When asked whether having children was a hindrance to a spiritual aspirant - presumably because caring for kids consumes a lot of energy, and diverts the attention from the search for truth - the Indian sage Ramana Maharshi replied "not nearly as much as the scholar's books." We must not mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself. While books can guide our quest, too much reading can clutter the mind with convoluted ideas like this sentence, which only results in confusion.
Not to be outdone, German philosopher Wilhelm Leibniz chided the followers of Descartes (another philosopher, from France) by saying they were "getting into their habit of consulting their master’s books rather than reason and Nature."
Reason and nature. That's what it boils down to. Reason is the tool and the environment is the workshop wherein truth is forged, or at least revealed.
For the mind and the senses, with a little personal experience, can take us quite far in understanding the nature of the soul. So let's see what we can come up with, reasoning from the facts as we perceive them in our day-to-day lives.
Doing so we will be a combination of the two Greek greats, Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle preferred to compare the soul at birth to a blank tablet that could be written on, and he held that there is nothing in our understanding that doesn’t come from the senses. Plato, who came before and went deeper, believed that we have knowledge of everything in a vague way, as an idea, and all we have to do is be exposed to a particular thing to recall the knowledge in our mind. The recollection Plato termed anamnesis, or reminiscence.
Of course, there are certain verifiable facts we often accept on faith. For example, if a geometrician tells you that the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, you take his word for it. Especially if he is Pythagorus, who came up with the theorem. But you could easily verify the fact by drawing a right triangle and performing the necessary measurements and calculations yourself. Similarly, you probably trust that somewhere in Asia a place called China exists, that it is populated by the Chinese, who conduct business transactions using a currency called the yen. You accept these facts without having visited the country yourself, although you could travel there if desired, and maybe some among my handful of readers have. If so, you know what the Chinese really call money.
But there are things we accept on faith that we cannot verify. That the sun is such a distance from the Earth, for instance. Even an astronomer who trusts his telescopes and equations will never visit the sun to actually count out the miles. But since the sun's measurements and properties really don't concern you personally, it is enough to accept these unverifiable facts and move on to those facts of personal value, those which concern your soul.
And in our investigation as to the nature of the soul we would do well to confine ourselves as faithfully as possible to the evidence of the senses, and to personal experience, and see how far reason can take us before finally taking the ultimate leap of faith to bridge whatever distance between ourselves and ultimate truth might remain. Hopefully the distance is shorter than the 93 million miles separating our planet from the nearest star. Metaphorically, I mean.
How far back does your experience take you? To your time in the womb? To the moment of your birth? To early infancy? Do you remember suckling your mother's teat? I cannot, and not just because I did not breastfeed. Examining my earliest recollections, I find that I have no memory before the age of three, and there are many events of my life I have forgotten since then. Nevertheless, I have evidence that I, or the individual I take myself to be, with such and such a name and material circumstances, has existed since my date of birth. By this evidence I mean pictures and the testimonies of my parents, mainly. So I accept the evidences of my senses that the infant me existed even though I don't remember being one. And reason also helps in this regard. For I know that persons don't spontaneously appear at age 3. I've seen other children proceed from their mother's womb and progress from crawling to standing and walking and running, and know that when a child reaches the age of 3 it is only after passing through years 2 and 1, only after being born.
But when it comes to the existence of the individual before birth, or before conception, there is no such evidence or experience.
And even were there, without memory of events before conception, it is as if they never even occurred. Some argue that past life experiences, should there be such a thing, even though forgotten, leave an impression on the soul that colors it and influences actions in the present lifetime. This specious claim crumbles on closer inspection. We must ask what is the soul made of? If atoms, why can no scientist detect a soul? Where is the soul's physical location, then? On another plain of existence, as some are wont to say? Show me that plain on a map. We have mapped the heavens, and yet we cannot find the territory of the afterlife though some say it is right under our noses, and the dead inhabit our very same rooms.
We know that impressions are stored in the brain. That every memory can be traced to a particular neuron or nerve signal. But if impressions are stored as nervous tissue in your brain, which was formed in the womb, then the experiences you had in a prior life and the impressions formed and stored were erased with the death of that brain. Reason can take a person far.
To reiterate: Even if there is such a thing as reincarnation, even if you lived before you were you, without memory of life before birth or age three it as though you never lived. It is like saying that the consciousness in you, the awareness that you exist, is the same in every individual, and that you are like everyone else, identical to them, even. And those that say that all is one contend this much. But without being privy to the sensations and feelings of another person, how can you be anybody but yourself?
So rather than explain the present by some former life, and bandy about the word karma, let us explain the consequences we experience today as being the result of actions occurring yesterday. The circumstances of your birth, your genes, even your astrological sign, not to mention your experiences and upbringing, and so many other factors besides all are evidence of the senses we can reason about now. We have no need to reach back into some figmentary former existence to find the solution. All the answers lie in the present life, and can be revealed in nature, with the aid of the senses and the use of reason.
I do not need recourse to some hypothetical former life to explain any of my predilections. I can explalin my likes and dislikes and propensities and feelings and fears all by the experiences I have undergone in this life. Even though my memory is imperfect. Imagine if I could remember every impression occurring to me since my earliest days in the womb!
Do you exist before you were born? It depends how you define you. The individual you, with a name and a body, did not exist before you were born to your parents. But what about your soul?
Does the soul exist after you die? Accounts indicate some afterlife, though the length and precise nature is unclear. There may be a denouement after your earthly life is done and before you merge with your Maker, or subside back into the Void, which to me seems analogous to deep, dreamless sleep - for eternity. Or until you wake up again as another you with a new body and new set of circumstances. But what connects that you with the new you, the yous of consecutive lives? Not much. As Leibniz writes, "suppose that someone could suddenly become the King of China, but only on condition of forgetting what he had been, as if he had just been born all over again. Would it not in practice, or in terms of perceivable effects, be the same as if he had been annihilated and a King of China created then and there? And that is something that that individual could have no reason to want."
Immortality implies memory, and without a memory of prior existence, as without consciousness, it is as though you never were. Which lends truth to the saying "you only live once." Reincarnation or not, remembering only this lifetime, it is really all you have.
Imagine that you fell into a coma that you'd never awaken from, but that your body would continue to exist for eternity. While your body lay in bed sleeping, you were unconscious. You exist, as a breathing body with a pulse, blood flow, nerve transmissions, etc. But unaware of the fact, assuming a coma is like dreamless sleep, can you really be said to exist at all? If death is like this comatose state, like deep sleep, outside of time and space, then even if at some level the mind or spirit can be said to persist, without consciousness of the fact, it means nothing.
Is death like deep sleep between two days, separating the spirit from consecutive earthly existences? Are we born into life without memory of existing before, destined to live out our days, then die, and after a period of reflection of indeterminate length in some afterlife, get reborn, with the previous experiences erased from memory but their impressions left to somehow influence subsequent actions? This may be. But we cannot judge from experience.
So where does this leave us? With the thinking soul, who in Leibniz's words "can say that pregnant word 'I'." It enters the body at conception or birth or some time in between, and it departs the body at death. If it goes on for a time for the purposes of reflection, very well.
But what then? Entrance into a new body without memory of the former life is akin to a new soul. Is the flame that passes from one branch to the next really the same flame? This change of location or physical vehicle is akin to annihilation and redistribution. Or else the soul subsides into the void and loses consciousness. This is all we may say, all that the guiding light of reason reveals, coupled with the limited scope of our experience and what the evidence of the senses provides.
So reincarnation doesn't hold water. And yet 51% of people, including many Christians, believe they live multiple lives! To these I say examine the belief which govern your actions, for if they are false, you may be living a lie.
What about the Christian notion that says souls are created, and after their sojourn on Earth endure an eternity in hell or heaven depending on the merits or demerits of their actions? This notion has seduced many great thinkers, Leibniz among them. But what is born must die. Heaven is not some physical location, nor is hell. The Kingdom of Heaven lies within, and the soul is outside of space or time.
Is a wave that subsides back into the ocean only to reappear again ever the same wave? You are not the wave. You are the ocean. You are one with God, who is indivisible. Of course comparing something immaterial, such as the soul, with physical objects, like water or even fire, fails to achieve a perfect analogy, since nothing is like spirit but itself. So there is that common thread that unites you with every other spirit. God is One after all. And you really are immortal - provided you alter the definition of what it means to be you.