Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Karmic Fallacy (part 2)

I previously wrote some thoughts about the idea of karma entitled The Karmic Fallacy. As is often the case in a blog post, quickly dashed off, I conflated several ideas together (notably in this case- karma, free will, and destiny), but there is a reason why I did so. Read that article if you haven't, as it seems silly to reiterate.

I recently read an article about the subject of karma, that is very clear and useful, and yet also helps demonstrate the issues that I see with the idea.

To begin:
The word ‘karma,’ itself, is derived from the Sanskrit verb: kr, which means to “do,” “make,” or “perform” (Monier-Williams, 1988). So “karma”, in its more generic sense, simply means “action”. Karma denotes two different concepts: a) Action Per Se: every activity that occurs or that we perform, as well as b) Resultant Reaction: the natural consequence of each of our individual actions that are performed with ethical content involved (the common notion of karma). As we’ll see, for the ethical law of karma itself (b) to become operative, conscious volition must be directly involved. 
The distinction that is drawn in following paragraphs, then, is between involuntary and voluntary actions. At times, this idea of intent does enter into our own legal system- which of course is neither here nor there in regard to ethics, unless if you are under the delusion that our legal system is entirely ethical. (For instance, we have "manslaughter" as distinct from various categories of homicide which are drawn based on the supposed mental state of the perpetrator of the crime.) Fair enough.
For example, when we choose to snap our finger, or whistle a tune, we are now choosing to perform a certain action. We are now acting with awareness.
The first step of the train coming off the tracks. Who is to say we are acting with awareness when we whistle a tune? There is, as I've discussed here before, plenty of neurological evidence that we become "aware" (consciously) of our actions moments after they have already been engaged. Our consciousness is like a "magic picture" illusion that represents, or mis-represents, the activities of a complex holistic organism. It does not, in itself, present any sort of agency.* Even if we are to imagine that we are "aware" of our actions, before they happen, it's a valid question to ask how aware. This doesn't much matter when it comes to things like whistling, but when it comes to the next step of their definition of karma, it becomes key.

Many actions are free of ethical content, as, for example, when we choose to scratch our nose, or tap our foot. But when the meaning that we infuse into our actions is designed either to harm or to help someone, then we are engaging in an action that has ethical content, or specifically ethical meaning. And every time that a human being consciously performs any action that involves either the harm or benefit of either oneself or others, she then sets into motion the retributive law of karma. This is the meaning of the term “karma” as used in sense (b), the sense of karma as a metaphysically-defined retributive principle. This law requires that our ethical-content-actions must be returned to us in kind. 

They must be. Based on "the law of karma," which is derived from... what, exactly?

...any seeming injustice in the metaphysical constitution of God's creation would reflect negatively upon the Divine, thus requiring precisely the many unsatisfactory forms of speculation (known as theodicies) used to explain the existence of suffering that are found throughout the history of Euro-American philosophy of religion. As long as we have not fulfilled our karmic debt by experiencing the reactions to our activities, we are required to remain here, in the realm of material non-self, undergoing the repeated experience of birth, death and rebirth. We remain within the realm of the laws of karma until we do experience these reactions. It is as a direct result of our karmic activity that we find ourselves entangled in the non-spiritual realm. We, as eternal soul (atman), then find ourselves undergoing repeated transmigration through a string of material bodies until we learn to finally transcend the entire karma-producing process altogether, freeing ourselves from the illusion of separation from God.

Tautologies. Though a far more evolved form of the ethical imperatives presented by the divine in many other religions, we still find ourselves coming up against an otherwise empty "because God made it so" argument. Which, if such belief can be presented as beneficial in the here-and-now, is not necessarily bad. But there is a variety of traps hiding in the concept of karma, several of which I already explored in my previous post. I would like, at the very least, to find a clear demonstration of this law at work.

If indeed ethical misdeeds have clear and direct consequences, they should be scientifically demonstrable. That is, we should be able to take certain actions, which are clearly "misdeeds," and track their karmic result. Shouldn't we? Yet, though I'm aware of no such scientific experiment, in my own life and watching the lives of others, I've certainly seen no such evidence. And I would love to see a "karma test" organized and scrutinized. I think the results would be fascinating.

* Note: I say this, and at the same time maintain that consciousness is the only axis mundi presented to us. Consciousness and levels of consciousness are the only standards by which we can draw any conclusion, or maintain any illusion of order what-so-ever. This draws a stark contrast with my other statement, yet both are simultaneously true. Or at the least, must be maintained as true out of sheer necessity.


  1. James, I still get the subtle feeling that you are "angry" with something in the karmic notion, and that this is clouding your view of the matter to a certain degree (I say this in a friendly tone!!). To me, karma is a very clear notion that doesn't really involve any formal ethics of any kind. It is a functional description of the relationship between our "un-awareness" (in the Buddhist sense of ignorance, avidya or marigpa in Tibetan, that is, we ignore our fundamental reality and that of the "world", how everything is not-divided, in a very essential sense, not just a quick New Age hocus pocus), the action that derives from it and the kind of manifestation of reality we experience as a consequence of that pattern. It is a kind of process that can be both entrapping for the ignorant being, who finds him/herself conditioned by circumstances of life that he/she perceives as independent from "him/herself" (thus operating more and more from duality or ignorance) and enters into all sorts of dualistic interpretative notions of the relationship between that two apparently separate "things": me and the world. Or, it can be empowering for one's own conditions of life and practice, meaning that actions that become less and less determined by the "ignorant" pattern of cognition and experience (that is, less attachment to one's own "objectal relations" in psychoanalyitic terms) tend to manifest a more "spacious" and less conditioned life, in a concrete sense.

    But there's no "formal code of law" involved, there's no formal "Other" who instigates this law. It's just a functional matter. I feel that you're too much against this specific notion that someone built a kind of law or petty morals and that karma doctrine is a way to hypnotize people into being submissive. In fact, I think that maybe it is the case for some people. As you say, there are various "levels of consciousness", or patterns of cognition, and some levels of moral cognition are so basic that they actually need some external Law to stabilize basic impulses that could become destructive. If a child ravages your house in a tantrum "because he wants", you stop his action, his "free impulse" and establish a certain limit or Law, from the "outside".

  2. I think that the notion of "levels of wisdom" or different levels of teachings is essential here. "Karma", as well as "sin" and other similar concepts, do not mean the same for the submissive individual or the essentially inquisitive person who wants to actually get to the essential core, or the practitioner who has "realized" essential knowlege. I already mentioned to you some time ago about Dzogchen, the most essential vehicle of practice and teaching in Tibetan Buddhism, and I reassert my recommendation: you will find a whole different batch of practice and teaching about reality and cognition there, and of course in the attitude towards behavior. There is no formal code of conduct, just a basic "samaya" or commitment: pay attention and be aware, and also do some other practices that empower the individual's possibility of accessing the direct experience of the "base" (of one's reality, external reality, etc and how they are actually two aspects of the same).

    I share your negative to accept karma as a doctrine of submission to an arbitrary external and relative morality, but I'm quite confident that it goes beyond that.

    For example, in Vajrayana Buddhism, "karma" means the "psychic load" that is stored into what they call "Alaya Vijnana", a certain layer or level of the consciousness that reincarnates, and it is in a certain sense a kind of "unconscious" where one's actions when based on ignorance (avidya), they remain charged and tend to manifest again and again the limitations on which they originally were generated. All these "charges" are embedded in a certain psychic matrix that constitutes and defines our perception, which is called "karmic vision" (conditioned), and the practitioner trains in trascending duality and thus trascending karmic conditioning. Also, "karma" is not set in stone. As it is a kind of psychic charge, it can be "purified" and released, it all depends on the cognitive synch of the practitioner. It's not definitive!!!

    Essentially, it is a cognitive, functional and "mystic" notion based on the way reality manifests and the limitation that dualistic perception imposes on us and our actions. It is basic in Buddhist teaching: suffering (including negative manifestations of reality based on karmic cause-effect) is intimately linked with IGNORANCE of the essential unity of all reality. This ignorance produces a kind of interaction with reality (at all leves: physical/behavioral, energetic, mental) that has certain effects, that manifest directly.


  3. I'm not "angry" about the karmic notion. As it's generally presented, I think it's absurd - not so much the kind of absurdity that amuses me.

    But it is true, you could take the idea of karma and do something interesting or valuable with it- just as you can do the same with Christianity, or anything else really. A powerful psychological tool of transformation could be created out of Voltron, if you tried hard enough. ;)

  4. Yep, it all depends on how one perceives one's own situation and the possibilities based on that situation. If it's all just relative subjectivity conditioned in the usual sense, based on the standard cultural criteria we live in, it's then just a matter of mythical games and cognitive neural playthingies. I tend to suspect something way more powerful is involved and that one can actually get to the core of the matter, and try to use the most powerful "pneumo-technologies" (!!!) available in this dimensional speck of sand... Probably Voltron chaosmagickalia wouldn't really do much, except in the hands of someone with powerful insight into the deep nature of stuff.

  5. The doctrine of karma unfortunately has been used as a principle of social control and hierarchy, but in what I would consider it's most authentic form has very little to do with ethics and a great deal to do with how one's thoughts and actions imprint one's own psyche. Hard for me to see why that notion -- or the idea of trying to break, overcome, or purify such imprinting -- would be considered absurd, even if one disagrees with it.

  6. In short, because no causal connection can be drawn between "good" actions and "good" results, or vice versa.

    But really I think I spelled out why I think it's absurd in the prior post (part 1), and a bit in this one.

  7. To be fair- almost everything we believe is absurd, especially if we take the burden of proof upon things that can be feasibly corroborated.

    All-- as I've said before-- myth. But karma is a myth that has never worked for me, it's true.

  8. But James, just to know, don't you conceive the possibility of cognition transcending the normal interpretative and "historicizing" (I don't even know if that word can be built in English) level that can be seen as mythological? I don't pretend that common descriptions of reality are not necessarily bound to a limited set such as language and linguistic cognition, but don't you glimpse the possibility of direct cognition of sorts? Similar to for example the descriptions made by Castaneda attributed to "Don Juan" or to enlightened consciousness? (not in a naive sense, please) The description of course is necessarily mythic in ways, but I strongly sense that there is indeed possibility (and reality) of accessing a really strange and multidimensional mystery beyond the regular mythologizing modes, and that it has to do with the way that we perceive our "selves" and the "external world" as separate.
    Again, I think that there are different layers or levels of meaning, teaching and experience. The classical notion of karma may be limiting to someone with broader horizons, and quite arbitrary, but if one goes beyond the objective morality notion, like the idealist view of some kind of "cosmic morals", I think that there are very powerful clues in the direction.
    BTW, what do you mean that karma hasn't worked for you? That you can't "dig" it in any way? What do you think of the more functional perspective, based on duality, ignorance of the essential unity and interdependence (both ontological and cognitive), attachment, aversion and all that stuff? I mean the essential Buddhist-related perspective. Maybe the Hindu take on the matter tends to be more passive and arbitrary. But if that is the case, then why oh why would Aghoris and other LHP and tantric practitioners indulge in behaviors that would apparently be "bad karma"? There's more there than meets the logic.

  9. What I refer to when talking about "direct cognition" is that the general description of karma, at least from the Buddhist point of view, supposedly comes from beings that are beyond duality and conditionings, and it is seen as the more useful description of how behavior and experience are interlinked. I don't "buy" this in the naive sense of submitting to an overpowering discourse that is based on passively accepting the superiority of celestial beings. I do "feel" that there are indeed very useful "indication" or signposts in these notions, pointing towards a process that is beyond our usual cognitive conditions. The simple descriptions of karma seem to me as translations for simpler people of what would be most productive for their existential conditions and for spiritual and cognitive development. Of sorts.

  10. > don't you glimpse the possibility of direct cognition of sorts?

    Direct cognition or direct communication?

    The latter, no.

    The former? I don't know. I'm not entirely sure what it means. Cognition means "the process of thought," right. Direct to what? Indirect to what? I'm not clear. The nature of thought itself is somewhat mysterious, but it seems fairly evident that it's an emergent process. Is this direct or indirect?

    Guess I'm having a hard time seeing how this relates to karma, as well.

  11. @James: The doctrine of karma (as I understand it) doesn't depend on whether the conditioning which springs from actions is experienced as good or bad, which is obviously a subjective judgment. It simply asserts that one's actions do leave an imprint on one's psyche, which seems tough to refute. I would argue, incidentally, that there are plenty of sources of conditioning other than karma - genetics comes to mind.

  12. Well, obviously our decisions leave SOME imprint on our mind. I've never seen a theory of karma that simply asserts that and stops there. All of them deal with "right" and "wrong" action, how somehow right actions lead to rewards and vice versa, and often how such actions effect us in the process of reincarnation.

    Did you read the article (linked) that I was actually commenting on? ;)

  13. I'll sheepishly confess to not having read the article. I promise to do so soon.
    I also find the idea of a universe governed by moral laws or cosmic judges absurd and consider interpretations of karma espousing such notions - probably the majority view in the East - fallacious. As explained to me by fairly orthodox Buddhist teachers back when I held (since discarded) orthodox Buddhist views, karmic conditioning describes imprints created by one's actions which condition one's experience of life, death, and that which lies beyond. Moral interpretations of such were explained as
    sentimentality, social control mechanisms, and exuberant metaphor.
    One could plausibly argue that postulating the psyche survives death in any form is absurd, but I see that a falling outside the realm of proof rather than intrinsically ridiculous.

  14. Now we're on the same page.

    Though I'd say it is absurd in the sense Kierkegaard uses it as his ultimate reason to embrace Christianity, because it IS absurd, and demands a leap of faith. (Though he uses a lot of larger words to get there.)

    I think there's a fair piece of proof that there is not, at least, a cogent "self" that is reincarnated simply because if there was, I would remember past lives. But not all interpretations of reincarnation are so literal - and the third law of thermodynamics does imply a SORT of reincarnation . But if we consider our conscious self what we are- and this article posits conscious intention as central to karma- then there seems little evidence to support the premise.

  15. Read the article. I agree that the author's interpretation of karma is absurd.

    Moving right along - how much bearing does memory really have regarding the truth or falsity of reincarnation? I actually do have past-life memories. Isn't it more plausible to assert that I have an innate capacity for self-delusion or personal mythologizing then that I literally recall other existences? Conversely, couldn't an ardent reincarnationalist fairly argue that memory usually just falls casualty to the purported gulf between lives? Few remember their dreams, and the supposed gap between incarnations and hypothetical accompanying mental fragmentation would seem larger than the gap between wakefulness and sleep.

  16. Anonymous8:48 PM

    I've always understood karma as the reinforcement of habitual thought processes by habitual actions and vice versa--and the process by which those patterns affect our experience of the world. When we allow our preconditioned thoughts and emotions to drive our actions, it becomes more difficult to think and emote in different ways. Mythically speaking, it is akin to the formation of a river--water follows the path of least resistance, causing it to flow along a particular path, and this motion gradually digs a rut which makes it easier for water to flow along the same path. A similar process occurs within our cortex as neural pathways which are frequently used become increasingly myelinated and thus transmit nerve impulses more efficiently and quickly. By deliberately examining our behavior and thought patterns we can gain insight into the "karma" that we have accumulated over the course of our lifetime. This awareness allows the possibility of change, because we can then deliberately choose to alter our behavior/thought (I actually consider thought a form of behavior and vice-versa, part of the same "reflex arc") and achieve a greater freedom of action. This is the usefulness of the karma concept--it encourages us to become aware of the ways in which our choices shape our mind and lock us into the same repetitive experiences.

    As for the transcendental aspects which some ascribe to karma, I cannot speak from experience, having no memory of former lives. However, many claim to be able to experience such memories, and I do not feel qualified to dismiss them as charlatans or lunatics. On a related note, I don't think that your objection that "consciousness must not survive death because I don't remember past lives" holds much water--I would wager that there's a lot that you don't remember from two weeks ago, but it doesn't mean it didn't happen. The brain buries older memories deeper, as well as memories less immediately relevant for the necessities of survival.

    I would also say that the idea that karma influences the circumstances of our existence makes perfect sense if you believe that consciousness is primary to existence. Most eastern systems of thought take this as axiomatic, which is part of why it is often so difficult for Westerners, with our matter-first worldview, to grapple with such philosophies. But the Hindu/Buddhist perspective holds that this world is Mind manifest--that all things exist because of the dreams and desires of the One Mind. So when we incarnate into the world, we do so because the Mind still craves sensory experience. The specific cravings which give rise to our individual selves tend to drive the course of those incarnations. But this never seems like "divine intervention" or a "universal plan" because there is nothing that exists outside that mind for us to take as a frame of reference--everything we experience is the interplay of the different aspects of the Mind. And that Mind is not made up--it is still trying to decide what it wants, hence the conflict we experience in the world.

  17. Well, you're right- I didn't fully flesh out my thought about "not remembering past lives." There's simply not space in a blog post to really explore an issue like this.

    First off, it's a reaction to a theistic concept of karma, or a moralistic one, or a mixture of the two. I can see relevance of "karma" when it's considered as a part of one's internal narrative or myth. Sure. Anything can be rendered useful that way, depending on context and how it's put to use.

    My thing is this- personal identity is itself illusory. Not going to go into how, right now, again- too much for comment. How much more so that such an illusion would carry itself out from one incarnation to the next? Absurd. That's all I'm saying.



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