The Moral Universe

The search for the great balance is not always pleasant.

Posted Jun 21, 2019

There is no "eternal justice" which requires that every fault shall be atoned and paid for, - the belief that such a justice existed was a terrible delusion, and useful only to a limited extent; just as it is also a delusion that everything is guilt which is felt as such. It is not the things themselves, but the opinions about things that do not exist, which have been such a source of trouble to mankind. —Nietzsche, 1881, Daybreak 

Supposing you got a crate of oranges that you opened and you found all the top layer of oranges bad, you would not argue the underneath ones must be good so as to redress the balance. You would say ‘Probably the whole lot is a bad consignment.’ —Bertrand Russell, 1927, Why I am not a Christian

Nietzsche and Russell notwithstanding, the idea of cosmic justice and balance is quite entrenched. If adherents of some religions believe that rewards and punishments in the afterlife compensate for the bad and good deeds of the earthly life, many followers of esotericism feel similarly. In the 19th Century, spiritualists, theosophists, and other occultists began to look to religion for inspiration. Madame Blavatsky, for example, was well impressed by the cross-life dynamics as viewed by Kalmyk shamans, followers of Tibetan Buddhism (Lachman, 2012).

In an essay on a self-help workshop (Krueger, 2008), I described the workshop leader’s claim that troubles in the present life, be they social, professional, or medical, are compensation, or rather, payback, for sins committed in a former life. This is a remarkable doctrine for it insists that you deserve what you get (Lerner, 1980), and the greater the pain, the greater must have been the offense. That you don't remember these offenses is irrelevant. The cruelty of the compensation doctrine is amplified by its presenting itself as a form of higher, divine, or universal justice. The universe will restore balance. It remembers all offenses, cares about having them redressed, and takes action to make it so. That’s quite a universe! With all those powers that it has, one wonders why it permits these offenses to be committed in the first place. We might need the doctrine of free will to solve this problem.

The notion of offense paves the way for dichotomous thinking. If the present life delivers compensation for past lives, all lives come to be viewed in simplified terms. The crudest distinction is between victim lives and perpetrator lives, which is analogous to the scriptural distinction between the righteous and the wicked. When we see that justice cannot be trusted to be done reliably in the present world; when we see some righteous suffer (which is often ourselves) and some wicked rejoice, then we might understand the appeal of the universal justice doctrine and the motive to uncover a hidden past. Of course, there are people who are perfectly content and happy and who nonetheless seek past life regressions. Perhaps they just want to entertain themselves. However, it seems that most of those who seek such regressions carry some sadness or suffering, and they wish to see justice affirmed.

What then, will past life regressions reveal, given the doctrine of universal justice? Will the sad learn that their past lives were blessed and blissed? If so, they might view this as balance restored, but is it justice? More likely, there will be revelations of past perpetrations. I am treating this as an hypothesis derived from the doctrine of universal justice, where justice reduces to the retributive kind (Keller et al., 2010). My data are scarce, but a personal experience in the world of regression is illustrative. Encouraged, nay, urged, by a friend who claimed to have had amazing success with ‘Frau Schiller’ (not her real name), I agreed to make an appointment. Before the meeting, Frau Schiller asked me to submit a couple of notes regarding current personal concerns, which I did. Frau Schiller was aware that I am a psychologist.

When I arrived, we sat down and Frau Schiller began with what I thought was light conversation. She asked me how I, as a psychologist, discuss the concept of the soul with my patients. At this point, I came close to saying “Thank you, Frau Schiller, it was nice meeting you. I am leaving now.” Why? Frau Schiller was presumably – and by her own assertion – in possession of medium-like powers, which should enable her to retrieve information through nontraditional channels. Such channels are, as it were, “non-sense” channels as they require no input from the senses. If she had such powers, I figured, she would know that I see no patients and that I confer no meaning to the concept of the soul. A little clairvoyance would have cleared this up. At least, I thought, she could have done a little homework on the Internet and come to the same conclusion. In the end, I stayed because I was curious about her next move, and because my friend had paid for the session (see Arkes & Blumer, 1985, on the psychology of ‘sunk cost’).

I took the regression lying down, on what appeared to be a kind of gurney. Frau Schiller stood by my feet, holding them lightly. She did not show signs of going into a trance. There was no eye rolling or speaking in tongues. Just an awkward silence. Interestingly, it was not I who was regressed into my past lives. Frau Schiller did the work for me by, as my friend asserted without irony, ‘pulling the information from hyperspace.’ Eventually, Frau Schiller spoke and declared that I had lived two lives as a perpetrator, maltreating women and children in unspecified ways. I found this rather bald and would have considered it cruel had I endorsed Frau Schiller’s epistemology. And those who do, what do they do with this sort of ‘information?’ Does it reconcile them with their fate?

Despite enjoying a ‘true-by-definition’ status among the faithful, the doctrine of universal justice has its challenges. Its main success is that some people accept the past-perpetrator narrative because they feel it ‘explains’ current discontents, that is, they accept the notion of a universe interested in handing out just deserts. The past-victim narrative, however, is harder to reconcile with the just universe doctrine because the perpetrator-victim axis runs only in one direction. Justice is not balanced by symmetry. Imagine telling a known abuser or miscreant that she was a victim in a past life. Would one dare to claim that the just desert preceded the crime? Perhaps the victim narrative appeals to individuals who are caught up in their current good fortunes, particularly those they didn’t have to work for. These individuals might be impressed by the claim that their current contented state is the universe’s reward for their past suffering. Again, why did the universe allow that suffering in the first place? Only to re-establish balance later and be credited for its wisdom? This sort of logic echoes familiar religious themes – which brings us back to Bertrand Russell.

Russell gave a lecture in 1927, in which he explained why he was not a Christian. He did this by raising and then refuting several traditional arguments for the existence of god. The argument relevant for our present discussion is the Argument for the Remedying of Injustice. This is the theistic version of what I call the doctrine of universal justice. Russell notes that the defenders of this argument “say that there must be a God, and there must be heaven and hell in order that in the long run there may be justice.” Russell objects to this argument for lack of evidence and by noting that if our experience with the present world tells us anything about what other (e.g., future) worlds might be like, any reasonable kind of inductive inference suggests similarity instead of dissimilarity.

Religious and esoteric expressions of the doctrine tend to be emotional and full of desired wish fulfillment. But even a simple cognitive error may be enough to keep the doctrine alive. The gambler’s fallacy (Tune, 1964) occurs when people believe that after a string of, say, Heads, the opposite, Tails, becomes more likely. They fail to see that the fairness of a random process refers to the probability of a particular outcome remaining constant from trial to trial and not to changes in that probability designed to balance outcomes in the short run. A random process, by definition, has neither memory nor moral intentions (Gold & Hester, 2008). Interestingly, the fallacy also works in reverse, which is relevant to the psychology of past lives. Events considered rare are assumed to have been preceded by the opposite kind of event. A streak of Heads raises the intuition that the last toss before this streak was probably Tails (Oppenheimer & Monin, 2009). Now you can look at your own life and do the math.  

If the retrospective gambler’s fallacy maps onto past life regressions, does the regular gambler’s fallacy map onto anything besides eschatology and the afterlife? As it turns out, where there is past life regression, future life progression is not far behind. With a little hypnotic help or a data grab in hyperspace, we can make – so they say – contact with our future selves, and by doing so, we can learn today how to make these future lives even better. Here’s a link to a website of an ‘academy’ that specializes in this sort of thing. A google search turns up much more. There's a candy store out there; you just have to believe that the candy is real.

I would remiss if I didn’t mention that once I got to ‘future life progression,’ I learned that a certain Anne Jirsch is a tireless promoter. She co-authored a book, The future is yours: Introducing future life progression – the dynamic technique that reveals your destiny (Jirsch et al., 2011). It is endorsed by Dr. Bruce Goldberg, whose doctorate appears to be in dentistry, and who also wrote a book on future life progression, Past lives, future lives revealed (2004). Ms Jirsch did not return the favor. Instead, Dr. Goldberg’s book is endorsed by “Brad Steiger, author of Real Ghosts, Restless Spirits and haunted Places,” as we learn on Amazon. Mr. Steiger, whose credentials are uncertain, seems to have published over 100 books on a variety of paranormalities. This is not terribly surprising. No one can count the number of extravagant claims one could write a book about. Why not believe any such claim if it sounds interesting or cool or in-the-face of the academic establishment, or if it links up with a seemingly high-minded axiom like the doctrine of universal justice? Well, 'why not believe it' is the wrong question because it puts you in danger of believing anything, even contradictory things. The cure is to ask instead and upfront, What would it take for me to reject this claim? If no possibility of rejection can be foreseen, it is best to put the book down and to do something productive instead, like watch the Red Sox, make love, or drink a glass of Château du Clap. If you don't believe me, read up on the psychology of gullibility (Krueger, et al., 2019, or any chapter in that volume). 

References

Arkes, H. R., & Blumer, C. (1985). The psychology of sunk cost. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 35, 124-140.

Gold, E., & Hester, G. (2008). The gambler’s fallacy and the coin’s memory. In J. I., Krueger (Ed.). Rationality and social responsibility: Essays in honor of Robyn Mason Dawes (pp. 21–46). New York: Psychology Press.

Keller, L. B., Oswald, M. E., Stucki, I., & Gollwitzer, M. (2010). A closer look at an eye for an eye: Laypersons’ punishment decisions are primarily driven by retributive motives. Social Justice Research, 23, 99-116.

Krueger, J. I. (2008). Report on a self-help workshop. Psychology Today Online. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/one-among-many/200812/report-self-help-workshop

Krueger, J. I., Vogrincic-Haselbacher, C., & Evans, A. M. (2019). Towards a credible theory of gullibility. In J. P. Forgas & R. F. Baumeister (eds.). The social psychology of gullibility: Fake news, conspiracy theories, and irrational beliefs (pp. 103-122) New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Lachman, G. (2012). Madame Blavatsky: The mother of modern spirituality. New York: Penguin. 

Lerner, M. J. (1980). The belief in a just world: A fundamental delusion. New York: Plenum Press.

Nietzsche, F. (1881). Morgenröthe: Gedanken über die moralischen Vorurteile. Chemnitz: Schmeltzner.

Oppenheimer, D. M., & Monin, B. (2009). The retrospective gambler’s fallacy: Unlikely events, constructing the past, and multiple universes. Judgment and Decision Making, 4, 326-334.

Russell, B. (1927). Why I am not a Christian. Watts & Co., for the Rationalist Press Association Limited. For the text online, see https://users.drew.edu/~jlenz/whynot.html

Tune, G. S. (1964). Response preferences: A review of some relevant literature. Psychological Bulletin, 61, 286–302.