This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart.
Kurt Gödel (1906-1978) was an Austrian-American logician and mathematician. He is best known for his incompleteness theorems and his work in axiomatic set theory. However, he also produced some deeply interesting philosophical arguments. Some of these are found in his unpublished papers and letters. One of these is an argument for life after death (for rebirth) given in a letter written in 1961 to his mother, Marianne Gödel:
In your last letter you pose the weighty question whether I believe we shall see each other again [in a hereafter]. About that I can only say the following: If the world is rationally organized and has a sense, then that must be so. For what sense would it make to bring forth a being (man) who has such a wide range of possibilities of individual development and of relations to others and then allow him to achieve not one in a thousand of those? That would be much as if someone laid the foundation for a house with the greatest trouble and expense and then let everything go to ruin again. But do we have reason to assume that the world is rationally organized? I think so. For the world is not at all chaotic and capricious, but rather, as science shows, the greatest regularity and order prevails in all things; [and] order is but a form of rationality. (1961: 429-431)
How is another life to be imagined? About that there are of course only conjectures. But it is interesting that modern science is the very thing that provides support for them. For it shows that this world of ours, with all the stars and planets that are in it, had a beginning and, in all probability, will have an end. But why then should there be only this one world? And since we one day found ourselves in this world, without knowing how [we got here] and whither [we are going], the same thing can be repeated in the same way in another [world] too. (1961: 429-431)
The paragraphs from Gödel’s letter contain an argument. This is Gödel’s Argument for Rebirth. One way to analyze it looks like this: (1) Nature produces humans; that is, nature produces us. (2) If nature produces us but does not allow us to realize all our potentials, then nature is not rational. (3) From 1 and 2 it follows that, if nature does not allow us to realize all our potentials, then nature is not rational. (4) However, science shows that nature is rational. (5) Therefore, nature allows us to realize all our potentials. (6) We do not realize all our potentials in our earthly lives. (7) Either we have future lives in which we will realize all our potentials or we do not. (8) If we do not have future lives in which we will realize our potentials, then nature does not allow us to realize all our potentials. (9) However, nature does allow us to to realize all our potentials. (10) Therefore we have future lives in which we will realize all our potentials. (11) While it is not likely that these future lives will appear in this universe, it is possible that there will be other universes after this universe ends. (12) If this possibility is not actualized, then nature does not allow us to realize all our potentials and is not rational. (13) But nature is rational and does allow us to realize all our potentials. (14) Consequently, we will have lives in other universes and through those lives we will realize all our potentials. This is clearly an argument for rebirth, since other future versions of our lives must appear in those future universes.
The mathematician Hao Wang was a close friend of Gödel. Wang reports that Gödel was interested in the construction of a “rational religion” (1987; 2) and characterized Gödel’s philosophy as rationalistic optimism (1987: 218). Assuming that reason is not self-negative, the most rational way for anything to actualize its potentialities is also the most optimistic way. Granted this optimistic premise, your future lives will realize all your positive potentials. The most optimistic way can be spelled out by two rules. These two rules define an iterative algorithm (so that any process directed by these rules is an example of algorithmic iteration). The two rules are as follows:
- The Initial Rule states that you have an initial life. Your initial life is just your present earthly life. Your initial life runs biologically from conception to death. It exists in your initial society in your initial ecosystem in your initial universe.
- The Sucessor Rule states that for every one of your lives, for every way to improve that life, you have a better successor life that is improved in that way. Starting with your initial life, the successor rule defines an endlessly ramified tree of ever better lives. Every successor life exists in a better successor society, ecosystem, and universe.
These two rules define an endlessly ramified tree of lives. The lives in the tree are stratified into ranks, and the tree contains as many ranks as natural numbers. The zeroth rank contains your present life; the first rank contains all the future versions of your present life; each next rank contains all future better versions of all the lives in the previous rank. For every natural number n, there is an n-th rank of lives. These ranks can be extended to the infinite using a Limit Rule; but that’s too technical for discussion here.
These rules define the theory of rational rebirth. The theory of rational rebirth follows from the logic of creation and evolution by rational selection. Rational rebirth is driven by natural creative power (it is driven by natura naturans, expressed through the dynamic interaction of objective will and objective reason). Rational rebirth exemplifies the concept of rebirth in Theraveda Buddhism. There is no personal identity that binds all your lives together. On the contrary, all these lives are counterparts in the sense defined by David Lewis (1968, 1986: ch. 4). The theory of rational rebirth does not involve any immaterial thinking substance that travels from universe to universe – it involves no Cartesian minds. To use some old-fashioned jargon, it is not transmigration, it is palingenesis. Of course, if the soul is the form of the body, then each of your lives can be an instance of your soul; all your lives can realized and run the same body-program. There are no memories of past lives; you cannot remember your past nor anticipate your future. So what’s the point? The point is that nature will realize all your positive potentialities. Your nature will be fully actualized. Nature contains the fullness of your person.
Rational rebirth is linked by resemblance to the Wheel of the Year. On the one hand, rational rebirth is an instance of algorithmic iteration; the two rules for rational rebirth define a cyclical pattern of action that generates your tree of lives. On the other hand, the Wheel of the Year is abstracted from the cyclical patterns of life and death in earthly nature. Bringing these two hands together, the Wheel of the Year can symbolize rational rebirth. The cyclical pattern of rational rebirth is the Great Wheel. One way to fill out the symbolism is to use the spring equinox to symbolize birth and the fall equinox to symbolize death. The light half of the year (from the spring to fall equinoxes) represents life; the dark half of the year represents the time between lives. During this time, there is no persistent self that exists. The self is merely an abstract pattern (the form of the body) that is carried by the Great Wheel, from lifetime to lifetime, from universe to universe.
Since rational rebirth does not involve any theistic deities, it is entirely consistent with atheism. The Great Wheel is driven by natural creative power (natura naturans). And while natural creative power is divine, it is not a theistic deity. An atheistic nature-religion can include rational rebirth as its doctrine of life after death. The Pew Religious Landscape Survey states that 18% of atheists believe in life after death; those atheists are free to adopt rational rebirth. Since rational rebirth does not conflict with science, and since it does not involve any super-natural entities, it is also entirely consistent with scientific naturalism. Rational rebirth is probably not consistent with strong forms of positivism. And skeptics will say that there is not enough evidence for it. However, atheism is distinct from skepticism and positivism. While positivists and skeptics may be forbidden to do speculative metaphysics, atheists are free to do as much speculative metaphysics as they want (so long, of course, as it does not involve any theistic deities).
The Pew Religious Landscape Survey states that earthly reincarnation is affirmed by 24% of Americans. Anybody who believes in earthly reincarnation can be offered rational rebirth as a more reasonable alternative. (And to say that it is more reasonable does not imply that it is true.) The mythos of earthly reincarnation points to the logos of rational rebirth. If you are dealing with somebody who believes in earthly reincarnation, you may want to try to dialectically lead them to the more reasonable theory of rational rebirth. You might win a friend and avoid making an enemy. Atheistic or rational Wiccans can affirm rational rebirth instead of earthly reincarnation. And if such Wiccans are willing to see the god and goddess as merely symbols for objective will and reason, then they can see the interplay between the god and goddess as symbolism for the Great Wheel. Rational rebirth captures the Wiccan idea that the purpose of reincarnation is self-perfection, that is, the actualization of all the positive potentialities of the soul, over many lifetimes.
The Pew Religious Landscape Survey states that 10% of atheists pray at least weekly; those atheists are free to pray to the Great Wheel. The Great Wheel is not a god or goddess; it is not a theistic deity at all; nor is it even a deity of any kind. It is merely an abstract cyclical pattern, an iterative algorithm. The content of an atheistic prayer to the Great Wheel might simply express the desire that it will carry your pattern forward, so that you will be reborn. Facing the greif of separation by death, two parting lovers might express their love in the prayer that the Great Wheel will carry them on together forever, that they will love again. As a response to an existential crisis, such atheistic prayers may be comforting. There is absolutely no reason why atheists should be denied such comfort. And any atheistic world-view which hopes to gain mainstream acceptance and to serve as a meaningful way of life for many people will have to provide such comfort. An atheistic nature-religion would thus be part of a positive and life-affirming atheism.
Closely related posts on the soul and multiple lives:
Links to some (but not all) of the other posts in this broader series on Wicca and atheism are below:
Gödel, K. (1961) Letter to Marianne Gödel, 23 July 1961. In S. Feferman et al. (Eds.) (2003) Collected Works: Volume IV: Correspondence, A-G (Mathematics). New York: Oxford University Press, 429-431.
Lewis, D. (1968) Counterpart theory and quantified modal logic. Journal of Philosophy 65, 113-126.
Lewis, D. (1986) On the Plurality of Worlds. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
Wang, H. (1987) Reflections on Kurt Gödel. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.