The heart of the question lies with the definition of the word "belief". For most, a belief is an idea about reality, a definition of Truth. I submit that such a definition is obsolete--pre-relativistic. Unless we assume that all is known about everything, we must assume that all of our ideas are incomplete. Therefore our knowledge of Truth is, of necessity, also incomplete.
Viewed this way, belief, as traditionally defined, is misguided. Unless or until all is known, all beliefs are liable to be proven false as new knowledge is gained.
Physicists realized this in the earlier part of this century when they proved that light was composed of waves. This was a problem because they also proved that it was composed of particles (photons) and further proved that the two concepts are mutually exclusive. They demonstrated that it had to be composed of either waves or particles, but that if one was true, the other had to be false.
This caused much consternation because physicists found it useful at some times to regard light as being composed of particles (i.e such an assumption enabled them to make correct predictions of experimental results--that is, to learn more about Nature) and at other times, it was useful to regard it as being composed of waves. Traditional logic demands that one or the other assumption should be discarded, as each ruled out the other, but this would've required discarding an assumption that was useful to them.
The solution? To assume that light is composed of waves when that assumption is most useful, and to assume that it is composed of particles when =that= assumption is most useful. The question of ultimate reality was left to the philosophers. Scientists were more concerned with what works than what best agreed with their sense of logic. If logic (in this case, assuming that light was either waves or particles, but not both) proved to be less useful than illogic (assuming that it is composed of waves =or= particles, depending on what you're looking at), they would go with what was most useful: the illogical assumption.
At this point, you might be wondering what all this has to do with reincarnation. (remember...reincarnation? <grin>) The reason for my long digression was to illustrate that, properly understood, a belief isn't a conclusion (based on observation) about the nature of Ultimate Reality, but a way of looking at nature that proves more useful than any other =in a given set of circumstances=. With this goes the assumption that, since our understanding of the nature of Reality is incomplete, these assumptions are tentative--to be discarded as soon as a more useful system of beliefs is found.
In light of this, I find discussions concerning the logical questions concerning reincarnation (e.g. the problems concerning the number of souls in relation to the increase in the human population) to be beside the point. With the above definition of "belief", it is not so much important whether or not reincarnation is logically valid as is the question of what belief is most useful in doing whatever we choose to do with our life.
For me, I find that I'm much happier if free of fear of eternal oblivion (or worse, of the eternal torture threatened by many of the world's religions). Accepting a belief in reincarnation accomplishes this and has the added advantage of offering rich and fertile fields for exploration into a past that stretches across all cultures and all time.
Also, since fear has been a potent tool for those who would exploit us to nefarious ends (most tyrants come to power by exploiting the fear of those who can give them that power), any belief which lessens fear (and mortal fear is at the root of all other fear) reduces the likelihood of my being exploited by these tyrants.
For me, such an assumption about the nature of reality allows for a happier, freer life. Put in the terms outlined above, I believe in reincarnation because, for my own subjective ends, it's most =useful=. After all, isn't utility the most important criterion for accepting a model of reality?
William B. McLaughlin
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