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Monday, October 05, 2020

Karma holds the world together [revised]

Why does civilization hold together instead of atomizing? Three things: Lies, lies, and more lies

P any people don't understand what karma is. Karma does not mean the universe takes retribution against you when you harm somebody. Karma is anything that ties you to the world and to other humans by making you need something. In Hinduism, the karmic ties among people make them want to be reincarnated. In Buddhism, the absence of karmic ties is called nirvana, a state of liberation from suffering, where reincarnation is no longer necessary.

Many years ago there was a Chinese movie (from, I think, Taiwan) about this. In the first scene, the characters were all cavemen and cavewomen. Within the first five minutes of the movie, they all killed each other. There was only one survivor, who promptly fell off a cliff. With all the characters dead, the camera panned up across the forest in silence. In the next scene, the characters were all alive again, but farming had now been invented. So they all killed each other off again, but in a slightly more sophisticated way. By the end of the movie, they had died and been reincarnated many times, and eventually became friends. The idea was that the injustice tied them to each other.

Maybe that's what Schopenhauer meant when he said pain is essential for life. It is certainly true in the biological sense: all our cells are alive only insofar as their biochemical processes are far from equilibrium. Lies are pain for the mind, and life is a constant struggle and constant unrest.

Just as numbers are the only virtue for evolution, survival is the only virtue for biological organisms. Truth is valuable only insofar as it benefits survival. Since we are herd animals, there is a stronger survival advantage to accommodating the group than to finding the truth. A group is held together by interpersonal ties: by karma. One cannot be fully integrated into society without mouthing its shared lies. In a real sense, lies are the bonds that hold society together.

Lies are the world

Most of us remember what life was like in high school. Kids live under the constant fear that someone else will invent a lie about them in order to exclude them—a serious threat to a young person, who must learn how to socialize and how to interact with the opposite sex. The threat of being lied about induces conformity and in so doing creates karma in the form of lifelong resentment that, ironically, ties us to the location and the people.

In the adult world, especially in cities where people are fully atomized, being ostracized is less of a threat. In response, humans have invented ideology. Its purpose is the same: to use half-truths, threats, and lies to create karmic ties that induce us to conform and to stay in the political arena.

What better way to create a karmic tie than by lying to us? A lie creates outrage, a desire for revenge or justice, and a desire to propagate the real truth. Without lies, people would think for themselves. There would be no need for society or law enforcement, and indeed no reason for humans to interact at all. This is not what people want, and a society that abandoned lies would probably not survive.

This explains why when a society is in a period of instability and decline, the news media turn to propagating falsehoods. It is why people invent fake ideologies that are nothing more than vehicles to create enemies and incite hatred. They are trying to make each other angry or outraged. Maybe if they're lucky, they'll get a riot or even a war. This breaks ties and dissolves society, but it also creates karmic ties: people become fixated on getting revenge on their enemies. Even knowing what's happening doesn't help: that also generates outrage, so it still creates karma.

The vast majority of people don't think in terms of truth and falsity. They act according to whatever precepts they believe will give them more social status or more power. Whether they're true doesn't enter into it—only whether their narrative can be imposed on their opponent.

It's sometimes asked whether people are basically good or evil. The truth is that the question is worse than irrelevant—it is meaningless. People will do whatever they think benefits them the most. In their moral sense humans are mere adding machines: for every action they do a cost-benefit analysis, adding up the costs and benefits of social disapproval, of getting what they want, and of triggering their conditioned feelings of guilt. Where the threat of social exclusion is strong, as it is in small towns, they use social pressure. Where it is not, they use politics. Social pressure and politics are composed of lies that bind us together by creating fear of ostracism. When social ties weaken, the pressure is turned up, and we must fear being murdered instead.

This is why we should not be surprised at the vile nature of Twitter or the viciousness of cancel culture or even the epidemic of censorship on social media. Those engaged in it think they are acting in their best interest. To them, gaining mindless approval is worth the cost; truth is irrelevant. Nor is cancel culture unique to left-wingers, as Paul Gottfried reminds us. It is a product of ideology.


The older I get, the more I wonder how things hold together. Why is the universe still holding together? Why do social units also hold together, as they sometimes do, instead of atomizing?

Maybe we can get a clue from physics. Physicists now think space consists of tiny ‘atoms’ of space­time. These atoms are not to be confused with the atoms that make up molecules. These atoms of space are millions of times smaller. Why do they create a continuum instead of just flying apart, leaving countless infinitesimal bits of disconnected space? The reason, physicists tell us, is that they are entangled on a quantum level.

So maybe we could say that just as quantum entanglement is how the universe is held together, karmic entanglements are the bonds that hold society together. Those little subatomic particles are telling us something about ourselves.

But here is my point: all these lies and nastiness force us to interact more as we try to sort out the mess. And that is their purpose.

oct 05 2020, 5:51 am

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