Q: Question: Once I asked a Hindu if he can remember his past life (previous life). In response, he asked me to tell the details what I did just 2 days before...and I could not give all the detailed information. Then the Hindu friend replied to me that if I was unable to give the details of just the past two days, how he can give the details of his past life. Can you comment on that?
A: Certainly your friend is right in that the farther an event recedes from the present, the more difficult it is to remember what happened. No one would deny this in any way. Yet this argument applied to past lives has several serious errors in it. His argument is essentially: “Because I have a receding memory, and forget many things, therefore we cannot remember well our past lives, therefore reincarnation does not need to stand the test of evidence and reincarnation is still true.” Let me try to make clear the obvious logical errors in this reasoning.
First, he is not asking for reduced memory, but is arguing that lack of evidence does not disprove reincarnation. No one ever argues that in order for rebirth to be true, a person should be able to remember every event in perfect detail. It is not even necessary to argue that a large amount of memory remain. The issue with reincarnation and the memory of past lives is whether there is any memory at all of these past lives, and whether this memory is true and real. This memory may be distant and perhaps even slightly vague, but this is quite different from arguing that memory is non-existent. Even small amounts of memory with more distant recall will either be true or false, i.e. actual memories of false memories. They must still stand the test of evidence from history and the lives of real people from the past. His argument is frivolous in that it may except past lives from inquiry while claiming they are true.
Second, evidence for a past life is not limited to mere personal memory. Let me illustrate with a person who has amnesia. I have a friend whose father has Alzheimer’s disease and does not even remember his own children from one hour to the next. Because this person has forgotten who his children are, and the events of the previous hour, or even 15 minutes ago, does this mean that we cannot know whether he actually existed an hour ago? This is a silly question, because the evidence for existence in the past is not limited to internal subjective evidence alone. The events of a person’s life have a broader trail than personal individual internal memory. Actions, words, and events leave a mark not only on the subjective memory, but they leave a corollary mark in the memory and experience of other people as well. This is why if a person claims a memory of a past life, they should be able to recount details consistent with the actual life of a real person in the past, as the details and historical trail is always there in the real world. Some who contend for rebirth hold that the memory gets vacated or stifled to the point that very few people and memories ‘make it through’ to the next life. Well, if this is the case, then we are left with the corollary that therefore there is no real evidence for rebirth. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say “People can’t remember their past lives AND there is proof for a past life in the memories of people.” If the reduced memory issue is one where memory cannot substantiate a previous life, then why do those who hold to rebirth keep presenting this memory as evidence for rebirth?
Third, even if we were limited to mere personal memory, because we cannot remember much or, because some people have poor memories, this does not mean that the memory of a person would not have something there if there is a personal conscious continuum from one life to the next. We could take the example of persons with extremely good memories as a counter example to the daily forgetfulness of the details of previous days and months. There are people whose recall is amazingly clear and detailed, of events from many years ago. People with certain intellectual gifts can remember every single event down to every fine detail and repeat them decades later. It is not necessary to appeal to these gifted people, however, for even the average person has memory of certain events in the past. The memory of a tragedy or a very happy day always has a long enduring mark that would certainly not be forgotten, such as the death of a child or the day of their wedding. It is hard to argue for conscious personal continuum from one life to the next while also holding that the memory of events like this are effaced.
So the question still remains, “Why, if there is rebirth of the individual conscious soul into another life, do people not have a memory of this previous life or lives?” To argue for a reduced memory does not make the problem go away.