By David Darling
Zen Physics: The Science of Death, the Logic of Reincarnation
HarperCollins: New York, 1996.
208 pp., $23.00 (cloth).
It is remarkable, given the millions of years that humans beings have been confronting death, that anyone has something new to say about it. But astrophysicist David Darling does. Unfortunately, what Darling says in this challenging follow-up to his book Equations of Eternity will fall like ice water on most readers’ hearts. His prime message is that when we die, the self that we have claimed as our own all our life utterly disappears. No one self, according to the author—nor any aspect that delineates, say, me from the Dalai Lama—survives death.
The “reincarnation” that Darling refers to in his subtitle, then, isn’t reincarnation as most of us understand it. He proposes that the life of our species consists of a multiple of serial incarnations of “I”—of self-aware loci—that are born, exist, and die, with no carryover from one to the next other than that each involves a sense of self, of me-ness. “We assume that if death terminates a particular 'you,’ then it must mean the end of all subjective experience,” he writes. “But, on the contrary, what death involves is a new start. . . . A certain concatenation of memories disappears. And after this very minor loss, the world continues as before, life carries on, a new neural network comes into existence, and as this new support system for the mind develops, a new self begins to emerge—a new narrative, a new 'you.’”
Darling reaches this conclusion about death after marshaling evidence about life. Drawing on anecdotal and laboratory data regarding amnesia, multiple personality syndrome, and other brain and mind dysfunctions, he contends that even within each person’s life the sense of “I” is not continuous but episodic and discrete; that, in fact, each human life is comprised of serial “reincarnations” of “me” that are bound to one another only by a fictional narrative. For example, he cites the case of Peggy Cannon of Alabama, who suffered severe retrograde amnesia after a car crash in 1986. Since then, Darling explains, Cannon has gradually built up a new body of memories, but “what she has learned the second time around has not made her into the same individual. She has a different character and different interests. . . .” The post-crash Cannon is, by Darling’s thinking, a different self.
Darling insists that each of us experiences comparable, though usually far less discernible, discontinuities during our life. In fact, we undergo discontinuity of self from moment to moment, as in each moment our brain processes a new influx of sensation and merges it with memory, creating the impression of a “smoothly running narrative”—much as our mind processes discrete frames of film running 24 per second into a smoothly running movie. And if there is no real continuity of self within life, reasons Darling, how can there be one between life and whatever lies beyond death?
To Darling, the continuity of consciousness itself, rather than of any individual consciousness, is what counts. Consciousness, he contends, is primary to matter: it gives rise to matter and not vice versa. This contention goes against Western scientific orthodoxy but resonates strongly with the discoveries of quantum physics, which teach us that “what had previously been assumed to be a concrete, objective world cannot even be said to exist outside of the subjective act of observation.”
Darling is a persuasive thinker. Whether he is reliable is another matter. He certainly errs when he states that “no major religion, from Christianity to Buddhism, professes in its core a belief in the existence of personal souls,” for that is exactly what the Roman Catholic Church has been professing for two thousand years. He fails to observe that, according to his own theories, there is no difference between serial “I’s” and simultaneous “I’s”—that you, for example, are a “reincarnation” of me, as we both host a subjective sense of self. He also scants the body of anecdotal evidence that hints at some sort of personal continuity after death—from past-life memories to near-death experiences to psychic phenomena.
It is questionable whether what Darling proposes is “Zen,” as his title implies. It certainly isn’t Buddhism as we may understand it. For instance, the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of the tulku, or reincarnated lama, and the bodhisattva ideal, by which a fully realized being chooses to undergo further incarnations in order to bring others to enlightenment, seem to lie outside his theory.
The most questionable aspect of Zen Physics, however, is its voicing of certitude about that which necessarily seems a mystery. Nevertheless, at the same time that he devalues its mystery, Darling pricks at many preconceptions and false hopes about death. And for those who hope to live—and die—more by illumination than illusion, that makes his book worth reading.
Jeff Zaleski is a consulting editor to Tricycle and an editor-at-large at Publishers Weekly. His next book, The Soul of Cyberspace, will be published by HarperSanFrancisco.