Blog Archives

A few thoughts on Karma

When you think about it on a mathematical and a psychological level karma must exist. Psychologically we all maintain an approximate balance so that we cannot be too happy or too miserable in perpetuity. This can be seen in the difference between people who live in first world nations and those who live in third world nations. Those of us who are blessed to have computers and electric, houses to live in, etc have different things to feel bad about, we can have bad days, we can even feel suicidal. Those who live with none of these benefits, no house, no electric, no food, etc can have good days; they find their joy elsewhere. If someone who is in a 1st world country will kill themselves out of misery then they obviously feel worse than someone in a third world country who is not miserable enough to kill themselves. The result of this internal balance which draws our feelings and sensations back towards a central stable area will mean that anyone who takes advantage of others for their own gain will achieve nothing because their experience will always pull back towards that central average.

It is similar in action to the way a drug user will gradually feel less joy at using their drug and will always want more an more. There is never any way in which a person can have more than others on an internal experiential level on any lasting basis. In fact there is also no way that a person can maintain an average feeling of sensation unless they are mentally damaged in some way because their experience will always be fluctuating either side of the central average or else the highs will have no lows to contrast against in order to be able to recognise the difference in them.

This psychological tendency to always aim for balance works in tandem with the mathematical tendency for numbers to always balance out. If you roll a dice millions of times you will ultimately find that any particular number will have approximately the same chance as any other number coming up. Life may be more complex than a six sided die but the same principle will apply. Over time things will have a tendency to average out. You may have a number of good days but you will also have a number of bad days in how fate tends to treat you. One day you will find a penny and on another day you will lose a penny. If you work harder you will earn more but if you work less hard you will earn less.

Most of the time this principle is very easy to see in action. The outliers are the problem in this theory. Human experience could be represented on a bell curve where most experience will be in the centre of the bell curve and at the edges there will be a few who seem remarkably lucky or remarkably unlucky. I have already pointed out that these outliers will have their experience drawn to a central stable set of feelings so the appearance of good luck or bad luck is merely an appearance as it seems to those viewing their experience from outside. The homeless person has advantages in some manners and, believe it or not, the wealthy person also has disadvantages. For instance, when you can afford anything you want instantly, then where is the joy of anticipation?  You move from one purchase to another experiencing a fraction of the joy any of those purchases would give one of us. Likewise, if you are cold and wet then the sheer pleasure you can feel from the occasions when you step into the warm and put on dry clothes are unimagineable to someone who has never had that experience. So once again we see the action of the psychological manifestation of karma combining with chance to always see that balance is achieved.

When it happens that someone seems to experience misery or joy for longer than seems natural then it is usually because they have imposed that upon themselves. Someone who has done something bad to another person will often feel guilty about it and that sensation of guilt will force them to judge themselves badly, while someone who has brought joy to others will go away with a warm feeling of having done the right thing. This has been proven in experiments where people were given money and told to go out and spend it. At the end of the day their feelings of happiness were compared to the beginning of the day and it was discovered that those who had helped others with the money felt far more happiness than those who had spent it on themselves. This is probably an evolutionary mechanism that is inbuilt by the mutual protection we gain from living in groups above the danger that individuals would have felt if living alone in the wild. This nature of cooperation and sharing would have greatly facilitated communal living and seen reciprocaton from others, which of course is a far more obvious manifestation of karma achieving balance between individuals.

The obvious exception to this would be sociopaths who feel little compulsion to help others due to their limited empathy. Hoever even sociopaths have been shown to have emotions, although on a greatly reduced level, so even they will be able to feel unhappiness or happiness in response to their actions. Additionally the greatly diminished state of their emotional level could be considered by those who have a typical experience of joy to be a punishment in itself. Plus the sociopath will often have had to have been through a horrific experience to damage their mind in that way so the loss of emotion is once again a way in which the psyche tries to achieve the central balance and withdraw from the extreme of the horror that they have already experienced.

In essence it ultimately becomes impossible for anyone to ever experience any joy over and above their fellow humans, no matter how much they take advantage of them, but similarly as karma dictates, noone is able to experience more misery than their fellow beings. Balance will always be achieved in the end.

However I am certain that everyone reading this will be uncertain about this conclusion.  Everyone knows of somebody, or is somebody who has suffered a terrible life changing incident that has greatly reduced their overal happiness.  There is certainly evidence that such circumstances can impact upon a person’s ability to feel happiness in their lives.  Regardless of what conclusions you draw from this evidence there still may be a way for karma to redeem itself, but to do so the conversation must pass into areas that are somewhat more philosophical.  In religion the problem is easily dealt with through reincarnation or the afterlife.  There are certain harshnesses to the idea of hell and heaven but karma is more likely to be associated with reincarnation.

I am not going to step into discussion of contiuity from one life to another but I will propose that in the event of reincarnation, if it does indeed exist, we are unable to retain memories from previous lives.  If we did then there would be little point in reincarnating in a form to learn the lessons of the previous life as we would simply continue where we left off.  Given the lack of memory actual physical continuity is not necessary as much as a mathematical continuity.  Indeed the essence of spiritual issues is their detachment from the physical.  The question should therefore centre around how much spiritual existence resembles physical existence.  All that would be needed for the corresponding and contrasting life to come into existence following the end of our own would be the laws of averages.  To put it simplistically, if at one point a person has behaved heinously and must therefore be taught the error of his ways then a corresponding life must come into existence in which those lessons can be learnt, perhaps the life of a devout monk or the life of a beggar.  As there is no memory from one life to another there is a missing continuity between the death of the one and the birth of the next.  Additionally there is no physical continuity.  There is a ‘spiritual’ continuity but what exactly does that mean?


Essentially, do we have individual souls?  The answer according to many religious and philosophical beliefs is that ultimately we are all one.  We all have god within us and we are seeking for reunification, etc, etc, etc.  Unsatisfying though it might seem, the only continuity necessary appears to be that the death of one with the birth of the other must both be connected by being related by both being part of the same existence.  Given the perceived nature of an all powerful god it is not even necessary that the two lives should exist consecutively.  The nature of us all being one, means, that in the formless nature of a fluid universe, we can in our ‘spiritual’ aspect be experiencing two contrasting lives separately and simultaneously.  Such is the nature of being part of a unified spiritual embodiment that is purported to have omnipotence.  To give it any limitation in that regard or to insist it follows the laws of physics misunderstands the nature of omnipotence and the power it has to be governed by physical laws, yet simultaneously not governed.  Naturally this falls a little outside the previous arguments I have made but considering karma is a theory that has always been considered to fall in line with the more esoteric ways of thinking it would probably be inappropriate not to cover some of the less conventional and scientific manners in which the concept could be described.

Naturally, if we need to rely on this final hypothesis, that can be difficult to come to terms with if we do not already believe in some kind of spiritual world already.  The impossibility of seeing beyond death or before birth renders any concerns academic.  The logic falls into place upon certain assumptions, but even if those assumptions prove to be false it makes little difference.  Similarly to a legal fiction this is a fiction that explains an idea and process, but does so in such a way that is not verifiable by material means.  Unfortunately this means that we have to rely on faith alone to accept this final argument as it is a faith based argument.  The positive side is that it makes no difference whether we believe it or not, so the action of faith is to simply take it for granted in the same way as Pascal might wager.


Free Speech

The dogmatic adherence to the principle of free speech is in practice, taken to a point of absurdity.  It is free speech that allows me to tell you that the great and famous philosopher and writer Voltaire was recorded to have said, ‘I disapprove of what you say but I would defend to my death your right to say it.  In reality I doubt Voltaire would defend my right to tell you this as it is misinformation.  The quote is actually one from The Friends of Voltaire written in 1906 by Evelyn Beatrice Hall.  The context was not that Voltaire ever said it but that he held it as a state of mind at one particular time.  Evelyn later identified her inspiration for saying this as being the phrase, ‘Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.’  Whether this itself is fully accurate can also be questioned though the most legitimate sources I have uncovered include the Bibliotheque municipale de Lyon, which in turn quotes pages from the University of York.  The phrase Voltaire offered which became her inspiration certainly does exist and it does not seem to suggest that he has any belief in the war of who has the loudest voice that is currently being conducted in his name.


Whilst Voltaire certainly did defend the right to expression of ideas it is unlikely that he would advocate the kind of dogmatism that has developed around this principle in the modern day.  As a man of thought, he would have wished that people put thought into every principle by which they live their lives.  Dogmatism is the very thing that took the beautiful sentiments offered by the world’s religions and subverted them in favour of enacting their most egregious and disruptive principles.  If Voltaire were here today and he were to say, “Monsieur l’abbe, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write” as he did in 1770 on the 6th of February in a letter to Monsieur Le Riche, I think had Monsieur le Riche written back saying, “You’re an idiot, IDIOT IDIOT IDIOT.  Voltaire is a divvy spanner.  Spacko Pillock.” Voltaire might have thought twice about his previously expressed sentiment.


Most people will agree when pressed that free speech must have limits.  In the States where free speech is most stringently protected by the First Amendment to the constitution a legal precedent was famously set by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in the case of Schenk v the United States, that consideration should be given to the use of the words and whether they were designed to bring about evils against which the government had a right to act.  Holmes complained at later times that this principle was abused to convict people for speech that should have been protected, which shows that it is a minefield picking through legal principles and precedents.  This instance concerned the limit of the principle where a possibility of criminal conviction was possible.  It might be questioned whether a positivist legal principle stands against absolute morality but an example offered by Holmes being that a person should not be protected for shouting ‘Fire’ in a crowded theatre shows that where very direct negative reactions may be caused speech can cross a line into becoming a form of weaponry or disruption.


A similar example might be the use of free speech to shout abuse in the ears of a child until their hearing is damaged.  Anyone who would consider this acceptable would find objection from almost everyone.  If someone tried doing this in a supermarket I would hope that they very quickly found democratic opinion was against them.  A line will be perceived, by anyone who does not blindly hold dogmatically to the principle without thought, that there must be a point at which speech stops being protectable and starts to become problematic.  Unfortunately the line is by its nature very broad.  Opinions will be divided in many cases.  Slipknot played 24 hours per day at full volume to break down the will of prisoners would probably be considered as something which could not be protected.  Sadly at one point at least, the objectors did not include the people charged with keeping the prisoners.  Leaving a 12 hour youtube video playing in the bedroom repeatedly chanting ‘badger badger badger badger mushroom mushroom’ before popping out to visit friends is far less offensive but your wife will no doubt consider it to be a serious abuse of free speech soon after you have left the house.


There are limits.  What those limits are may need to be looked at individually and based upon the merits of each separate instance but those limits do exist and they can not simply be defended against by offering a mis-attributed quote purported to have been said by Voltaire.  Even if Voltaire had said it, it would still not be absolute.  It would need to be considered according to the context.  In some quarters there is a tendency to abuse free speech in orgion expressivism that could almost be considered a weapon because it demoralises and terrorises the opponents of the speaker.  If there is an area where it can be most greatly defended it is in calm and measured political debate.  The instances in which the dogmatic protection of free speech should not be considered acceptable must obviously include obfuscatory marketing ploys designed to trick money out of people who are struggling to get by, surely it includes uses of speech that make people fear for their safety,  libel and slander are already covered by law, as is conspiracy or the promotion of terrorism.


There are of course instances in which the law does make a stand but it should not be considered by civilians that where the law doesn’t intervene free speech is therefore sacrosanct.  The lesser cousin to crime is the tort.  Torts are offenses against people and property that the law does not consider to offend against the public as a whole but the individuals involved; libel and slander are two examples of this area.  They have already been covered by the law but law moves at a glacial pace and simply because someone’s speech has not yet been covered does not mean that it falls under the dogmatic umbrella of free speech.  There are moral standards that must be evaluated and re-evaluated constantly.  Even if Voltaire was the dogmatic defender of our rights to offend and upset each other that people seem to think he was, he had no experience of Twitter, blogging, or the internet.  As an intelligent and thoughtful philosopher he would certainly have re-evaluated such principles in the modern era.  Considering the mis-attribution of the quote it is apparent that we should not need to wait for permission before exercising our own critical abilities.


Second stage thinking erodes religious belief?

I discovered this article in a post of Lynda Giddens on Google+.  As you are probably aware I am a believer in God, but what most people fail to appreciate is that I do not believe in anthropomorphising God.  I will anthropomorphise many things:  my computer; my toaster; my electric fan – all in a sense of fun, but I feel it is inappropriate to anthropomorphise something that is greater than the entirety of existence by an order of infinity.  I therefore had to say something and record it for you to read, mostly on account of the fact that I can’t keep my trap shut.


I am afraid I shall have to disagree with the conclusion that people seem to be drawing across the net that this means that God only exists for those who don’t apply their minds to thinking about it.  It is a shame I can’t find the full text anywhere as it looks like a good read.  I have no doubt that the original creators of the study have done assiduous work in reaching their conclusions but science is largely not an occupation of second stage thinking.  Science is generally the slow and plodding crunching of data.  There is usually someone at the top applying the data to the development of an understanding of hypotheses that will require second stage thinking but for the most part drones are needed to carry out tedious tasks and be as impartial as possible, which requires the suppression of second stage thinking.

However, that is not the point I wish to make.

While the vast majority of people do get by on mere faith this does cause the problem that the vast majority of people therefore passionately hold ideas of which they have little understanding.  At the top of the field though there are a lot of people who do apply a lot of second stage thinking.  A typical subsection of the religious community is probably very similar to a typical cross section of the scientific community.  I would imagine that a kind of social brownian motion would occur that would lead to rough dispersal of average numbers of different personality types in all areas of thinking whether secular or religious.

An immense amount of thought has been put into religion by those members of a religion who have a tendency to philosophy.  And lets not forget that the name by which science was originally known was ‘natural philosophy’.  Ask the average follower of secular beliefs something like “how does evolution or nuclear fission work?” and you would simply get a regurgitation of facts read in a newspaper or book if you were lucky.  Very few people would have applied a great deal of thought.  The vast majority of people would rather watch ‘Jersey Shore’ or ‘The Only Way is Essex’ than sit and think about something in depth, and this goes for those with religious and secular acceptance.

Those who do think about it do so in incredible depth though.  Steven Hawkings does nothing but think in the scientist’s camp.  When I was in college for the first time I was given the initial choice in the small college I attended of studying sociology, law or theology.  I chose law because I felt it would be of most use but whilst making my choice I sat in to observe a theology class.  I was very surprised at quite how hard an option it was.  The vocabulary and thought processes of the theologians was intimidating, and this was to me who had himself applied days, weeks and even months to the consideration of the nature of how God might best be described.

A lot depends upon how you define God.  Many people have a tendency to anthropomorphise God.  This is a tendency which is difficult to escape as this is how many of us are brought up and even if it is in contrast to our actual belief system we will obviously have difficulty in breaking out of this mode and will often tend to use personal pronouns to refer to ‘him’.  Of course the idea that there is some kind of omnipotent white bearded man in the sky whose personal appearance and mental processes just happen to be just like those reached by a primate floating on a rock through space after millions of year of evolution is patently absurd.  If there were such a being then it would have been subject to entirely different environmental stressors and would have evolved in an entirely different matter, except of course this is God we are talking about so he was already there eternally before the existence of the universe.  What he was doing in this time is anyone’s guess.  As he is supposedly omniscient I suppose he could have been using all that time watching previews of Doctor Who and the Simpsons.  However even these would run out eventually in infinity so he had to create the universe.  Not a very sensible view of a deity.

Like all modes of thought religious belief has evolved over the centuries.  I think that the people who originally conceived the idea of religion may have known what they were thinking about but due to the crudities and limitations of language at the time could not articulate their beliefs and so preferred to simply tell people that faith was necessary.  Baruch Spinoza was one of the philosophers who first managed to deliver a view of a panentheistic God that was more in line with the sort of thing that a secular mind would be able to accept.  He is mentioned in Wikipedia as having said:  “Whatsoever is, is in God, and without God nothing can be, or be conceived.”  “Individual things are nothing but modifications of the attributes of God, or modes by which the attributes of God are expressed in a fixed and definite manner.”  Albert Einstein named Spinoza as being the philosopher who had most influenced his world view.  Einstein considered himself to be a secular panentheist, i.e. a scientist who did have faith in something with a nature of infinity.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was another philosophical thinker with a powerful mind.  He began his career as a mathematician of phenomenal ability.  He is best known for his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus which was named to evoke its relationship to Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico Philosophicus.  What Wittgenstein was essentially doing was dragging Spinoza’s views, formed in the 17th century atmosphere of religious fervour, into the largely secular 20th century.  Although Wittgenstein viewed his work as almost completely misunderstood by his contemporaries it was accepted as an incredibly important work by many of the deep thinkers of the first half of the century.

Even in the 20th century Wittgenstein was forced to bemoan the limitations of language despite its massive improvement in sophistication since the days of the proclaimed avatars.   He wrote a letter to Bertrand Russell in which he said, “The main point is the theory of what can be expressed (gesagt) by prop[osition]s—i.e. by language—(and, which comes to the same thing, what can be thought) and what can not be expressed by pro[position]s, but only shown (gezeigt); which, I believe, is the cardinal problem of philosophy.”

In line with this at the end of his Tractatus Wittgenstein said “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”  Of course the scientists of the time said of course.  These things we can’t talk about because language is unable to express them are below us.  We should not even think about such pointless esoteria.  Wittgenstein’s opinion was that they had all misunderstood.  It was exactly those things that language was unable to articulate which were the very most important for us to think about.

When Wittgenstein was later invited to lecture at Cambridge the thing that stood in his way was that he did not have a PhD.  Bertrand Russell told him that his Tractatus was sufficient to submit as a thesis so he gave it in to be examined.  At the end of the defence he told the examiners not to worry, he knew they would not understand it.  After having read it one of them is recorded to have said “I myself consider that this is a work of genius; but, even if I am completely mistaken and it is nothing of the sort, it is well above the standard required for the Ph.D. degree.”

So in light of this and much more beside I have to say that I do not think that disbelief in God is a reflection of higher thinking and that belief in God is a reflection of failing to think to such a level.  Most people do no know most things.  They simply follow the people who do know, this applies in the secular as well as the religious world.