Tuesday, October 29, 2019

On Karma, Meaninglessness, and Moral Creativity

We've been having a conversation about karma. I will not implicate the other protagonists here but I thought it might be useful to bring a few comments to our broader context.

The premise is simple enough. Karma is used in Indian thought as what I have called "the explanation of everything." When people think that everything happens for a reason they can be confused and comforted all at once. They don't want the confusion; they are reaching for comfort, for the comfort of meaning.

Of course, this meaning-comfort almost immediately bumps into emotional dissonance that leaves us in more narrative. It's not unlike lying where we always need another story to keep a story together. Sometimes that's a good thing but in this case, in the meaning-comfort matter, it's anything but, it's more like a lie that the sub-conscious knows is a lie. Our cognitive dissonance is not far behind here because karma seems even more cruel and pointless than even the capricious God of mystery (ask Job if you doubt that). We are desperate for meaning because we crave consolation in a world that offers only what we can create.  Why do bad things happen to innocent people?  How could _that_ happen and why did it happen?  So what then are we to make things?

It sounds too cool, too much Spock to say but it can be so helpful to remember that natural facts are never moral facts. The natural world has no ethical purpose; only humans create virtue or vice. There is love and compassion when there is mutuality and care---that's indisputable. Witness the wonder of elephants or that baby raccoon rescued and imprinted by humans who must then figure out how to get that creature back into its world. But with human beings our feelings and instincts, our emotional lives are inextricably woven into the lessons and experiences of nurture. What we _can_ do and who we _could_ be are matters of more than instinct and imprint. We make our worlds no matter how the world has made us. Please, a bit more?

The story here is part of humanity's "easy way out" reckonings. Karma is an important part of India's easy way out, it's bypass. It's not unlike Calvinism's predestination, Luthern submission to "God's will," the basic Christian claim that the omniscient and merciful God has a plan. Good luck with that. Feel consoled? Got meaning?

The idea is that somehow divine or cosmic determinism provides explanation and comfort when the world presents itself instead as indifferent and lila presents itself as anything can happen without our moral needs or personal preferences for meaning. We might well ask ourselves why humans do this, why they seem seem to need this kind of totalizing claim for meaning.

My reply won't surprise you. It hinges on two matters. First, we humans really do _need_ meaning and when we are confronted with more than the mere potential of meaninglessness. We must face instead the _potency_ of meaninglessness as another fact of human existence. Second, _making_ meaning in a world that includes lila is a difficult, complex task that depends on human vulnerability, provisionality, and our fragile co-dependence.

_We_ must provide our "stand," our must become the "pillar." Krishna says literally "stand in yoga" long before he offers the bypass of divine consolation. We might argue the latter comes not as a remedy but as itself a consolation to those who cannot fully ground themselves, that is, _stand_ in the harder yoga of engaging a solely human task.

In other words, we may have to rely on ourselves and each other when we would rather reach out to some meaning-providing-principle like karma or God. Naturally, we all know that humans are not only frail but flawed and incomplete---so we look beyond ourselves for "truths" that are somehow truer than ourselves.

Enter Rajanaka. There are no truths truer than our humanity can provide. And those human truths are never absolute even when they are as reliable and as resilient as any proven fact. Truth is always in crisis even when it need we know it need be contested in ways that trivialize or diminish the value of human knowledge. Not everything is up for grabs because not everything is _worth_ doubting. That means yet another judgment call. That means we have to create a more honest understanding of when limitation _serves_ us and so serves up truth and value and purpose.

There is no limitlessness within the mortal coil and everything we might say happens only from within our boundaries and so involve our limitations. But such limitation is not a problem to be solved. It is a crucial part of being human and it can be received as yet another gift of wonder and value because, well, here we are, we live, we experience for now the astonishment of consciousness as life embodied. Isn't that wondrous enough?

Moral creativity is among our most important human tasks. Consolation and compassion are among our most endearing and significant human gifts. But they are all matters of what we can do from within lives that are imperfect and vulnerable. And that is the greatest human gift: you need not be perfect to learn how to learn, to learn how we might love, to be you being a better you.