Friday, February 20, 2015

Is Reincarnation Cruel or Merciful?

What can we infer about the details of how evolved Gods would help their children arrive at godhood? We've already seen how love is essential. Atonement is a wonderful gift given by our Savior, but it is also essential to the creative and reproductive success of our Heavenly Parents. I've argued that selfish gods can't be allowed or it would artificially limit creative and reproductive rates. This implies the need for a test for love--an environment where the benefits of loving are seemingly equal, or at least ambiguous--very much like the world we experience. The need for this test came when Gods started short-cutting the "natural" process of slow, incremental evolution directed by environment and unintelligent, random events. Through intelligence they gained the ability to make long-lived creators who had not necessarily gone through the evolutionary crucible that ensured the compassion and altruism required for the first generation of Gods to avoid self-destruction and gain their godly knowledge. One very natural question is, how good is this life test, really?

For someone like me, with no extreme trials to warp my perceptions or steal my agency, a long life with numerous paths open to me, a generally loving and supporting social and family environment, and various other benefits, I have plenty of opportunities to show how selfish or selfless I am. I can show compassion or I can show disdain. I can produce good fruits or ill. Seems like a pretty fair test. But we all know the test fails. Little children die. People have brain problems that make them do evil with no conscious will to do otherwise. People are mistreated, abused, and controlled to the point that they lose their agency to even think in god-like ways. So what are the solutions?
  1. The Gods take care of it. They know what every person desires and can justly give them their best reward after this life, like we Mormons believe is done for every child that dies before age 8. Except in our Cosmos where the future is not predetermined, the Gods can't possibly know exactly what every being will choose in every possible future. We might still say that everyone needs to get a body, but is the only way to give people bodies by going through this miserable and unfair existence? A body is just a physical construct. The Gods aren't smart enough to make some without inexplicable pain and suffering? I don't doubt the Gods have a way to take care of it, but it's not by circumventing the test or by reading people's minds.
  2. The test is only for a few. Only a small minority of potential Gods really need to be tested. Most (the third of the host who were cast out without coming to earth, all the children that have ever died before age 8, all the mentally incompetent, and likely a good portion of those who live normal lives but just agreed to help out with the test) had already shown their true colors without ever needing the test. However, this implies either that the Gods are fine with making lots of beings who won't ever or can't ever become Gods (lets lay lots of eggs and hope they don't get eaten), or implies that the Gods aren't capable of designing a more efficient system for making Gods. Such beings are either not the loving creators our cosmic model predicted, or it's really easy to make lots of Gods by just having lots of children and letting them fend for themselves. I don't think so.
  3. People can't change. It's fine that people get divided up into relatively static kingdoms of glory after this life, with only a few becoming creative, reproductive Gods. There's no advantage to making lots of Gods as opposed to making just a few, really, really good Gods and limiting every other being, so it's better to weed out too many than to let one bad apple through the test. Of course, this implies inability or incompetence among the Gods in designing an effective test, or that the Gods don't really, deeply love their creation. Or it implies that beings can't change. That sometime in this life or the premortal life each of us shows (or showed) exactly where we would end up and there is no human or extrahuman way we will ever change that. It's not that God wants us stuck, but that it's against the laws of nature for us get unstuck.
  4. The test is efficient. It could be that the Gods can figure out who is loving and who is selfish without this earth-life test, but that it takes a whole lot longer. Agreeing to the test means we are willing to take a chance on speeding up our progression to godhood. Except for it to be really efficient on the cosmic scale, the time savings would have to be some significant fraction of eternity. I'm not sure that's possible, but I still get a little tentative trying to comprehend the relative sizes of really big numbers. Maybe the test isn't necessary--it's just a lot faster.
  5. Do over. You can take the test again. Didn't pass it the first time? Do some extra prep and try again. Try as many times as you need to. I used to think the ideas of reincarnation and "multiple mortal probations" (MMP) didn't fit with the Plan of Salvation. I thought they implied inefficiency or cruelty in the plan. Why make people come back rather than just going forward? Why take away our memories again and again? I'm certain I don't advocate for one particular conception of reincarnation in all of its details. I don't know about coming to earth as plants or animals. I don't know about making multiple mortal lives a requirement. I would expect we each get to choose. And if a person can show what they need to in one life, why make them suffer repeatedly? I also objected to MMP on the grounds that it would make a mess of sealings and families. Recently I realized that the organization of sealing bonds is a mess already. Either the Gods can figure it out despite the additional mess reincarnation would produce, or it's hard to understand believing in eternal families at all.
I know I'm far from the first person to have had these thoughts, but I can't picture evolved Gods damning most of their children by any definition of damnation. It's not in keeping with their great love unless the laws of nature make it a necessity, and the inability to shape the laws of nature for the benefit of their offspring is not in keeping with their great knowledge and power. It might be cruel to make a child suffer a second time, but it would be far more cruel to not let a child take the test again. I may have just become a believer in reincarnation--on this world or another.


  1. Replies
    1. The same reason the veil was required the first time. The test is to show why you behave like a God--do you do it because you want the perks, or because you are fundamentally loving? You can't test that without taking away the certainty of Godhood as a reward for good behavior, and you can't take away that certainty without taking memory. Or one of the other scenarios could be more correct. The question is, is the test really necessary?

    2. I have to admit: I don't get the idea of the test. Not sufficiently loving? Bad human. Wrong motives? Bad human. If bad, then at the end of life, you get a do-over (Hinduism/Buddhism) or hell (Christianity) or lesser heaven (Mormonism). On the other hand, it does feel sensible that such a "test" be intrinsic and recurring and in the present, and based on - say - our inherent empathy and on cultural mechanisms and perhaps ethics derived from first principles.

    3. At what point does the test not make sense? What I've argued in the past is that evolved Gods limit their reproductive rates unless they are radically compassionate and willingly participate in a loving, atoning society. If someone with great power opts out, then misuse of that power will significantly reduce reproductive rates (perhaps even destroying an entire lineage of Gods). When god-like powers are in play, the chance that someone opts out must be avoided, but agency can't be violated (since it is fundamental to being). So I asked, how do you prove that someone is loving enough? How can you tell he isn't just faking it until he has all the power he wants? If you can propose a better mechanism for answering this question that doesn't assume omniscience, I am sincerely interested. My imagination on this point is pretty clearly biased. If you have problems with my arguments that lead up to the test hypothesis, I can point you to where I fleshed them out (or others have), and we can discuss those points.

      Maybe you are on a different train of thought. The test isn't about being a good or bad human. It's about being an effectively reproducing part of a lineage of Gods. While my arguments have clearly been shaped by my religious understanding, they are not based on any uniquely religious assumptions about the nature of existence or morality. It's not even about right or wrong, but about reproductive fitness. The fact that love, a mortal test, trust in God, and other things are reproductive goods or are otherwise predicted by my model are nice convergences, but ultimately proof of nothing. They are simply reasons for my faith.

      As to your latter supposition, I don't see how that is different or separate from the test I propose. I simply extend it to a life that goes beyond our current memory and experience.

    4. Thanks for the response. I think our premises are far enough apart that discussion may be difficult - though it is at least interesting to compare assumptions. If the purpose for a "life test" is to evaluate candidates for goodhood, then I don't have much to say, because the discussion is in a metaphysical framework that's very foreign to me. I was responding to the fairly standard Judeo-Christian concept of judgement at the end of life, leading to a sorting into post-earth-life bins: that doesn't make much sense to me (really, on any level, except maybe as a crude allegory). The idea of an end-of-life test (or even an ongoing "naughty and nice" checklist) seems to be to set up extrinsic rewards/awards for being good - i.e. to motivate goodness by stories of what rewards or punishments are in store depending on your behavior. I prefer to think that goodness has much more intrinsic rewards and motivating logic. To the extent that our behavior is "tested," it makes more sense to me that the "tests" operate more like karma. Behave badly, and you end up feeling badly and hurting those around you - and basically fouling your social nest, etc. To a large extent, I guess my opinions are shaped by lack of belief in an external, omniscient "grader" - though it also goes the other way: the problems I see in the "celestial grading" framework also feed into my lack of belief in such a framework.

    5. I think you may be right about our premises, but our endpoints aren't so dissimilar. The test is really about who we are, not a check list that leads to sorting. In fact, it was questioning the bins and their consistency (or lack thereof) with the Gods that my model has led me to that made me discard the bins as static entities. I've begun viewing nearly everything as process, so concepts of judgement at the end of life take on a much less final and less judgemental character. Admittedly, I still posit a judgement with real consequences--if you don't make the cut you will have to either be satisfied with where you are or go through the lottery of another life like this.

    6. OK - I'm more comfortable with that. "I've begun viewing nearly everything as process" -- me too. Thinking about what motivates those who effectively choose to dedicate their lives to charity -- i.e. what motivates extreme altruism: I think those individuals strongly sense the connection between their "self" and that of others. That is: altruism (more or less what we call "very good" behavior) is motivated by perception of oneness / "that of god in everyone" / something sacred and beautiful in other sentient beings. That concept of an intrinsic "god" or spirit, seated in mortal and finite biology, is one that resonates with me. This motivating perception might not depend at all on any particular understanding of "god" - that is, empathy and perception of shared spirit could be modeled as an external god breathing life into his creatures, or a divine spirit that lives in each being, or as a characteristic that depends only on sentience that emerges from the various biologies of higher animals.

    7. That's really nicely stated. Thanks for taking the time to share it.