Saturday, June 17, 2006

Karma

This post will discuss my understanding of the Buddhist concept of karma. It is not an orthodox understanding. As far as I’m concerned, all Buddhist orthodoxies have failed in their attempts to reconcile the doctrine of individual rebirth with the doctrine of no self. (If there is no self, who gets reborn? They all claim to have answers, but none of those answers makes sense to me.) I find it necessary to reject the doctrine of individual rebirth. That is, I reject the idea of rebirth as an event where one specific individual is reborn as another specific individual. None of this Shirley MacLaine crap!

My understanding starts with a thought experiment. Suppose it were possible to upload and download a person’s memories lock, stock, and barrel. I don’t think this will ever be possible technologically, but it should always be a theoretical possibility: memories are just information, so why not upload and download this information? Now consider two people, call them Tom and Mary. Using this upload/download process, switch the information in their brains. When Mary wakes up, she will say something like, “Holy crap! I’ve turned into a chick.” With Tom’s memories, Mary will have no idea that she’s really been Mary all along.

I don’t necessarily expect others to be convinced, but to me, this gedankenexperiment shows that the Buddhists are right about “no self.” Why do I believe I’m the same person that I was ten minutes ago? Because I remember being that person. But memories, the thought experiment tells me, are totally arbitrary. So I’m really not the same person.

If I can’t define myself in terms of memories, how should I define myself? A Buddhist philosopher might say, “Define yourself in terms of consequences.” If what this person did ten minutes ago caused what’s happening to you now, then you are the same person. “I” drank a cup of coffee, so now “I” feel alert.

The obvious “problem” with this idea is that consequences do not go strictly from a single individual to a single individual. For example, I brewed a pot of coffee and poured cups for me and my wife, so now (having drunk it) we both feel alert. But this is only a problem if we let it be one. My suggestion is to accept this new definition of self without reservations: when one person does something, everyone affected by their action becomes, to some extent, that person. “My wife” is now partly me. Everyone who borrows or lends dollars at a floating interest rate is now partly Ben Bernanke.

Once you accept this definition of self, the concept of karma falls right out. No longer do we need some mystical process whereby good and bad karma attach to the individual. It happens by definition. If I do something that benefits people, it benefits me, because I literally become those people. Rebirth also becomes a trivial issue: I am constantly being reborn in the people affected by my actions. In a past life, I was Ben Bernanke.

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12 Comments:

Anonymous mvpy said...

"But memories, the thought experiment tells me, are totally arbitrary. So I’m really not the same person."

Wait a minute. Ive no authority on this, but arent our memories highly selective. Isnt there a defense mechanism that dictates our worst memories fade into oblivion. After all, if we all remembered vividly the pain of past life events, theyd haunt and unsettle us forever.

The fact I do remember events does define (partly) who I am; its not just some random process as you claim. No?



"I am constantly being reborn in the people affected by my actions."

Look, wheres homo economicus. What kind of economic man is this. This is some sort of collectivist mindset, antithetical to conventional economic theory.

"In a past life, I was Ben Bernanke."

No comment.
Oh, perhaps if you told us who you were, I can become you. Or something like that.

Sat Jun 17, 11:44:00 PM EDT  
Blogger knzn said...

Of course it’s collectivist, like nearly all religious thought. But there’s nothing in economic theory that precludes putting the welfare of others in the individual’s utility function.

I don’t think I understand your first argument. I didn’t say that memory was random; I said it was arbitrary. It happens to work in a certain way, but the way it works is not inherent. The fact that memories could hypothetically be transferred from one physical person to another makes me think that memory is quite a flimsy rod on which to hang identity. As I said, I don’t necessarily expect others to be convinced.

Sun Jun 18, 06:14:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Camille Roy said...

My understanding is that one valid translation of karma is 'actions', which supports your interpretation.

Also there is the concept of 'interbeing', in which, since the sunlight helps create the flower, the flower is then 'sunlight', along with dirt, water, etc.

Mon Jun 26, 04:02:00 PM EDT  
Blogger James M. Jensen II said...

I don't know much about Buddhism, but I remember reading that not all Buddhists reject the concept of the self.

In addition, switching memories would not necessarily be sufficient to switch personalities. Mary might have Tom's memories, but she may still recognize (and be very confused by) the fact that she is not actually Tom.

Also consider that individual conscious experience, which is generally connected to the idea of a self, is known to exist, is essentially irreconcilable with physics as we know it, and is fundamentally untestable (since each of us only has one subject).

Again, I don't know much about Buddhism.

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