Why you couldn’t be a very old soul

I was posting over at this great blog about the idea of reincarnation.   It occured to me that I have a stronger position than simply not thinking it’s true.  I actually think reincarnation is impossible.

Before I explain why, let me spell out the beliefs that appear  impossible.  I’m mostly thinking about the pop-culture, new age version of reincarnation.  There are other formulations of reincarnation that I disagree with, but these are not ones that I think this argument refutes.\

More specifically, I believe the following premises, when taken together, don’t match the facts we see about the world:

1)When humans die, they are reborn eventually as other humans.

2) The whole goal of our mult-life existence is to learn a little more in each life such that we eventually are no longer reborn.

People often point out that people who support reincarnation always seem to have been princes and kings.  Very few people say “I was an illiterate farmer in my past life.”  Everybody is a king, a soldier, an emporer.

Obviously, for every single famous king there were thousands of far less glamorous people beneath them.  This criticism strikes me as valid, as far as it goes.  I’m actually focused on a different thing though.

The thing I’m thinking about is this:

The human population is currently the largest it has ever been.

Depending on who you ask, the estimates vary, but the range is somewhere between one-half and one tenth: that is, right now, somewhere between one-tenth and one half of all the people who have ever been are alive.

On the average, we could have only had somewhere between 2 and 9 prior lives.  Yes, some people could have had a few more, but this would be at the expense of somebody else having a few less.  As the world population continues to grow, this ratio will get closer, on the average, each individual person could have had fewer lives.

People talk about having dozens or hundreds of lives before this one.  They talk about old souls.  The math just doesn’t work.


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The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden. My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter. For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by. There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real. A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different. I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to. But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard. I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward. I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction. I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me. In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past. As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine. I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.

10 thoughts on “Why you couldn’t be a very old soul”

  1. Jeff, I’ve been wracking my brain since you wrote this trying to think of a worldview that restricts reincarnation only to humans, and not coming up with one. All the significant, historical systems of reincarnation I’m familiar with also shuttle soul/consciousness/etc to different planes of existence and different forms of existence (Hinduism and Buddhism most prominently). Can you give me an example of a prominent worldview where humans are only reborn as humans, or was it meant to be a fairly specific example excluding the two religions I mentioned?


    1. You should perhaps look up Richard Feynman’s comment regarding the idea that there may only be one electron. I’m not saying I agree or disagree with the idea of reincarnation in general, I just take issue with your math. You assume that time is linear. Some Feynman diagrams show particles traveling….backwards.


  2. I think you’re right– most actual traditions do include the idea that animals are on the reincarnative menu so to speak. Just as, theoretically, most reincarnational folks are open to the idea peasants could be among their past lives.

    Mostly I’m thinking about zany new agers, not so much “for real” Buddhists and Hindus. The thing is, I’ve never heard anybody say
    “You know, I spent a few lives as a duck, and then a couple lives as a fox, and then I was born as an illiterate peasant.”
    It seems that people think they’ve had dozens and hundreds of humans lives.
    I could imagine somebody running the argument that while incarnated as certain animals they might be aquiring the knowledge that is necessary to escape rebirth.
    I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard anybody actually make this claim. And if they did, there’s a somewhat related problem to the human population problem.
    There are, for example unimaginable numbers of insects. It would be mathematically plausible for somebody to claim they had hundreds of lives as highly primitive animals. (Primitive, here, meaning more ruled by instinct and less ruled by thought.)
    But the thing is, even if somebody lived a hundred lives as a beetle, just what karma were they working out in there insectile existence? What lessons were they learning?

    On the other hand, I’d grant somebody that a horse, or a bear, or a fox might be a vehicle for more of this learning and karmic working out. But the higher you go on the food chain, the fewer individuals exist within a certain ecosystem. So if everybody claims they’ve got hundreds of lives as bears, for example, we start to run back into the problem of there simply haven’t been enough bears.

    I’ll be interested to hear your reply: I’m on shaky ground here, both because I may not get what’s supposed to be learned, and maybe an insect or a beetle could be a vehicle for this, and also because I’m confident about the idea that animals higher on the food chain are much lower in number, it becomes pretty tricky to guestimate and compare, for example, the total number of grizzly bears that there have ever been when compared to the current population of people in the world.


  3. I guess the first thing I’d say is that you’re still thinking physical, when the issue is metaphysical. Animals count as a vehicle for reincarnation, but so do many other realms in the different systems presented, so I think in doing the math you either have to figure animals and alternate realms/planes into the equation, or acknowledge that you’re taking a very very narrow view of reincarnation.

    You’re also taking a narrow view of time. Let me use an abbreviated story as an example. The Hindu god Indra (prominent leader of the devas, the gods of heaven) defeated a great monster, a serpent or dragon I think it was. He became full of himself and sought out a great Architect to build him a palace in recognition of Indra’s victory. As the days went on the palace grew bigger and bigger; Indra kept adding elements to the design so it would be the grandest palace ever even among the gods. This, of course, tired out the builder, who went to Brahman to complain. One night as Indra was having a festival a young boy appeared, both beautiful and remarkably blue. The boy is brought in, and Indra, the king god, sitting on his throne, says, “Young man, welcome. And what brings you to my palace?” “Well,” says the boy with a voice like thunder rolling on the horizon, “I have been told that you are building such a palace as no Indra before you ever built.” And Indra says, “Indras before me, young man— what are you talking about?”

    The boy begins talking about the previous cycles of time, and an army of ants begins marching into this massive palace. Indra asks what’s up with the ants, and the boy replies.

    “Former Indras all,” he says.

    Through many lifetimes they rise from the lowest conditions to the highest illumination. And then they drop their thunderbolt on a monster, and they think, ‘What a good boy am I.’ And down they go again.”

    When the boy is talking, a crotchety old yogi comes into the palace with a banana leaf parasol. He is naked except for a loincloth, and on his chest is a little disk of hair, and half the hairs in the middle have all dropped out.

    The boy greets him and asks him just what Indra was about to ask. “Old man, what is your name? Where do you come from? Where is your family? Where is your house? And what is the meaning of this curious constellation of hair on your chest?”

    “Well,” says the old fella, “my name is Hairy. I don’t have a house. Life is too short for that. I just have this parasol. I don’t have a family. I just meditate on Vishnu’s feet, and think of eternity, and how passing time is. You know, every time an Indra dies, a world disappears— these things just flash by like that. Every time an Indra dies, one hair drops out of this circle on my chest. Half the hairs are gone now. Pretty soon they will all be gone. Life is short. Why build a house?”

    The idea of previous instances of what we feel to be a singular reality now is pretty much built into the major systems. Given that, throughout those cycles, we can see many many many souls were manifested in one form or another, so our current instance may not be as unique as we think.

    As regards the karma and teaching of insects, it’s actually a pretty easy answer. I’ll switch here from Hinduism to Buddhism. The Dalai Lama relays a story that one time he visited a very very old monk who was nearing the end of his life. The two were having tea at the table and it was a beautiful day; light streamed into the house through the window or door, I forget which. The monk, even in the presence of the Dalai Lama, was transfixed on an ant on the floor trying to make it to one of these areas of light and having much trouble. The monk, who found it hard to move no less get on his hands and knees, begged the Dalai Lama to assist the ant before they went on.

    For another example: I read a news story a year or two ago about a temple in a foreign country that was beset by stinging ants. The monks could not kill the ants; so they took it as a test of their compassion.

    The life of an insect may be less about teaching themselves than about allowing others to exercise their compassion. It also may be about being on the receiving end and realizing what it is to be squashed, or helped across the floor to the warm sun.

    ‘Scuse the length of this reply, but brevity didn’t seem to fit in the plan! 😉


  4. What in your estimate are the total number of souls? Why that number specifially? A line segment has infinite number of points. Indian philosophy says there are an infiinite (“unlimited”) number of souls . What other number of souls could there be, where would this number come from? To see how infinity works you can Google: hotel infinite rooms.


  5. The issue isn’t the number of souls… It’s the number of old souls. My point is that to be an old soul you’d have to live a bunch of lives. Reincarnation is quite possible, if you begin with the premise that most people haven’t ever lived before. But when you take a look at the comparative size of the world’s population, the idea that many people have lived more than a few lives simply doesn’t work mathematically.


    1. See the Feynman comment….and loosen your mathematical considerations to include relativistic spacetime, not just good ol’ anthropomorphic time.


  6. Actually after reading all that I could about old souls, (first heard of the term when I was told that I was one), it’s said that there are currently more baby/young souls than there are old souls. So if you want to do the math it kinda makes sense because in the beginning of time – so to speak – it started with 2 or whatever, so therefore it makes sense that there are LESS not more old souls. Everyone wants to be an old soul and likes the idea of being an old soul because they think it’s so much better (actually this is a younger soul’s ego showing up) but to be an ACTUAL old soul they are not. I think that number that you got about old souls might be wrong, but as far as I know only about 7 to 9% of the world’s population is considered true old souls and they reside in a handful of countries.

    The math kinda makes sense if you start out with a smaller number and see a steady climb until it reaches a peak (ie: now) because nowadays it’s all younger souls populating this planet anyways. Does this makes sense? So the majority of today’s population are infant, baby or young souls which leaves a smaller population for the mature and older souls and that makes sense, there’s your steady climb of population throughout earth’s history. The very first men on this planet, ie: Adam and Eve, men from the stone ages and all that, are not returning to this earth as TRUE old souls.

    The world’s population is mainly young at the moment after doing my research on soul ages I see their characteristics manifested in the world around me. Countries that embrace sustainability, green living, mother nature and so on are the ones where a chunk of mature and old souls reside and those countries, as a whole, have a deep calm about them. Even though I’ve been told that I”m an old soul, I personally don’t see it because I do not, as yet, possess all the wisdom that an older soul possess. With that said, however, it has also been said that we don’t manifest our true potential until the age of 35, but even then, I don’t feel like I’m wise enough to be an old soul. I do manifest certain old soul traits but I feel there’s still much to learn. So you can count this one supposedly old soul out of your equation. 🙂


  7. Sorry I want to ammend something in my post.

    The part that says:

    men from the stone ages and all that, are not returning to this earth as TRUE old souls.

    is suppose to read:

    men from the stone ages and all that, are *NOW* returning to this earth as TRUE old souls.


  8. I agree with a lot of Not An Old Soul wrote. I’ve known I was an old soul since I was young and learned about the concept. I just always was exceptionally compassionate and wise and had a strong sense of my spirit. So I can’t explain it other than I ‘just know’ and can point to evidence in how I live my life.
    Basically, an old soul is someone who is strongly oriented towards others. The point of this phase of existence is to choose between acting for others and your community or just yourself, though there are many lessons within this basic lesson. There are also in theory old souls who are very selfish they are not allowed to come back to Earth to ‘be of service’ the way good souls can be, because obviously they would just wreck havoc. They are in another dimension with other selfish souls learning the true consequence of their decisions.
    Many old souls do not necessarily come from Earth but have incarnated on other planets or are from other dimensions but come back to this kindergarten planet to be of service. Also, the population explosion – I believe – birthed new souls who are now very young. You have a small handful of Earth folks who are like young teenagers, and then an even smaller percentage who are visitors like me that are maybe middle aged, and then an even smaller percentage who are very very old souls like Jesus was. Most people claim to live many lives are, as a former poster said, young souls who believe this for ego reasons.
    However, this does not discredit reincarnation itself – but it does discredit our common understanding of reincarnation.


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