David Kronemyer

Reconsidering Past Lives

August 30th, 2015 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

DAVID KRONEMYER: I am quite skeptical of folk psychological entities such as spirits, souls and past lives. I recently started thinking, though, that we may have been giving them short shrift, and that possibly we should consider them more sympathetically. The analytical philosophy tradition in which I was trained taught us to question everything, and accept nothing that isn’t grounded empirically. Dogmatically, I simply referred to this principle whenever anything odd or unusual came up, without giving it much thought. Then, I read Thomas Nagel’s book Mind and Cosmos – Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. I have been a fan of Nagel’s for a long time – certainly since reading his paper, What Is It Like To Be a Bat, way back in 1974. While I disagree with many of the points he makes in Mind and Cosmos, it is well argued and worth taking seriously.

What happened next is that I revisited Derek Parfit’s work on personal identity. I had read one of his original papers that appeared in the eponymously entitled John Perry anthology, but pretty much had forgotten about it. But something in Nagel made me pick up that volume again, re-read the paper, then I rounded up some of his other papers, and read those, too.

One practical effect of reading them is that I changed my will. Previously I had wanted to be buried on my death with my organs intact, or at least nearby in Canopic jars. Possibly influenced by too much Egyptian mythology, I thought I might need them in the afterlife. But Parfit convincingly demonstrated that I might leave a more determinate and beneficial trail of influence by making them available for transplantation, preferably into someone who later had children. Because then, in a way, I would have made that subsequent life possible, and even further lives after that.

Which is a form of life after death, at least for your body parts, and however attenuated that might be. I don’t think anyone’s influence can be projected much further. Retrospectively, I barely knew my grandparents. There was a time when my father went on a genealogy kick and truffled up a lot of information about various ancestors, but they were just names on a page. Even famous people have short life spans. Today, who knows or cares anything about Grover Cleveland, the 22nd (and 24th) President of the U.S., to whom I am allegedly distantly related? Nobody, except some obscure scholar, and it probably has been a long time since she/he got excited about him.

I think the Internet only has exacerbated this tendency, which will continue to gain momentum. The details of one’s life, and one’s material production, will remain readily accessible in some archive somewhere. All of one’s Facebook posts, one’s Tweets, the “life-casting” videos one assiduously uploaded to YouTube. But who cares? It’s like old home movies, whoever watches them? Or old records (whatever those were), whoever played them more than a few times after you bought them, then relegate them to sit on a shelf? With such a plethora of information, the significance of all of it is reduced to almost nil. I think Google’s initiative to digitize all of human kind’s intellectual output is meritorious. But 99.99% of it is completely irrelevant. People are divesting themselves of material culture, not accumulating it. No doubt about that. More significantly, they’re also divesting themselves of intellectual culture – ideas, thoughts, and cognitions. Thinking about things simply is too effortful, if not downright problematic. No demand at all for critical thinking. New people, places and objects loom on the horizon. On the freeway of life, they’re like traffic accidents. We slow down to gape at them, then drive off quickly. We are taught to be “mindful of the present moment,” thereby giving us license to abandon our past, the historical forces that miraculously came together to make us who we are, not to worry about a thing.

Nowhere is this truer than with consumer entertainment software, my former line of work. Formerly, a band making a record would take several months to do so in a professional recording studio. Now, people can do it in an evening in their bedrooms. Formerly, making a movie would require hundreds of thousands of dollars (and it still can, if you have that kind of money to spend). Now, people shoot them on their iPhones. Formerly, the New York publishing industry served as a kind of baleen on the whale of contemporary literature, to weed out plankton and krill of dubious merit. Now, they’re self-published. Museums no longer exhibit 90% of their works, and are de-accessioning them as briskly as ethics will allow. Libraries are selling off vast quantities of barely-used books because they lack shelf-space to retain them. In eras past, poetry was a respectable profession. Now, everybody’s a poet. But who reads poetry anymore? Nobody! Intellectual property does not have a “long tail,” as one writer recently claimed. Rather, the vast unwashed hoi polloi of aesthetic works fail at the gate. They have zero value. None whatsoever. As perishable as a load of cantaloupes in the hot sun on a Bakersfield train siding.

We also can see this movement in our recent celebrity culture. Whatever happened to Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Jessica Simpson, and their associates? They’ve been displaced by Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Kim Kardashian, et al. How quickly we move on, how quickly we forget yesterday’s young ingénues.

This tendency is exacerbated by living in Southern California, where a different concept of time prevails. The Southern California that was imagined into existence by John Fante, Raymond Chandler, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathaniel West, Charles Bukowski, Joan Didion, Thomas Pynchon (to name a few). There still were native Americans roaming the Central Valley at the turn of the last century. History proper didn’t really start until after the 1st World War. There was a strange lacuna having something to do with migrants from Oklahoma and art deco pizzazz in the 1920s and 1930s. But then came the 2nd World War, and people really only can remember what happened after that. I can tell you with certainty, for example, that Disneyland opened around the mid-1950s. Then there was the Cold War, and the 1960s with bomb shelters, surf music, the Watts riots, the Beatles, the Summer of Love, Charles Manson, Vietnam protests, people either dying (Jim, Jimi, Janis) or getting assassinated (JFK, RKF, MLK), maybe some other things happened, but it’s hard to tell for sure. In the meanwhile, the great stone cathedrals of Europe are hundreds of years old, built on religious sites that are thousands of years old. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some kind of internet curmudgeon. I like it very much, even if it did transform the music business in a way that made my skill-set obsolete. Like a steel worker in a mill town after the factory closes. The streets of Beverly Hills are filled with agents, lawyers, managers, accountants – entire retinues of people – morosely perambulating about like zombies, vainly searching for the entourages that once sustained their livelihoods. Fortunately I was able to repurpose myself into something where I can be of service to others, and that’s really interesting, too. My observations are more in the nature of ontological ones – I remember things that seemed real at the time, and just wonder where they skittered off to.

Anyway, back to Parfit. The big problem with his theory is that he’s still dealing with empirical causation, as opposed to what might be called metaphysical causation. But let’s take a closer look at basic premises. The law of conservation of mass is to the effect that matter neither is created nor destroyed. The first law of thermodynamics is to the effect that energy neither is created nor destroyed. Then Einstein merged the two into something like the total amount of mass and energy in the universe is constant. Given its pervasiveness in the structure of reality, why don’t these principles apply equally to minds and consciousness? This may sound a little strange, like we’re heading into some unauthorized zone of Cartesian dualism. But think of mental activity – mental events – as a form of energy. We know this to be true, because we can measure it with electroencephalography (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). There’s no reason why all of this should simply go missing after one’s demise. It’s got to be around, somewhere. It’s unlikely that it’s hovering like a cloud up in the stratosphere. So isn’t it at least plausible that, when someone passes, that energy is re-deposited into someone only then being born?

It’s true that principles of parsimony require us to embrace the simplest explanation of complex events; the one with the fewest moving parts. However, holding that the energy generated by one’s mental events simply evaporates, even as one’s corporeal form is recycled, actually may end up being more speculative than its counterpart theory. I definitely am intrigued by this topic and feel that I am vectoring towards a place where I can be receptive to it, i.e., recognize it when it occurs, accompanied by a subjective state of psychological certitude that it will emit because it is real and genuine, and not contrived or fake. Or just an interesting hallucination.