Karma and rationality

Written by  //  October 20, 2010  //  Philosophy, Religion, Culture  //  2 Comments

Sometime ago I wrote this post on my idea of karma. It generated a heavy discussion and left me with many questions. This post is to give answers to those questions. I do hope that we leave the discussion of what karma actually means and focus on the more popular concept that I am trying to put down.

Not to disappoint anyone of you but my explanation is not based on any grand theories. As you will find out, our manifestation of karma, as it is perceived largely amongst the society, is because of a simple folly of human nature – our tendency to be affected by biases….

There is some evidence that our brains may be wired in such a way that we can never avoid certain mistakes. No, I am not kidding. In such cases, there is no learning curve such that you may learn to avoid them. We are certain to make a few of the same mistakes, over and over again. Yes, welcome to the world of biases!

What is a bias? A bias is a non-rational factor that systematically pushes one’s beliefs in some domain in one direction or very simply put, a bias refers to a specific, predictable error pattern in the human mind. All human beings suffer from many types of biases all the time.

Do you think the car you own is the best in its class of cars? Well that is because of the choice-supportive bias.

How many times have you thought that you will finish something in a certain amount time but have repeatedly failed to do so? Yeah, I know you have been there. It is because of the optimism bias or the planning fallacy.

In the Google age have you searched for something and then realised that it did not really help you but you would do it again anyway? or you have done a particular medical test even though you were told that it will not really benefit your diagnosis? Well that is because of the information bias.

Do you think you are a more rational person and less susceptible to these biases? Well that is because of the bias blind spot.

Do you think I am wrong and that you truly are less susceptible to biases?Well that is because of the confirmation bias.

I can go on and on with examples. Each one of you will have suffered from more than one of these biases (I suspect, many times) in your life. I am pointing out these biases only to make you aware that it’s a combination of these biases which have lead me to have a continued belief in karma as it is portrayed in the Indian society.

To be able to change my belief system, I had to take a step back and observe myself. I had to look at my daily activities, observe my reactions to events and analyse them as carefully as possible. I had to put in special efforts to rid myself of biases and once I was able to do that it was not hard to see what was wrong with my assumptions in the first place.

From my previous post you will see that my concept of karma wasn’t taught to me by reading some religious text but was passed down to me as an ideology. This kind of bandwagon effect or more exposure effect, which is the same that leads us Indians to believe in cricket as a religion rather than baseball or like Amitabh Bachchan much more than Sean Connery or Harrison Ford.

Then somewhere along the way I transformed my views of karma to suit my needs. I made it in to something that agreed with the kind of efforts-lead-to-good-results theory that we have all been exposed to through out our school education. Remember the story of Mahatma Gandhi or Bhagat Singh? I am not saying that these stories gave us any wrong ideas. As a matter of fact I am proud to have grown up reading about these great men but you can see why I would equate effort with karma points. And I’d class this as the result of choice-supportive bias.

And as this ideology pervaded my being, I was under the illusion of control. I thought about all the injustice in our society and started believing that karma will prevail and that the culprits will be punished. It made me a passive observer of all that around me, and if at all I was enraged, karma doused the fire within.

My choice of friends, clearly a confirmation bias. My reasons to keep believing in the theory and ignoring events that did not conform with my ideology, a status quo bias. And just like before, I can go on giving examples of how different biases played a role in my belief of karma. I think I have made my point. I am not trying to say that I was being affected by all these biases all the time. But it isn’t very easy to defeat an ideology like that of karma when there are so many biases that are bent on defeating you on your way out.

I also encourage you to have a look at a long discussion that ensued on reddit because of this post.

About the Author

Akshat is working towards a DPhil in organic chemistry at the University of Oxford. He is on a mission to better understand the impact of science on the society and in the process communicate science to influence public opinion. He blogs about science on The Allotrope and about everything else at Contemplation."

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2 Comments on "Karma and rationality"

  1. Shivprasad October 26, 2010 at 11:16 am ·


    Rather than take a long and circuitous route involving evaluating from an Archimedan point over your own attitudes, you could have always taken a straighforwardly rational route to dismissing the popular concept of psuedo-karma. ( Just to distance the pop conception from the real deal , I am calling it psuedo-karma).

    To anyone who gives it some thought, psuedo karma will be found to be illogical, counterintuitive, contradictory and paradoxical. If there is any aspect of our thought and action that is ‘determined’ by chance luck or destiny, we will have to logically admit that the whole of our life is governed by luck chance or destiny. There will then be no way of seiving out the determined ones from free willed ones. Imagine if you say that I was ‘destined’ to do action X, the question arises what are the properties of the action that constitute destiny. You will find that just the same properties are present in case of every action. It willbe possible to argue that each stimulus, each though and each action was just as predestined as action X.

    The great philosopher Bernard Williams had argued that once you admit that luck determines any aspect of your action, then it will swallow human agency altogether. And the same thing holds good the other way around as well. If you hold that any of our actions are out of free will, then there can be no scope whatsoever for destiny.

    Just see how psuedo karma is paradoxical. It admits that some aspects of your life are your own choice and that some others are the result of some sort of destiny. This is paradoxical. Usually when some concept is illogical, it is a good indicator that it may be a wrong one.

  2. Dr. Ajit R. Jadhav October 27, 2010 at 10:16 am ·

    Karma is an ill-defined term. It virtually means anything to anyone, and no one takes the care to define it carefully—basing it within a framework of some valid preceding concepts.

    Now, if you factor-in the central place that the term occupies in the ancient Indian philosophy, the term actively becomes an “anti-concept.” [ http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/anti-concepts.html ]

    With that said, I still maintain that the above still does not mean that Karma always necessarily has to be an invalid concept. All that the above means is that this term is in need of examination, even of being defined carefully and objectively, before it is used.

    The sense of the term Karma even as an approximately understood notion would be almost fully meaningless without also involving the closely related idea of reincarnation.

    Just the fact that reincarnation has not been a part of the more rational philosophies in the West (notably, Aristotle, and now, Ayn Rand) does not mean that it is an arbitrary idea. However, again, this concept, too, has to be first demonstrated to be capable of rational understanding.

    An important observation that can be made right away, however, is this: namely, that even if there is such a thing as a law of Karma, it still cannot violate the more basic philosophic ideas such as the primacy of existence over consciousness.

    In other words, assuming the present-day mainstream understanding of the term Karma, even if you accumulate good Karma in this life-time, it still remains an attribute of your soul. Even after assuming that the soul might transmigrate across life-spans, you cannot expect the soul to exceed natural laws—even a tranmigrating soul would be bound by the laws of nature; it cannot be a supernatural entity.

    A highly naive, simple-minded—and let me hasten to add, not (yet) carefully or objectively validated—way to look at it would be this. If you practise some skill over one lifetime, you would get not only a particular body of knowledge but also a certain kind of efficacy. The efficacy, or some residue of it, to allow speculation, might get transmitted across life-times. Yet, a really important point is what you can at all do with any form of efficacy right in this lifetime: just because you are efficacious (as a great surgeon might be), it does not mean that you thereby become omnipotent—not even in that particular respect (your surgery can still fail). As such, even if the efficacy, knowledge (or some residual form of it) does get transmitted across life-times, you cannot expect that residual form to miraculously overcome the natural bounds in the next life-time.

    Another important point (and I promise this is the last one, for this reply at least :) ). Any notion of Karma would necessarily have to logically succeed—not precede—the idea of volition (i.e. free will). Thus, not only do you actually have to exercise volition in order to gain efficacy in this life time (all of the preceding in this statement is objectively demonstrable), even if there is some residue of it that remains in some form before your next life time (and here we already are in the realm of speculation), and even if that residue “comes along” with you in your next life-time, it still would be useless even in the next lifetime unless you exercise your volition and make use of it, in the next lifetime. A singer might have great “born” talents, speculatively because of the great practice in his last birth. But what if, he chooses to waste it away?

    Some of the most basic fundamentals of a rational philosophy (by which I mainly mean Ayn Rand’s) do not stand to change even if the ideas of reincarnation and Karma are some day shown to be valid.

    Thanks for a good, thought-provoking topic. And, thanks for your patience in reading through! :)



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