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09 September 2008 @ 09:42 am
Karma + Anatta  
Most people seem to think of “karma” as the idea that the good things and bad things you do eventually come back to you. I don’t think that’s right. Because who is this “you” that they eventually come back to? Buddhism teaches that there is no self. There is no “you.”

Here’s a thought experiment that should make clear the limitations of the concept of self. Suppose there were a technology to download, upload, and erase human memories. (It’s unlikely that there will ever actually be such a technology, but since memories are stored on physical structures in the brain, that kind of technology is theoretically possible.) Suppose then that someone downloads your memories, uploads them to someone else’s brain, and then erases the original copy (or replaces it with a new set of memories). Who is “you” now? The other person will believe he is you, because his memories are all memories of being you. His body will be different, but he will perceive that difference as a change in his body rather than as a change in who he is.

I submit that there is no “you.” There is a person (IRL) who happens to have both your body and your memories. But the “you” of this moment could be a completely different person than the “you” of one second ago. Perhaps some bizarre force in the universe replaced your original body with an exact copy and uploaded your memories to that exact copy. And perhaps that force does so repeatedly, millions of times a second. It’s quite arbitrary that we regard the self as continuous. Again, there is no “you.”

Not in the usual sense of the word, anyhow. But I would argue that there is a “karmic you.” That is, I will define “you” as the person who experiences the effects of your actions. (I think there is support for that definition in Buddhist scripture.) That “you” will of course be many people – one might say a little bit of each person who is affected by your actions. (I should say “sentient being(s)” rather than “person” and “people,” but you get the idea.) Certainly the person most affected will usually be the conventional “you.” But that conventional “you,” while (s)he may own a plurality, even probably a majority, of the “you-ness,” is only part of the true, karmic you.

So when you do something that hurts someone, you immediately experience the bad karma, because you are that person. And when you do something that helps someone, you immediately experience the good karma, because again, you are that person. If we can discard our arbitrary concept of self, karma becomes no longer a “belief,” but an inherent part of reality.

Of course, evolution has programmed us to have our conventional, arbitrary concept of self. Organisms that acted for the benefit of their conventional selves were able to produce descendants, whereas those that didn’t were not, so today we see only organisms that are genetically programmed to act for the benefit of their conventional selves (and their children and other blood relatives, presumably). But this behavior is instinctive, not rational. Your instinct is to do things that help the conventional you, even if they hurt other people, but if you think about it rationally, you may choose not to.

There is a concept of amoral rationality, which, I contend, I have now shown to be nonsense. If you ignore the consequences of your actions for “other people” (sentient beings, whatever), you are being irrational, because you are not acting in the interests of the true, karmic you. If you behave morally (in a utilitarian sense), you are behaving rationally. If you behave immorally, you are behaving irrationally. There is no need to tell stories about a rewarding and punishing god, or about some force that somehow makes a chain back to the conventional you when your actions affect others, or about some arbitrary choice of being moral because it’s “the right thing to do” and therefore valued for its own sake. When you see your identity in karmic terms, there is simply no such thing as amoral rationality. You don’t need to come up with reasons to be moral, because the pursuit of self-interest, in the true, karmic sense of “self,” inherently requires (utilitarian) morality.