much that it would share many physical similarities with our current person and the environment in which it existed would be similar to ours. However, the experiences that our multiverse doubles would have had would be unique and different from our own, hence our doubles could not have considered us. They would simply be a unique twin.
This would also mean that any idea of an afterlife or a continuation of our present consciousness is nonexistent. When we die, that’s it. The self that we know so well ends. Eternal oblivion is the fate of all life in this world and in every other one. However, life will continue and potentially, other lives that look very similar to ours will exist. The end of one life does not imply the end of all life or of all variation it simply means that this life, our life, comes to an end. This view of nothingness after death, of eternal oblivion, is the current scientific consensus on the afterlife. Biologists think that consciousness is a material occurrence in the brain and when the brain dies, we die. This conclusion fits almost seamlessly with the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth and the idea of the Multiverse. It posits an idea of the continuation of existence that originated from us yet is distinct from us and until science discovers exactly what the nature of consciousness is, this seems to be the most probable “afterlife” this world can muster.
There are two counterarguments to this argument. The first is that there is no multiverse and that our reality is the only one in existence. Since the existence of the Multiverse is still only theoretical, this is a perfectly acceptable and logical counter. The premise of this paper is that the argument would be true if the Multiverse was proven to exist. The second counterargument is one that would be proposed by someone of a religious or spiritual persuasion. Simply put, one could argue that reality is not limited to the physical universe, that consciousness exists independently of our bodies and the world. This is also a perfectly acceptable standpoint, but it is also just a belief that has no real evidence to back it up. When comparing the two counterarguments I have provided, the first is the most evidence-based and logical. At this moment in time, it is the most real and actual picture of reality however, pictures of reality are everchanging and always evolving. At least we hope they are.
In conclusion, the world that we think we know is probably a lot more mysterious and absurd than we realize. The questions and thoughts posed in this paper are points of contention and contemplation that have been in the human unconscious since time immemorial. I believe that the realization, we know almost nothing, is the most productive and intellectually fruitful thought human beings can have. The acceptance that true knowledge is every receding horizon is simultaneously the most meaningful and inspiring of thoughts and the most terrible and meaningless of burdens. But as long as human consciousness exists on this planet and in this universe, the quest for knowledge and the drive of the intellect will remain. At least I hope it will. But for now, we are a species constantly searching for answers and perhaps, we should take a moment and look up at the stars.