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 #6: free will

If karma decides how we should act toward other people based on their karmic debt, how can our actions really be free?

← Continued from part 5, on how karma can sustain itself without getting stuck forever

Imagine Booker must decide whether to murder Abed or let him live. On one standard account of free will—the incompatibilist view—Booker cannot be culpable for murdering Abed if his actions are determined by outside factors beyond his control. This raises a dilemma:

  1. If karma does not control Booker’s actions, how can it function as a system given that it must organize billions of people to all act in ways which move them toward karmic balance?
  2. If karma does control Booker’s actions, how can Booker be sufficiently in control of them to be culpable, and incur a karmic debt in the first place?

1. Karma does not control Booker’s actions

I can’t see how karma could function without having a determining kind of control over everyone in the system. This is because if people could act contrary to what karmic debt demanded, every non-balancing action would unbalance the system even further, leading to a kind of “runaway debt” problem that would continue into infinity—which is the opposite of how karma is supposed to work. So it seems to me we have to take the second horn of the dilemma on the chin:

2. Karma does control Booker’s actions

The trouble is, if karma exerts this high degree of control, then it doesn’t seem that Booker has the kind of control over his actions required for moral culpability. In other words, if Abed’s karmic debt demands that he be murdered (because, perhaps, he murdered someone in a previous life), and Booker is the “instrument” by which karma wipes Abed’s slate clean, then it seems karma so controls the situation that Booker’s choice does not originate in himself, and neither is he able to do anything other than what is necessary for balancing the books. Karma determines his actions; but if karma determines them, then he does not, and he is not culpable.

A compatibilist solution

As a Calvinist, I’m not convinced this is a serious difficulty for karma in and of itself. I believe that at least some kinds of determinism (including possibly karmic) are compatible with freedom and culpability. So let me rough out how I’d solve this problem if I believed in karma. Whether this solution is acceptable for you if you believe in karma I don’t know—it may wreck your intuitions about freedom; or your worldview might require incompatibilism for other reasons. But here’s how I’d do it:

Although karma determines Booker’s actions, he is still culpable if his actions arise from his ability to see and respond to the reasons for and against them.

In other words, if Booker knows that murdering Abed is wrong, and he can weigh this fact against his desire for a world without Abed in it, and he can exercise his will in response to those reasons, then even if this whole state of affairs is itself determined by karma, Booker still seems to be culpable because he still makes what we understand to be a real choice.

Problem: determinism still breaks karma!

If karma is indeed deterministic, then we encounter another dilemma. (Notice how every time we plug a hole another one appears somewhere else. That’s a very good indicator of an inconsistent or ad hoc philosophy, and we know truth is not inconsistent or ad hoc…) Here’s the dilemma:

  1. Karma is tight, not loose, and only actions which balance previous debts are allowed
  2. Karma is loose, not tight, and both balancing and non-balancing actions are allowed

You can see that either leads us into a brick wall. If (3) is true we’re straight back at the sustainability paradox. But if (4) is true then karma is fundamentally broken. For if the whole point of it is to restore cosmic balance in some sense, and karma is able to determine people’s actions so as to move them toward this balance, then why does it not ensure that only balancing actions occur?

This is the karmic version of the problem of evil, and I don’t think karmic worldviews have the goods to defuse it. Under Christianity, creation exists to reveal God’s perfections—and this requires evil because perfections like justice, mercy, unmerited love and favor, wrath and so on all require sinful people upon whom they can be bestowed.

But even if you’re willing to accept a supreme deity into your karmic worldview, you don’t seem to have this option open to you, because your worldview is aimed at something fundamentally different than God’s glory—something which might broadly be described as “becoming one” with deity. Does this objective have the goods to underwrite evils which could be prevented? That is far from clear, to say the least…


  1. Yawn

    You have it lopsided….Karma does not control ones actions, their actions determine their karma….Karma actually controls their luck ;)

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Your response suggests that you don’t understand the problem I’m raising at all.

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