The Eternal Return of the Same

The classical versions of eternal recurrence say that recurrence occurs within our universe.  Those classical versions say that there is a cyclical pattern of events in our space-time.  Since the classical theory of eternal recurrence makes claims about our universe, it is open to scientific study.  And it is almost certainly false.  There is no recurrence within our universe.   However, that does not refute the theory of eternal recurrence.

Here is a multiverse version of eternal recurrence that is consistent with science: (1) our universe exists; (2) for every universe, there exists an exactly similar predecessor universe; and (3) for every universe, there exists an exactly similar successor universe.  This theory says nothing about the events in our universe.   Perhaps our universe starts with a Big Bang and then runs through its entire history until all entropy is maximal.  If that’s right, then that same pattern occurs in every predecessor and successor universe.  This theory says that there is a two-way infinite series of exactly similar universes.

Since all these universes are exactly similar, their contents are exactly similar.  Your life exists in our universe; but if something exists in some universe, then it is a member of a two-way infinite series of exactly similar counterparts in the other universes.   The term “counterpart” signifies a technical philosophical concept, developed most extensively by the recent American philosopher David Lewis (1986: ch. 4).  Counterpart theory is deeply fascinating, but there’s no need to get into it too deeply here.

The multiverse version of the eternal return entails that your life is a member of a two-way infinite series of exactly similar lives in exactly similar universes.  For every one of your lives, there exists an exactly similar predecessor life.  For every one of your lives, there exists an exactly similar successor life.  You will be reborn over and over again, to live your life over and over again.  However, this rebirth is not reincarnation – there is no immaterial thinking substance (no Cartesian soul) that travels from counterpart to counterpart.  There is no transmigration of souls.  Nor is there any continuity of memory – you do not remember your past lives in any meaningful way.  Of course, you do remember your past lives in the entirely trivial sense that remembering what you did yesterday is the same as remembering what you did on the corresponding day of every one of your past lives.

And there is no personal identity across all your counterparts.  Taken together, your counterparts don’t make up the stages in the life or career of some big person.  You are not identical with any one of your past or future selves.  They are distinct people who are exactly similar to you in every way.   To use some logical jargon, they are qualititatively identical to you, but they are not numerically identical to you.   Your life does not persist through recurrence; you do not survive into the next cycle.  Your life is merely repeated, and the form of your life is exactly re-instantiated.  Your biography is the singlel universal shared in common by all your lives.  But that universal is not you.

This theory of eternal recurrence does not involve any theistic deities.  On the contrary, it says that nature is fully self-sufficient.  Since nature is uncreated, it needs no creator.   It always has been and it always will be.  So this theory of eternal recurrence is entirely compatible with the most rigorous atheism.  And the thesis that you have infinitely many counterparts does not involve any immaterial thinking substance that passes from each previous counterpart to its next counterpart.  It is entirely consistent with the most puritanical materialism.  Of course, this theory agrees with the Aristotelian doctrine that the soul is the form of the body.  Your body has a form – it runs a biological program.  And that program will run over and over again.

This theory of eternal recurrence is also consistent with naturalism.  It does not involve any super-natural agencies.  It is an entirely natural theory.  It is even a purely mechanistic theory.  Nature is just a big loop.  It is a looping process that has always been running and always will be running.  The ultimate natural pattern, the logos of natural creative power, is a big looping program.  It always has and always will be running.

This theory of eternal recurrence is consistent with atheism, with materialism, and with naturalism.  But what about rationalism?  Rationalism permits the existence of any objects that are found in empirically justified theories.  Rationalism doesn’t guarantee that these things exist; it merely states that it is rational to say that they exist.  Unfortunately for the eternal return, it doesn’t seem like there are any good arguments for it.  Unless some good evidence-based argument for it is found, it’s not rational to believe in the theory of eternal recurrence.   And eternal recurrence, with its sterile repetition of the same, probably isn’t what an advocate of rebirth wants anyway.

Despite its failures, the eternal return is a good illustration of a theory of rebirth that is consistent with atheism (as well as most other doctrines that inspire atheists).  It suggests that there may be good lines of reasoning for more desirable types of rebirth.  There may be types of rebirth that can be included in an atheistic nature-religion.


Lewis, D. (1986) On the Plurality of Worlds.  Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Background on themes in this post:


 The Soul is the Form of the Body

From Aristotle through Buddhism to Nietzsche

Below the fold are links to more posts on atheistic metaphysics, plus posts on parallels between Wicca and atheistic naturalism and possibilities for a Wiccan like atheistic religion:

Atheism and Wicca

The Wiccan Deity

The Wiccan Deity: An Initial Philosophical Analysis

The Wiccan Deity: Related Concepts in Philosophy

On Atheistic Religion

Nine Theses on Wicca and Atheism

Atheistic Holidays

Criticizing Wicca: Energy

Atheism and Beauty

Do Atheists Worship Truth?

Some Naturalistic Ontology

Criticizing Wicca: Levels

Atheism and the Sacred: Natural Creative Power

Atheist Ceremonies: De-Baptism and the Cosmic Walk

Atheism and Possibility

The Impossible God of Paul Tillich

Atheism and the Sacred: Being-Itself

Pure Objective Reason

Criticizing Wicca: Rationality

The God and the Goddess

Wicca and the Problem of Evil

The Wiccan God and Goddess: Reality and Mythology

Criticizing Wicca: God and Goddess

Wiccan Theology and Sexual Equality

Revelation versus Manifestation

Creation Stories

The Logic of Creation

Evolution by Rational Selection

Two Arguments for Evolution by Rational Selection

The Wheel of the Year

Criticizing Wicca: The Wheel of the Year

The Atheist Wheel of the Year


About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • SAWells

    “Rationalism permits the existence of any objects that are found in empirically justified theories. Rationalism doesn’t guarantee that these things exist; it merely states that it is rational to say that they exist.”

    There is a “might” missing from this sentence. If something hasn’t been observed but is part of a workable theory it is rational to say that it MIGHT exist. Claiming that it DOES exist is distinctly iffy. This is why the guys at CERN are not claiming to have discovered the Higgs yet. More data are needed.

    Also your initial description of your multiverse idea as “consistent with science” is rather dodgy; since the idea is intrinsically untestable, it’s not even a hypothesis, and since it proposes an infinite number of other universes without actually explaining anything in this one, Occam’s Razor is not your friend.

  • Christa Landon

    I read your blog today with interest.

    I think your essay would be stronger — and more accessible for those of us with different educations — if you expanded a bit more on the sources which you are using for “the classical versions of eternal recurrence.”

    The classical versions of eternal recurrence say that recurrence occurs within our universe. Those classical versions say that there is a cyclical pattern of events in our space-time. Since the classical theory of eternal recurrence makes claims about our universe, it is open to scientific study. And it is almost certainly false. There is no recurrence within our universe…

    When you assert that “There is no recurrence within our universe,” I’m not sure what you mean.

    Diurnal cycles, seasonal cycles, and astronomical cycles are all cases of recurrence. With NO recurrence, how (and why) would humans have discovered mathematics and scientific laws.

    There is now abundant evidence to show that multiple neolithic cultures not only noticed these cycles, but could predict them precisely-enough to construct massive monuments aligned to solar and lunar cycles.

    Of course, even bronze age astrologers couldn’t calculate a time when all the visible planets and the constellations would line up exactly the same way twice. They may have even realized that such a perfect realignment COULD NOT HAPPEN in hundreds of thousands of years or more.

    I’d be interested in seeing your classical sources. Many modern Pagans know the maxim, “As above, so below; as the universe, so the soul; as without, so within.” This doctrine appears in PYMANDER, but I don’t think Hermes Trismagistus was saying that the universe perfectly duplicates itself over and over.

    It’s possible that he was expressing a corrolary of the Pythagorian principle that one should begin one’s religious speculations with a close examination of the natural world. The alternative program ends in debates like how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

    Pythagoras noted that any two discordant notes could be united by a harmonic third to create a harmony. He then proposed that the same could be done in cases of social conflict. Community organizers depend on the same dynamic.

    Lao Tse noted the patterns of extreme weather, and the fact that no one can stand on tiptoe all day. From these he extrapolates that the most extreme tyrannies also must fail, because all extremes generate a countervaling force.

    The idea of endless and perfect duplication of universes — or persons — seems cartoonish: Is “The Real Story about Life, the Universe and Everything” reducible to a photocopier with an infinite supply of ink and paper?

    Modern Paganism is much influenced by a metaphysics (Magick) based on the idea of the lawfulness of Nature, and that change can be made through understanding those laws and using them.

    Magick recognizes repeated cycles in Nature, but Magick is the opposite of a belief in an inexorable Fate, endless duplication, or a micro-managing deity.

    I look forward to future discussions!

    Rev. Christa Landon, A.M., D.Min.
    Trustee, Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans —
    Director, Pagan Institute

    • Eric Steinhart

      Hello Christa! I’m glad to see that Unitarians are getting involved here — this blog entry is part of a much larger series, and is basically a footnote. The larger issues with paganism are found in the other entries on the blog. – Eric