Karma—What Goes Around Comes Around?

There is no evidence that karma, fate, and destiny affect human lives.

Posted Jul 11, 2013

I recently won an academic prize, and one of the journalists I talked to was keen to attribute my winning to karma, because I had previously arranged for the nomination of another winner. The idea of karma originated in Indian religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, but is also used in the West to mean that good deeds will be rewarded with good results, with the opposite for bad deeds. This assumption is captured in the popular saying “What goes around comes around” and in the much older proverb “As you sow, so shall you reap.”

The idea of karma is different from the view that what happens is the result of fate, destiny, or what is “meant to be.” Karma allows room for free will: You make a choice and then benefit or suffer as the result of your choice. In contrast, fate and destiny do not allow room for free will. But like fate and destiny, the idea of karma is not based on any good evidence.

What would it take to show that karma actually exists? We would need to consider a large sample of human behavior, and look to see whether there is a substantial correlation between people doing good things and having good things happen to them later, and between people doing bad things and having bad things happen to them later. Of course, the study would also need to consider cases where good deeds and bad deeds are not followed by commensurate results. To my knowledge, no one has ever conducted such an investigation. The plausibility of karma is based on a few anecdotes and on the general appeal of the idea that people will get what they deserve. In the background is the religious idea that cosmic reciprocity is ensured by divine actions, with a god or gods ensuring that people really do get what they deserve. This idea is no more plausible than the formerly widespread belief that the good will of the gods can be achieved by sacrificing animals. Reciprocity—treating people well because they have treated you well—is an important part of human interactions, but the cosmos plays no part in it. The original Buddhist idea of karma based on reincarnation is even more problematic with respect to evidence.

Independent of the problem of finding evidence for divine reciprocity, we can certainly consider counterexamples to the claim that what goes around comes around. In history, there have been legions of people who have done good deeds for their families and other people while still living lives of quiet desperation. At the other end, there are despotic leaders like Stalin and predatory criminals like Jack the Ripper who got to the end of their lives without any particularly dire consequences. These examples do not prove that there is no such thing as karma, but should combine with the lack of evidence for karma to support the conclusion that karma is just a myth. The belief that what goes around comes around is just wishful thinking.

Similarly, there is no evidence that supports ideas about fate, destiny, and some things being meant to be, or not meant to be. In my most widely viewed blog post, I raised the question: Does everything happen for a reason? I argued that the view that everything happens for a reason is implausible because events sometimes occur by chance or by accident. Like karma, fate, and destiny, the view that everything happens for a reason merely serves to provide false assurance to people suffering through a difficult world. People would be better off to use evidence-based reasoning to figure out how to deal with unavoidable uncertainty, without mythology.