I've been wanting to do a series of posts on the issue of theodicy, one of the most nagging problems in spiritual cosmology. So consider this the first in a series.
Theodicy, for those unfamiliar with the term, addresses the question of how evil can exist in a universe created by God. It arose primarily in response to the Christian conceptions of the universe as the creation of a loving God, who somehow condemned most human beings to a life of suffering, misery, and death. It's a favorite subject of atheists, agnostics, and even troubled believers, such as Dostoyevsky in the Brothers Karamazov. Most of the faithful responses to Theodicy suggest that a leap of faith is required, that we cannot comprehend God's mysterious ways, that we have to trust in Providence, and presume that God knows best. One might call this set of responses "childish", even if well-meaning. Another, more mature set of responses suggests that God gave us free will in order to be able to choose him willingly, and that this allows us to not choose him as well - to choose a fallen life of sin if we wish, and which we have.
However, neither of these two categories of response is able to explain many of the troubling issues raised by the simple fact that the world seems to operate by a principle of chaos, rather than order. For one thing, it's not only adults who are clearly responsible for their actions who suffer, it is children, fetuses, animals large and small, and most of what they suffer from appears to happen not according to some design of God's, but by sheer random chance. The Christian cosmology in which we each have only one life, at the end of which we are judged forever worthy of either heaven or hell, seems grossly inadequate to deal with such problems. How can an aborted fetus be judged at all? If such souls go to heaven automatically, as Catholic doctrine insists, then shouldn't we increase the number of abortions, rather than decrease them? Why let the fetus grow into an adult that has the chance of sinning and going to hell?
The problem of theodicy leads inevitably to the problem of innocence. Who is innocent in this world? Surely we are born innocent, and become corrupted, many will suggest. But if all are born innocent, how does corruption ever arise? We cannot blame our parents, since they too were born innocent, as were their parents, and so on. The Christian notion of an original "fall" from Grace only makes sense if we can find a beginning to our time on earth, and yet the facts of the evolution of the species indicate that there was no original "human" at all, merely a series of evolutionary developments from very primitive cells to multi-celled organisms to animals to fishes to apes to modern humans. Where in that train of development did innocent creatures become corrupted by "evil"?
The question begs for a definition of evil. Much of what we call "evil" in modern times is something that humans create on their own, such as war, violence, theft, exploitation, fraud, and even plain old indifference to others. This form of evil requires a conscious intelligence behind it, someone who either intends evil, or who is so self-possessed as not to care about the consequences to others of his own actions, who treats others as objects rather than empathetic relations. But let's be honest, most human suffering is not actually the result of this kind of intentional violence, Nazism aside. The greatest single human disaster of the 20th century was probably the influenze epidemic of 1919-20, in which more people may have died than the victims of the first and second world wars combined. Smallpox was reputed to have killed more human beings throughout our history than any other single cause, including all of human war and violence towards one another. Famine likewise has killed countless people, and apart from such human-induced famines as Stalin's famous starvation of the Ukraine into submission, most of these events have been due to natural causes, and mostly random ones such as weather and climate.
So the question of theodicy requires that we not merely address the issue of how human beings can become so depraved as to commit horrendously evil crimes against one another (and against animals and the natural environment), but how it can account for the random and chaotic element of human suffering, in a world supposedly created by God by order and design. If we look at the natural world from the perspective of scientific atheism, things initially seem more explicable, in that human evolution can be described as the product of natural selection in the midst of a randomly changing environment, and human evil can be seen as merely one aspect of this evolutionary process by which we all struggle for survival, which engenders a battle among various genetically-based traits that offer competing advantages. In this view, what we call good and evil are merely genetic potentials for either selfish or nurturing behaviors that can lead under differing circumstances to increased chances for survival and the passing on of those genes to offspring. One could view evolution as a battle between these genes for dominance, which is never achieved because each set of genes offers distinct advantages the other lacks, and so an ongoing mixture of the two is inevitable. One could even view good and evil as necessary to one another's existence, since a purely selfish survival strategy is no more likely to succeed than a purely self-sacrificing one. The most likely outcome is one in which each human possesses both genetic capabilities in a variant distribution, and uses them according to their needs or the conditions that arise.
There are two major problems with this scientific-atheist explanation. The first is that it paints a picture of purely random, chaotic universe, in which human beings are essentially devoid of free will, but are merely reactionary groupings of molecules self-assembling and self-replicating, and then competing with other molecules for survival. Most human beings seem to react with profound disgust and rejection towards this model, for all kinds of reasons, the primary one being problem number two: this explanation does not account for the existence of a conscious self that experiences these chaotic events, which we all experience as the very core of our own existence. This conscious self cannot even be explained by neurobiology, since there is no process in chemistry, however complex, which can be pointed to as "creating" self-consciousness. Nor is there any need for such a self-conscious creation to explain even a single aspect of the scientific cosmological theory of evolution. There is no point in self-assembling and self-replicating molecules creating a conscious sense of "self" to experience anything at all, and no mechanism that could even explain how that might happen has been offered up by science. So while science can explain to a great degree how life might happen on a molecular level, it can't explain how consciously experienced suffering arises. Even if genetic molecules compete for survival with one another, why on earth should they actually experience anything in the process, including suffering? Scientific atheism falls flat in explaining this.
Put another way, let's say we have a vast computer running a virtual reality wargame. In this game, millions of "people" are created and die in the course of a series of battles. We would not consider any of that to be "evil", because we know that none of those people are actually conscious of their own existence. They are just blips of electricity signifying various arbitrary meanings which we assign to them. They are not consciously suffering the battles that we see on the screen. But human beings do consciously suffer, even though their existence is, scientifically speaking, no more meaningful as an organization of electrons and information than a human body and its nervous system.
Analyzed even more deeply, we can't help but notice that the way in which all living organisms are chemically organized is through quantum processes at the molecular level. Every chemical bond is a quantum interaction, and all nerve cells communicate with one another by means of quantum interactions. The problem with this is that such things are not merely random at the molecular level, the very basis of quantum interactions is that of a universe entirely founded in randomness. Quantum mechanics, at the most basic level of both theory and practice, requires that randomness exist to such a profound degree that it seems to destroy virtually any notion of "order" or "design". The self-organization of molecules into living beings is guided by laws of physics which seem to be entirely random, therefore, and incapable of being the result of any causation by design. One cannot change the probability fog of an election by design, because it cannot be controlled by any causative agent. So randomness is so deeply embedded in our material universe as to be seemingly opaque to any kind of conscious design.
What then are we to make of our own consciousness? Is it simply an "echo", so to speak, of the molecules that compose our bodies and brains, with no actual content or causative ability, but merely some strange side-effect of our neurobiology? Is the experience of suffering - as opposed to the mere fact of bodies living and dying - a kind of "consciousness trap", similar to the experience of people in the Oliver Sachs book and movie "Awakening", who are trapped in a paralyzed body, fully conscious but unable to move or communicate with others? Are we just under the false impression that our consciousness actually causes anything to happen, when in reality we are just along for the ride, and our own body's chemical construct is supremely indifferent to us?
Again, most of us rebel against such ideas instinctively. I'd of course suggest that there's good reason for this rebellion. Even scientific atheists who like this materialistic view of the cosmos philosophically don't actually believe it to be true for them as individuals. They continue to think and act as if they were conscious creators of their own life. The mere fact of our own internal conscious existence is so obvious and overwhelming to us that it overrides any philosophical limits or explanations we may come up with for it. Human beings act and react as if they are responsible for those actions, and they expect others to be held accountable as well. We don't let criminals off by arguing that their biochemistry did the crime, and not them as conscious actors. We understand that when we kill someone, we are not just killing a body, but we are killing a self-conscious being. Even more importantly, we recognize that we are self-conscious beings who feel compelled to find meaning in what we do, rather than to accept life as merely random and thus meaningless.
The question naturally arises as to why self-assembling and self-replicating molecules would give a rat's ass about the meaning of their existence, which even scientific atheists seem to be unable to avoid asking about? Even the purest nihilist who denies that existence has any meaning at all still bothers to address the question, rather than just going about his meaningless business. We seem incapable of ignoring it. Why?
I'd suggest that we cannot help looking for meaning in the world because of the very nature of our presence here. We are, as I've suggested many times here, a hybrid creature that is not entirely of the physical world. We are "reincarnate", which means that we are, in the depths of our conscious awarenes, subtle spirits who become deeply enmeshed at the level of the mind with the body and brain and nervous systems of human physical organisms. I'd suggest that this basic cosmological view offers a better explanation for theodicy and the existence of conscious human suffering and chaos than either simplistic religions like Christianity or complex scientific-athiest systems based on random molecular interactions.
The notion that we as spirits reincarnate in life after life is a very ancient one. It certainly fills some obvious gaps in the theodicy problem, in that it suggests a much longer "lifespan" than the simple human one we experience in any given body. A child who suffers in this lifetime is not a pure "innocent", but a soul who has lived many lives previously, and carries with them the karmas of those lifetimes into the present. Likewise, the one who makes the child suffer in this lifetime has himself been made to suffer in previous lifetimes, and has the opportunity to learn from his errors. Human evil is not final, therefore, and neither is human suffering. There is meaning in even seemingly random sufferings, in that they are the result of past events outside of our immediate view. And yet, within the life we are living here on earth, it seems from any objective point of view that these sufferings and miseries occur randomly, so how can that be reconciled with the cause and effect notion of karma?
In an attempt to answer this question, I'd like to suggest that karma is generally misunderstand as a law of cause and effect. I know this goes against much of the tradition of reincarnation and karma, but I think there's a good basis for putting aside these notions of causation as simplistic superimpositions of conventions of thought that don't apply to the reincarnational model. Rather than representing cause and effect, I'd suggest that karma actually operates through the principle of synchronicity, as a series of patterns that arise in conjunction with one another without any causal relationship between them. In fact, I'd like to suggest that the entire spiritual cosmos does not operate by cause and effect, but is in reality acausal in nature, and that causation is actually an illusion of perspective, rather than the reality of how things actually work.
Many people have criticized the scientific materialist point of view as "flatland" thinking. Flatland is a fictionalized world of 2-dimensional space, in which the inhabitants are unable to conceive of a 3-dimensional world, and re-act to the notion of such a thing with varying degrees of denial or folly. As a metaphor, it's been used and abused many times since to explain limited systems of thought. I'd like to use it in a form much closer to its original intent, as a way of explaining multi-dimensional reality.
Imagine if you will that there are indeed many "dimensions" to our spiritual reality, the physical being only one of them. Let us use the common mathematical example of conic sections to demonstate how these different dimensions can be arranged as stretching from the lowest to the highest. (This is vastly oversimplifying things, but I hope it is a useful analogy in any case). If the 3-dimensional cone is intersected by a plane parallel to its base, the result is a simple circle. This occurs regardless of which level the cone is intersected at - the only difference will be the size of the circle, but the essential shape will remain the same. In my example of multi-dimensional space, this circle would be an example of examining only one dimension of the cone of reality at a time. It would be a "flatland", in that it would only represent the viewpoint of this single dimension. Science, in this respects, represents such a flatland view of the material, physical dimension of our cosmos. By a strict form of discipline, science rejects any form of experience which cannot be reduced to some physical, materially observable evidence. This creates an illusory perspective, within which everything seems to operate by the principle of causation. And so as science explores all the possible causal relations in this world, it presumes that the world actually operates by causation itself, and if it cannot find outside causes that produce observable effects in the material world, it presumes that nothing outside the material world exists. This conclusion tends only to reinforce the original flatland perspective, however, and fails to take into account the possibility that causation is not the deeper basis for what is being observed even within the material dimension.
I'd suggest that this principle of causation is only apparently sensible within a flatland perspective, meaning by examining only one plane of existence at a time. Within that plane, causation appears to be the rule of how things happen, and randomness seems to rule all forms of causation. Once again, however, randomness is actually a perceptual illusion created by the flatland perspective. In reality, if one intersects the interdimensional cone at any kind of an angle, one will be including multiple dimensions in one's view. In conic sections, this creates an oval, and if the angle is acute enough, either a parabola or a hyperbole, which are infinite in the number of planes they intersect. When viewed this way, it becomes clear that what occurs in any given plane is not actually the result of causation, but is ruled by the principle of synchronicity. In other words, whatever pattern of activity is found on any given plane is reflected in all the other planes. They are "synchronized" with one another. This is because they all arise from the same source-pattern, not because one "higher" dimension causes a "lower" dimension to produce an effect.
In this view of the cosmos, there is no causal act of "creation" by a higher power who waves his hand and causes the world to come into being. The appearance of such causation can occur only when one's view is limited to the "oval" pattern which includes, perhaps, only a few of the infinite number of dimensions. One might observe, if one only looked at a few dimensions, the appearance of some kind of causation, of higher beings creating lower universes, but in reality, even this is an illusion of limited perspective. In reality, everything which seems to occur is uncaused, and is merely a reflection of a single pattern that is visible within all dimensions.
This affects human beings in many obvious ways, because by our very nature we are multi-dimensional beings. In the most obvious respect, we are conscious being who have an internal sense of self and of experience that views and observes and "experiences" this life. This internal sense of experience means that when we suffer, we "feel" it. When we act, we seem to intend it. When we think, we feel that we are causing ourselves to think. And yet, if we examine the two dimensions of our internal experience and our external bodily life, we have a hard time figuring out which causes which. Does our thinking cause our body to act, or does our body cause our thinking to arise?
Within each realm, we can trace a line of causation that seems impeccably logical. When I write these sentences and paragraphs, the thoughts seem to arise logically in relationship to one another, as if "I", the internal person, am thinking these thoughts, and then sending the message to my fingers to type them on the computer. But looked at from the perspective of the physical body itself, it is my brain which seems to generate these thoughts as chemical processes of neurobiology, and whatever experience I seem to have of them is an effect of that cause, rather than vice-versa. This seems to create an irreconcilable dilemma that can only be resolved in one direction. Either we must adopt the scientific view that the body and brain are the original cause, or we must adopt the subjective, spiritualist view that the internal self and its consciousness are the original cause. The standard reincarnational model offers a decent compromise in which the body's chemistry plays an important if often subordinate role, but even this model tends to be ruled by the principle of causation, as if the higher levels of reality cause the lower levels to come into being, and higher laws of karma dictate what events and acts will occur on the lower planes of existence.
The acausal view of action, however, dispenses with causation as being the guiding principle of any level of existence. It is only a perspectival illusion that causation exists at all, and even then it only purely applies in the special case of a viewpoint that intersects only one dimension. Bear in mind that this would be the case no matter what the dimension is. If one only takes into account a particular subtle world, for example, one would also see things occurring seemingly by causation there, rather than by synchronicity. It's only when one begins to see two or more realms at once that the principle of synchronicity begins to become clear.
Likewise, the principle of random chaos is also unique to the flatland view of a single dimension. If one looks at events from a multi-dimensional perspective, randomness begins to disappear, and the principle of interconnected synchronicity appears to dominate. In reality, there is no such thing as randomness or chaos, but the absence of these does not imply a universe in which every random event is "caused" by some mystical force. Instead, it implies a universe in which all dimensions of existence are in "synch" with one another, because they arise from a common source pattern.
And that, I would suggest, is precisely why human beings are unsatisfied by ideas of random causation, and feel compelled to search for meaning in even seemingly random events. Human beings are hybrids, who live in more than one dimension by their very reincarnational nature, in a way that thrusts this principle in our face all the time. Even if we are not terribly conscious of ourselves as being reincarnate spirits, the simple nature of our conscious existential relationship to our physical body makes it impossible to ignore at even the gut level. We are always having to consciously deal with this material world from an internal, consciously self-centered and spiritual viewpoint, regardless of our philosophical views. This means that we always experience at least two major dimensions of existence simultaneously, and cannot ignore the implications of that. What this means is that we cannot help but look for meaning in life, in the events of life, and we cannot help but think that there is more to life than random chaos and sheer material causation. We have to deal in every moment with the strange synchronicity of our internal conscious thoughts and outer bodily actions, and try to figure out how to make them work in a meaningful way. We are confronted with the material facts of chaos and meaninglessness within the one-dimensional perspective of the physical dimension, and yet we don't live entirely within a physical dimension, we live in an internal, self-conscious, spiritual realm, and the intersection between the two is a mystery to us.
Part of what makes the intersection of the conscious and the material dimensions a mystery is that we are always looking for causation as a link between the two, and failing to confirm this through evidence. We look to "God" as a cause of the world, and as the underlying cause of all actions, even though we cannot find actual evidence of this within the causal framework of the material universe. Athiests are of course quick to point this out and declare that this means that there is no God, but it only means that God is not the cause of the universe, that the relationship God has to these worlds is much different than what we might have presumed. The God-principle is not one of causation or creation, but of synchronous unity. In other words, God is the principle that keeps everything in harmony across all dimensions, not a force of causation. In fact, there is no force of causation at all, it is merely an illusion that things seem to be caused by one another. In reality, there is only a single fluctuating pattern that everything is synchronized to, and that we are a part of rather than a causal effect of.
In this sense, there is no karma. We are not caused to act or react, and we are not causing anything to happen. We are merely riding a wave of perfectly synchronized appearances, in which our very will and intention is part of the wave itself. We cannot not act in synchronicity with everything else, at all levels. And so once again, there is no randomness to nature, or to our suffering.
This does not entirely address the problem of theodicy, however. I just want to use it as a basis for further discussion. It's important to understand that the universe we live in is neither caused nor a field of causes and effects, contrary to what many spiritual traditions teach. To escape the realm of causes and effects, therefore, does not mean to vanish from the world, but to understand the world as it is, is beyond causation already. The notion of liberation from the cycle of birth and death is usually associated with the notion that this wheel of karma is a field of causation, and that to leave it behind means to literally leave it behind. There's an alternative view of transcendence which does nor require or even allow for these notions of leaving the realm of cause and effects, because it sees that no such realm actually exists in reality. Cause and effect are simply an illusion of perspective, and to leave that perspective behind does not mean to leave the world behind. Rather, it means to live in reality, and to see the world in its real nature, which is not a causal realm at all, but an acausal appearance within an infintie universe of perfect synchronicity.
This has some profound implications for notions of spiritual realization, liberation, and Jivanmukta, which I hope to get into in later posts.