The Naturalistic Principle of Karma
By Karl H. Potter

    Philosophy East & West
V. 14 (April 1964)
pp. 39-49

Copyright 1964 by University of Hawaii Press

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    INDIAN WRITERS conversant with Western thought have compared the "Law of Karma" with the "Law of Causation," saying that, whereas the latter governs the physical order, the former governs the moral order.[1] In this conception several mistaken views about the so-called "Law Of Causation" are apparent.

    In the first place, the phrase "the Law of Causation" is highly misleading. There are two well-known senses of "law," and in neither one does the doctrine under discussion, viz., "every event has a cause," state a law. The "Law of Causation" is not a prescriptive law, since a prescriptive law presupposes a lawgiver. If there were a lawgiver for the "Law of Causation," it presumably would have to be God. But consider a God who promulgates the Causal Law "Every event must have a cause." Why should he promulgate such a law? A prescriptive law is intended to compel people to act or restrain people from acting in certain ways, and this edict can do nothing of the kind. God may have created the world in such a fashion that every event indeed does have a cause, either by some necessity within the scheme or even as a result of his continuous and direct intervention, but it does not follow from that, even if it be true, that he issued a prescriptive law to that effect.

    Nor is the "Law of Causation" a descriptive law. For a descriptive law, a "law of Nature" like Boyle's law, for example, is arrived at when a hypothesis is constantly confirmed and never falsified. But the "hypothesis" "every event has a cause" is not treated like ordinary hypotheses; apparent falsifications are disallowed on principle. Whereas an ordinary hypothesis is rejected when the outcome of a properly-carried-out and relevant test is negative, the causal "hypothesis" is safeguarded: if we fail to find a cause for a given event, we are advised to keep looking; we are not allowed to reject the principle.

1.    E.g., S. C. Chatterjee, The Fundamentals of Hinduism (Calcutta: Das Gupta & Co., 1950; re-Printed 1960), pp. 72 ff.; Mysore Hiriyanna, Popular Essays in Indian Philosophy (Mysore: Kavyalaya Publishers, 1952), pp. 30-34; Collected Papers of Professor S. S. Suryanarayana Sastri, T. M. P. Mahadevan, ed., (Madras: University of Madras, 1961), pp. 233--238.




    Thus the "Law of Causation" is not a law at all, but a principle. As such, it serves an extremely important function: it formulates a basic presupposition of scientific inquiry, since any empirical inquiry seeks for explanations, and all such explanations are in a broad sense causal.[2]

    If the "Law of Karma" is to be thought of as parallel in function to the "Law of Causation," it, too, must be viewed as a principle, a principle which formulates a certain program for moral inquiry. As such, it, too, serves an extremely important function. For, just as the causal principle, as I shall hereafter call "Every event has a cause," exhorts us to keep on seeking explanations for physical occurrences, so the karmic principle exhorts us to keep on seeking explanations for what I shall for the moment call "moral" occurrences.

    As a result, neither the "Law of Causation" nor the "Law of Karma" governs its respective orders, since they are both principles, i.e., exhortations or, if you prefer, programmatic decisions, and so cannot govern anything except in the sense of guiding our future inquiries.

    Far from detracting from the importance of the doctrine of karma, these considerations underline its ultimacy for human concerns. For the fact that we are committed to the causal principle indicates our basic desire for explanations of physical occurrences, and likewise, if one is committed to the karmic principle, this shows one's desire for explanations of moral occurrences. And, although it seems prima facie that the status of a principle is inferior to that of a law, since principles are rejectable and laws are not, second thoughts will reveal that this supposed inferiority is a trivial outcome of the fact that in our language-habits we allow ourselves to speak of a rejected principle, while a rejected law is no law at all.

    Why should one, however, be committed to the karmic principle? Well, why are scientists committed to the causal principle? Scientists give different answers: some see the practical advantages accruing from control of the sources of physical energy as a relevant reason; others prefer to maintain a lofty disdain for human concerns, at least while in their laboratories. Likewise, one might accept the karmic principle on the impersonal grounds that he is merely interested in the moral order and not in any applications to human conduct his investigations might afford, at least while the investigation is in progress. Scientists treasure their attitude of "objectivity" and feel that practical concerns threaten to cloud the clarity of their vision. Psychol-

2.    The word "causal" is currently out of fashion in empiricist circles, and discussion at the moment rages over the question of an inductivist versus a deductivist account of verification and falsification. These discussions do nor bear upon anything claimed here, however.




ogists, even moral philosophers, may take an equally antiseptic stance if they like. But the only result is that they separate their activities as investigators from their activities as inquiring persons with practical concerns, and by so doing take the chance that attention to those concerns may proceed as if their laboratory results do not exist. Such a view of the scientist as functioning under two hats, so to speak, seems to be the result of a failure to see that objectivity does not require suspension of practical concerns but, rather, strict observance of the canons of successful inquiry. Practical concerns generate the questions we ask; they also, in the final analysis, generate the criteria we use for deciding whether or not our questions have been answered; but neither consideration justifies the conclusion that such an inquiry is unobjective.

    Just as man's predicament dictates an investigation of the sources of physical power with an eye to adjusting to or even mastering such power, so the very same predicament necessitates an investigation into the sources of moral strength with intent to master such sources of self-control as can be discovered. The karmic principle stands justified simply by our need to understand ourselves.

    In effect, the karmic principle merely makes explicit a vagueness in the causal principle, a vagueness in the notion of an "event" in "Every event has a cause." We have seen that this principle might less misleadingly be phrased "Keep looking for causal explanations of all events." But what are to count as "events"? At this point the various scientific practitioners begin demarcating their respective fields. The karmic principle insists that the field of moral events not be overlooked.

    The acceptance of the karmic principle is incompatible with no laws of conduct, not being a law itself. It does, however, conflict with certain alternative principles, specifically with those philosophical positions which deny the existence of moral occurrences, or, while admitting the existence of such occurrences, deny the relevance of causal explanation to them. Such views are characteristic of non-naturalism in contemporary ethical theory. Acceptance of the karmic principle requires one to adopt the position of naturalism in ethics.

    The question at issue in assessing naturalism is not one of the truth or falsity of a doctrine, but, rather, one concerning the acceptability of a principle as guiding our investigative policy. As a result, some of the more superficial aspects of contemporary debate may be overlooked in favor of a more searching analysis of men's motives in denying, or affirming, that there ate moral occurrences and that they ate subject to causal explanation.




    The motivation for the naturalist, he who espouses the karmic principle, is the same as that which motivates him to accept the causal principle: he believes that understanding the causes of any event enables him to anticipate and adjust to subsequent events of a like nature, and he further believes that anticipation of and adjustment to future events is a worth-while human concern. The naturalist fears unexplained events, for they are beyond human control. But he trusts man's ability to overcome the limitations of ignorance. Naturalism, then, posits the principle that all areas of human interest can be eventually mastered through scientific inquiry, and, since the area of moral decisions is central in human striving, he refuses to remove it from the scope of scientific investigation.

    The motivation for non-naturalism may seem to stem from several sources. But the major source is the fear of explained events. The fear is that if we knew all the causes of all events we would know precisely what the future will bring, a self-stultifying and debilitating prospect. Thus, although the non-naturalist admits the wisdom of seeking causal explanations within limits, he opposes such a search in the area which lies closest to human decisions, the area of what I have been calling "moral events."

    Though this is not the only professed motive for non-naturalism, other reasons for the view seem to come to much the same thing in the end. Naturalism may be opposed, for example, on the ground that human understanding, unlike God's, has intrinsic limitations, that any attempt by man to go beyond his own limits and emulate God's understanding is doomed to failure, and that rash claims on behalf of man's complete perfectibility in this regard are blasphemous. All this seems to be a rationalization of the fear noted in the previous paragraph. Why should anyone object to an investigation of any sort of events, unless he believes that such an investigation will produce some positive harm? And what sort of harm, other than the realization of the debilitating prospect mentioned above, could possibly accrue from rational inquiry, the same kind of inquiry, after all, which even the non-naturalist admits to be appropriate and desirable everywhere else except here?

    Yet the problem, once recognized, is genuine enough. If non-naturalists are to be persuaded to give up their view, they will have to be convinced either (1) that complete understanding of the causes of all events will still not enable us to predict the future completely and with finality, or (2) that such complete predictive ability, far from being the stultifying prospect the non- naturalist assumes it to be, is indeed precisely the state of perfection man should aim for. The first thesis is a kind of indeterminism, the second a seem-




ingly paradoxical account of human freedom as a state in which no choice at all is open.

    Among the ancient dar`sanas of India one can make out a distinction between naturalism and non-naturalism. This distinction is one which I have elsewhere called the difference between "progress philosophy" and "leap philosophy."[3] In Sanskrit the former is called "jaati-vaada," the latter "ajaativaada." The cleavage is fundamental. The leap philosophers, or non-naturalists, refuse to allow causal explanations as relevant to some part of human endeavors, restricting causal categories to only a part of the events which concern men. The remaining part, unamenable to rational understanding, is treated in varying ways by Indian non-naturalists. Some, e.g., Maadhyamika Buddhists and the branch of the Advaita Vedaanta, postulate a second sort of understanding (often called praj~naa) to grasp these acausal categories. Other non-naturalists take refuge in theism, for example, the `Sriivai.s.navite interpretation of Raamaanuja and Madhva's Dvaita. Under the impetus of what is now referred to as the "bhakti movement," non-naturalism of this latter sort, which features dependence on the grace of God, has become increasingly prevalent in India. The result has been that the concerns served by adherence to the karmic principle have been more and more ignored in favor of a resigned attribution to God of responsibility for human failings. In a context of non-naturalism, the "Law of Karma" loses its meaning as a principle and indeed takes on a strongly fatalistic flavor. That was not its original intent, however.

    Readers unacquainted with the cleavage in the history of ideas in India sketched above may well be puzzled when they find Hiriyanna and Chatterjee at one and the same time disclaiming deterministic consequences for the "Law of Karma" and yet apparently admitting that the "Law" entails that every event is completely determined--all the while apparently failing to see the contradictions involved in these views. Suryanarayana Sastri is more insightful, seeing rightly the naturalistic implications of the "Law" and the inadequacy of the non-naturalists' answer. His own solution on behalf of naturalistic (Bhaamatii) Advaita is, unfortunately, not satisfactory, either. With the dubious authority of Eddington, he appeals to the principle of indeterminacy to justify indeterminism. But he, like the other two, fails to see what has been argued above, that the "Law of Karma" is not a law but a principle which, so long as it is maintained, commits us to seeking a deterministic

3.    See "A Fresh Classification of Indian Philosophical Systems," Journal of Asian Studies, XXI, No. 1 (November, 1961), 25-32; the distinction is further expounded in my book Presuppositions of India's Philosophies (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963).




order beneath the quantum order or whatever other incompletely determined order science may arrive at through further investigation.

    Meeting the non-naturalist by espousing indeterminism is to throw out the baby with the bath. In the remainder of this paper, I wish to propose an interpretation of the karmic principle which may help naturalists forge an answer along the second line mentioned above, by resolving the paradox of human freedom.

    What are these "moral events" the causal explanations of which the karmic principle exhorts us to seek? I suggest that they are habits (or traces), or perhaps the sources of habituation (sa^mskaara, bhaavanaa, vaasanaa).[4] It is a fact, well known to reflective men the world over, that many of the frustrations in life are due to our inability to deviate at the appropriate moment from habits built up prior to the moment of decision. This, then, is the bondage to karma, habit, which thwarts human freedom even when no "external" constraint is present.

    The karmic principle exhorts us particularly to seek the necessary conditions of habituation. The idea is that, having discovered the kinds of events which constitute the necessary conditions of habituation, we can proceed to ensure that those kinds of events do not recur. As a result, we will be released from bondage to habits, and this release is itself a necessary condition (perhaps even a sufficient condition) for, complete release from all dependence on the not-self.

    When the self attains complete release it will be omniscient in the sense that it will be able to predict the state of the world at every moment in the future (and no doubt to postdict for every moment in the past). This is the conception of man's goal which the non-naturalist finds so repugnant, apparently because no choice is open to such an omniscient being. But this phrase, "no choice is open," is unclear and in need of analysis, and upon such analysis it will turn out that the non-naturalist, misled by crucial ambiguities in terms like "habit," rejects this naturalistic conception of freedom on inadequate grounds.

    There are two sorts of situations in which it would be strictly appropriate to say "no choice is open to me." One is the situation where the alternatives are limited to one. The closest approximation to this situation in ordinary experience is the stock example of the man forced to give up his wallet at gunpoint, but this is, of course, strictly speaking, not a case in point since obviously one does have more than one alternative in this situation,

4.    Chatterjee, op. cit., pp. 82-83, notes the parallels between karma and habit without quite identifying them.




though the other alternative-probably being shot--is very unpleasant. Now, it is reasoned, restriction of alternatives even to this extent is highly undesirable--how much worse if it were strictly true that only one alternative were open. Note how the repugnance we exhibit at being forced to do something against our will is carried over into the stricter case, although no reason is given why the description "alternatives limited to one" must be taken to apply only to cases where the "alternative" in question is contrary to our wishes.

    A second situation answering strictly to "no choice is open" is the situation where indeed no choice is open, since choosing is not in point, because of the intrinsic character of the situation. An approximation to this might be found in experiences of severe depression where, since nothing seems more worth-while than anything else, choosing seems out of point and one relapses into catatonia. Again, this is not strictly a case of the situation in question, since one could well say of such a depressive, "Nevertheless, choices are open to him, including the choice not to do anything at all." Again the example is highly repellent, and this quality is easily carried over to that which it is taken to approximate. Again, note that the resignation characteristic of the catatonic is carried over into the strict case, although nothing is provided as sanction for this identification.

    Now let us return to "habit." Moral advisors show a curious contrariness in their attitudes to habit. Such a counselor advises us, on the one hand, not to be a slave to habits; on the other, to develop habits. An overly regular life is bad, but so is an underregulated one. One may well suspect from this that important distinctions are being overlooked in connection with this notion.Surely we are not being advised to develop the same things we are at the same time to dispense with?

    We are insufficiently clear about habituation. Western moralists tend to say here that the problem which the foregoing remarks point up is the problem of telling which habits are good and which ones bad. This way of speaking makes it sound as if there were properties of "goodness" and "badness" which characterize two distinct classes of habits, and that our problem is to classify habits into these two varieties by discovering the presence of these properties. But since one cannot assume that any observable features of habits are signs of the presence of goodness and badness--to do so would be to move from an "is" to an "ought" or to commit the "naturalistic fallacy"- the non-naturalist goes on to conclude that one must intuit the presence of these properties directly. Having intuited which habits are good, one is then exhorted to develop these habits. No causal explanations are necessary or




desirable, for the non-naturalist does not desire to eliminate habits but, rather, to develop certain ones and to abandon others.

    The weaknesses in this account should be evident. First, the assumption that goodness and badness are intrinsic and mutually exclusive features of two kinds of moral occurrences is open to question. Second, the appeal to intuition is suspect, particularly when the non-naturalist is apparently unable to give any criteria for discriminating good habits from bad ones. Finally, the non-naturalist does not explain how we are to develop certain habits and abandon others without learning and utilizing causal laws concerning these habits. Note that these weaknesses have nothing to do with the move from is" to "ought" or with the "naturalistic fallacy." The naturalist may well admit that, if it were in point to seek goodness and badness in habits, these maneuvers would be mistakes. But his position, properly understood, is that such a search is unnecessary.

    The problem is not to discriminate between good and bad habits. It is, rather, to avoid habituation, i. e., to avoid losing control of one's habits. Thus the Bhagavad-giitaa tells us that both good and bad habits bind us. Bondage, habituation, is a feature of all kinds of habits, good and bad.[5] But, fortunately, it is not an intrinsic feature.

    Let us distinguish "habituation1," meaning the state of behaving in a regular pattern, from "habituation2," meaning the state of behaving in regulated ways determined by forces beyond one's control. Thus a regular smoker is habituated,1 but may or may not be habituated2, depending on whether he can control his smoking as and when he wishes, e.g., whether he can stop at will for a given period.

    The presence or absence of habituation2, as well as of habituation,1 is a matter of natural fact and involves no special non-naturalistic intuition. Likewise, discovery of the necessary conditions for habituation2 is a proper matter for scientific investigation; we need no occult powers to carry it out. And, finally, utilizing this discovery to free ourselves from habituation2, is no different kind of problem from any other problem of applied science. Such utilization may well involve habituation.1 Yoga, for example, is the development of habituation1, in order to eliminate habituation.2

    Now, with such a clarification of "habit" in mind, it can be seen that the naturalistic conception of freedom as man's goal is not as unpleasant a state to aim for as the non-naturalist claims it to be. Once we have seen that

5.    The Giitaa finds three kinds of habits: good (sattva), passionate (rajas), and. indifferent (tamas). But they all bind. See III. 5 and II. 45.




habituation need not involve loss of control to the not-self, we can see that in a state of perfect freedom we might be habituated1 to the extent that "no choice is open," and yet it will not follow that someone or something else is making our choices for us. No choice is open to us in such a state precisely because we are in complete control of ourselves and thus cannot be distracted by desires arising from alien sources. We will not have resigned ourselves to external control; rather, we will have renounced choice because we will have renounced all desires arising from the not-self.

    There are other principles that Indian naturalists accept as corollaries to the karmic principle. Prominent among these is the doctrine of reincarnation or transmigration of the self. In judging the worth of such a doctrine, we should first reconstrue it as a principle, assess its function as such, and then judge the other aspens as critically as we wish to. Thus, I have tried above to explain the function of the karmic principle, but I remain critical of some of the specific ways in which this principle has been rendered for popular consumption. For example, the tracing of specific effects to specific previous acts must either be independently justified through proper investigation or, if not, it must be construed as a picturesque way of reminding people of the concerns which lead them to adopt the karmic principle. In this latter guise, the doctrine of Karma need not be taken any more seriously by thoughtful people than any similar myth.

    Likewise, the doctrine of transmigration seems to be a mixture of mythical elements with an extremely important naturalistic principle. The karmic principle "keep looking for causes of habituation2" requires as corollary what may be called the principle of beginninglessness, which allows us to continue exploring earlier events as possible causes for habituation 2when we have run out of candidates among later events. Thus the principle of beginninglessness extends the scope of the search for causal explanations throughout time, as it were. The principle underlying transmigration includes the principle of beginninglessness and, so to speak, expands it. It allows us when exploring the causes of the habituation2 of an individual inhabiting a certain space-time region to look for such causes in any and all space-time regions prior to the behavior in question.

    As a result, it allows us, if we wish, to construe the history of an individual person as extending without spatial or temporal restriction. Thus, if we wish so to construe my history we could include in that history all factors which have in any way conditioned my habituation2, whether such factors are located in this physical body I now possess or in another body or in no body whatsoever. Whether we wish to construe the concept of a "person" in such a way is a matter for us to decide; there are clearly drawbacks to such a way of




speaking, prominent among them the fact that it would involve a serious deviation from current usage and consequent obstruction of communication. Such drawbacks are not conclusive reasons against reforming our conceptual scheme, however. If through such a reform there were clear advantages to be gained in discovering explanations for habituation2, for example, this would outweigh all other considerations for the naturalist.

    It is quite possible that a thorough rethinking of the problem of personal identity along these lines would be beneficial. But seriously to construe the history of an individual person in some fashion short of complete interpenetration of his history with the histories of other individuals, at least in the absence of any further distinctions bearing upon the successful functioning of the karmic principle, is to lose sight of that principle. For this reason, one cannot seriously accept the special theory of transmigration as found in popular Indian classics, where we are told that the Buddha was a deer in a former birth, etc. However, I do not suppose that such tales are intended "seriously"; they are myths, and as such serve an indispensable function in disseminating the karmic principle and its corollaries to all mankind.

    The corollary to the karmic principle which I have been discussing seems, rather than providing a basis for a more perspicuous account of personal individuality, to provide a basis for understanding to what extent we are bound to each other and to the "impersonal" environment by mutual concerns. Instead of discrete chains of events paralleling each other back through time from each of our presently functioning bodies, we must, rather, learn to think of our histories as interpenetrating fields of force (to suggest one among several models), and of the events influencing the development of those fields as being located, not in a "moral" or "spiritual" realm distinct from the physical one, but in the one world of Nature, the world studied from various angles by physics, biology, history, the arts, and religion. Love, mutual concern, is not to be considered as restricted to some non-natural realm; it can and must be investigated by all the various fields of inquiry. Furthermore, along these lines we may be able to make naturalistic sense of universal insights currently construed non-naturalistically, such as the insight that through love for others one may successfully combat habituation2.

    The decline of naturalism in India is particularly unfortunate, for it is Indian naturalists who have most clearly noted the consequences of that position for the ultimate goals of mankind. Western naturalists, under the influence of a shallow Humean and Millian libertarianism, have most often failed to recognize the implications of the causal principle for self-realization.




Indian philosophy is now identified with non-naturalism by practically all Western philosophers, despite its pioneering work on the naturalistic side of the ledger. One would hope to see a revival of naturalism in India, a naturalism sophisticatedly aware of developments in Western ethical theory but emphasizing the unique contributions of Indian moral teachings as classically expounded in such naturalistic texts as the Bhagavad-giitaa and Pata~njali's Yoga-suutra. Such a revival would constitute a most important advance in the resolution of the deep-seated issues which divide naturalists from non-naturalists throughout the philosophical world.

    What, then, are the philosophical implications of the doctrine of karma? The most fundamental implication is that the human predicament requires us to view our world naturalistically, i.e., as governed by discoverable regularities. Only by so viewing the world can we hope to free ourselves from the suffering which, by common consent of all Indian systems, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jaina, pervades our lives. It is worth noting that those Indian philosophers who have allowed themselves to suggest that the doctrine of karma is only a convenient fiction have tended to be either skeptics or extreme devotionalists. These latter types of philosophers characteristically abandon the traditional Indian ideal of salvation through liberation, either by outright denial of its possibility, as in the case of the skeptics, or by substituting other ideals in its place, as in the medieval ideal of slavery to God

    Indeed, Karma, the naturalistic principle, is not a doctrine with philosophical implications so much as a presupposition of what is to count as a philosophical implication. When the presupposition of Karma is withdrawn, we quickly leave the characteristic concerns of classical Indian philosophy for the quite different concerns of medieval and modern Indian theology. The cleavage between naturalism and non-naturalism is fundamental. There is no more important choice to be made by those seeking a philosophy of life than that between these two methodological assumptions.