We mustn’t judge
There are two kinds of metaphysical propositions: implicit and contingent. The contingent type enter experience when some condition is fulfilled. The implicit type are already available to experience, although our understanding may prevent us from realising them.
Only the implicit variety is valid, in the sense that what is not already available to experience, but depends on experience assuming a different form, is not true – at least, not in the sense that applies in the case of spiritual knowledge.
For example, let’s take the proposition of God’s existence. We can make various arguments for this being true or false, but these will be based upon intellectual judgements. Spiritual knowledge of the existence of God, in contrast, consists not in an intellectual judgement on the validity of the concept of God, but arrival at a realisation of how God’s existence is necessarily true.
This will sound like madness or self-delusion to some. And it would be, were it not the case that metaphysical propositions are different from ordinary ones. To ask whether God exists is different from asking whether baby pigeons exist; or from asking whether the Flying Spaghetti Monster exists. Ordinary, relative ideas may be either true or false. It makes no significant difference to reality either way, because their truth or falsity can be accommodated in either case. Metaphysical propositions, however, have repercussions not simply for the contents of reality but for reality itself. That is why knowledge of a metaphysical proposition depends upon realising its truth rather than judging it to be true. Unfortunately (for rationalists), it is not possible to realise the sense in which a metaphysical proposition is false, because a false metaphysical proposition has no basis in reality to put us in a position to realise anything. It is only possible to continue to fail to realise its truth.
The key word here is ‘realise’ rather than ‘judge’. The realisation of a metaphysical proposition arises not from a truth-judgement, but from completely understanding it and thereby having that understanding reflected in experience. In other words, it becomes a reality. An invalid metaphysical proposition, of course, cannot become a part of reality if it isn’t one already. So the same kind of understanding that arises from a valid proposition is not available from an invalid proposition, and this is why it cannot be experienced as being false.
Spiritual knowledge concerns a different level of being. In the field of ordinary knowledge we can understand propositions, judge them true or false, and then seek confirmation of our judgements. However, in the field of spiritual knowledge the propositions concern the nature of reality itself rather than its contents.
This nowhere near as difficult as it sounds. What is being described is simply the difference between thinking and meditation. The former confronts the contents of reality, whereas the latter confronts reality itself. In meditation there’s no room for a binary judgement, because what we are confronted with is all reality. Whatever arises before us in meditation, is. Reality itself is the object. The only alternative to reality is unreality, which in meditation is not a judgement on reality at all, but a failure of engagement with it. If something in our meditation arises as ‘unreal’, then unless we include and understand that sense of unreality as a part of reality, then we have ceased to meditate.
So these are my reasons for suggesting that the process of enquiry, the outcome, and the criteria for truth are all different in the case of metaphysical propositions than in the case of ordinary propositions.
There is no evidence for reincarnation
Now let’s turn our attention to the metaphysical proposition of reincarnation and consider how it stands. Firstly, reincarnation seems viable, because if I were a being that lives, dies, and re-manifests later as a completely different being, then reality would appear no differently from how it does now. My experience and the world would manifest in exactly the same form that they do already. But if, instead, I were a being that lives once, dies, is physically resurrected, judged by Christ and then consigned to either heaven or hell for all eternity, this would be contingent upon the world adopting a very different form at some point in the future from what it has currently. It’s actually the part about arriving in a state that lasts forever (presuming heaven or hell are states and not places) that strains reality the most.
But before we go soft on reincarnation, there’s the tricky point of how it manifests. If reincarnation is viable because it sits so well with the fundamental nature of experience, then all the so-called ‘evidence’ for it takes on a new light: those dramatic cases where young children have acquired apparently first-hand memories from people who have died.
Whatever this is evidence for, it cannot be reincarnation. Receiving someone else’s impressions is usually called telepathy. It’s only that the person happens to be dead which inclines us to call it reincarnation, coupled with the ‘medium’ being a child, whose personality is unformed as yet, which easily makes it seem that these impressions are the continuance of traits in the younger mind from the individuality that originally displayed them.
Reincarnation so neatly fits the fundamental nature of experience, in which impressions rise out of nothing, endure for a while, then completely pass, that we fool ourselves we can see ‘evidence’ where we ought to suppose instead that this process has gone wrong, because instances in which conscious memories have not passed away suggest something else entirely, something that is acting on the level of the contents of impressions, rather than at the metaphysical level. This may be evidence for the so-called ‘akashic records’, wherein the contents of human experience are said to be stored, but reincarnation is not about the reappearance of contents; it’s supposedly the continuation of what gives rise to those contents.
Rudolf Steiner summed up his view on reincarnation in a single but profound phrase: ‘each individual is, in fact, his own species’ (Steiner 1904: Ch. 2).
In other words, as every creature is an instance of its species, yet the species itself is unmanifest, so each individual human (according to Steiner) is an instance of an unmanifest individuality, which is never born, but plays out its destiny through a sequence of human lives.
Therefore, something that is unmanifest endures (because things that are unmanifest are very good at this), but at the same time something manifest reappears, stays for a while, then disappears again – which is what manifest things, the contents of experience, do particularly well.
Rudolf Steiner was not Thomas Aquinas
We can have some fun with Steiner, because what was not widely known outside Steiner’s immediate circle until fairly recently (Meyer 2010), is that Steiner knew who he had been in his previous life. He was the scholastic philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).
Although Steiner seemed happy with his view that ‘man is a species,’ among his writings in his previous incarnation as Aquinas, we find this: ‘the name “species” is not predicated of Socrates, so that one could say “Socrates is a species”‘ (Aquinas c.1254: Section 4).
Aquinas stated, in effect, that it’s nonsense to assert an individual has the essence of a species. His reason was that in the case of material beings, unless the species (e.g. ‘humanity’) signifies the whole of the individual in question (e.g. ‘Socrates’) and not only a part of the individual, then it cannot be said to be the essence of the individual (e.g. ‘Socrates is a humanity’ ?!). This does not make sense because a material being is not its own essence.
Spiritual beings, however (according to Aquinas) exist in a hierarchy, in which the higher the being, the closer it draws to its own essence, until we arrive at God who is pure existence and therefore His own essence (so of Whom, incidentally, it makes perfect sense to say: ‘God is a divinity’).
As a side-swipe, Aquinas points out that only the Platonists were silly enough to suppose the individual was a species, because they believed the species subsisted separately from its individual members in an alternative, unmanifest realm. Aquinas’ intellectual hero was, of course, the more materialistically inclined Aristotle.
So how could Steiner suppose he was the reincarnation of a 13th century philosopher whom he went around actively contradicting in the 20th? Quite easily. Steiner’s view of reincarnation asserts that what continues from life to life is unmanifest; it is the ‘species’ not the individual. If Steiner was not that unmanifest being, then Aquinas was not it either. Reincarnation concerns the relationship of an individual biography (or ‘karma’) to what is unmanifest. The lives of Aquinas and Steiner stand equally in relation to this unmanifest, rather than directly in relation to one another. It is missing the point to say ‘Steiner was Aquinas.’ Steiner’s view was that both of them were instances of the same unnameable, unmanifest. They were ‘members of the same species’.
Indeed, both were teachers of a rational path for the attainment of spiritual knowledge. Aquinas applied Aristotle to Christianity; Steiner applied contemporary philosophy and science to the mystical tradition of his time. But evidently, the manifestations of this unmanifest species-being can change. For the Aristotelian Aquinas, it was anathema to suppose the individual was a species; this was something predicated only of a being liberated from matter. The work of Steiner’s lifetime, in contrast, was to swing the pendulum back in a more Platonic direction.
For Aquinas, our manifestation in matter removes us from the divine, whereas for Steiner, the nature of the divine is at the very heart of being human (Steiner 1914: Ch.2, pp.49-50).
Famously, four months before he died, Aquinas had a powerful mystical experience that he refused to speak of in detail. He abandoned his usual routine and refused to write any more. ‘I cannot,’ he explained to his secretary, ‘because all that I have written seems like straw to me.’
It’s unnecessary for the view of reincarnation proposed here, to speculate that at the end of Aquinas’ life the pendulum had swung towards Steiner already. But I just have.
St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1254). ‘On Being and Essence’. Translation by Gyula Klima available on-line.
T.H. Meyer (2010). Rudolf Steiner’s Core Mission: The Birth and Development of Spiritual-Scientific Karma Research. Forest Row: Temple Lodge.
Rudolf Steiner (1904). Theosophy: An Introduction to the Supersensible Knowledge of the World and the Destination of Man. Translated by Henry B. Monges. Forest Row: Anthroposophic Press, 1971. Text available on-line.
Rudolf Steiner (1914). Occult Science. Translated by George and Mary Adams. Forest Row: Rudolf Steiner Press, 2005.