Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


series
Thorny problems with karma #1: what makes it tick?

Is karma a process which must be intelligently guided? If so, who does the guiding?

This is the first of several difficulties with karma which I’ve been mulling over. I’d like to hear other people’s thoughts—especially if you believe in karma and have answers to these problems.

The first issue is a teleological or design-focused problem: karma seems to be goal-oriented. It “drives” the process of reincarnation, which in turn involves circumstances of life intricately designed to balance previous actions. But karma is not itself an intelligent agent; it is just a mechanism.

This raises the question of who designed and continues to supervise karma, to ensure all the circumstances of human lives fit together in a way which, in sum, progresses them all toward enlightenment (or at least balances their previous actions)?

On the face of it, such a process would have to be superintended by an enormously powerful intellect who could not merely foresee, but also influence future events for every human being, so as to ensure karma was satisfied. This sounds very much like God—or at least some kind of powerful and generally benevolent deity. Yet many belief systems which incorporate karma (especially the popular ones) reject personal gods of any kind, and instead hold that ultimate enlightenment involves an impersonal force or state such as Brahman or nirvana.

Hinduism to the rescue?

The one good candidate for escaping this problem is Hinduism (broadly construed). Here, there is a supreme God who would presumably be capable of supervising karma. Unfortunately, Hinduism also claims that God, in his supreme form, is beyond human understanding—which surely makes it impossible to claim anything about him/it. So it seems like Hinduism shoots itself in the foot here: just at the point where it needs to invoke God to sustain the coherence of its doctrines, it says we can’t know if God can do that.

There is also the interesting question of whether a supreme god is compatible with a belief system in which personality is ultimately dissolved in nirvana or Brahman or whatever kind of enlightenment it espouses. If that is the pinnacle of reality, what stops the supreme god himself from being “dissolved” in this state (and how is he supreme in the first place if there is some reality that is higher and better than him)?

So the problem of what makes karma tick—what keeps such a complex, intricate, and apparently intelligent process going—seems like a fundamental difficulty for at least most karmic worldviews.

Continued in part 2, on who makes the moral rules in karmic worldviews →

2 comments

  1. Rob

    This nails it. Not that I ever took Hinduism seriously, but this articulates the problem with “karma” that bothered me on a subconscious level, but that I was never able to articulate to myself.

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    In fairness, many sects of Hinduism believe that karma is superintended by a supreme god, as another commenter pointed out in part #2 of this series.

    I think this comes with its own set of problems, but it does present a reasonable solution to the problem I’ve raised here, which is more applicable to Buddhism and various kinds of esotericism/new ageism.

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