According to Emanuel Swedenborg, we only live once on earth. After death we live in a spiritual world and move eventually to a permanent place that depends on the spiritual nature we created by our actions on earth. We are not reborn or reincarnated again on earth, to have another attempt to do better next time.
Historically, however, there have been many stories about reincarnation, notably the "transmigration of souls" (metempsychosis) that Plato describes in the Republic. Reincarnation has been an essential part of Hinduism and Buddhism. It is interesting to see when it became popular in the west. We might assume it came with the great interest in spiritualism in Europe and America that started in the 1840s, which lead to a great many scientists becoming interested in it, with the formation of the learned societies of psychical research in the period 1850-1900. But it did not: there was no hint of reincarnation among those beliefs. Instead, it came through the books of theosophists like Annie Besant and was imported into western thought from the early 1900s. It has subsequently become rather widespread among spirit communicators, and it is especially dominant in the "channelled works" written under dictation from spirit sources that claim higher knowledge.
This essay is not concerned with the moral or theological basis of reincarnation, but discusses instead the evidence that has been presented in its support. The idea might simply be regarded as mistaken if it were not for the evidence that has been described for example by Ian Stevenson in his 1966 book Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. There are two main kinds of evidence. The first is the evidence of birth marks in young children as shown by Stevenson. The second comes from hypnotic regressions, in which a subject under hypnosis is "taken back" to relive his past lives. Often a great deal of historical evidence is produced that cannot be plausibly only invented; realistic names may be given; and unusual languages may be spoken fluently. Sometimes these pieces of evidence are spontaneously recalled.
Most recently there has been regression to the "between life" status and reports of discussion with spiritual advisors about the choice of life into which to incarnate, and afterwards a review of the "lessons learned" from the reincarnations. Taken all together, these pieces of evidence are sufficient to convince a lawyer like Victor Zammit that reincarnation does in fact occur (see Ch. 24 of his book A Lawyer Presents the Case for the Afterlife: Irrefutable Objective Evidence).
I am not going to rehearse the numerous details of the observations and histories here. Rather, I want to suggest alternative interpretations of both of these kinds of evidence, interpretations moreover which are to be expected if Swedenborg’s descriptions of the spiritual world are correct. To start with, therefore, I remind the reader of some aspects of Swedenborg’s account.
According to Swedenborg, the conjunction between heaven and earth is by means of beings in the spiritual world:
With every individual there are good spirits and evil spirits. Through good spirits man has conjunction with heaven, and through evil spirits with hell. These spirits are in the world of spirits, which lies midway between heaven and hell. … When these spirits come to a man they enter into his entire memory, and thus into his entire thought, evil spirits into the evil things of his memory and thought, and good spirits into the good things of his memory and thought. These spirits have no knowledge whatever that they are with man; but when they are with him they believe that all things of his memory and thought are their own; neither do they see the man, because nothing that is in our solar world falls into their sight. (Heaven and Hell 292)
That is, there are indeed close to us beings who have lived in the past and in whose memory there are indeed descriptions of past ages and past languages. Those memories are not active, so there is no interference with the current life. Sometimes, however, there is some ‘leakage’ of that memory into the current consciousness of an individual on earth, and, then, strange voices or memories from past lives appear that he attributes (erroneously) to his own past life. Swedenborg relates:
If a spirit were to speak from his own memory with a man the man would not know otherwise than that the thoughts then in his mind were his own, although they were the spirit's thoughts. This would be like the recollection of something which the man had never heard or seen. That this is so has been given me to know from experience. This is the source of the belief held by some of the ancients that after some thousands of years they were to return into their former life, and into everything they had done, and in fact, had returned. This they concluded because at times there came to them a sort of recollection of things that they had never seen or heard. This came from an influx from the memory of spirits into their ideas of thought. (Heaven and Hell 256).
It appears that the normally-quiescent memories of the associated spirits may be specifically awakened during hypnotic sessions, when the current individual’s mind is quieted. The minds of the spirits may then be aroused to think of their own previous lives. It thus appears that memories are not "labeled" with their originator, so whatever memories are recalled in hypnosis may afterwards be appropriated to whoever experiences them (not necessarily the originator).
What about the bodily birthmarks and scars that Stevenson found on many Asian children? In some cases the alleged cause of death in an immediate past life is reflected by a birthmark in the present life, since investigators could find and identify by family interviews the life history of a matching recently-deceased person. For example, Stevenson found that in cases of violent death the child may show a birthmark where he was knifed, shot or from whatever caused his death. These cases definitely do not appear as "spiritual possession" as described in psychiatric cases because the child’s life is otherwise normal. Zammit argues that these phenomena cannot be attributed to extrasensory perception, to fraud, to cryptomesia (memories previous acquired but since forgotten), to inherited memory, to collective unconscious, or to possession. In his mind, that leaves reincarnation as the only possibility.
We note that many (but not all) of Stevenson’s examples come from cultures in which reincarnation is the expectation. Moreover, many of them involve violent deaths. In that situation, what expectations should we envisage in the recently-resurrected spirit in the spiritual world? I should expect that many such persons want to reincarnate, if only to resume their earthly life cut short. Mostly, we can conclude, they become associated spirits with young children. The child’s memories appear between the ages of two and four, and then the association fades between the ages of five and eight. It is somewhat surprising to me that they manage to produce birthmarks and scars on the children, but, whatever the details are, they do not support the claim of the reincarnation of a single person any more than they support Swedenborg’s theory of associated spirits.
What then about the apparent memories between earthly lives, where events in the spiritual world are recalled under hypnosis? An author such as Michael Newton in his book Journey of Souls has given many stories of people recalling these. If we take these as veridical, this appears to be strong evidence for reincarnation. I argue, however, that some things like these should be expected in the spiritual world described by Swedenborg.
To understand what is happening, we have to consider events in the quotation Heaven and Hell 292 above from the point of view of the spirits involved. Imagine what must happen. They are living like "normal people" in the spiritual world, and then (somehow) they are transformed to be associated spirits with us (on earth) and with no active memory of their own. I suggest that this process appears to them just like reincarnation. We should expect there to be some discussion beforehand with their advisors concerning with whom to best become associated. We would expect that any decisions be taken with their long-term spiritual objectives in mind (with concurrence of the Lord). Then, after some period, they return to their friends and advisors in the spiritual world. (That period might not be a whole earthly lifetime, but they may perhaps not be able to judge time scales in the same way as us.) Moreover, many such "reincarnations" should be expected during life in the spiritual world, before their permanent place is found.
Again, I can envisage that some memories of associated spirits can be awakened under hypnosis and retrieved, as if they were the memories of the earth individual. Thus can not only "past lives" be "recalled" in this way, but also "between life" events. Moreover, something like "successive reincarnations" can and do occur which involve persons in the spiritual world. I can easily imagine this process being inaccurately described as the reincarnation, not of associated spirits, but of our actual selves, especially since the memories can hardly be distinguished. So there is reincarnation, but not as we know it.