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Dear Socrates

Dear Socrates

Having returned from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First A.D., Socrates has eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he may continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission.

Dear Socrates,

When reincarnation is discussed, it is always the case that someone from the past is reincarnated in the future (which might be our present). What I wonder, is if the reverse could be true. Could it be possible that someone who will live in the future could be reincarnated in the past (which might be our present)?

It is not entirely implausible. For a thing to exist it must be in both space and time. Once a thing no longer exists, or becomes spirit, where does it go? If outside of space and time, then what is stopping the spirit from entering into any period of time?

Consider Nostradamus and da Vinci and all the others who knew the future or were particularly bright, such as A. Einstein and S. Hawking. Perhaps these prophets have memories of a life that they will live in the future. What do you think?

Sincerely yours,
Laura Cody

Dear Laura,

You put me in an awkward position. Here I am, someone who, to all appearances, has been reincarnated, and who was a fond believer in that notion during his first (?) incarnation over 2400 years ago. And yet in the two years that I have been back on the surface of the globe, I have become very skeptical of it. Can I doubt my own senses? Well, of course I can. And while, as that wily René Descartes reasoned, the fact that I doubt may show that I do at least exist, it certainly does not follow (or, in this case, precede) that I have existed before this!

Now you come up with an extra notion to vex me, that it ought to work the other way round as well. I suppose we could call it pre-incarnation, as opposed to re-incarnation. Well, why not. But where does it get us? If certain phenomena have yet to be fully explained, does it help to propose an explanation that itself seems even less explicable? You give as examples the extraordinary intellects of Einstein and da Vinci. But how does postulating their future existence help to explain their genius?

Suppose young Albert was remembering something from the super-scientific 25th Century when he concocted relativity; but presumably the scientific advances of the 25th Century will have been premised upon those of the 20th, when Einstein proclaimed his insights. Hasn’t something got lost in the timeshuffle? 25th Century Alberta depended upon Albert for her breakthroughs, while 20th Century Albert depended on Alberta’s for his. It seems, really, that a rabbit has been pulled out of a hat, since scientific discoveries were made, but nobody made them!

You recall that none other than Sir Isaac Newton remarked, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.“ Well, according to you, Newton was standing on his own shoulders. I had not realized he was an adept at yoga. Yet another image that comes to mind is an endless, and indeed impossible staircase in an M.C. Escher etching.

But you explain it all by having ‘spirit’ moving about outside of time and space. After all, “Where does something go if it no longer exists?“ you ask. Where does a soap bubble go when it bursts? Nowhere, my dear; it simply ceases to be. And how can you speak of “where“ when something is outside of space, or even “outside of“? And if “For a thing to exist it must be in both space and time,“ then how can spirit exist outside of them?

I have an analogous problem with the time element of your explanation. According to you when I conk again I could reawaken in the 5th Century B.C. So there I am one day walking beneath the Acropolis when I suddenly have a vision of being driven somewhere in a motor car. Your suggestion is that what might strike me as a premonition would in fact be a remembrance; indeed, it is the latter that would explain any accuracy the former might have. But that would mean that the vision is taking place after the event it recollects. Yet in time the vision precedes the event, and the spirit that has pulled off this stunt has not been able to move back in time because it was ‘outside’ of time altogether. So in what way have you explained anything?

We can of course use images to convey your hypothesized situation. Just as a person can get off a train at a stop to stretch and then reboard in front of or behind where she had previously sat, so, you imagine, one can leave the body at death and then move on up ahead, that is, in the same direction as time, to be reborn, or else fall behind to be, so to speak, pre-born. What I am asking is: How could the latter be literally so?

Let me hasten to add, however, that I have immensely enjoyed this little thought excursion, and only wish you were here to accompany me on it further. My lack of sympathy for your proposal may only attest to my having been re-incarnated rather than pre-incarnated, so that I lack that spark of audacity that Einstein had. He did not let common-sense notions stand in his way. He asked himself, “What if?“ and then, by Zeus, lightning did strike. In fact, I have to admit that even the commonplace appears bizarre once one has begun to think about it; witness St Augustine’s ruminations on time. So I would not discourage you from contemplating your novel scenario if it intrigues you. Let me simply suggest that a more plausible account of the genius of Einstein et al. could be the creative possibilities of this very sort of imaginative dialectic you and I have just engaged in.

Yours as ever,

Readers who would like to engage Socrates in dialogue are welcome to write to Dear Socrates, c/o Philosophy Now, or even to email him at: socrates@philosophynow.org Socrates will select which letters to answer and reserves the right to excerpt or otherwise edit them. Please indicate if you wish your name to be withheld.

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