Monday, May 16, 2011

Do You Believe in Karma?

A number of years ago, I had an employer who was, to put it mildly, a colossal idiot.  Many of the stories of my experiences there have become famous enough to have turned legendary throughout the video game industry.  The game Bioshock even includes a few hidden references to real-life events that I personally experienced and wrote about.  Not that I worked on Bioshock, but the team who did know my stories.  One of the more famous (or infamous) stories involves a dispute with said employer (who I took to referring to as "the creature", or at least using the pronoun "it")...  over the number of sides in an octagon.  I kid you not.  Well, that argument, after finding no dictionary which agreed with the creature's notion of a 5-sided octagon, culminated in it telling us employees that we are required to agree that an octagon has 5 sides if the creature says it does.  As this point branched off into a digression about timing and schedules and task appropriation, the issues of how long things take were placed on his head as the creature was the scatterbrained fool who would repeatedly change priorities on us for every new episode of Star Trek he would happen to watch.  To this, it responded that if things take as long as we had projected based on the nonsensical whims of the idiot in charge, the same idiot would fire everybody and restart the company from zero.  A fine display of maturity.

About an hour after that ordeal, the fool dashed out of the office.  I had my headphones on and was listening to music while I was working, so I didn't know anything about what was going on, but the art director on my team tried to get my attention at that point.  He asked me "Do you believe in Karma?"  For a moment, I was confused because I happened to be reading through code for wrappers to our middleware engine for rigid-body simulation (Mathengine Karma).  But I figured after a second or so that he was talking about the religious concept.  I don't believe in it, nor did I believe in it then, but I knew from the sly smirk on his face and giggles around that he was driving to a point worth hearing, so for the sake of getting there, I replied in the affirmative.  To be exact, I said "Sure, why not?".  He replied that the creature's house had just been robbed, and that's why it ran out so suddenly.  Ah, schadenfreude...

If anyone were to ask me seriously, I would pretty flatly say "No, I do not."  The notion of Karma is indeed a comforting one which offers this sort of sense of an overarching justice which is inbuilt into the universe.  It offers this message that anyone who does good will have good fortune, and anyone who does ill will be mete out with ill fortunes.  Although other religions may not necessarily have the exact same construct as Karma in the sense of being some inherent force that imbues all of existence, but they have something which provides roughly the same image.  Often, this comes in the form of "God" itself passing some form of judgment, meaning that the person's uppance will at least come after they're dead if it didn't happen during their life.  Karma extends beyond the current life as well, since it integrates nicely into reincarnation and lets people pay in future lives.  At least, that's the idea.

The idea that there is some universal force of justice that offers both boons to the good and retribution to the evil is something that people created so that they can feel better about things.  It's the same reason why the concepts of heaven and hell were ever devised.  There are certainly a variety of reasons why it makes sense that someone would want to believe it.  I can certainly imagine that if life gives you lemons, you will want to believe that something will be better at some future point.  I can certainly imagine that if you are at least aware of some crime where the criminal has escaped the legal justice system, one would want there to be a divine universal justice from which he/she cannot escape.  I can certainly imagine that if bad people amass untold riches and good people suffer terribly, one would want to believe that some force out there will rectify this inequity.

Here's the problem -- The kind of universe you want to live in has no bearing on the one in which you actually do live.  Life is not fair.  This is simply a fact.  We do not have any guarantee that doing good will net you a happy life, nor do we have any guarantee that doing bad will guarantee your suffering.  Sometimes, the nicest people in the world will suffer horrifying tribulations and live a life of utter tragedy.  Sometimes, the most vile crooks will get all the luck and never get caught on any count.  Sometimes, someone will try their hardest and never have their efforts acknowledged.  Sometimes, someone will lie and cheat their way to success without truly earning a shred of it.  That's just the way reality is.  The fact that we would like to make it fair is exactly why things like a legal justice system exist in the first place.  The fact that we recognize the inequity and unevenness of the way things are is exactly what inspires us to enact change.

A common sentiment I hear from religious people with an otherwise weak grip of faith is that they don't want to live in a world where their god's justice isn't there.  Well, so what if you don't want to?  I don't want to live in a world where I'm not a billionaire -- doesn't mean I am one now.  And if I try to live as if I am filthy rich without actually being so, I'm going to do some pretty stupid things as a result.  Similarly, if you live as if there is such a thing as God or Karma dictating a universal justice just in order to ease your mind about the unfairness of life, it just means you avoid having to face reality as it is.  There is no reason whatsoever to believe that reality is either moral or immoral.  It is amoral...  it is simply the state of things, and that state and all the forces acting on it are entirely indifferent to our wants and needs.  Those of us who prefer to face reality for what it actually is are the only ones who can actually do something about it.  When we don't expect justice from a supernatural ultimate force controlling all things, it ensures that we come to analyze what steps we need to take in order for justice to be carried out.  When we don't globally expect justice as a fundamental component of reality, that is exactly what makes us appreciate justice when it does happen.  When we don't expect evil to always go punished, that is exactly why we work together as a cooperative society to ensure that evil is punished and harm is minimized.

A belief in a cosmic sense of justice betrays both an intellectual laziness and an emotional ineptitude to face reality on reality's terms.  Get over it, and join the rest of us in the real world.