Theory is inescapable. Two people can view the same event and have radically different interpretations of it.
Our theoretical premises color all of our experiences – as if viewing the world through tinted lenses. Through yellow lenses, the world appears self-evidently yellow. Through blue lenses, the world appears self-evidently blue. Two different people, wearing two different lenses, will argue about the color of the world in futility, neither side able to persuade the other.
This doesn’t mean we can’t communicate effectively. To the contrary, you can become aware of – and argue about – your lenses. The danger is not “having a theoretical lens”, but rather, “remaining unaware of a theoretical lens.” Indeed, a central goal of philosophy is to help us discover, change, create, and sharpen our conceptual/theoretical lenses about the world.
The Parking Event
Take a recent example. Traffic in Atlanta is a nightmare. Rush hour is the worst, but a close second is trying to get groceries on the weekend. On Saturdays, you’d swear half the town is out grocery shopping.
So there I was, trying to park in front of Kroger on a Saturday. The lot was full, and there were dozens of cars swarming for the next available spot. Some days, you might circle around for fifteen minutes before finding a parking space.
I saw a lady who was stuck trying to leave the parking lot. Nobody would let her out. So I thought I’d be nice and let her pull in front of me. While I was waiting for her, a remarkable thing happened: a new spot opened up just behind her! I immediately took it and thanked my good fortune.
Had I not waited for that lady to pull in front of me, I would have missed the opportunity to park and kept driving around in frustration. My kind act was immediately rewarded.
So, naturally, the question arises: was that an example of Karma or just coincidence? Was my kindness literally “rewarded” by a law of the universe, or was it just blind luck? Depending on your premises (the color of your lenses), you will have different conclusions.
Let’s say we take a traditional Hindu perspective. It goes something like this:
“Cause and effect do not only apply to physical objects. They also apply to actions. Kindness causes kindness in return; hatred causes hatred in return. Just like the law of gravity implies that when you throw a ball in the air, it comes back down, the law of Karma implies that when you do good deeds, good things will happen to you in the future.”
In short: what goes around comes around.
So, naturally, my experience in the grocery store parking lot would be entirely consistent with and supported by a Karmic theory. The evidence seems as clear as day. Immediately after doing a good deed, a good thing happened to me, within the same minute. Some Karmic cycles might take years to play out; this one was instant.
Or, we could view this event through a Theistic lens. Something like:
“God actively rewards good behavior and punishes bad behavior. He intervenes in human affairs to promote justice. Sometimes, the justice takes a while to see; other times it’s immediate.”
This, too, would be entirely consistent with my experiences. Perhaps my getting a parking spot wasn’t simply spiritual cause and effect – it was divine intervention rewarding me on the spot. If I believed this, my convictions would be strengthened, because that experience is entirely consistent with and supported by Theism.
Or, a radically different theory could be true. Perhaps there was nothing spiritual at all taking place in the parking lot. It might have been pure coincidence. It could be explained like this:
“Coincidences can be fully explained by statistics. We would expect that, given a large enough data set, at some point something peculiar would happen on the road. We’re simply biased. We forget all the times nothing at all happened, and we remember the 1 in 100 random anomalies. How many times have I parked at Kroger and never thought twice about it? That’s because nothing eventful happened.”
Think about it. Imagine you flipped a coin ten times, and it came up heads every single time. Pretty remarkable, right? What if you flipped the coin 10,000 times, and buried in your data set is a string of ten heads in a row? That’s a lot less impressive. We could even say, “The larger the data set, the more we should expect to see statistical anomalies.”
Applied to my experience at Kroger: at some point, we’d expect to see a parking space open up while letting somebody pull in front of you. Once again, this theoretical explanation is entirely consistent with and supported by the evidence.
So, the same data can be used to support wildly different theories. How are you supposed to discern between them?
The answer is twofold: couple philosophy with Occam’s razor. Be partial to the simple – don’t posit the existence of more than is necessary – and address an argument’s theoretical lenses, not the experiences.
If you want to waste time, then you can argue all day about the periphery stuff – what’s the reliability of the data, did the experience really happen, what are the statistical chances, what was the time of day, were there drugs involved, etc.
If you want to make progress, you have to point out the lenses. Every theory presupposes a myriad of metaphysical and epistemological assumptions. Theists, for example, might explain my parking lot experience as divine intervention – presupposing the existence of a divine entity. Rather than argue about “whether or not God intervened”, the more foundational argument must be “whether or not God exists.”
If God doesn’t exist, then certainly he didn’t intervene in the parking lot.
The same is true for Karmic explanations. Rather than arguing “whether or not getting a parking spot was Karma”, the argument must first explain “the metaphysical status of Karma – what is it and where does it come from?” Then, that argument must also be traced back to its roots. If, as an example, Karma exists in the first place “because it was an act of creative will from a pre-historic elephant”, then we might not need to waste energy making periphery arguments about Karma in parking lots.
This is precisely why I am partial to non-spiritual explanations for most phenomena. When you examine foundational assumptions, it’s much easier and simpler to explain things without the metaphysical baggage of “gods” or “Karmic cycles.” Statistical explanations retain the same explanatory power, yet they require significantly less assumptions.
The Real Anomalies
Of course, presupposing that everything can be explained via statistics is a methodological mistake. We must always be open to the possibility – even if it’s a slim possibility – that our theories must expand to take account some kind of divine or Karmic existence.
For example, say you’re enjoying a nice bowl of alphabet cereal. You take a spoonful, and the handful of letters you’ve scooped up spell out the word “love”. How sweet. Is God trying to tell you something? Perhaps, but it seems much easier to explain away as coincidence.
Now, say you ate the spoonful of love, and you scoop up some more letters. They spell “is”.
Then another scoop, right afterward, spells “the”.
Then again: “meaning”.
The next spells “of”.
Then one more, “life”.
Altogether, you’ve taken five scoops of alphabet cereal, and it’s perfectly spelled out “Love is the meaning of life.” What would you conclude?
Concluding, “I must be dreaming because divine intervention is impossible!” is a methodological mistake. There’s no logical reason that divine intervention is impossible, so you can’t dismiss it out of hand.
Theoretically speaking, coincidence only explains so much. Say you poured another bowl of cereal, and it kept spelling messages to you like, “And this isn’t a coincidence. This is God speaking to you. Deal with it. I will keep writing messages to you in your cereal until you believe I exist, dummy. Is this enough? What about now?”
Etcetera. The point is to say at some point the statistical explanation must be abandoned. Too many people dismiss the possibility of non-coincidence out of hand – no different than the theists who dismiss the possibility of atheism out of hand.
And indeed, I have personally experienced things that I find unsatisfactorily explained by “coincidence” – like the love I feel for my wife Julia. The first time I felt true love, my worldview was forced to expand.
I’m not saying, “If you’re open to it, God will send you messages through your cereal.”
I am saying, “The properly skeptical position is this: unless you’re given reason to expand your metaphysical theory, don’t do so. Err on the side of simplicity. But, it is a methodological error to rule out the idea that at some point you might have sufficient reason to believe in more than coincidence.”
By itself, getting a convenient parking spot is not enough evidence to believe in the existence of gods or Karma; it can be fully explained through simple statistics. But getting a convenient parking spot while a nuclear bomb explodes and destroys all the spots next to you, then opening your car door and having a letter flutter into your hand reading, “I spared you because I love you – Signed, God”, would probably qualify as sufficient evidence.