Monday, April 9, 2018

Reincarnation and theodicy

As I was teaching on the problem of evil today, I was struck by how nicely reincarnation could provide theodicies for recalcitrant cases. “Why is the fawn dying in the forest fire? Well, for all we know, it’s a reincarnation of someone who committed genocide and is undergoing the just punishment for this, a punishment whose restorative effect will only be seen in the next life.” “Why is Sam suffering with no improvement to his soul? Well, maybe the improvement will only manifest in the next life.”

Of course, I don’t believe in reincarnation. But if the problem of evil is aimed at theism in general, then it seems fair to say that for all that theism in general says, reincarnation could be true.

Here is a particular dialectical context where bringing in reincarnation could be helpful. The theist presses the fine-tuning argument. The atheist instead of embracing a multiverse (as is usual) responds with the argument from evil. The theist now says: While reincarnation may seem unlikely, it surely has at least a one in a million probability conditionally on theism; on the other hand, fine-tuning has a much, much smaller probability than one in a million conditionally on single-universe atheism. So theism wins.


Muslim Salik said...

Humans have only been around for a few hundred thousand years, so at most it could be used to justify instances of animal suffering since then, but not for millions of years before. Perhaps God could reincarnate someone who dies today as an animal that lived a million years ago? This assumes that time travel is possible, which (perhaps?) assumes a B theory of time

But then surely there just aren't enough bad humans to reincarnate to account for the number of animals that have suffered over the last few million years.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Good point. But we actually haven't observed any pain behaviors by animals prior to human existence. Maybe we could say that for all we know, whenever an animal would have suffered pointlessly prior to the advent of human beings, God miraculously gave it anesthesia.

Bob said...

Carlos Filice argues for reincarnation partially on this basis:

Angra Mainyu said...


I would say the theodicy fails, since:

1. Even if the person who engaged in genocide deserved punishment, the fawn does not. Assuming he can be the same entity for the sake of the argument, I would say he no longer deserves punishment. He isn't a moral agent anymore- i.e., he is no longer the sort of entity that has moral obligations, deserves rewards or punishments, etc.
2. At any rate, it's unjust to punish someone who cannot understand why he's being punished.

That aside, I'd like to ask what do you mean by "atheism" and "theism"?
Because while I don't think the argument from fine-tuning works, granting for the sake of the argument that it does, it only gives you a creator, and there are hypotheses in which the creator isn't omnimax (i.e., omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect); I find the odds that the (assumed) creator (which we assume we get from fine-tuning) to be omnimax to be extremely low even without factoring in suffering.

scott said...

You could also deal with the problem about evolutionary history by invoking time travel. Terrible acts in the future are punished by sending the person back into the past and reincarnating them as an animal. Very far fetched. But still much less far fetched than supposing life arose by accident, given what physicists tell us.

Regarding Angra's 1 and 2. I get that one might think after being transformed into a fawn one will no longer deserve punishment for what one did as a human. But in support of that we just have speculative and indecisive moral and metaphysical intuitions. In support of the claim that the universe would not allow for life by chance we have hardcore physics. Again, even if its far fetched that the fawn would deserve punishment. Its less far fetched than supposing life arose by accident.

scott said...

Just saw the point about time travel was already made by Muslim Sorry Muslim!!

Angra Mainyu said...


For a number of reasons, I don't think the fine-tuning argument succeeds at all *, and I don't think our moral sense is speculative or indecisive in this context, but leaving all of that aside, if the two hypotheses are very far fetched, the proper assessment would be precisely that - i.e., that both hypotheses are very improbable, even if one of them happens to be even more improbable than the other. It's not an exhaustive option. Assuming that fine-tuning makes a creator very probable, that does not imply that a morally perfect, just, etc., creator exists - and the argument from suffering would not be significantly affected.

* I find Bomb#20's arguments convincing ( ); He's much more qualified to debate that than I am by the way, so I would recommend debating him if you really want to test the fine-tuning argument.

scott said...

Thanks Angra.

I agree that the FTA doesn't get you theism all by itself. But I think it would be interesting and significant if the FTA at least gets you the result that theism is more probable than atheism even if both, given FTA, turn out to be less probable than the hypothesis that there is an imperfect creator.

I'll check out Bomb#20's argument. If you're interested, Hawthorne and Isaacs have written some cool papers about the fine-tuning argument. Here is one of them.

Red said...

Are you the Scott Hill which wrote a paper on Omnipotence?

scott said...

Red: Yep!

Muslim Salik said...

Hi Alex,
Although possible it seems a bit ad hoc?

Hi Scott,
No problem!

Hi Angra,
1. If we are our souls, then the fawn is a moral agent. It's true that it probably doesn't have much of a moral awareness, but then neither do we when we sleep. But we don't cease to be moral agents when we sleep just because we lose this moral awareness, because we don't stop being our souls when we sleep. But then whatever your account of personal identity is, if you maintain that the fawn is the same person as the genocidal human then the same logic applies.
2. Suppose a mad scientist invents a pill that robs an individual of the ability to understand why they are being punished if they are punished, but leaves all other cognitive functions and abilities intact. A subject commits a heinous crime, and when caught he takes this pill to try and escape punishment. He would still deserve punishment eventhough he wouldn't understand why he was being punished.

Angra Mainyu said...


Thanks for the link. I read one of Hawthorne's papers on the subject a while ago, but I haven't read this one yet. I'll take a look.

Angra Mainyu said...

Hi Muslim Salik,

1. I don't think we're souls, but let's assume we are. Why do you think that in that case, the fawn is a moral agent?
Perhaps, we mean different things by "moral agent", but I'm talking about the sort of agent who has moral obligations, and/or can behave in a morally praiseworthy manner, in an immoral manner, etc.
When we sleep, we're now aware, but we still have beliefs, predispositions, etc., and all generally the sort of mind (even if temporarily incapacitated) required for moral obligations (and/or morally praiseworthy behavior, etc.). On the other hand, human newborns, toddlers, etc., aren't moral agents in my view, and neither are fawns.
Regarding your argument that the same logic applies if the fawn is the same person as the genocidal human, etc., I would say that the fawn cannot be the same person because the fawn is not a person at all. If the fawn is the same entity, then that entity was a person but now it's not.

2. I'm not sure that that is conceivable. Lacking the ability to understand why they're being punished seems to require lacking an understanding of other things. For example, does he understand that he is in prison? Does he understand that he's suffering? Does he understand the concept of retaliation? At any rate, if someone is so impaired that he can't understand punishmet, I'm not saying that he does not deserve punishment, but that it would be unjust to inflict that punishment on him until he can understand it. It would be just to wait until the effect is gone (by means of an antidote, if necessary), and then punish him.

But if you think this isn't so, then a weaker claim suffices: it's unjust to take away a person's ability to understand why he's being punished, and then punish him. Consider, for example, a case in which the man who committed a heinous crime does not take the pill willingly, but instead is forcibly given a drug that causes all of the cognitive impairment required to prevent him from understanding punishment, and then he gets punished by, say, imprisonment, or a beating or something worse. In my assessment, that too would be unjust.

Alexander R Pruss said...


The newborn has the numerically same mind as the adult. After all, when the newborn experiences something, it experiences is by means of a mind, call it M1. The adult experiences something by means of a mind, call it M2. If M1 and M2 are not identical, then either the adult has two minds (M1 and M2), which is absurd, or else M1 perishes. But there is no mental destruction as the newborn grows into an adult, so M1 doesn't perish. Thus, M1=M2. But if the newborn has the numerically same mind as the adult, the newborn's mind is the same sort of thing as the adult's mind. Of course, the newborn has different mental contents from the adult. But a difference in mental contents does not, I think, make for a difference between a person and a non-person. So both the newborn and the adult are persons.

I do not think there is a significant difference between the newborn and a sleeping adult. Both are the sort of entity that normally acts with moral significance, but both are temporarily in a state where morally significant action is impossible, and a change in mental functioning is needed for morally significant action to become possible.

I think that if reincarnation were to happen, the person incarnate as a fawn would still be a person, albeit one that is at least temporarily incapable of morally significant action. If I were to try to reconcile reincarnation with my Aristotelian metaphysics, I would either say that there are two kinds of deer--the mere deer and the kind that are people-reincarnate-as-deer--or else I would say that all conscious animals are one Aristotelian species (though not one biological species).

Regarding the justice issue, I do not think it is unjust to punish someone who does not remember the crime. If it were unjust, then someone wishing to escape justice could simply have an amnesia procedure to forget the crime. I am less clear on whether it is permissible to punish someone who is no longer capable of the exercise of moral agency, but who was capable of such exercise earlier. But again I am inclined to think it is permissible. Imagine a hedonist who murders a bank guard while stealing money in order to build a machine that will stimulate his pleasure center and give him incredible amounts of pleasure. He knows that a side-effect of the machine is that it will destroy his ability to exercise moral agency, but being a hedonist he doesn't care. It seems that if the law were to catch up with such a hedonist, it would be permissible to punish him.

Moreover, if the death penalty is permissible, then it seems plausible that it is permissible to impose a penalty on someone lacking the ability to exercise moral agency. For imagine that we learned that the least painful way of killing someone involved giving them a pair of drugs, A and B, where A induces a permanent coma and one minute later B kills them. If the death penalty is permissible, then using this drug combination should be permissible. But then the person receives the death penalty while in a coma, and hence while lacking the ability to exercise moral agency.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Yes, you can invoke time travel. But it seems to me that the hypothesis of divine anesthesia prior to the advent of humankind is more plausible. Suppose, as is not implausible, that a world of conscious animals with laws simple enough for beings like us to make use for prediction is a world where there would be significant amounts of gratuitous pain, barring miracles. But what would we expect a perfect being to do about that? Well, here are some possibilities:
1. Make more complex laws
2. Intervene miraculously preventing the causes of the pain
3. Intervene miraculously preventing the pain itself--i.e., divine anesthesia.
It seems to me that 3 is the best option of the three, as it allows God to keep all the simple physical laws, simply changing the correlation between the mental and the physical.

I personally find 3 hard to believe, but I have no argument against it. :-)

Angra Mainyu said...


I don't think the newborn has the same sort of mind as the adult in any sense that is relevant here, even if they're the same entity. Now if a technical concept of numerical identity is such that unless they have the same sort of mind, they are not numerically identical, then I would say that they're not numerically identical - but then, that particular concept of numerical identity may well not capture ordinary usage of identity.

On that note, I do see the sleeping adult as vastly different from the newborn: the newborn does not have the sort of mind that can act immorally, or in a morally praiseworthy manner, etc., even it might come to have it in the future. The sleeping adult already has it, even if it's not at that time making moral choices. Still, I don't know whether the newborn is a person (I would say an embryo isn't, but a newborn is not so clear to me); that's a difficult matter of the semantics of "person". I was saying that it's not a moral agent (I think personhood is necessary for moral agency, but I think it's probably not sufficient).

As for punishing someone who does not remember the crime, I was talking about punishing someone incapable of understanding why they're being punished, which is a different matter. A person may well not remember what I did, but still be capable of understanding that they're being punished for a such-and-such crime, which can be described to them, etc.

With regard to the hedonist in your scenario, my assesment is the opposite: I think the usual legal solution gets it right (i.e., the hedonist would be unfit to stand trial).

In re: death penalty, the person can understand why he's being executed. I didn't mean they had to understand it until the last moment (just as I don't think people in prison have to understand why they're in prison while asleep). I do think it would not be just to execute him in the way you describe if he demands to be conscious while executed, though (at least, as much as possible; at some point he'll lose consciousness as a result of the killing process, of course).

That said, I have considered more cases, and I'm thinking there might be cases in which punishing the person is still just, e.g., when the person is capable of understanding that they deserve the punishment, and it's beyond the means of the punisher to explain the charges because the perpetrator would otherwise inevitably escape, so I'm not so sure about 2. anymore. On the other hand, weaker principles would suffice in this case. For example:

2': It's (even weaker alternative: generally) unjust to non-instrumentally punish an agent that is incapable of telling right from wrong.

Alternatively, one could consider the case of the fawn specifically; if this were a court case (assuming that that's a person), it would be unfit to stand trial, and if already tried, still unfit to serve time (or otherwise be punished). Granted, that's positive law, so you might think the law got it wrong. But I would ask whether you think it did.

Side note: my view is that the intuitive assessment that it would be unjust to punish the fawn is surely stronger than the speculative generalizations made about it, but unfortunately that's not the way it's usually discussed.

ombhurbhuva said...

Shankara in his commentary on the Brahma Sutras at B.S.B. II.i.34 , 35, 36 considers the question of theodicy and karma:
“For it can be reasonably concluded that God has passion and hatred like some ignoble persons, for he creates an unjust world by making some, e.g. gods and others, experience happiness, some, e.g. animals etc. experience extreme misery and some, e.g. human beings, experience moderate happiness and sorrow.”

His answer to this is that it is simply the fruits of karma which work in an impersonal fashion. The metaphor he uses is rain. God is like rain bringing to fruition the “individual potentiality of the respective seeds, similarly God is the common cause for the birth of gods, men and others, while the individual fruits of works (karmas) associated with the individual creatures are the uncommon causes for the creation of the differences among the gods, men and others.”

How does this whole machine run on karma get started? Before creation there could have been no karma. Shankara’s answer to this is that “the transmigratory state has no beginning”, so there is no acausal birth.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Both the newborn and the sleeping adult need to have a change in their mental properties prior to the exercise of moral agency. It is occurrent mental properties that make moral agency possible. The dreamlessly sleeping adult has no occurrent mental properties at all. The newborn has some, but not enough. On the other hand, the dreamlessly sleeping adult does have immediate dispositions for the occurrent mental properties, while the newborn does not. But both need a change in their mental properties, and indeed a change triggered by events outside their mind.

A plausible explanation for why we have a concept of standing trial is that we want the defendant to be able to present their side of the story. But that's just an evidentiary matter, closely related for the (rightful) American distaste for trial in absentia. An omniscient being, however, doesn't need us to present our side. Moreover, notice that a trial is an evidentiary rather than punitive procedure. It seems to me that there need not be an injustice in sentencing if the criminal lost the ability to exercise moral agency just before the judge read the sentence.

I do think it is better if a malefactor at some point knows that they will be punished, but this doesn't seem to be required by justice. Suppose a malefactor just prior to execution refuses to believe that they will die--maybe they think that in the last moment they will be rescued by confederates. That optimism surely shouldn't preclude execution (assuming the death penalty is otherwise permissible in the case). Then it can be that they never knew what they were being punished for, because they never knew that they were being punished.

Angra Mainyu said...


Maybe we're using "moral agent" differently. In the first post on the matter above, I said that assuming the fawn is still the same entity as the person who engaged in genocide, etc., he "isn't a moral agent anymore- i.e., he is no longer the sort of entity that has moral obligations, deserves rewards or punishments, etc." The dreamlessly sleeping adult is not making moral choices at that point, but has moral obligations, he deserves rewards or punishments (for his actions), etc. The newborn does not have those properties. And I would say neither has the fawn. Given your earlier replies, it seems to me that one of our disagreements is about that - i.e., whether the fawn deserves punishments, maybe whether he has moral obligations, etc.

In re: a person unfit to stand trial, that probably is part of the reason, but it doesn't seem to be all, because:
1. Countries that accept trials in absentia generally also allowed for this exception.
2. In cases in which clearly it's possible to gather evidence despite the defendant's mental, the exception still holds.

That aside, a closer analogy would be people who are tried and convicted, but who are diagnosed with a serious mental illness when they are in prison. In cases like that, if the condition is sufficiently serious, generally they are removed from prison and taken to a hospital (how this is done depends on the jurisdiction, but at least in the West, this seems to be the norm). In the example in which the criminal lost the ability to exercise moral agency just before the judge read the sentence, if I understand correctly what you mean by "ability to exercise moral agency", then the person would meet the conditions for being placed in a mental institution, not in a prison, so even though he will be convicted, he will not be punished unless he recovers.

Their optimism in the case you mention does not preclude execution, but in those cases, they can and do know why they're being punished. They just don't think that punishment will succeed. But I'm not suggesting it's unjust to punish people who believe they'll scape.

Still, as I said, now I'm thinking there are exceptions (see my previous post), so this is generally but not necessarily the case, but the case of the fawn is one in which punishment would be unjust. I could argue for this in at least three alternative ways:

I. When you're looking for exceptions to the claim that it's unjust to punish someone who cannot understand why he's being punished, what you do is present concrete cases that would act as counterexamples, when one uses one's sense of right and wrong to assess it. That's the right approach even if we might disagree on some of the specific cases, since the specific judgment precedes and is generally stronger than generalizations based on specific cases. But then, the fawn is one case in which the specific judgment is that it's unjust to punish it, let alone punish it horribly by burning it alive. If you think otherwise, I would risk the claim that people inclined to accept the argument from suffering will very likely agree with my assessment on the matter; it just seems obvious.

II. If you disagree with the assessment in I., one can propose another principle, like

2': It's (even weaker alternative: generally) unjust to non-instrumentally punish an agent that is incapable of telling right from wrong.

III. The analogy with a person unfit to stand trial may not work if the only reason for that law is an evidentiary one, but then the analogy with an inmate who becomes mentally ill does seem to work. They're no longer punished, as long as they are so ill. They could be isolated in prison to keep them for causing trouble, but that is not what is done. But imagine what would happen if the inmate became no more capable of understanding his situation than a fawn. I'd say he would (and should) be taken to a hospital or similar place.