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)

Thorny problems with karma #4: the bootstrap paradox

How did the whole system of karma get started in the first place, without violating its own rules, or requiring an infinite number of people or infinite amount of time?

← Continued from part 3, on how karma seems to make charity selfish

Although I’ve highlighted several problems with karma already, which I think militate against accepting at least a non-theistic karmic worldview, there is another very tough question that occurs to me:

How did the whole karmic system get started without violating its own rules or requiring an infinite regress of evil actions?

One of the key tenets of karma is that everyone gets what they deserve. For example, Jack the Ripper may be reincarnated as a woman who is brutally murdered. And by the same token, the women whom he brutally murdered in that life were themselves getting some kind of karmic comeuppance for evil deeds they had once perpetrated.

But if every person only ever gets what they deserve, how did the whole system of karmic debt get started? Whether we take the view that only a very small pool of people existed initially (so new people are being added all the time); or that the same pool of people existed initially who exist now (you can see how either of these options leads to another thorny problem for karma!) the irrepressible difficulty is as follows:

The irrepressible difficulty

If people only ever act evilly toward other people who deserve it, and we only deserve to be acted evilly toward if we have already acted evilly toward another, then there is a chicken and egg problem. For if the first evil action was toward someone who didn’t deserve it, then karma is violated. But if the first evil action was toward someone who did deserve it, then that person would have already acted evilly, so there is a new first evil action—but then that in turn would have to be toward someone who already acted evilly in order for them to deserve it, and we have a new new evil action…ad nauseum, ad infinitum.

So either we have (1) an infinite regress of evil actions; or (2) karma is violated at the very beginning since someone acted evilly toward someone else who did not karmically deserve it.

1. Infinite regress/people

Now, (1) seems unacceptable to any karmic worldview because it entails firstly that there is no initial action to start the whole sequence of karmic events, which is absurd; and secondly that there are either an infinite number of people in the universe, or a finite number of people who have been stuck in the karmic system for an infinite amount of time. The former seems irrational—for instance, with an infinite number of people you have no fewer women than you have both men and women, which is absurd. So that option seems out. But the latter literally breaks karma, because it means that people have been paying off their karmic debt forever. But if you can spend an infinite amount of time paying off karmic debt without succeeding, two inevitable and related consequences arise:

  1. Karmic debt can never be repaid
  2. Enlightenment can never be achieved

Since the entire point of karma is to repay debt and regain whatever enlightened state was originally lost, the infinite regress option seems absolutely unacceptable to a coherent karmic worldview.

2. Karma-violating origin for karma

So it seems the best option for the believer in karma is to bite the bullet and take (2) on the chin: there must have been some original evil action directed toward someone who did not deserve it. Perhaps karma got kick-started precisely in order to balance this primordial, undeserved wrong. But thorny problems again arise from choosing this option. For one thing, karma being “kick-started” seems conceivable only on some broadly theistic view of the world—as I covered in part 1 and part 2. But more seriously, it seems to generate a “sustainability paradox”—which I’ll cover in the next installment.

An aside about original sin

At least one karmic tradition I know of holds that the original sin was not an evil action toward another, but rather some kind of failure to balance certain elements within the self. This in turn led to conflict and suffering. I mention this in order to be fair in assessing all the possible origins for evil; but I mention it only as an aside because it doesn’t actually avoid the criticisms I have already leveled. It is hard to see how failing to “hold oneself in balance”, or something broadly similar, constitutes evil in the sense that we are discussing—even toward oneself—let alone the kind of evil deserving karmic comeuppance such as murder, rape, torture, and every other kind of suffering received by man, from man.

Thus, while this view may explain the origin of conflict, it doesn’t seem to sidestep the problem I have raised about whether the first evil perpetrated by one person upon another was karmically deserved or not.

A possible solution

The only obvious solution I can see to this thorny problem is to assume a “loose” rather than a “tight” view of karma. In other words, while I have been assuming that all evil actions are deserved, perhaps karma exists precisely to balance the scales because all evil actions are not deserved. Put another way, under this loose view of karma, not every evil we endure is indexed to a prior evil we have committed.

This seems to avoid the bootstrap problem…but as I’ll cover in the next installment, it comes with a heavy price of its own…

Continued in part 5, on how karma sustains itself without getting stuck forever →


  1. Yawn

    Karma need not be vengence……its simple…..your ‘evil’ actions determine the degree of bad luck u must receive….this can be anything……’killer marooned on island and spends his last days suffering’ or ‘killer gets away scott free but eventually dies and is reborn in terrible circumstances with suffering that makes up for his transgressions’ …….this second one is very unpopular and has resulted in the caste system….which is a result of most believers in karma misunderstanding it

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    How is this responsive to the problem I raise? I didn’t cash out karma in terms of vengeance, but in terms of everyone getting what they deserve. This generates a bootstrap paradox. Your comment doesn’t deal with my actual argument at all; we could insert other ways of getting what you deserve that don’t involve another person, and the problem would still remain.

  I don’t post ill-considered articles and I don’t sponsor ill-considered comments. Take a moment to review what you’ve written…