Old Soul – Now I Know what it Means, Sadly

Old Soul – Now I Know what it Means, Sadly July 8, 2019
A program cover for the musical "Babes in Arms."
I like to sing “Where or when,” a song from this musical. It imagines lovers who have met somewhere, somewhen in a previous life.

A couple of times recently I heard someone call my 13-year-old granddaughter an old soul. It was a compliment, I’m sure. That’s not what “old” generally is. Things don’t always improve with age, but apparently souls do. That’s what a book that some friends recommended I read tells me, anyway.

My wife and I were enjoying a too-rare visit with folks we partied and prayed with in days gone by. They had, in their words, a shock for us – they were no longer Catholic. Instead, they believed in reincarnation and the power of hypnotism to uncover memories of the spirit world. Lots of people, including Catholics believe or half-believe in “past lives.” They may not know how foreign that belief is to Catholic teaching.  But our friends know the Catholic faith. If “shock” is the right word, they could have spared me some by telling me they had only turned atheist.

Journey of Souls by Michael Newton is the book they recommended. It’s not as heavy a read as Sally McFague’s Metaphorical Theology, which I’ve just finished. I’m reading Journey with McFague’s metaphors in mind. Maybe I’ll find the image that helps me understand what excites people about souls migrating through life after life. In other words, why would people want such a thing to be true? Especially when they already know something as beautiful as the Catholic faith.

That will be the focus of a future Monday post or two. Today’s post, since I’ve only started my friends’ book, will describe my initial negative responses to reincarnation.

Old soul or any soul – That’s not me

I find my identity in this body. I’m not a soul inside a body. On the subject of souls, I’m quite Aristotelian, which is to say, Catholic. Plato has his souls flying about in heaven and getting stuck in bodies every once in a while. Aristotle is down-to-earth. Since the time of Thomas Aquinas, the Church has followed Aristotle. So what is and isn’t a soul?

The soul is not a spiritual thing in a physical thing. I am not two things. Neither am I just a spiritual thing. (I experience my self as quite material.) My soul and my body go together to make one thing – me. One Medieval theologian said soul and body are not things but principles, or beginnings, of things.

My friends, who are really into souls, don’t wonder; but you might: Why believe in souls at all? Well, think of two questions we ask about something. We ask what it is. I am a human being, an individual in a way that rocks and plants and (I think) even animals are not. I am Jack Hartjes. We also ask what a thing is made of. I am flesh and bone, cells, molecules, atoms, whatever biology, chemistry, and physics study. I can’t avoid either of these questions, so I think in some way reality must correspond to both of them.

That’s all I can say, emphasizing “in some way.” I’m a linguistic realist, but not naïve. I have to talk about myself in two different ways. Reality doesn’t have to correspond with exactly two different things. When the philosopher talks about two beginnings of one thing, it sounds about right. Not that I have a clear understanding of it. That kind of knowing is for the sciences, which tell us a lot about reality. But not necessarily everything.

Being a skeptic: false data

When a scientist comes across data that don’t fit with an accepted theory, there are two options. The scientist might throw out the old theory and put a new one in its place. But that’s often difficult or traumatic or both. The other option is to look for what might be wrong with the data. The second option is more common, easier, and usually correct. It’s what I choose when I hear stories about flying saucers, ghosts, and other weird phenomena.

The data presented in Journey of Souls doesn’t fit with my strongly held worldview, and it’s definitely weird. So I look for reasons not to believe the data, and they’re not hard to find.

The most obvious reason for being a skeptic is: Michael Newton, the book’s author, could be lying. He could be taking advantage of people’s gullibility about preternatural things to make a buck.

People are gullible today. We imagine we live in an age of reason, of people thinking for themselves. But our reasoning has started working backwards. We’ve become skeptical, supposedly thinking for ourselves, about all the wrong things.

Not that established ways of thinking and acting should never be questioned. The field of Western medicine, for example, can stand some enrichment from seemingly unlikely sources. But, in general, it’s the unlikely sources that ought to be questioned first. These days anyone with an odd theory or supposed fact can convince millions that even the surest conclusions of science or history are wrong or doubtful. Think: global warming, birtherism, Sandy Hook, the Holocaust, etc.

Being a skeptic: misinterpreted data

So Newton could be lying, could be part of the surge of people deliberately choosing power and profit over the common good. And, by the way, adding to the confusion that makes concerted societal action for any good purpose impossible. But there’s a more likely reason for not believing the conclusions of his book. He could be honestly misinterpreting his data.

Newton is a psychoanalyst and hypnotist. He uses hypnotism to help his clients uncover what appear to be memories of past lives and the periods between lives. His clients describe the experiences of souls in these between periods in great detail. It seems like a scientific procedure guaranteed to produce a lot of imaginative stories.

Scientific experiments have controls. The control in these experiments consists in the similarities among the reports by many individuals. But these clients all live in the same world that I live in. In this world it’s impossible to avoid all the latest bantering about souls and past lives. Nothing is more likely than that these things influence a person’s visions under hypnosis. The reports could still be true. My point is that there’s another explanation. This skeptic prefers the other explanation.

Thinking with metaphors

Strictly rational thinking is one of the great accomplishments of the human race. Much, but not all, of science is strictly rational thinking. For concerns beyond the competence of science (and sometimes even in science), we have other kinds of thinking. For example, we take a known item out of one realm and let it tell about something relatively unknown in another realm. At one time I tried to let the solar system say something about atoms. That’s thinking by comparison, or metaphor. It was a metaphor with limited usefulness. But it appealed to my youthful imagination. More usefully, scientists think of light with two metaphors – wave and particle.

Theology, philosophy, or any attempt at a comprehensive worldview relies much more on metaphorical thinking than science. The Bible and the Christian tradition have many metaphors to help understand God, the world, and the relation between them. A favorite metaphor for my own personal worldview is story. I think of the human and natural processes in the world as a big story, complete with a Storyteller.

When I come back to Journey of Souls in a future post or two, these metaphors will be a point of comparison. I’ll look for what seem to be basic metaphors in Newton’s accounts of souls and the spirit world. I won’t be able to judge their truth of falsity any better than I have already in this post. But I’ll see if I like them better than other metaphors, including my favorite one. I will try to suggest reasons for wanting reincarnation to be true … or not.

Image: MountMorrisCentralSchool District

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  • I believe in reincarnation but I haven’t read Journey of Souls by Michael Newton. I’ve heard that alleged memories elicited under hypnotic regression tend to be unreliable. If we’re looking at more compelling evidence we should read up on the research by Ian Stevenson and his successors who investigate the spontaneous memories of past lives of children.

    But there’s another issue. Even in the absence of any evidence why would it be considered reincarnation is unlikely? Well, the author identifies his self with his body. But one’s self is the author of all our thoughts, emotions, perceptions; indeed the totality of all our conscious experiences. Neither this self or its conscious experiences have any mass, electric charge, location or any other physical properties. Contrariwise, the body is characterised by such physical properties. Hence it is a straightforward conclusion that one cannot be identical to one’s body.

  • fritzpatrick

    Thanks for your thoughtful post, especially for suggesting Ian Stevenson. I see a point where you disagree with me, but I’m not sure you disagree with what I actually said. I try to word things carefully, so paraphrasing is dangerous. I did not say I identify my self with my body. I said, “I find my identity in this body.”

    Allow me to continue along this line: This particular body and no other is essential to my identity. I can’t even say I have a body, as if I and my body were two different things. But it’s not quite right to say I am a body as if that were my whole identity. So we agree that thoughts and such are not made up of matter. I’m searching for words now, but I guess I wold say something like, “My body manifests who I am.” Even my thoughts require some physical embodiment. Without a brain I couldn’t think. And without being able to express thoughts visibly and audibly with my body, I would never have learned to think. I think pretty much the same goes for emotions.

    I don’t think I’ve convinced you to change your position on reincarnation. I have another post coming up on the subject, in case your interested.