Dissecting Karma I: The scientific angle

A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings.

This profound statement by Sam Harris, a neuroscience expert and prolific writer, really struck a deep chord in me. In his marvelous little book ‘Free Will’ he slams that free will is a non-existent thing! As any normal human in this era where liberalism in all its diverse forms happens to be one of the most highly held views, I felt stumped. My main counter went like this: When “my brain” chooses to do something how can that not be free will?

And Sam’s went like this:

How can we be “free” as conscious agents if every thing that we consciously intend is caused by events in our brain that we do not intend and of which we are entirely unaware? We can’t. To say that “my brain” decided to think or act in a particular way, whether consciously or not, and that this is the basis for my freedom is to ignore the very source of belief in free will: the feeling of conscious agency.

Whether I agreed with Sam or not at that time was of little importance. For there was something more striking than the question of free will that his argument sparked off in me. How many of us look at ourselves or perceive or consciously feel that we are biological units? Most of us do. But primarily unconsciously for we take our “free wills” too seriously. And of course in a manner far from the truth.

I was fine with the general theory that if my “my” brain decides for me then I am happily a “free willing” person. Until Sam’s counter point that “every thing that we consciously intend is caused by events in our brain that we do not intend”

Our brain has a lot more to do with our identities than we think and in ways which most of us don’t understand. My brain may choose to accept or discard the notion of free will and this decision was taken much before I even consciously remember making such a decision. This experiment that Sam describes can throw more light if you are confounded by my previous statement.

“… More recently, direct recordings from the cortex showed that the activity of merely 256 neurons was sufficient to predict with 80 percent accuracy a person’s decision to move 700 milliseconds before he became aware of it”

So what if my brain knows what I am going to before I am consciously aware of it? It is still “my” brain right?

No. What influences your brain to act or choose in a particular way entirely depends upon previous experiences over which “you” had no control over! This was another profound thing to ponder over.

I found extreme gratification when Sam talks about how some neuroscientists and biologists take the “quantum indeterminacy” in the way neurons work to pave way for “self-generated” thoughts that can prove scientifically the existence of free will. But Sam argues and argues rightly, “…if certain of my behaviors are truly the result of chance, they should be surprising even to me. How would neurological ambushes of this kind make me free?”

At the bottom of it, Sam doesn’t dump the idea of “free will” for no reason. According to Sam, by understanding how we act in a way we do, we correct the things that go wrong by knowing the actual cause for it and by not just relying on the notion of the illusory “free will”( He also proves that thinking of “free will” as an illusion is an illusion by itself! He is truly a delightful writer and scientist to read!)

He says, “Becoming sensitive to the background causes of one’s thoughts and feeling can- paradoxically- allow for greater creative control over one’s life” As an example he explains a  little situation which most of us can relate to. The cause for your bad mood may just be low blood levels and you may just be in need of some food. So you can definitely avoid tormenting your wife with your temper! Now more than one mishap is avoided- one, you can satiate your hunger needs; two, you don’t give your wife the chance to attribute your otherwise rash humor to your “free will” which will show your personality in some very crude light!

This fact can be extended to cases of moral responsibilities and crimes as well. On understanding the direct involvement of our brains and its past experiences we can eliminate cases of deliberate acts of crimes from acts where the offender is himself a “victim” as Sam explains through various interesting examples. Now this is where I was constantly interrupted by the sundry bits of theories I have heard and tried to understand about Karma, a typical eastern(Indian) theory on man, his actions and its consequences.

When I started off with the book I was sure I wouldn’t agree with Sam. And even as I started off this article I was not even fifty percent sure of colluding to Sam’s arguments. But at the end of all this pondering this line stays with me: A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings.


I do believe this book changed the way I really thought about “free will”, my choices and decisions. Or it has at least made me think in deeper lines on the same. Has any book had a similar influence on you? How and why?