Philosophical arguments for rebirth

Seeing the thread on scientific proof of rebirth, I thought it might be interesting to talk about philosophically defending it.

The traditional Theravadin defense of the rebirth seems to be mainly a religious argument (I have no problem with that) based on the authority of the Buddha. This is fine for those who accept his authority, but I think we can do a bit better.

Historically, the only Buddhist I can think that provided a solid argument for rebirth is Dharmakirti - and this argument is the one that modern Tibetans rely on without having changed much.

His argument was mainly that mind is irreducible to matter, and hence a mental phenomenon has to have been caused by a past mental phenomenon at the moment of conception (which means it must have come from a past life). Hayes gives a good overview here:

I thought perhaps we could update his argument today in the following way:


  1. Physicalism and specifically Emergentism is wrong. Mental phenomena are non-reducible to physical phenomena. (In this step I would basically refer people to the modern philosophical literature on philosophy of mind, needless to say, I support the critics of physicalism)

  2. Mental phenomena have as one of their necessary causes other mental phenomena (as well as other physical phenomena).

  3. There must have been a mental phenomena which stretches back before my birth which conditioned my first mental activity in this life.

  4. Since this causal stream of mental phenomena have causally interacted with this body at this time, it is likely that it will causally interact with another body in the future and has causally interacted with other bodies in the past.

But wait there’s more! Here’s my second argument free of charge, this one is not based on Dharmakirti:


  1. Physicalism and specifically Emergentism is wrong.

  2. Mental phenomena interact in some way with physical phenomena causally, and hence must follow similar or analogous laws.

  3. Information and energy cannot be created or destroyed (this is confirmed by modern physics).

  4. Mental phenomena or the information contained therein survive death in some way.

  5. There is the possibility for this information/phenomena to become embodied again in the future (it was embodied before, it can be so again).

Thoughts? I am not a professional philosopher by any means so this is probably the best I can do at taking a crack at this thing. It probably is not perfectly convincing but perhaps someone else can make them better?

Edit: Also, I totally forgot to mention that there is an argument in the Western tradition which comes from Plato and possibly Socrates and goes something like this;

  1. Persons have certain innate knowledge (like the fact that two proportional triangles have equal interior angles)

  2. This would only be possible if we learned it before our birth.

But I am not totally sure if this is a very strong argument in any case


@javier it seems to me that there are some pretty large lacunae in those arguments.

For one thing, neither one of them delivers a conclusion that is tantamount to rebirth. The mere affirmation of substance dualism (an irreducible difference in kind between mental and physical phenomena) doesn’t get us to rebirth.

Let’s look at the future direction instead of the past direction. Suppose, as your two arguments presuppose, it is true that mental phenomena always have mental causes and mental effects, and that the “stuff” or “energy” of the mental can’t be entirely destroyed, but must be conserved in some way. How would it follow that this conservation takes a form that is in any way analogous to rebirth?

Consider an analogy: When a star supernovas, its material constituents are transformed, scattered and spread throughout vast regions of space. The star’s matter/energy is conserved as some other form of matter/energy. Some of those constituents might ultimately become constituents of other stars, but some will not. They will just cool and decay. Some might become parts of smaller, colder middle-sized astronomical objects. Some might just remain part of the massive, indistinct clouds of interstellar dust particles. But in none of these cases will any of the physical entities that are subsequently formed seem worthy to be regarded as a rebirth of the original star. There will just be a vast collection of separate bodies and dusty regions of space each of which contains some meager traces of the original star. Indeed, if all or most of the original constituents managed to come together to form a single successor star, very similar in its physical properties to the original star, that would be most improbable outcome. By the same token, if the physical constituents of a bunch of other dead stars and astronomical bodies somehow came together to form some new star that is a virtual copy of our original star, that would also be a stunning improbable turn of events.

All of these speculations about what might happen to the psychic stuff or psychic energy of our minds following our deaths - even assuming that dualistic picture of the ontology of our mental lives is not utterly deluded in the first place - are very interesting and fun. But they are just speculations.

Lots of issues still.

This is the main argument, nevermind building the rest of your idea, support this first.

No kidding.

But if you do keep going, you also need to add arguments about kamma as a driving force, which is another Buddhist necessity. Lots of water to haul, as yet…

For one thing, neither one of them delivers a conclusion that is tantamount to rebirth. The mere affirmation of substance dualism (an irreducible difference in kind between mental and physical phenomena) doesn’t get us to rebirth.

Yea, I realize that, perhaps I should have called the thread something like “arguments which point to the possibility of rebirth”. Certainly I do not think that these arguments prove rebirth in the Buddhist sense outright. I guess my point was to establish some kind of basic structure and see if anyone else has some ideas on how it could be expanded or further supported.

However, I would like to point out that I did not say in the first premise that substance dualism must be affirmed (indeed I do not support substance dualism or think Buddhism needs substance dualism). Rather what that premise states is that physicalism and emergentism is wrong. It is not the same thing.

This is the main argument, nevermind building the rest of your idea, support this first.

Well, I would, but I wouldn’t do so with any original arguments of my own, which is why I just pointed to the SEP and IEP links which contain overviews of those arguments from Western philosophy of mind (which I tend to agree with).

Well, let me put up an epistemological issue that I’ve raised before.

Sense impressions from the five senses are the blocks that the mind uses as content. Having these blocks put into unique shapes by the mind is nothing new, it does this all the time (imaginative concepts, dreaming, hallucinations, etc.). So: is the content of the mind wholly built from the other five senses & physicality in general (genetics, social momentum, etc.), or does some set of mind-content have absolutely no foundation on them?

To assert rebirth is to assert that the mind has content that didn’t get in there from the other senses (and socio-physicality in general) during one life. The plausibility of rebirth requires a clear demonstration of just this sort of mental content. That’s basically what the arguments you’ve put up above are trying to talk about - so, what might that be like? Just one example can suffice for the discussion, I think.

Well, this is referring mainly to the argument put forth by Plato that we have some mental content which is not empirical but innate.

One could also refer to Kant here, in his view of the mind and the categories by which the mind interprets reality (also, I think Vasubandhu is basically a Buddhist Kant, so his view of ‘vasanas’ is similar to the categories which impose time and space on external sense impressions).

So I guess what you are looking for is things like the sense of temporality, spatial existence and also mathematical truths. Basically anything that is termed “a priori” in modern philosophy, what Kant called “a priori intuitions”.

Of course these are philosophical arguments and some people do not accept these demonstrations in the works of Kant and other Neo-Kantians.

Rationalism vs. Empiricism is the shape of that disagreement.

The Suttas describe an Empiricism, however, and criticize Rationalism as an approach to knowledge.

IMO, one doesn’t arrive at faith/acceptance/confidence in rebirth via philosophical excursions, so unfortunately I think this is a wasted effort. Perhaps that’s why you can find so few historical Buddhists who have tried to philosophically defend it. There was no need to. And there still is no need to. The Buddha never defended or argued for rebirth. He just taught it. It’s what he knew and saw as the way things really are. Take it or leave it.


Yes, views hammered out by reason would be in non-conformity with how the Buddha himself approached the issue.

However, for an early buddhist perspective on this issue see Venerable Anālayo’s Debate with a Sceptic – The Dīrgha Āgama Parallel to the Pāyāsi Sutta and part 2 here which is the more pertinent part.

In the early suttas, it seems to me there are 3 grounds for accepting rebirth.

  1. The safe bet teaching, a buddhist version of Pascal’s Wager, found in the Apannaka Sutta

  2. Faith in the Buddha, see below with full sutta here:

“But when the Blessed One says to me, ‘At the break-up of the body, after death, one who is generous, a master of giving, reappears in a good destination, a heavenly world,’ that I do not know. That is where I go by conviction in the Blessed One.”
“So it is, Sīha. So it is. At the break-up of the body, after death, one who is generous, a master of giving, reappears in a good destination, a heavenly world.”

  1. By means of ESP gained through the cultivation of the 4th jhana: see DN 2: The Fruits of the Contemplative Life

As for a modern philosophical approach to consciousness, a few ideas seem useful, i.e. in line with current scientific knowledge, and parsimony more generally.

  1. Mind/Brain Identity Theory

  2. Physicalism more generally, which Javier already linked to.

  3. Or some form of Panpsychism utterly unhelpful to the Buddhist.

If nobody had ever heard of rebirth or any afterlife theories, I don’t think there is any reason that a philosopher would ever come up with one. Except of course that us humans generally prefer to live, but then the passions would be governing reason, per Hume, rather than reason governing the passions, per the ancients and many a hopeful modern philosopher. See the entry on Afterlife for a more general philosophical look.

So I think philosophical arguments for rebirth are unhelpful. However, I do not discourage faith, given its importance on the Buddhist path.


Parsimony or simplicity is widely accepted as valuable in philosophy, and since science is clearly the most reliable means of gaining knowledge, notions such as rebirth that have no parsimonious relationship with science will generally be considered non-philosophical.

I like what @mikenz66 said in the thread on secularism:

On the other side, I don’t personally find it helpful for Traditional Buddhists to be discussing possible scientific proof of rebirth. They can’t have it both ways. If the Traditional Buddhist knowledge system/approach is not science (which, as a scientist in my day job) I don’t really think it is, then why get sucked into a an argument that depends on science?

Not to drag you into discussion Mike, but thanks for a useful snippet.

Yes indeed, this is the essential aspect of the Buddhist empirical approach I was emphasizing above. Psychic powers are essential and integral to Buddhism due to how Buddhism understands knowledge & how to get it.

Well, except that philosophers have come up with them, in ancient Greece and elsewhere/when. The first people with the idea came up with it without having heard of it - and it’s an idea that existed worldwide in prehistorical societies as well. Overall it’s a fairly common sort of idea, in its basic shape.

As you’ve indicated, for Buddhists it’s accepted either as a matter of a simple faith, or as a belief in the veracity of mental phenomena alleged to be psychic powers when those powers seem to convey one specific cosmological ideation from Iron Age India.

(The Safe Bet fails, as has been discussed elsewhere ad nauseum.)

This is correct; Buddhist epistemology is not a scientific epistemology.

You’re welcome! As I have said before, I am uneasy with the idea of treating Dhamma as science:


Yes, a brain fart on my part, a qualification is needed. In my mind I was imagining modern philosophers with access to all current scientific knowledge, but in a world where rebirth and afterlife ideas had never occurred before, and everything else remaining the same. I guess it was a trivial point, put in another way: I don’t think rebirth or various other afterlife theories are going to be serious features in any university’s upcoming Philosophy of Mind courses.

As for the Safe Bet, it fails from a totally outside perspective because there is no reason to choose Christianity over Islam over Hinduism etc. But once a person already has some fondness for a religion and perhaps a dislike or simple lack of fondness for others, then psychologically it might seem like a good way to avoid serious existential risk.

By using existential risk I borrow from effective altruism:

Philosophers have argued that existential risks are especially important because the long-run future of humanity matters a great deal (Bostrom 2013). Many believe that there is no intrinsic moral difference between the importance of a life today and one in a hundred years. However, there may be many more people in the future than there are now. They argue, therefore, that it is overwhelmingly important to preserve that potential, even if the risks to humanity are small. - link

If someone already has a lot of appreciation for the teachings of the Buddha, but doesn’t care for other religions, that may cause them to grant just a sliver of possibility to buddhist rebirth while granting none to other possibilities. Once you get to that point, due to liking, even though it is a non-rational psychological reason, then a slightly modified version of the existential risk argument is (almost) compelling for accepting rebirth. All those future lives to look out for, even though probably not.

This is more or less my own feeling. I don’t want to be drowning in a sea of ideas though, so it’s important to note that views or something approaching a view is dependent on contact, impermanent, subject to change, not to be identified with, of purely instrumental value, a raft for crossing over. And if consciousness ceases at death, then as the Epicureans say: “Death is nothing to us”

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