On Free Will and Causation

By I. M. Oderberg

Karma is not a "law" imposed upon us from outside by a kind of legislation and enforced by authority. It is the harmonizing or balancing of causes and effects. It operates throughout the universe, and therefore within ourselves. Each human being is consequently the repository of his or her karma, for past and future time converge in the present. Although the word karma is rooted in the Sanskrit language of India, the concept is not only an Oriental idea. The Christian gnostic Bardaisan (Bardesanes), 154-223 AD, makes what he calls free will, fate, and nature the three factors of what we may term karmic law. While he adds that the three are ultimately held in the hand of God, he points out that each of them reacts upon the others, none having absolute authority which resides in God alone. Free will he relates to the divine/spiritual aspect of man, fate to the soul, and nature to the physical element in our composition.

The gnostic view of God was vastly different from the Western conception which offers a projection into space of a Being with our own traits, both good and bad, expanded to gigantic proportions: benevolent, yet capricious and capable of anger. The gnostic Deity was not a person, but permeated the universe as its sustaining intelligence and life force.

For the ancient Greeks, at first there was but one Fate, Moira, Destiny, meaning a "share" or "lot" and personifying the deity who assigns to every individual the appropriate conditions and place in life. Soon the one Moira became three. Whilst some state that these three are the daughters of Night or the Moon, others, from Homer and Hesiod on, assign various parentages, most of the later authors regarding them as the daughters of Ananke, Necessity.

Plato allocates the duties of the three Fates somewhat differently: he pictures the heavenly bodies in concentric circles, each revolving as a spindle in one or the other direction, the seven innermost circles comprising the orbits of the planets. His account states:

The spindle turned on the knees of Necessity. A Siren was perched aloft each of the circles and home along with it, uttering a single sound on one musical note; from all eight came a unified harmony. Round about at equal distances sat three others, each on a throne, the Fates (Moirae), daughters of Necessity, in white robes with garlands on their heads, Lachesis, Clotho, and Atropos, singing to the music of the Sirens: Lachesis of the past, Clotho of the present, and Atropos of the future. Clotho touches with her right hand the outside circle of the spindle and helps turn it; with her left Atropos moves the inner circles in the same way, and Lachesis touches and moves both, alternating with each hand. — The Republic, Book X

The three Fates wove the fabric of life for all beings, not even the gods being above them. In Homer, where Moira is one, the picture given is of a remote power older than the gods, and moral, against which they could not stand because they had not made it. Homer did not see Fate as a blind force but as a "moral decree — the boundary of right and wrong." (F. M. Conford: From Religion to Philosophy, p. 13). Hesiod stated that the spheres Moira assigned to the gods were the elements out of which the cosmos was made.

The three Moirae as indicated by Plato were, Lachesis, "disposer of lots"; Clotho, "spinner," who continuously spins the thread from which we weave the web of destiny; and Atropos, "not turning," the inexorable, inflexible future result of past causes yet to be resolved.

The past cannot be changed, it has already happened. The present is well symbolized by the spinner, for out of it the future is being woven constantly, affected as it is by all the things being done, said, or thought. We spin the thread of our destiny from ourselves just as the spider spins its web from its own substance. Lachesis has been beautifully explained by Plato (The Republic) in the section known as the "Vision of Er." Here the soldier Er witnesses how the souls awaiting rebirth choose the lots most appealing to them, which are really the most applicable because they are drawn magnetically to their own, the result of prior causes they had set in motion.

Karma began for mankind when the proto-humans first became self-conscious, individuals aware of themselves, of similarities and differences between each other and all of earth's denizens. This is pictured in the Old Testament scene where Adam names the creatures of our planet: the various animals, birds, fishes, and plants. As the Old Testament narrative makes clear, self-consciousness carries with it the ability, indeed responsibility, to know good from bad, i.e., to make moral choices.

According to a mythos that appears in many traditions, this self-conscious efflorescence of the mind that took place in the remote past was stimulated by solar entities. In the Greek form of this symbolic story Prometheus brought to nascent humanity the fire of "heaven," while the Hindu version tells of the great awakening of our dormant human qualities by Manasaputras, Sons of Mind. That spontaneity arises in human beings suggests an innate ability to originate actions; any relationship or interchange between people would hardly be possible unless there were the freedom to choose one course over another, which means the capacity to make a fresh start in any situation.

We have by no means expressed the full range of our humanness. However, there is a limit on the exercise of our free will imposed by our present makeup: while we continue to transmute lower tendencies in ourselves, we are restricted by our limitations of character, our lack of wisdom and understanding, and our sense of separateness from nature, the biosphere. Furthermore, as we participate in the universe we must be moved by the processes and natural laws that govern it.

We perceive a marvelous precision in the cosmos, in the interlocking of planetary orbits, the circlings of stars round the magnetic center in their galaxies, and the rhythmic flow of our planet's seasons. With such organization in the universe at large, it would have to apply also in the human life cycle — it seems impossible for events to arise by chance. If we embody our own Fates, i.e., are our own karma, we can see clearly the perfect justice of all we experience. After all, we accept without question the so-called "good" things life offers us, but we complain about the unpleasant occurrences that come our way, not seeing that in reality they follow upon the patterns we have woven around ourselves at some time or other. Every action must contain within itself the appropriate effect locked up inside it as a potential awaiting the right conditions to come forward into the present. If this were not the case, it is hard to see how any act or sequence of acts could enter our daily experience.

The sequence of cause and effect has caught the attention of scholars of various stripes. David Hume, the English philosopher, stated that the causal relation cannot be demonstrated empirically, that is, physically, therefore it does not exist. In his view what occurs is not the sequential or cause-and-effect flow of events, but their parallel appearance in the same time period; the fact that they happen together is merely a co-incidence in time. Carl G. Jung, the noted Swiss psychologist, and Wolfgang Pauli, the Viennese Nobel Prize-winning physicist, also rejected any such thing as a causal relation. Together they adopted an approach similar to Hume's though derived from different premises, and they formulated a concept of time parallelism they called "synchronicity" in the sense of concurrence or coexistence of events that accompany each other in tandem, as it were. The concept of cause as parent and effect as child of a happening was rejected. This theory seems to be merely a change in terminology.

The moment a relationship is established, some kind of common link is implied, whether it be in time, or something else; and to reject the word cause or causal merely because the tie between an act and the effect implicit in it or flowing from it is invisible — in the sense that it cannot be produced in the laboratory as a physical object — seems a little shortsighted. Is not all laboratory work based or predicated on the given or "understood" sequence of events we call cause and effect? How could results be sought in the laboratory if this were not the case?

The subject of time is a fascinating one, and there might be a way that we can view synchronicity in a fashion different from the view that used it to replace the word "cause. " We can consider synchronicity diagrammatically as operating like a spiral or circle, and this opens up interesting vistas in connection with our relationship to past, present, and future. If we recognize that our present life must be the result of our past mode of living, that karma is not another name for "fate" in the limited sense of something inevitably ordained by some being or process outside ourselves, we reach a conclusion that every one of our actions originates in our mind, and the habitual course of our thinking arises from our preferences which settle into grooves or habits.

It has been wisely said that when we welcome a thought we soon draw others of a similar kind, and before long we have established a habit. A number of such habits colors a character. Or to express this in another way, certain thoughts being energies vibrate at wavelengths that attract others like them, and they coalesce with entities beginning their evolutionary growth in the elements that compose our habitat. This would suggest another karmic responsibility carried by us as self-conscious, decisive human beings for the effects we have upon our environment. If we wish to effect a change in approach the only way is to break the prior attachment to courses of conduct less than our best possible efforts, and replace them by encouraging other kinds of thoughts.

Karma is the necessary connection between our past, present, and future. Like a wheel it turns inevitably because we ourselves continue to exist, to act, be acted upon, and react, day in and day out, year by year. This appears to have been the way the Greeks saw Necessity; it must have been in this sense that the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote "Necessity in Greek tragedy becomes the order of nature in modern thought." We see all around us the signs of a coordinated system of lives from the most minute to the very large, and surely coordination requires a coordinator.

Perhaps it is sufficient to relate this to the energy and intelligence that animates Earth itself, supplying the driving power to betterment, i.e., to growth from within outward, of all the planet's hosts of inhabitants, continuing the unfoldment of qualities lying subjectively in the motivating center of each one. The flow of cause and consequence is the means of regulating the growth, but the source of this growth is the dynamo in the heart of every entity great and small.

(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, April/May 1983. Copyright © 1983 by Theosophical University Press)


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