Abstact With illustrative references to film and television, the notion of “metaphysical amnesia” (the forgetfulness of man of a trans-human identity) is defined, used to differentiate certain world-views, and ultimately to clarify the nature of Christianity.
The Theory of Anamnesis
In the Meno, Socrates is asked by Meno (1)
And how are you going to search for [the nature of virtue] when you don’t know at all what it is, Socrates? Which of all the things you don’t know will you set up as target for your search? And even if you actually come across it, how will you know that it is that thing which you don’t know?
Socrates’ response (the theory of “anamnesis”) is that soul is immortal, repeatedly incarnated, and that knowledge is in the soul from eternity, but each time the soul is incarnated its knowledge is forgotten in the trauma of birth.
As stated, Socrates’ theory leaves open the question is to whether the soul is voluntarily or involuntary reincarnated, and the question of therefore of whether this metaphysical amnesia is voluntary or involuntary. A doctrine associated with the New Age movement is that humans are infinite beings voluntarily having a finite experience (2). For this to be possible, one must forget one’s identity as an infinite being, and so the idea is that human beings have voluntarily entered into a state of metaphysical amnesia. (3)
Earth has a particular difficulty in that we have amnesia. Out human minds set up an amnesia block when we come into this world so that we don’t have any knowledge that we can recall readily about the spirit world or our spirit guides… It is a planet earth is of self-discovery. The idea is that by not knowing the answers to the test questions before you come in you solve these problems for yourself, in your own way, and in your own time, and in your own environment, and in your own body…
This New Age perspective is be contrasted with a doctrine associated with Gnosticism, which is related to Platonism and Kabbalism, and often known as a Christian heresy. Like “New Ageism”, Gnosticism is complex and diverse set of beliefs, but as with New Ageism, it is possible to identify unifying motifs. Gnosis. org:
Human nature mirrors the duality found in the world: in part it was made by the false creator God and in part it consists of the light of the True God. Humankind contains a perishable physical and psychic component, as well as a spiritual component which is a fragment of the divine essence. This latter part is often symbolically referred to as the “divine spark”. The recognition of this dual nature of the world and of the human being has earned the Gnostic tradition the epithet of “dualist”.
Humans are generally ignorant of the divine spark resident within them. This ignorance is fostered in human nature by the influence of the false creator and his Archons, who together are intent upon keeping men and women ignorant of their true nature and destiny. Anything that causes us to remain attached to earthly things serves to keep us in enslavement to these lower cosmic rulers. Death releases the divine spark from its lowly prison, but if there has not been a substantial work of Gnosis undertaken by the soul prior to death, it becomes likely that the divine spark will be hurled back into, and then re-embodied within, the pangs and slavery of the physical world.
In The Book of Thomas (4), one of the early Christian and Gnostic texts discovered near the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945, Jesus says:
Watch and pray that you not come to be in the flesh, but rather that you come forth from the bondage of the bitterness of this life.
Again, humans are infinite beings having a finite experience, and again, reincarnation is central, but for the Gnostic the forgetting is involuntarily, and due to the malevolent machinations of a false God, the engineer of the earth and material universe generally. The New-Agers are the dreamers, the Gnostics are the realists: for them, incarnation is a bad, bad thing – no one who knows the alternative wants to be incarnated into a state of bondage and bitterness, and if you are incarnated, then either you are Jesus of Nazareth, or a prophet of God voluntarily on a mission to help free people from the cycle of death and reincarnation, or something has gone very wrong for you. “Gnosis” is the state of being and knowledge which represents the re-attainment of the lost pre-incarnated status. Since it is to be re-attained by the denial of the material values and the material world, there are strong parallels between Gnosticism and Buddhism (5).
Amnesia on Film and Television
The nature of these contrary views of metaphysical amnesia, and the conflict between them, is well-illustrated by certain popular films and television shows on the theme of amnesia, all of which classified according to whether the amnesia is accidental or deliberate, and if it is deliberate, whether it is self-imposed or imposed by an external agency, and if it is self-imposed, whether it is consciously or sub-consciously imposed:
There are numerous examples of amnesia arising from physical accidents that damage the brain. These include Crime Doctor (1943), Overboard (1987) Regarding Henry (1991), The Majestic (2001), and The Man Without a Past (2002). There are also numerous examples of dis-associative amnesia (deliberate, self-imposed, and sub-conscious), all of which satisfy the definition given in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 film Spellbound (1945)
Amnesia: a trick of the mind for remaining sane. You remain sane by forgetting something too horrible to remember. You put the horrible thing behind a closed door.
These include Random Harvest (1942), Spellbound itself, The Fisher King (1991), and The Machinist (2004). An interesting example of this form of amnesia is provided by The Sixth Sense (1999), in which the main character, a psychiatrist played by Bruce Willis, is dead but unaware of this because he is suffering from amnesia surrounding the circumstances of his death.
But these films are not relevant to the matter at hand, metaphysical amnesia, which is neither accidental nor subconsciously imposed. Relevant are films about amnesia that is deliberate, and consciously rather than subconsciously self-imposed. An excellent example is provided by Angel Heart (1987). Based on the novel Falling Angel (6), and directed by Alan Parker, tells the story of a man -played by Mickey Rourke- who, as a popular singer named Johnny Favorite, struck a proverbial deal with the devil for fame and fortune. In order to avoid paying the cost of damnation, Favorite performed a magical ritual in which he took over the body and the mind of another man -Harry Angel- thereby forgetting his original identity as Johnny Favorite.
It turns out the Favorite-identity has not been fully erased, and that the devil (well-played by Robert de Niro) is hot on his trail…
The long running sci-fi British TV series Dr Who also involves examples of deliberate, self-imposed, and self-conscious amnesia. In the pair of episodes Human Nature and Family of Blood, the eighth and ninth episodes of the third series (aired in 2007), the time travelling alien, known only as “the Doctor”, transforms into a human to escape hostile aliens out for his blood. For his own safety he takes on the persona of John Smith, a teacher at a school for boys, and entirely forgets his identity as the Doctor (although he does have dreams about his former life which he records in a journal called The Journal of Impossible Things). Adapted from a Dr Who novel by Paul Cornell (7), the idea is essentially same as the idea in Falling Angel and Angel Heart – forget who you are in order to throw those that might be tracking you with malicious intent off the scent. One difference is that Johnny Favorite planned to abandon that identity forever by becoming Harry Angel, whereas the Doctor planned to re-claim his original identity just as soon as the danger passed, although in the end he found this to be an emotionally difficult transition.
In the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Michel Gondry, the amnesia is consciously rather than subconsciously self-imposed, and the result of an emotionally rather than physically protective projective. In this film the technology exists to enable people to erase experiences from their minds, and in particular to erase past relationships they find painful to contemplate. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet star as lovers who meet again after having erased each other from their respective memories.
A classic and relevant example of amnesia that is partly self-imposed, but mainly imposed from the outside, is provided by The Matrix (1999). Written and directed by the Wachowski Brothers, and starring Keanu Reeves as a computer programmer who learns of a world-takeover by machines (more particularly by computers), which have imprisoned human beings in life-supporting pods of nutrients. A computer program called “The Matrix” creates the illusion of sensory experience, and that life going on as usual, while the bodies of those in the pods are somehow being used by the machines as batteries, as energy-sources:
Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne): The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work… when you go to church… when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
Neo (Keanu Reeves): What truth?
Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind.
Eric Wilson has shown (8) that The Matrix is one of a number of popular films on Gnostic theme that the world of the senses is an orchestrated and malevolent illusion. That the world is an orchestrated illusion does not imply by itself that something has been forgotten -for those in the Matrix there is a sense in which it was never known in the first place- but after having the nature of the Matrix explained to him, Neo is offered the choice between taking a blue and a red pill. If he takes the blue pill, he will forget all that he learned of the Matrix, and if he takes the red pill he will see “how deep the rabbit hole goes”:
Morpheus: This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.
Total Recall (1990), based on a short story by Phillip K Dick (9), and directed by Paul Verhoeven, provides a very clear example of deliberate amnesia that is imposed from the outside. In the film, a construction worker named Douglas Quiad (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger), accepts a memory implant from a company called Rekall so that he can play out a fantasy the role of a secret agent on the planet Mars. But during the implantation procedure Quaid begins to reveal previously suppressed memories of being -you undoubtedly guessed it- a secret agent on the planet Mars… Turns out that under another name Quaid really was a secret agent on the planet Mars, and that the implantation procedure triggered memories of an identity that certain parties had attempted for nefarious motives to erase. So while it seems at first that Quaid is, like Johnny Favorite in Angel Heart, and the doctor in Human Nature and Family of Blood, has chosen to forget his identity for his own motives, and for his own entertainment, it turns out that the identity he is attempted to forget is itself a fabrication, and due to the involuntary loss of his true identity.
A very interesting and relevant example of this form of amnesia is to be found in The Last Temptation of Christ, based on a historical novel by Nikos Kanazantakis (10), and directed by Martin Scorsese, Jesus of Nazareth (played by Willem Dafoe) is portrayed as flawed and neurotic and unsure of himself. The reason for the expression “Last Temptation” is that, whilst in the process of being crucified, Jesus is invited by Satan to imagine the possible world in which his life continues in a normal way, in which he marries Mary of Magdalene, has children by her, and lives to a ripe old age. While Jesus is having this vision of a normal life he forgets he is nailed to a cross, and the central idea of both the book and the film is that, if Jesus accepts the vision, he can thereby avoid his historical fate, and so that in order to complete his mission and save the world, he must resist this final and most alluring of temptations. Wikipedia:
While on the cross, Jesus converses with a young lady who claims to be his guardian angel.
She tells him that although he is the Son of God, he is not the Messiah, and that God is pleased with him, and wants him to be happy. She brings him down off the cross and, invisible to others, takes him to Mary Magdalene, whom he marries. They are soon expecting a child and living an idyllic life; but she abruptly dies, and Jesus is consoled by his angel; next he takes Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, for his wives. He starts a family with them, having many children, and lives his life in peace.
Many years later, Jesus encounters the apostle Paul preaching about the Messiah, telling stories of Jesus’s resurrection and ascension to heaven. Jesus tries to tell Paul that he is the man about whom Paul has been preaching, and argues that salvation cannot be founded on lies. But Paul is unmoved, saying that even if his message is not the truth, it is what the world needs to hear, and nothing will stop him from proclaiming it.
Near the end of his life, an elderly Jesus calls his former disciples to his bed. Peter, Nathaniel, and a scarred John visit their master as Jerusalem is in the throes of the Jewish Rebellion against the Romans. Judas comes last and reveals that the youthful angel who released Jesus from the crucifixion is in fact Satan. Crawling back through the burning city of Jerusalem, Jesus reaches the site of his crucifixion and begs God to let him fulfill his purpose and to “let him be God’s son.”
Jesus then finds himself once more on the cross, having overcome the “last temptation” of escaping death, being married and raising a family…
|Deliberate Amnesia |
and Subconscious (irrelevant)
and Conscious (relevant)
Imposed from the Outside (relevant)
|Crime Doctor (1943)||Random Harvest (1942)||Angel Heart (1987)||The Manchurian Candidate (1962)|
|Overboard (1987)||Spellbound (1943)||Total Recall (1988)||The Last Temptation of Christ (1987)|
|Regarding Henry (1991)||The Fisher King (1991)||The Matrix (1999)||Total Recall (1988)|
|The Majestic (2001)||The Sixth Sense (1999)||Eternal Sunshine|
of the Spotless Mind
|Dark City (1998)|
|The Man Without a Past (2002)||The Machinist (2004)||Dr Who (2007)||The Matrix (1999)|
Self-Imposed versus Externally Imposed Metaphysical Amnesia, the Reality of Evil, and the need for a Saviour
The New Age view is that man exists in a state of metaphysical amnesia that is deliberate, self-imposed, and conscious. For the New Ager, man is like Douglas Quaid, the construction worker, choosing to undertake an adventure as a secret agent on the planet Mars. The Gnostic view is that man exists in a state of metaphysical amnesia that is deliberate, and imposed from the outside. For the Gnostic, man is like Dennis Quaid, the secret agent, whose memories have been erased by his enemies so that he falsely belies he is a construction worker. In its simplest essence, the New Age view of metaphysical amnesia is a denial reality of evil, pain, and suffering, and of human limitation. Our experiences for New Agers are self-created illusions, put in place for our own entertainment (some say education rather than entertainment but it isn’t clear what could be learned by an infinite being who chooses their human life). New Agers refuse to see any evil in the world – even seemingly horrific acts and experiences are all that part of a game, or a class. The Gnostic view of metaphysical amnesia is an affirmation of the reality of evil, pain, and suffering that has no higher justification. It’s bad because it is the work of villain. All religious beliefs can be classified according to their stance on the reality of evil, the question of whether evil has an reality, or whether it is only an arm of good: the great challenge of monism (there is only good) is to explain the apparent existence of evil; the great challenge of dualism (there is good and evil) is to explain why we should seek good rather the evil. For Gnostics, man has the capacity, if he adopts the appropriate stance toward the material world to save himself and achieve Gnosis. This same essential view is adopted by Hindus and by Buddhists, who teach that self-denial is u;ultimately sufficient to achieve “Enlightenment”, another word for “Gnosis”. New Agers and Gnostics and Hindus and Buddhists are therefore united in their humanistic belief that man has no need of a saviour. For the New Ager there is nothing to be saved from, for the Gnostics, and Jews, and the Hindus and Buddhists there is something to be saved from, and man can -if he is disciplined enough- save himself. Here we can draw the distinction between a teacher and a priest. A teacher is someone who can instruct someone on how to save themselves, whereas a priest is someone who intercedes between a person and God to bring about Salvation on their behalf. The film version of Gnosticism is The Matrix, with Neo in the role of the teacher of Gnosis, someone who can enter the Matrix and teach people to save themselves from its strictures, as he once saved himself, but whose powers to not extend any further than this. There is then a significant variation on the doctrine of metaphysical amnesia, which agrees with Gnosticism that man has lost his/her original, elevated identity, but disagrees that man can find own way back to the lost state of being and knowledge. For this variation, man cannot possibly redeem himself by any active method or practice, or any acts of law-keeping or self-discipline, but only by the passive surrendering of his human identity to that of an interceding priestly figure. That variation is Christianity, and the priestly figure is Jesus of Nazareth, the only man who ever lived who was free from those defects that condemn a normal man to amnesia and to death, the only man who resisted every material temptation no matter how small, who remembered exactly who he was when he wasn’t incarnated, and who was therefore the master rather than the slave of death. The goal for both the Gnostic and the Jew and the Christian is the same, but Salvation (Gnosis), stresses the Paul, is “not of works”; and, “no one”, states Jesus of Nazareth (only) in the canonical gospels, comes to the father (Gnosis) “except by me.”
To the “scientific mind”, Socrates theory “anamnesis” -shared by Platonists, New Agers , Kabbalists, early Christians, and Gnostics alike- may seem primitive and false, but is receives considerable empirical support from work begun in 1960 by the late chairman of the department of psychiatry at the University of Virginia Dr Ian Stephenson (11). After studying thousands of cases of children who reported past lives, Stephenson -a latter day advocate of the ancient Socratic theory of anamnesis- concluded that the knowledge of some of these children, together with unusual abilities, philias, phobias, certain physical defects and illnesses, cannot not be fully explained by heredity or the environment, and that reincarnation provides a third and the best type of explanation (12). His research has been continued by Dr Jon Tucker, his replacement at the University of Virginia. One case studied by Jon Tucker, concerned a young boy born in 1998 -James Leininger- who from the age of two claimed to be the reincarnation of an American navy fighter pilot James Huston shot down and killed by the Japanese in 1945 (13).
James (pictured at an older age above left) correctly identified the aircraft carrier from which he which James Huston (above right) was flying his missions and its location at the time Huston was killed, correctly identified one of Huston’s co-pilots, and correctly identified the manner in which Huston was shot down…
The skeptical objection is encapsulated by a comment appearing beneath a you-tube video telling this story:
This is ridiculous. I’ll throw out 3 explanations, what is the most logical:
1. His father is making the whole story up to try and become famous and earn a bit of money. Pretty logical. Everyone likes to make a buck. We didn’t even get to see James speak and be asked questions without his mother and father next to him. That would result in him not being able to answer questions except for the ones mentioned by his father there.
2. He somehow heard about this James Huston guy’s story somewhere. Seeing how he absolutely loved planes, it seems quite possible that some relative could have mentioned this story to him. He wouldn’t have to go in depth, he didn’t reveal that much.
3. When you die, your brain, which holds your memories by the way, somehow gets transfered into the child of a random boy born in the USA.
Now which seems more logical…
But the critic is grasping at straws (James’ father is a staunch evangelical Christian, unwaveringly upright, and initially very opposed to the idea of reincarnation, and James Huston’s story only became public knowledge after this case), but the response is typical of the skeptic of reincarnation: regardless of the strength of the evidence, there is something objectionable with the very idea of reincarnation that calls upon the “logical” person to look for alternative explanations. The possibilities are these
- Fraud by the reporter of the case.
- Fraud by the subject of the case: they guessed the details or they fabricated them based on knowledge and/or research.
- The subject somehow has access to a realm in which this information is available, although it isn’t the case that they are reincarnated.
- The subject really is reincarnated.
3 and 4 are out for the you-tube critic and materialists, leaving them with 1 and 2 and with error and/or fraud. But what exactly is the problem with the other possibilities, and with the possibility that the subject is reincarnated? The answer is simply that the anti-Platonic, anti-Judeo-Christian, anti-Hindu and Buddhist assumption that consciousness is in the brain regarded as a piece of machinery means that when the brain dies there is nothing left of consciousness. Stephenson’s most active critic was for a time was philosopher Paul Edwards, editor-in-chief of Macmillan’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy. From 1986, Edwards punished several articles on Stevenson’s work, and discussed Stevenson in his Reincarnation: A Critical Examination (14, 15). He argued that Stevenson’s views were “absurd nonsense” and that when examined in detail his case studies had “big holes” and “do not even begin to add up to a significant counterweight to the initial presumption against reincarnation.” Stevenson, he claimed, “evidently lives in a cloud-cuckoo-land.” Against Edwards, philosopher Robert Almeder points out in Death and Personal Survival (16) that the philosopher has begged the question by stating in advance that the idea of consciousness existing without the brain in the interval between lives was incredible, and that Edwards’s “dogmatic materialism” has forced him with any dis-confirming evidence to the view that Stevenson’s case studies must be examples of fraud or delusional thinking.
(1) Meno 80d
(2) Frisnal, B (2000), You Are a Spiritual Being Having a Human Experience
(3) Michael Newton Ph.D – Journey of Souls https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vk5bSG78pbQ
(4) Conze, (1967), Buddhism and Gnosis
(5) Book of Thomas the Contender, translated by John D. Turner, a selection from James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library, revised edition. 1990.
(6) Hjortsberg, W (1978), Falling Angel
(7) Cornell, P (1995), Human Nature
(8) Wilson, E (2006) Secret Cinema: Gnostic Vision in Film
(9) Dick, P (1966), We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,
(10) Kazantzakis, N (1955), The Last Temptation of Christ
(11) Stephenson, I (1966), Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation
(12) Stephenson, I (1997) Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects
(13) Tucker, J (2016), The Case of James Leininger: An American Case of the Reincarnation Type
(14) Edwards, P (1986/87), The Case Against Reincarnation
(15) Edwards, P (1996), Reincarnation: A Critical Examination
(16) Almeider, R (1992), Death and Personal Survival