The Cognitive Foundations of Reincarnation

In: Method & Theory in the Study of Religion
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  • 1 Department of Religious Studies, California State University, Northridge, 236 Santa Susana Hall, 18111 Nordhoff Street, ca 91330-8316, USA

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Anthropological records and psychological studies demonstrate the recurrence of ideas about how to determine the identity of reincarnated persons. These ideas are often incoherent with corresponding theological dogma about the process of reincarnation. Specifically, even though reincarnation is represented as a process of change, people often seek out and interpret particular similarities between the deceased and reincarnated agent as evidence that the two are one and the same person. This paper argues that panhuman cognitive tendencies explain, in part, the spread and recurrence of ideas about what provides evidence of reincarnation: specifically, representations of reincarnated agents are informed and constrained by everyday cognitive intuitions that govern representations of continued identity for intentional agents generally. The paper concludes that these constraints go some way towards explaining the recurrent features of reincarnation concepts and behaviors cross-culturally.

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