Monday, September 30, 2013

"Met Him Pike Hoses"

[Excerpted from my book The Other Side of Truth]

The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.
– Aristotle

When I was a graduate student in history in the mid-1990s the subject matter of my thesis was 19th century Free Christian Baptists in New Brunswick. The Free Christian Baptists were a denomination founded in 1832, and were among the closest inheritors of Henry Alline’s New Light movement. As a result I spent a great deal of time studying Alline’s work, as well as that of the people who succeeded him in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and therefore provided a bridge to the Free Christian Baptists. One day while reading through old journals from the period I came across a murder in New Brunswick that really struck a chord with me.

In 1805, three decades after Alline was “ravished by the spirit,” a group of people held a series of evangelical revival meetings outside the isolated settlement of Shediac, New Brunswick. The revivals were led by an itinerant preacher named Jacob Peck, who referred to himself as "John the Baptist." He was assisted by a poor local fisherman / farmer named Amos Babcock.

Like many of my own ancestors, Babcock’s family had moved to New Brunswick prior to the American Revolution. He had already led a small New Light circle, so when the charismatic Peck arrived in the Shediac area in early 1805 it was natural that Babcock joined with him in a New Light revival. Things quickly went awry, however, as the revival veered into New Dispensationalist fervor. Under Peck’s influence two of the women in Babcock’s circle assumed a prophetic role. One of them was Amos’ daughter, Mary.

The “New Dispensationalism” preached by Peck was a radical outgrowth of Alline’s New Light message. It placed private revelation above any Church authority, ministerial control, and even the Bible. After Alline’s death from tuberculosis in 1784 at the age of thirty-six, many of his followers set aside his more mystical beliefs, and his personal asceticism, and began to organize the New Light groups into more structured churches, usually along Baptist or Methodist lines. There was a smaller group, however, that embraced the mysticism inherent in Alline’s preaching, but not the personal asceticism. In 1791 these New Dispensationalists began to divide the New Light churches throughout the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia. Led by a group of charismatic young preachers, as well as a number of women, their movement quickly spread.

The pastor of the Horton New Light church, John Payzant, at first took a patient attitude to the young people who were formenting this new and even more radical spiritual revolution. He soon discovered, however, that if the original New Lights were the religious equivalent of the Mensheviks in 1917 Russia, the New Dispensationalists were the Bolsheviks.

Lydia Randall, one of the key New Dispensationalists in Horton, claimed to Payzant that she had a vision from the Almighty which had revealed to her that not only were all the orders of the church contrary to the spirit of God, but so was marriage, which came from the devil. She separated from her husband, and began to bring other young women around to her views. The movement spread from the Horton area throughout the Annapolis Valley, and then beyond. The more moderate New Lights became genuinely concerned, as did the secular authorities.

Some of the documented New Dispensationalist activities clearly involved fornication, adultery, and “religious” practices such as women riding on the backs of men. In 1793 at Waterborough, New Brunswick, the preachers John Lunt and Archelaus Hammond introduced their converts to sexual liberation. Rev. Jacob Bailey, a prominent Anglican minister whose own young daughter wound up influenced by the New Dispensationalists (she eventually ran away to Boston), characterized the New Dispensationalists as follows:
Here blue-eyed Jenny plays her part
Inured to every saint-like art
She works and heaves from head to heel
With pangs of puritanic zeal
Now in a fit of deep distress
The holy maid turns prophetess
And to her light and knowledge brings
A multitude of secret things
And as enthusiasm advances
Falls into ecstasies and trances
Her self with decency resigns
To these impulses and inclines
On Jeremy Trim a favorite youth
Who as she sinks into his arms
Feel through his veins her powerful charms
Grown warm with throbs of strong devotion
He finds his blood in high commotion
And fired with love of this dear sister
Is now unable to resist her.
Full of energy and fervor, exuding in a literal way the kind of sexuality that Alline’s preaching had always used as metaphor for the relationship with God, the young and unmarried New Dispensationalist leaders were absolutely convinced that they were divinely ordained instruments for the spiritual transformation of not only Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, but northern New England as well.4 In the chaotic period following the American Revolution and the settlement of thousands of Loyalists in the Maritime colonies this was dangerous and revolutionary stuff, at least in the eyes of the authorities and the majority of New Lights who wanted to assure the Crown of their loyalty.
It couldn’t last, of course. Nothing like the New Dispensationalist movement ever does. By 1797 the fire had died down and the New Dispensationalist leaders were for the most part brought back into line. Indeed, a counter-revolution began, led by former New Dispensationalist preacher Edward Manning, which saw almost the entire New Light movement subsumed within the much more conservative Calvinist Baptist church.

While the leaders and most of their followers had been brought back into the mainstream of the New Light movement, there remained a small and scattered group of New Dispensationalists who continued their spiritual revolution at the fringes of colonial society. It was within this tradition that Peck and Babcock operated.

As the revival continued over a period of several days, William Hannington, a neighbor who had been part of Babcock’s circle, became disenchanted with the New Dispensationalist turn that Peck and Babcock had taken, particularly when Mary Babcock began to speak about the imminent end of the world. Hannington later recounted that as part of her prophecies, Mary had stated:
… after this World had Been Drowned Six Years, a Saviour would be Born of a Woman & Laid in a manger in Swaddling Clothes & that the next World would be Be Destroyed By Fire. Mess’rs A Babcock & Peck told me she had said her Father & Mother & all the Children would be saved, But that her Aunt Masa would not.
“Aunt Masa” was Amos’ sister, Mercy Hall. This prophecy proved to be her death sentence.

On the evening of February 13th, as a winter storm approached, Babcock met with Hannington, who questioned the direction in which Peck and Babcock had taken the revival and remonstrated with Babcock over the neglect of his farm animals as he had became more and more immersed in prophecy and prayer. Babcock rebuffed Hannington, returned home with his brother Jonathan, and proceeded to grind some grain in a hand mill. As the flour came out of the mill, according to Jonathan, Amos took it in his hand and sprinkled it on the floor, saying that it was “the bread of Heaven.” Amos then took off his socks and shoes and went outside into what was a bitterly cold evening.

As he trudged through the snow around their ramshackle house he cried out, “The world is to end! The world is to end!”

He then looked up at the sky, and yelled, “The stars are falling! It will be but a few minutes before they are here!”

He went back inside and arranged his family in order against the wall.

“I am the angel Gabriel,” he said. “You need not be afraid.”

He told his wife to keep her eyes on him at all times or else he would “run her through.” When she looked away he struck her with his fist. He then turned to his two young sons and proclaimed them “Gideon’s men,” after which he took his youngest child into his arms, and blew into the 3 year old’s mouth so hard that according to his brother “it was almost strangled.” He then threw the child “with great force across the house against the Logs.” Fortunately, the child survived, but there was worse to come.

Amos took a knife, sharpened it on a whetstone, and walked over to his sister, Mercy.

“Take off your dress,” he told her, “and get on your knees and prepare for death, because your hour has come.”

Whether it was because she was scared for her life, she didn’t really believe that her brother would harm her, or she willingly accepted what was about to happen because she believed that the end of days really was upon them, is impossible to say, but Mercy Hall did as Amos commanded.

Amos then turned to his brother Jonathan and ordered him to take his clothes off as well. As was the case with Mercy, he complied.

Amos walked over to the window and stared outside, as if waiting for something to happen, or perhaps receiving his final orders. Either way, after several moments he turned away from the window and proceeded to dance about the room with the knife in his hand. Suddenly he made several feints at his brother, striking him in the hand. As Jonathan recoiled from his superficial wound Amos spun around and “flew across” the house towards Mercy. With three savage thrusts of the knife, he fulfilled at least part of his daughter’s prophecy. Mercy Hall, blood gushing from her wounds, collapsed and died on the spot.

Amos’ brother didn’t wait around to see who was going to be next. He rushed to the door and fled into the cold winter’s night, completely naked. He made his way through the snow to the house of the nearest neighbor, Joseph Poirier, which was approximately a quarter of a mile away. Poirier gave the terrified Jonathan some clothes and then they headed to the home of Hannington. After Jonathan related what had happened Hannington and Poirier, along with two of Poirier’s sons, proceeded to the Babcock home to investigate.

When they arrived they found the family in shock and Amos Babcock pacing about the room with his hands clasped, muttering to himself. Hannington told the two Poirier boys to restrain him. Babcock snapped to attention and tried to resist, but the Poiriers overpowered him even as he turned to his young sons and screamed, “Gideon’s men, arise!” They stood up to help their father but were compelled by Hannington to sit down again. Amos Babcock was tied up and then Hannington began the search outside for Mercy Hall’s body, which was no longer in the house.

As the darkness of the night began to give way to the morning light Hannington and Poirier discovered the disemboweled body of Amos’ sister buried in a snow drift outside the house.

Hannington placed Babcock under arrest and took him to the home of Amasa Killam, who had also been involved in the New Light revival until it had veered off into New Dispensationalism. When Babcock saw that his brother had given a statement describing what had happened, he cried out: “There are letters to Damascus! Send them to Damascus!” He became so violent that he had to be restrained on a bed, with his arms fastened securely to the floor.

Before anything more could be done a violent winter storm hit the area. It lasted for three days, after which Hannington and several others put a strap around Babcock’s arms and placed him on a light one-horse sled. They put their snow-shoes on and hauled Babcock by hand through the woods to the county jail at Dorchester. It was a twenty-six mile trek.

Babcock was indicted for murder a few months later, ironically on the same day that Jacob Peck was brought to book by the worried authorities for "blasphemous and seditious language."

Solicitor-General Ward Chipman, who prosecuted Babcock, clearly thought that he was delusional, but in 1805 that was no bar to a guilty verdict and a capital sentence. Babcock was convicted and hanged.

Flash forward almost two hundred years to the early 1970s when I was a kid, around five, maybe six. I can distinctly remember lying on the couch at home reading a book and then suddenly getting a feeling in the pit of my stomach like I was falling from a great height. I could actually feel the wind rushing around me as the velocity increased, and then it would stop as suddenly as it had begun. It didn’t feel as if I was falling – it felt like I was really falling. It was a frightening sensation, and it happened repeatedly.

As I grew older the experience stopped happening, and I stopped thinking about it. But other experiences replaced it. One of them was a particular dream that I had many times when I was eleven or twelve. In the dream I always wound up killing someone with a knife in what appeared to be a frontier setting. It wasn’t someone I knew in the real world, but it was always the same person in my dream, a young woman. The dream was so vivid that there were actually days when I went to school wondering to myself if I had really killed someone and repressed the memory.

Like the falling sensation this dream eventually stopped happening, and for years I forgot about it. It wasn’t until I started looking into the paranormal, and considering what might be possible beyond the “normal” world in which we’re told we live, that I recalled these earlier experiences (and others), and wondered if they might in some way be indicative of past lives. In the example of falling, could this be a holdover from a previous life where I had fallen to my death? Where the dream is concerned, maybe it was a holdover memory of a past life where I had indeed killed someone, a link through time still embedded in my subconscious.

Years later when I discovered the tragic case of Amos Babcock and Mercy Hall, the thought occurred to me that perhaps I was Babcock in a previous life, falling through the trapdoor with the hangman’s noose around his neck. Furthermore, perhaps someone I knew now was once Mercy Hall. At the very least, maybe I had experienced something similar in a past life, which was why the Babcock case resonated with me.

Which leads me, in a very circuitous way, to the subject of reincarnation, and its possible relationship to an advanced non-human intelligence.

The concept that the soul or spirit returns to live in a new body after death, either as a human being or in some traditions perhaps as an animal or plant, is a central tenet of many of the world’s major religious belief systems, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism. It was also promoted by many of the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, who called it metempsychosis (or as the character of Molly Bloom famously mispronounces it in James Joyce’s classic novel Ulysses, “met him pike hoses”). It can also be found in most aboriginal cultures.

Reincarnation is rejected, however, by the orthodoxies of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the belief systems that stem from the Old Testament. In the West it’s most often associated with celebrities such as Shirley MacLaine and the television talk show circuit, although in the past few decades it’s begun to receive more serious consideration, if not necessarily acceptance, within the mainstream.

Geddes MacGregor, for example, who was Dean of the Graduate School of Religion and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern California, examined reincarnation in his book Reincarnation in Christianity: A New Vision of the Role of Rebirth in Christian Thought. He concluded that Christian doctrine and reincarnation are not mutually exclusive belief systems.

“Each reincarnation,” wrote MacGregor, “is, of course, a resurrection… [which] can now be seen as a continuing process in which every rebirth gives us a new capacity for walking closer and closer with God.”

MacGregor then raised the possibility of a special evolutionary leap that I find quite intriguing.

“At the end of every aeon,” he conjectured, “there might well be… a unique step in the infinite pilgrimage toward God. I cannot know; but what I can know of my past, and even of the moral and spiritual development in my own life on earth suggests to me that such ‘leaps’ might occur at the end of every age of cosmic history.”

Notable figures in the past have also taken reincarnation seriously within Western society. David Lloyd George, for example, told his friend Lord Riddell that, “The conventional Heaven, with its angels perpetually singing, etc., nearly drove me mad in my youth and made me an atheist for ten years.” As he grew older, he continued, his perspective broadened and his opinions changed, until he came to the conclusion that, “We shall all be reincarnated and that hereafter we shall suffer or benefit in accordance with what we have done in this world.”

The Scottish novelist John Buchan, who wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps and later served as Governor-General of Canada after he had been made the Lord Tweedsmuir, described his own experience in which he hinted at past lives. “I find myself in some scene which I cannot have visited before and which is perfectly familiar,” he wrote. “I know that it was the stage of an action in which I once took part and am about to take part again.”

Yours truly in Scotland, 2009.

I’ve had experiences similar to Buchan’s. In 1987 I spent my third year as an undergraduate in college on exchange at the University of Dundee in Scotland. As soon as I got off the plane at Prestwick I felt an immediate affinity for Scotland that has continued ever since. There were certain places that I visited where I felt at home, as if I had been there before (St. Andrew’s was definitely one; Inverness was another). I’ve traveled to many other places since then but I’ve never felt a connection quite like the one I’ve always felt with Scotland. It was a feeling that was as strong as ever when I went back in 2009 with Holly Stevens. As I wandered about the Highlands, and visited the ancient standing stone circle at Lochbuie, and the ruins on the Isle of Iona, it all seemed familiar to me in the same way that it had twenty years before.

For most within Western society, however, the views outlined by Canadian author Tom Harpur on the subject of reincarnation in his best-selling book Life After Death remain the norm. Harpur examined reincarnation, and ultimately rejected it. “I have serious doubts about the value of a belief which tells me I have lived many times before when I haven’t the slightest glimmering of a memory of any of it,” he wrote. “It’s fine to say we’re in a kind of cosmic school, where we learn successive lessons about life and gradually purify ourselves. But if I can’t remember a single thing from all of this, of what use are these lessons and who is the ‘I’ who is supposed to be the student?”

“Since memory is an essential part of what makes me me and you you,” Harpur concluded, “I cannot see in what sense we remain the same person through repeated incarnations, or what possible good it does to be told that we have lived before.” This focus on lack of memory of past lives is central to the Western critique against reincarnation. However, there are a number of answers that address the concerns raised by Harpur in a way that I find compelling.

August Strindberg, for example, in Zones of the Spirit, presented the following dialogue between a pupil and a teacher:
The pupil asked: “Why is one not informed of one’s Karma from the beginning?” The teacher answered: “That is pure pity for us. No man could endure life if he knew what lay before him. Moreover, man must have a certain measure of freedom; without that he would only be a puppet.”
This makes perfect sense when you think about it. Who would want to go through life with all of the memories from previous incarnations? Indeed, most of us have enough trouble getting through our current lives with the memories we have accrued here. Adding memories from other lives, particularly if they were painful memories, would make a new life unbearable. They would represent the kind of emotional “baggage” that many people in this life try to leave behind, often through years of therapy.
Arthur Conan Doyle echoed Strindberg when he wrote in The History of Spiritualism, “We may point out that such remembrance would enormously complicate our present life, and that such existences may well form a cycle which is all too clear to us when we come to the end of it, when perhaps we may see a whole rosary of lives threaded upon one personality.”

The concept of “one personality” is intriguing, and ties into the idea that there is much more for us than just the individual. I’ve been known to say while discussing religion and philosophy with friends over a couple of drinks that “Jesus was a communist.” My point is that the focus on the individual that is the hallmark of Western society is like picking one piece of a very large, complex puzzle, and putting it forward as the key to our existence, when that piece is ultimately meaningless without all of the other pieces joined together. In my opinion, the “Kingdom of Heaven” is properly understood, if such a thing actually exists, as being all of us, linked together, whether here or in the great beyond.
There’s also the possibility that the memories are there, but we have to open ourselves up to them and make a conscious effort to access them. Maybe we can still hear the echoes as young children, before we are fully acclimated into this life and while we have a closer proximity to the last one.

Perhaps this world is just a stage in our development. When we die it’s possible that we have the opportunity to go on to the next, more advanced stage. Many people have described seeing the “white light” during what have become known as near death experiences, where a sort of doorway opens that we can go through. This could well be the moment of transition to the next stage of our development, which I’m convinced would be a collective consciousness where we leave our individuality behind and become one with each other in a being that would be by its very nature empathic, and therefore moral.

Accordingly, people who have done evil in this world wouldn’t get in to the next one but would be returned for another go around (which might explain why I’m here writing this, and you’re reading it, instead of experiencing the “great link,” to borrow a term from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). Further, there are many of us who would still be anchored to the idea of the individual, and therefore wouldn’t want to advance to this new level of development as part of a more enlightened group consciousness. Those types would also come back for another kick at the can in the hope that they would slowly come to see that they are part of something greater than themselves. As Victor Hugo observed, “The whole creation is a perpetual ascension, from brute to man, from man to God. To divest ourselves more and more of matter, to be clothed more and more with spirit, such is the law.”

Ultimately, the idea of reincarnation provides us with grist for the speculative mill when it comes to an advanced non-human intelligence. For example, what if such as intelligence is actually our collective consciousness – in essence, the portion of humanity that has grown up and reached the next level? It may exist as a being that is immortal, timeless, and virtually all-knowing, because it would embrace the entirety of human experience. This could be the quantum consciousness about which some scientists have started to speculate.

Perhaps this collective consciousness can inspire and even guide those who have not yet become a part of it, but it chooses to do so in a way that allows the individual to come to an acceptance of the true collective nature of humanity in their own time, just as parents don’t force someone to marry a particular person anymore. But they can still make the introduction, and set up some “chance” meetings between two people, and maybe that’s what the advanced non-human intelligence does in the various ways that it interacts with us, as it tries to lead us to a “marriage” with ourselves (in this case, “post-human” or “post-individual” as opposed to “non-human” intelligence would perhaps be a better way of looking at things). As a result, maybe we do indeed “remember” past lives, but in an oblique or abstract way, through synchronicities, déjà vu, dreams, and other “hints.” Even things such as the UFO phenomenon and ghosts could be part of the memory process. As discussed previously, they could be harbingers that give us a clue that there is something more than “this.”

One could go even further and imagine that at death, even if an individual accepted the nature of this collective being, he or she might choose to return to gain further experience which would eventually enhance the collective consciousness. Our existence could be a symphony that is constantly being written, with each life that we live a new note added to the whole. In a sense, we could be similar to honeybees, moving back and forth from the hive with the nectar – the “honey” for us would be experience that would enhance the collective.

This is a subject that the great French author Honoré de Balzac wrote about in his novel Seraphita. The main character is a perfectly androgynous being born to parents who by the doctrines of Emanuel Swedenborg have transcended their humanity in much the same way that the “post-individual human” collective consciousness could be the ideal culmination of the human experience. In the novel, Balzac wrote:
All human beings go through a previous life in the sphere of Instinct, where they are brought to see the worthlessness of earthly treasures, to amass which they gave themselves such untold pain! Who can tell how many times the human being lives in the sphere of Instinct before he is prepared to enter the sphere of Abstraction, where thought expands itself on erring science, where mind wearies at last of human language? For, when Matter is exhausted, Spirit enters… Then follow other existences – all to be lived to reach the place where Light effulgent shines. Death is the post-house of the journey.
He continued by observing that, “A lifetime may be needed merely to gain the virtues which annul the errors of man’s preceding life… the virtues we acquire which develop slowly within us, are the invisible links which bind each one of our existences to the others – existences which the spirit alone remembers, for Matter has no memory of spiritual things.” For Balzac, thought alone held the tradition of the past lives. “The endless legacy of the past to the present,” he concluded, “is the secret source of human genius.”

The most compelling evidence to me that there may indeed be something to the idea of reincarnation comes from the research of Canadian doctor and child psychiatrist Ian Stevenson, who spent decades examining thousands of children around the world who claimed to recall past lives.

Stevenson had a long and successful career in psychiatry, including a term as the Chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology at the University of Virginia. He focused on young children because they would be less likely to have been exposed to the details of a dead person’s life. As I noted previously, if we have lived lives before this one, it also seems to make sense that any echoes in the new one would be strongest in the very young. Like a rock tossed into a river, the ripples will be more pronounced at the moment of impact, and then slowly dissipate as they get further from the point of origin.

Stevenson employed a rigorous methodology, which he explained in 1989 as follows:
In the study of spontaneous paranormal phenomena we must usually interview and cross-question informants about events that have happened before we arrive on the scene. In principle, the methods are those that lawyers use in reconstructing a crime and historians use in understanding the past. Having the best account possible of the events in question one considers one by one the alternative explanations and tries to eliminate them until only the single most probable one remains. One then tries with further observations to confirm or reject the initially preferred explanation. In addition, series of apparently similar phenomena are searched for recurrent features that may provide clues to causative conditions and processes of occurrence.
“The study of spontaneous cases of extrasensory perception,” he added, “sometimes needs defending against the disapproval of those who have come to equate science with the controlled conditions that laboratories can offer and naturalistic situations cannot. Here the first point to make is that some important phenomena, such as the weather, volcanoes, fossils, earthquakes, and meteorites, do not occur in laboratories under controlled conditions, and yet we study them with scientific methods. We do this because science is not a physical location.”

What Stevenson discovered in a typical case of the reincarnation type showed the following features: 
1) Starting in years 2–4 the child spontaneously narrated details of a previous life. 2) The volume and clarity of statements from the child increased until ages 5–6, when the child talked less about them. 3) By age 8, remarks about previous life generally ceased. 4) Unexpected behavior unusual for a child but concordant with behavior of the deceased person occurred, such as phobias for guns or special interests and appetites. 5) In many cases the child had a birthmark or congenital deformity that corresponded in location and appearance to the body of the previous personality. A high number of reincarnated personalities reported violent death, to which the child alluded. 6) In some cultures the individual who "reincarnates" predicted his or her next incarnation and sometimes appeared in a dream to the expectant mother of the child to announce an intention to reincarnate in the baby. 7) After the age of 10 these child subjects usually developed normally.
Stevenson’s work never managed to gain widespread acceptance in the scientific community, largely because he couldn’t offer any physical evidence to support claims of reincarnation (the same argument used against the UFO phenomenon and ghosts). But he compiled a large body of research that for an objective observer must at the very least raise questions. For example, in one celebrated case a boy in Beirut described being a 25-year-old mechanic who died after being hit by a speeding car on a beach road. Witnesses said the boy gave the name of the driver as well as the names of his sisters, parents, and cousins, and the location of the crash. The details matched the life of a man who had died years before the child was born, and who was apparently unconnected to the child's family. Stevenson always sought alternative explanations, but repeatedly came across cases like this where none could be found.

Stevenson himself was cautious in his conclusions. He always emphasized that no single case offered evidence that compelled a belief in reincarnation, and he was adamant that the term “proof” not be used for the evidence he had accumulated or even hoped to find. Nonetheless, Stevenson considered reincarnation to be the best explanation for the stronger cases that he had investigated, and he took a dim view of the narrow-mindedness of much of modern science when it came to subjects such as reincarnation.

“For me,” he stated in 1989, “everything now believed by scientists is open to question, and I am always dismayed to find that many scientists accept current knowledge as forever fixed. They confuse the product with the process.”

Even Carl Sagan, who set out to debunk Stevenson’s work, was forced to conclude that it was worthy of consideration. In Demon Haunted World he noted that the claims "that young children sometimes report details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation" represented a phenomenon for which he could not offer an explanation. Of course, this was not an admission by Sagan that he believed in reincarnation. Rather, he was simply conceding that it was an idea “that might be true,” and which had what he considered “at least some, although still dubious, experimental support.”

One final thought about reincarnation. Most of us think of it within the context of a human coming back as another human, but what if it’s really a process of constant evolution, from the lowest form of life to the most advanced? Perhaps we begin as something like a paramecium and work our way up through myriad lifetimes until we hit the human stage, which is the final step on the staircase of individuality before we enter the door at the top and move into that collective phase of consciousness.

This might explain the affinity we have for pets, or why some people seem drawn to certain animals. In 1955, for example, the music critic Howard Taubman related how Finnish composer Jean Sibelius had considered this idea. “As a boy,” wrote Taubman, “Sibelius wandered in the wilderness of his native province of Hame. Birds always fascinated him. ‘Millions of years ago, in my previous incarnation,’ he once told Jala [his son-in-law], ‘I must have been related to swans or wild geese, because I can still feel that affinity.’”

Philosopher Thomas Nagel examined the idea of consciousness and experience in his classic article, “What Is It Like To Be a Bat.” It was impossible, in his view, for a human being to truly imagine what it would be like to be a bat, or any other animal. “I am restricted to the resources of my own mind,” he wrote, “and those resources are inadequate to the task. I cannot perform it either by imagining additions to my present experience, or by imagining segments gradually subtracted from it, or by imagining some combination of additions, subtractions, and modifications. To the extent that I could look and behave like… a bat without changing my fundamental structure, my experiences would not be anything like the experiences of those animals.”

If we are meant to have a complete range of experiences then it would make sense that this would include not just the human experience but experience as other forms of life, including animals. As Nagel observed, “Even if I could by gradual degrees be transformed into a bat, nothing in my present constitution enables me to imagine what the experiences of such a future stage of myself thus metamorphosed would be like. The best evidence would come from the experiences of bats, if we only knew what they were like.” 

In other words, to understand the bat, we would have to become the bat. And so maybe we have.

Or perhaps maybe we do. Instead of viewing reincarnation as a stairway with humanity located at the top, maybe humanity sits at the bottom. We begin there and work our way through the other creatures, from cats to dogs to bats to the “lowly” paramecium.

Something to consider the next time we sit down for a turkey dinner, or a Big Mac.

Paul Kimball

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