There was a point a few years ago when I really, really wanted to believe in the Buddhist concept of Rebirth; it was the one thing that was missing from me taking on The Dharma, in every aspect.
I have since realised that you don’t need the notion of Rebirth to understand the Four Noble Truths and the subsequent Dharma that stands on this. However, I did manage to reconcile rebirth with my understanding of science and cosmology and put my explanations here for your perusal.
Buddhists believe that individuals are the realisation, at any current point in time, of a changing aggregate of mental events and properties.
There is no thinker, only thoughts.
There is most certainly for Buddhism no concept of soul or self. No eternal non-physical substance. No Cartesian experiencer in our minds. This is the doctrine of anataman and it is key to Dharma.
But if there is no soul and no self... how then, can there be rebirth?
The unsatisfactory answer provided by Buddhist's (Though not, as far as I am aware, by the Buddha Himself) is that though here is no soul or ego, the aggregate of mentality, causally conditions the realisation of a new but related aggregate in a future reborn individual.
The metaphor often used is that its like a candle flame lighting the next candle, that this is the conditioning of rebirth to future lives.
Its an initially compelling metaphor but offers no explanation as to what is being conditioned in the future, or the mechanism of this conditioning.
Rebirth, I believe now, Isn't needed to understand and benefit greatly from Dharma. But a couple of years ago I did come up with a way that I could make sense of rebirth alongside a scientifically and ontologically consistent world view.
The Simulated Buddha
I conceived that it would be possible that this Universe was a simulation, an ancient idea in Philosophy and now modern thought. In this model the entire universe is simulated from the bing bang rather than the "brains in vats" or Matrix simulations.
Universal Simulation Features
- This simulation was initiated 15 billion years ago in "simulation time".
- The universe was started a set of initial conditions and laws and let to progress according to these laws and conditions.
- The universe is one of countless simulations.
- The fact that we are here to ask confirms it must be one of the successful simulations.
- The purpose of the simulation universes is to produce exceptional systems.
- Exceptional systems will be at least rare statically in the simulated universe and rare functionally.
- Emergent properties like compassion and being self aware are what I imagined would be the kind of properties the simulation was created to produce.
- In my model there is also this notion of understanding the nature of the reality of the simulation. Such that enlightenment is understanding and extinguishing the simulated reality.
- When a sufficiently exceptional system has emerged within the simulation it removed from the simulation and made real in whatever actuality the simulation is run in.
Assuming the Universe has these features I reasoned that when the Buddha reached enlightenment what happened was he passed a threshold within the simulation. His mind became detached from the other systems of the simulation, he saw the simulation as it was.
The creation of enlightened beings was the internal purpose of the simulation. We cannot make sense of the external purpose of the simulation.
Within the universal simulation context it was easier to make sense of rebirth:
The aggregate mental properties that are the information about me that is passed on
into the next life. But this information isn't identical with the me now, its just reusing sufficiently enough of this information to retain the progress I have made as a conscious potentially exceptional being. This fits well with the Buddhist idea that we all have this potential for enlightenment in us.
The motivation for rebirth from the simulation point of view was that if your simulation produces exceptional systems, like conscious humans, at the end of massive antecedent causal chains (Ie billions of simulation years) then it be beneficial to retain the essential components of these exceptional systems.
Rebirth then, in this universe, is the persistence across human systems of the aggregate mental properties that form my consciousness, morality and personality. The reason for rebirth is to preserve the progress of conscious systems towards transcending the simulated universe.
Do I believe the universe is a simulation?
I believed that Buddhist metaphysics, including rebirth and Nibbhana, could be made consistent with science and my understanding of ontology. In my mind I achieved this.
I don't however believe this is the case.
I don't believe in rebirth.
I do believe all is impermanent
I do believe there is no soul.