Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).


The Infinite Regress

Why Karma Theory is Nonsense

David Christopher Lane

“If everything is painted blue, then saying one thing is blue is meaningless, since it doesn't stand apart from anything else. Color is defined by its variations. Likewise, any moral system that posits a one size fits all explanation is pointless, since morality, like color, is defined by its differences.”
—Moral Systems 101
Randomness or chance at least has the linguistic advantage of conveying upon its listener the sense of unknowingness.

Back in my graduate days at UCSD I broke my ankle playing in a pick-up game of basketball. Using my injury as a prompt, later on that week I got into a philosophical conversation with two of my friends about why such mishaps occur. In other words, why does the world have to be such a place where all sorts of bad things happen—from Ebola viruses to lightening strikes to cosmic collisions with meteorites? My Christian friend, well versed in the Bible, explained that it was all due to the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, where they disobeyed God and ate from the tree of knowledge. This is the “original” sin, he went on, and because of this all of nature is cursed and thus the imperfection of life itself. However, God out of his infinite love and mercy sent his only son, Jesus, to remedy the situation by offering his own life as a sacrificial lamb to save the lot of humankind, provided that they repented of their wicked ways and accepted him as their personal Lord and Savior.

My friend wanted to continue, but we knew his preaching would never end, so I jokingly interjected, you mean to suggest that Adam and Eve are ultimately responsible for my broken ankle? To which he matter of fact retorted, “yes.”

At this point, my other friend [names have been withheld to protect the innocent!] shouted out his disagreement. “No, bro, Dave broke his ankle because of karma, the moral law of action and reaction. He must have done something bad previously—either in this life or the ones he lived before—and now he is paying the price.” He kidded me (given my strict vegetarianism) and laughed saying that maybe I ate some Tandoori Chicken in my previous incarnation in India and now I was getting my just retribution.

Both of these explanations I had heard many times before and I found them unsatisfactory. However, on the surface, karma theory seemed to be more viable than the notion that original sin was instrumental to the current operating system of the universe, though the fact that both original sin and operating system have the same initials (O.S.) does make me pause, if only to smile at the coincidence. But the more I looked into the concept of karma the more nonsensical it appeared.

Karma is perhaps the least understood concept in Eastern mysticism. One often hears spiritual seekers refer to a particular event (usually something tragic) as "that's his or her karma." On the surface of it, such statements look innocent enough, especially when saints and sages from India have spoken (since time immemorial) of a person's fate in terms of the inexorable law of karma, the moral equivalent of Newton's law of cause and effect, action and reaction, etc. However, there is a very curious problem in the haphazard use of the word karma that is for the most part glossed over or neglected.

Even if we accept the idea of karma and its apparent universal applicability, we can never truly discern any one thing as not karmic since the implication in Eastern philosophy and mysticism is that everything is karmically bound. Thus karma as a concept cannot in any singular case be utilized as an explanation of some event, some action, some retribution. Or, if we do dare to use it as such, we are more or less speaking gibberish. A crude example may illustrate this better for us: let's say that a person gets infected with influenza. We learn about it later and with our newfound vocabulary we immediately say something like "Well, that's karma." Yet, if we are to be consistent in our understanding we must also say that everything preceding the event of getting sick is also karmic—even our statement to the effect that "that's karma" is itself karmic.

What do we have here? It's really quite simple: we have an all or nothing proposition that has absolutely no discerning force in explaining anything that can occur. We might as well say that everything is caused by "I don't know." Because in a strange twist of phrase, if everything is karmic (for simplicity's sake, say everything is significant or has meaning), then nothing in particular is karmic (or is significant or has meaning), since all karma is interconnected. In other words, if everything is significant, then nothing individually is significant. That is, nothing stands apart from anything else; nothing has peculiar or distinctive meaning. We are caught in an intractable web and anytime we try to isolate one event from another and pontificate on its titular importance we lose a vital chain in its ultimate interdependence. Thus when we say something is karmic, we are (unconsciously, no doubt, and not with any evil intention, of course) acting like we know something profound and we are saying something brilliant. We are doing neither. We are simply illustrating how genuinely confused we are over the immensity of the concept. Because to truly understand karma is to realize that we cannot at any stage distinguish one event from another and then extrapolate and pass judgment on that one ferreted out sequence. More simply, if karma is indeed karma, it is inextricably intertwined with an almost infinite matrix of other sequences—none of which can be divorced from each other.

What is quite intriguing about all of this is that if we truly understand that everything has meaning (everything is distinguished, let's say again, in exchange) then we could just as easily say that nothing (read: no thing—with an emphasis on the no and emphasis on the space between no and thing) has meaning or nothing has significance. No-thing, in other words, is karmic. Which leads us to this: if no thing has meaning, then we could just as easily say that all events are the result of chance. And by chance, I mean that we cannot properly adjudicate any one event and give it a truly causal basis. Rather, we could only give it a probable explanation—not dissimilar to quantum mechanics and Heisenberg's principle of uncertainty (though I don't want to at this stage commit the fallacy that all things are collapsed to the same dimensional level of explanation).

Let me punch line this: We are probably much more honest when we say to the person who wants an ontological moral explanation to why he/she and not somebody else broke their ankle or got a flu that "we really don't know why such and such happened, ultimately." All we know in terms of moral ontology is that certain phenomenal events occur which lead us to such and such a conclusion. But instead of simply stating our ignorance or our limited point of view or our basic statistical correlations, we instead saying something completely inane. We say something like it's "karma," as if we have just revealed our brilliance. We have, of course, revealed nothing of the sort. We have revealed our benightedness.

As we should know by now, nobody knows what karma ultimately is. Why? Because it is an endless circle. All actions are interconnected which leads to the previous action which leads to its previous action which ultimately leads to the original initial action which leads to the causal basis of being or matter or "I really don't ultimately know what" which ends up where we started: not knowing. Thus it may be that materialists are being more polite and perhaps a bit more accurate and surely a lot less arrogant, when they say that randomness (even if that chaos has some ultimate predictable order) or chance is at the bottom or top of the universe. Randomness or chance at least has the linguistic advantage of conveying upon its listener the sense of unknowingness. All of this points to the fact that we use the concept of karma like a political weapon to justify what we don't understand, or, in some cases, to jockey for some perceived status of deep insight among a sea of naive humans. We act like we know something when we truly do not. Much better, I suspect, to say that we really don't know much.

Perhaps the best explanation I heard for why I broke my ankle (besides the obvious one: “you need to learn how not to trip when going in for a layup”) came from my surfer friend, who also happens to be a medical doctor. He looked straight in my eyes and said, “Your question is a no-brainer.” I then prodded him further to explain what he meant and he said, “Dave, shit happens. Deal with it.”

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