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. 

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