Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Karmic Fallacy

I wanted to jot down some thoughts I've had about karma. There are several expressions of the idea of karma, but there are only two I'd like to talk about.

The first is what I'd call the "new age" interpretation. This has a distinctly ethical bent to it, and in generalized form it runs something like this: "it may take a while, but good people and good deeds get good results, and bad people get theirs." It is used on the one hand as consolation for those who feel they have done well, and have been poorly rewarded (which is not all that dissimilar from the idea of heaven as the "palace in the sky," where the just are rewarded), and on the other as a moral incentive to avoid "bad" actions. 

The second is a version of the Hindu concept of karma, which ties directly into their premise of reincarnation. In fact, it would seem that karma is simply a logical necessity created by the theory of reincarnation. In that view, all creatures, from ants to dogs to humans to the Gods themselves, are a part of a wheel of life, and those who behave "rightly" ascend, and those who behave "wrongly" descend. There is a myth around their god Indra which Joseph Campbell relates, wherein Indra proclaims, in a burst of Hubris "What a good boy am I." A boy then enters his court, a manifestation of Brahman (though Indra does not know this), who, after a brief, enigmatic conversation, points to a line of marching ants and says "former Indras all." In other words, it is through ego and conceit that even the Gods can fall from Godhood to the life of an ant.

This perspective of karma also supports, or is supported by, the cultural institution of castes. One is born into a caste through one's karma. This gives it a sense of "rightness" and order that it could not otherwise have.

Both of these views of karma are, like most myths, fallacious. However, the real question is not whether they are true in that rather narrow sense, but instead if they are useful. 

I would propose that, though they have the potential to be useful, they have a greater potential to be harmful. In the first case, we have a pretty empty-headed idea about morality that simply does not play out in reality. Those who behave in what many of us would consider to be good ways are punished mercilessly by life, and many greedy sociopaths do quite well. This karmic argument says that, at some point, the wheels will turn and one day justice will be served. However, for someone who believes, as I do, that our consciousness is all we have, and that there is no inherent justice or ethical system coded into reality, then this amounts to little more than fooling ones self. I can't believe that lying to ones self is ever the best course of action. Additionally, it is a form of mental sleight of hand that stops working when you realize the mechanism actually at work. 

One thing that both views hold in common is the idea that our actions and beliefs have an inherent ethical quality, which is not only dictated from outside, but which has repurcussions on the future. This requires a few rather improbable things to be the case. First, there must be a natural moral ground that supersedes human and cultural boundaries. Second, there must be something in reality that "watches for" the ethical dimension of our actions, so that they might be rewarded or punished. In other words, both have an implicit requirement for a moral force within the universe. 

Though it is impossible to know any such things for certain, I have never seen anything in my time on Earth nor all my thinking on the subject that would lead me to conclusion that there is such a thing. But let's presume that there is. If so, the belief in karma must actually lead us to some further untenable and even immoral conclusions if we actually think them through.

For instance, the second view of karma, which I have rather unfairly characterized as the "Hindu view," depends on a heirarchy of being. Circles, as I said, rotating within circles. What could an ant possibly do that would allow it to ascend to a "higher" level within this wheel? What is a "good ant"? At the level of dog, what defines a god as "good" or "bad" save the whims of its master and keeper? This provides a layer of what could be called the imposition of Monarchy: the good derives from the will of kings. Furthermore, what an anthro-centric view of the world, to think that the highest manifestation possible for animals, save Godhood, is humanity! 

As a final example, consider that both of these views, and especially the first, holds within it the idea that we are at the whim of our karma. If many bad things happen to someone, it arouses suspicion in others. People may say, "your karma is bad," or even, if it persists, "you are cursed." They seem to have lost sight of the statistical fact that if you toss a coin 500 times and get heads every time, the probability of heads on the 501st toss is still 50/50. The true fact of life, from all I can tell, is best expressed in the saying "shit happens." Shit just happens. Karma does not determine it, and we do not have control over most of the things that happen to us, or as a result of our actions. We never have a handle on all the variables at work when we make decisions. 

There are some who hold a view not only of karma, but also that, counterbalancing that, there is the idea that everything that happens to us "happens for a reason." Or perhaps it is willed by some "higher self." I mention this belief structure because it is tied into the new age interpretation of karma. There is a highly immoral kernal to this train of thought, if it is thought through. (At least from my personal sense of morality, which is in my opinion, the only sense in which morals make sense.) 

Consider that someone suffers the experience of being raped. Now, piled upon that, if they hold this view, is the idea that somehow they - or some force in the universe, be it karma or their own "higher self" - willed this upon them for the sake of transformation, perhaps. What an awful thing to think. In other words, taking this view to its extreme, that individual raped themselves. I had a conversation with a friend about this recently where I joked that I should go around Philly pistol-whipping people and screaming "WHY ARE YOU HITTING YOURSELF?!" 

Now, do not misunderstand. I have often expressed the idea that through negative experiences we can experience great transformation. This is true. But it is a method of interpreting the painful and chaotic in our lives and rendering it sensible in a way which might be beneficial. Blaming the victim for the crime does no such thing. 


  1. There's another possibility, which is more akin to one of the Buddhist versions of Karma, which is that evil words/thoughts/actions change you in subtle but important ways, which then affect your life, and how you are reborn later.

    The basic idea is that if I commit an evil act, it changes me in important ways, which I think is undeniably true - if I kill someone, or steal, or lie, there are changes in my attitude towards myself and the world which are difficult to undo. For one thing, once I commit an act like that, committing another is easier. It also changes the way I view the world - if I killed someone, it would invariably, I think, change the way I look at others, in that I would be suddenly possessed of the knowledge that I could, if I so desired, kill them. The first time we lie and get away with it, as children, it changes significantly how we view others.

  2. This actually doesn't diverge much from the points that I made, you'll notice.

    The reason is this--

    "The basic idea is that if I commit an evil act"

    This demands morality encoded into the nature of reality. It implies a reward and punishment encoded into reality. And so on.

    Read the post. ;)

  3. Not to jump on you for a minor point, but I've seen the idea expressed in many places that once someone realizes that they are deluding themselves that particular delusion stops occurring. I don't, personally, find this to be true (and I was under the impression that it was near-universal amongst practitioners, especially chaote-types, that an understanding that this indeed doesn't necessarily occur was necessary to do anything). It's a fairly ingrained meme, and I'd be interested in knowing what you think about it in detail.

  4. I said it was logically untenable and even inconsistent. Not that people won't (and obviously don't) believe in it. ;P

  5. Strip away notions of good and evil and you come closer to my notion of karma (which is basically the Buddhist version of karma when taught in what I would consider its purer and less unsentimental forms.) Basically I'd say one's psyche is affected by one's own actions and the way one experiences death is affected by the contents of one's psyche. No more moralistic to my mind then saying how one acts during the day affects what sorts of things one dreams about at night. Not particularly controversial either, I'd say, unless one thinks consciousness totally ends at death. (A matter which obviously falls outside the realm of evidence.)

  6. Self consciousness - self aware self consciousness. What we think of as ego ends at death.

    I have proof of that through my daily experience of life. Before inklings of early childhood, there is NOTHING. Does that mean that an element of psyche doesn't re-incarnate? To that yes, we are all ignorant.

  7. I'd agree that ego dies with the flesh, yes.

    I don't think ego encompasses the totality of the psyche - although again, this falls outside of proof.

    As you know lots of people do have inklings of events before their childhood, although again, that's not proof of much of anything.

  8. I'd also go with a more Buddhist-like approach. The addition of a moral aspect "encoded" into reality is a basic belief of the more exoteric aspects of every "religious" worldview. But the more "essential" aspects of a religious view (how I hate that word) tend to remind you that there is no absolute reality in any dualistic conceptions, or in any conceptions whatsoever. For example, Dzogchen in Buddhism, which according to the Nyingma tradition is the most essential of the 9 "vehicles" of Buddhism. I'm a bit shocked how few "intelligent" people know about aspects of buddhism such as dzogchen, it would really change the way they view buddhism.
    Back to karma... I'd go with the dzogchen view: it depends on the "capacity" of your cognition. If you can handle an essential view of existence in your daily life, then you'll progressively realize that there is no causation with real implications, because there is no one to cause the causation or to receive the effect. But if you are relatively differentiated by cognitive polarities at the fundamental level of your cognition, you'll need some sort of pragmatic reference for circumstances that tend to send you towards "liberation" or away from it. This space-like dimensional metaphor of course implies duality and again applies when we are not aware of the essential metadimensional space. But "karma", from my perspective which is essentially similar to dzogchen right now, is thus the pragmatic observation that certain actions and thus tendencies will tend to send you away from liberation and others will propitiate your cognitive conditions for experiencing it. And the technical aspect is that it gets "stored" into a certain level of the incarnated consciousness (called "alaya vijnana"), that after physical death, if one hasn't experienced "liberation", will tend to remain charged in a certain energetic/astral form that will manifest again in the physical plane in the form of another individual. Of course it is not that "one" reincarnates (the ordinary ego dies; Buddhist teachings make this clear with the doctrine of the 5 skandhas or aggregates and I wonder how some "Buddhists" are able to affirm nonchalantly that "they" have reincarnated or will reincarnate) but rather a "charged container" of tendencies, maybe a sort of morphic field. Until the individual that "grows from" that tendency (not surprisingly, the analogy of seeds and ripening and blossoming of karma under certain conditions is common) once and again actually releases that "storage" through liberation, that storage will experience suffering again and again.

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  10. Thus, karmic doctrine is a sort of pragmatic recommendation for the best conditions for a certain result. There is no absolute moral code embedded by an external Another into the fabric of reality. And certainly it is not a passive thing: you can actually "interact" with your karmic programs to dissolve them: either directly through action and presence (actual aware presence is the best karmic discharger there is) or indirectly through ritual or intentional "purification of karma" empowered through energetic charges of certain liberation-channels like the yidams, guardians, etc (Tara, Vajrapani, Avalokiteshvara, etc), or element-balancing practices, etc. The goal is to reduce the karmic manifestation and conditioning through material (moral/hinayana/mahayana), energetic (tantric/magickal/vajrayana) or mental/essential (dzogchen/mahamudra) means and fostering conditions for the instantanous awareness of the real, essential, transdual and metaconceptual nature of reality.

    You can read between the lines the actual process involved here and the different "mythological" implementations of the karmic doctrine, directed at people with different capacities and situations. Of course, absolute reality is beyond any cause and effect (as per the Dzogchen essential teaching for ex.) but in relatively conditioned circumstances in which we find ourselves "trapped" in cyclic and compulsive processes, we need some sort of dualistic reference to improve possibilities of getting out. Thus, the various layers of karmic Buddhist doctrine. Amen! ;-)

  11. There are two key elements of your post that need to be teased out a bit more.

    1) no karma = no objective morality. This is not necessarily true. If you never feel bad or get punished for hurting someone, that does not mean it was not a wrong act.

    2) you reduce life / the world to "consciousness" but don't specify what that involves. There is a reasonably strong argument that morality is built into our conscious experience. We have at least three basic instincts that (mostly unconsciously) influence our behaviour: survival, reproduction, herd instinct. Some are more prominent than others in any one person's life, but if we neglect or oppose all of these, it leaks from unconscious to conscious awareness as stress, depression etc.
    You can do all the nihilistic posturing you want, but you need to have a good look at your own behaviour. Do you steal, lie, hurt people 50% of the time? I'm assuming no. Why is that?
    To argue about whether this is some "objective" moral code, especially for someone who wants to say everything is consciousness, is just splitting hairs. And, in respect to my first point, does not have to be connected to some karmic balance sheet.

  12. @bloxblox

    I don't believe I said "no karma = no objective morality." But there is a connection between certain ideas of morality and reincarnation (who gets to "ascend," etc.) I do however see no reason to believe that morality derives itself from anything other than humans. This gets a little at #2. But I think you're misunderstanding me. I said that theories of karma and reincarnation are generally pinned on top of an inherent ethical bias. I didn't say you have to have a theory of karma to have ethics. (That doesn't even make any sense. Is that what you thought I was saying?)

    "There is a reasonably strong argument that morality is built into our conscious experience."

    I'm having trouble with "built into." We're sidestepping nature and nurture neatly there, I get that because it's a tar baby. But - honestly I'm not sure exactly what you're getting at. And it's early. Or late, depending on where you are. At any rate, even if ethical codes are "built into" us by our culture and biology or some synthesis of the two (there's a lot of anthropological research that demonstrates that some things seem to be more of one, and other things, more of the other), REGARDLESS, that inflection comes from the human (cultural & biological) spheres. It's not inherent in nature.

  13. If you get a chance to check out "Imagining Karma" it offers some powerful insights into other cultural traditions of rebirth eschatologies which do not rely on the idea of karma.



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