Kammic or materialistic explanations?

Suppose one has generated bad kamma, such that, in their case, this kamma ripens by making them die earlier in a future lifetime. However, their death will have some materialistic cause too. For example, they will have died of sickness, caused by some pathogen. The question is: how can the same event (in this case, death) have two independent sufficient causes (the sickness and the kammic retribution)?

In other words, how could some material event, which is ruled by physical laws, be at the same time explained as caused by past kamma? For instance, suppose someone loses wealth because of past kamma. This same event has totally physical causes, like an economical crisis. Therefore, if the crisis hadn’t happened, the person wouldn’t have suffered loss of wealth, and the kamma wouldn’t have ripened, so how can this kamma be entitled as the cause of the loss of wealth if it was irrelevant for determining the event?

I’ve read that kamma, like a seed, needs the right conditions to ripen, but if the conditions are sufficient to bring about the effects, isn’t kamma causally powerless?

By the way, my question involves only the effects of kamma in a lifetime. It doesn’t involve kammic effects as determining the place of rebirth.

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1st confusion:

No. Kamma is not like a seed. Please see the following sutta Dutiyabhavasutta:

So, Ānanda, deeds are the field, consciousness is the seed, and craving is the moisture.

2nd confusion:

Are you claiming that “Material event is ONLY ruled by physical laws.”? Can you please prove such claim in clearer way?

There’s another analogy where deeds are compared to seeds. In AN 3.34:

Suppose some seeds were intact, unspoiled, not weather-damaged, fertile, and well-kept. They’re sown in a well-prepared, productive field, and the heavens provide plenty of rain. Then those seeds would grow, increase, and mature.

In the same way, any deed that emerges from greed—born, sourced, and originated from greed—ripens where that new life-form is born. And wherever that deed ripens, its result is experienced—either in the present life, or in the next life, or in some subsequent period.

I can’t prove that for any event, but some events can be completely explained by physical laws. For example, water evaporates, which creates clouds. A charged cloud leads to an electric discharge in a tree, which falls over a person, consequently killing them. No immaterial thing is needed to explain the given example.

I think, you are missing the reason WHY deeds are compared to seeds in AN 3.34. It seems to me, the reason is: the Buddha was showing how kamma is conditioned, so kamma is the focus point of that sutta, therefore it takes the analogy of the seed.

On the other hand, if we compare with AN 3.77 as I quoted above and look for the reason WHY consciousness is compared to seed, we should see instead: the Buddha was showing how consciousness is conditioned, so consciousness is the focus point of that sutta, therefore it takes the analogy of the seed.

So in the end, I think the important message is: kamma or consciousness are both conditioned. The “seed” is only a means to convey the Buddha’s message and we should not fall to the trap of grasping the “seed” as something concrete.

You claim that “No immaterial thing is needed to explain the given example”.

I can’t stop wondering: Can we be absolutely sure that no immaterial thing is needed to explain the event “water evaporates”?

I can’t stop wondering: Also, can we be absolutely sure that no immaterial thing is needed to explain the event X required for “water evaporates”?

I can’t stop wondering: Also, can we be absolutely sure that no immaterial thing is needed to explain the event Y required for “event X”?


Please excuse my wondering. :pray:

Hi @Mike_0123 Take the example of a computer program, say one that computes the Fibonacci sequence.

Now, all the behaviour of the computer program is in principle explainable entirely by appeal to condensed matter physics (for the chip) and electrodynamics (for the electons and logic gates etc).

This explination, takimg the initial state of the computer and applying the (presumably nightmarishly complicated) Hamiltonian will predict with total accuracy the list of numbers we see on the screen).

However, the program, written in python or whatever, taking the sum of the previous two numbers in the sequence and addi g that to the list then repeating, ALSO completely explains what we see on the screen (at least in terms of what the sequence of numbers we see look like).

The 2 types of dererminism are both clearly operative, and the connection between them is tangential at best.

(Its not even clear to me actually that the Hamiltonian in question would be computationally tractable, so reading the python program might in fact be the only way to know what will appear on the screen).

This is a simple toy example of why it is not coherant to claim that a given event or phenomena may only be determined one way.

A view of physics as determanistic and kamma as real is what people call “compatibalism” and is a common view in the philosophy of such topics.

Also, an underlying assumption of your argument is that physical laws are determanistic, but this is not at all clear, newtonian mechanics for example, once thought to be the paradigmatic case of a deterministic physical theory is not in fact determanistic, see here:



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When you think about it, there is a chance that kamma has a role when you get some infection.

Some people are more susseptible to diseases. Some people inherit that. These differences arise from their old kamma as explained in Cūḷakammavibhaṅgasutta.

As you may already know our eye is an old deed(cakkhu, bhikkhave, purāṇakammaṃ) and likewise all our senses as well as the body.
I believe the genetics is the part where purāṇakamma has a role.

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Sure, I meant “kamma is like a seed” in a metaphorical sense, not as something physical.

Yes, we can: if you have water at 100 °C and 1 atm, then you can be sure that it’s boiling. There are formulas that explain that for other cases as well, and they only involve material things among the variables.

I like this answer a lot, but I’m unsure if their connection is just tangential. Aren’t the workings of a computer actually bijectively associated to the operations in the computer language? The software is just a way to make the electricity flowing through the PC understandable and manageable. This can’t be said about kamma and the physical world: the physical explanations are completely independent from the kammic ones.

Are you advancing that maybe quantum and other forms of indeterminism may in fact be workings of kamma disguised as indeterminate? That’s an interesting solution too.

Thanks for the reply, Bhante!

Yes, I agree. What about the kammic connection to things like lost of wealth and other events that happen in life? They have physically incompatible explanations in a way that genetics don’t since the latter can be explained through the way kamma determines our place of birth. Losing wealth and other things don’t necessarily have anything to do with where we were born.

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Possibly SN 36.21 can help here.

Sīvaka, some feelings stem from bile disorders… phlegm disorders … wind disorders … their conjunction … change in weather … not taking care of yourself … overexertion … Some feelings are the result of past deeds.

No, I am talking about the Newtonian example i linked too, basically for a marble perfectly balanced on a dome of a particular curvature, the marble staying on the peak of the dome is one mathematical solution to the equation, but to is the marble rolling off, in any direction, at any time T, so there is no deterministic solution to the equation, or rather there is one deterministic solution and an infinite number of inderterministic ones.

Quantum mechanics is also indeterministic in that in a solution for a spin equation, for example, where there is a 50 percent probability of spin up and a 50 percent probability of spin down, there is no way to determine in advance what the outcome will be, physicists often wave this away, claiming that the probabilities add up to 100 percent and that there is no room for any way whereby human will or consciousness could have “anything to do with it” but this is again not at all clear, and certainly seems to leave a door ajar for kammic consequence to supervene on causal physical stories in a non conflicting way, for example if many worlds is true and your consciousness somehow always ends up on the physically permitted world line that matches your kamma (although there are complications to this idea)

Basically with regard to your bijection argument, I am not saying so much that there is no connection between the two stories, just that they are more or less completely different ways of telling a story, both of which have legitimate causal histories, ("the electron flowed there, and then… "as opposed to "and 3 plus 2 is five, and five plus three is…) and both of which are instantiated in the same system, both giving a complete explanation of why you see the number 5 on the list, but not really overlapping in any way in terms of those explanations.

Basically kamma might work the same way, whenever you look at a car crash, you will always be able to tell a story about the electrons being fated by the schroedinger equation to be in that preceice configuration since the beginning of the universe, while at the exact same time being able to tell a story of the guy drinking to much and daydreaming of his mistress and so not noticing the red light and careening into the truck, or whatever, the point is events can be over determined, it simply isn’t the case that only one type of casual story needs to be exclusively correct and prevent other legitimate casual explanations supervening on the same facts of the matter.

say bob and alice are both super mad at charles and both march to his house and without each seeing the other both pick up a stone and at the same time hurl a stone thru charles’ window.

bob by themselves throwing the stone is sufficient for the broken window.
alice by themselves throwing the stone is sufficient for the broken window

assuming the stones hit the window at the same time you have 2 sufficient causes for one event.

It’s really not clear that there are any “causes” in the best physical theories we have now. general relativity and quantum mechanics are not causal theories, they are in one case a geometric theory and in the other case a dynamical theory, so knowing the initial state say in a quantum setting you can run the equations either forward or backward in “time” so you can “predict” what happened in the past in the exact same way you can predict what will happen in the future, there’s no a’s causing b’s in the theory, we just use the theory to inform our reasoning about causal happenings, their not normative as to causation.

Yeah, you’re right. I think the problem in this analogy is that if bob (physics) doesn’t throw the ball, then alice (kamma) can’t break the window. Physics always determines the final state by itself or nothing does (assuming that indeterminacy is either unreal or non-kammic). In other words, what’s bothering me is that at some point kamma has to interfere with the physical world, but this would need to be a point when the previous state wouldn’t determine the next one, or else we would get two cases:
(1) the previous state would already make the next state be the way kamma would cause;
(2) the previous state would make the next state be something other than what kamma causes, which means that kamma has to violate the laws of physics.
If only (1) is the case, then we can’t account kamma as a real cause for things, since it’s always completely irrelevant for determining our world. If (2) is true, then we would get plenty of violations of the laws of physics all the time. Following this line of reasoning, the only plausible solution seems to be that kamma interferes at places when the physical world presents some indeterminacy.

Do you mean that maybe kamma doesn’t need to start interfering if it’s always doing so? For example, imagine I, out of greed, make someone get fired unfairly; at a future time, I die and get reborn in his neighborhood. Supposing that the same guy gets poor and needy to the point that he starts stealing, if I get stolen as a kammic consequence, it wouldn’t violate any law of physics, but that’s because kamma had been operating in line with them from the beginning (i.e. there isn’t anything outside the physical world interfering). Is this what you mean?

I can give you an infinite number of those in newtonian mechanics, which, as i pionted out earlier, is NOT a deterministic theory, see this link for example:

Or the actual source of the idea, as i linked to above:


I note that the original piece is from a book called “causation as folk science” i.e the way of thi king you are taking about, where determanistic theories in mathematical physics are used as “causal” pictures, is a folk belief, and not a way that anyactual science talks about causation.

Quantumechanics is also NOT determanistic in the way you need it to be to prevent there being kammic facts (or facts of will or intentions etc)

If you are comitted to a kind of incompatibalism then there are argu.ents out there along the lines you need, as you cam surely tell i am muchore a compatibalist by intuition, but theres plenty of schools of thought on these questions

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Sorry to double reply but im on my phone - this amounts to nothing other than to say kamma cant break the laws of physics, not that kamma is an incoheant causal account (although i actually dont think kamma needs to be or even can be a causal account, but thats a whole different story).

When we say the fish is dead because the shark bit it in half we are not implying that our biological explination either breaks the laws of physics or is false.

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I think this is really the nub of your contention, and you really need to make clear why you think it is so, i have given you 3 cases now, of numbers, windows and biology where events are completely determined by multiple causal explinations and no physical laws are ever broken, i think the o us is on you now to explain why kamma would violate physical principles

First of all, kaa isnt a theory of physics so it doesnt need to be predictive, second, theres absolutely no contradiction here, your confusing determinism with causation, this is not what anyone thinks any more, its not the 18th century.

Physics will predict the location of all the atoms in the half a fish too, but we still all accept that it is in half because it was bitten by a shark, not because of the entropic condition of the early universe and the schrodinger equation.

Modern physics is not a theory of causation!
Its time reversable symmetric for starters.

“Do you mean that maybe kamma doesn’t need to start interfering if it’s always doing so?”

No. I mean kamma (and mathematics and biology and window issues) NEVER need to break or interfere with any laws of physics to be true causal accounts of events.

and, sans extra-theoretical assertions contemporary mathematical physics theories are NEVER causal accounts of events, thats not how dynamical laws work.

Basically its like someone told you a complete physical theory of cathode rays and electrons an photons and gave you the description of the grid of pixels and a fourior transform of the signal and you say " oh so thats why groucho hit harpo with the pie!"

Just because the early entropic state of the universe plus the dynical laws tell you the position of every particle at every time t in the universe doesnt tell you why they are where they are, its not a causal picture, its a mathatical dynamics, and just to complicate things furthur for you, in addition to it NOT being deterministic in either the quantum or newtonian case, its also computationally intractable for systems beyond a handful of particles, so its not actually even true that if it WAS deterministic that anyone inside the universe could actually ise it to make and determinations about macroscopic facts in the way you would need it to.

For those interested in contemporary accounts of causality in the sciences (and in particular which of the sciences have casual accounts as integral to their contents) this is a fantastic lecture on recent advances rooted in statistical analysis and computer science that lays out a lot of the contemporary perspective around the subject.


The interpretations which might allow for hidden variables (kamma have a say in the results of quantum indeterminism) according to Interpretations of quantum mechanics - Wikipedia are de Broglie–
Bohm theory
and Time-
symmetric theories.

Time symmetric theories is just that the hidden variable is from future observations, the future can affect the past via retro causality in this sense. I doubt this can fit well with kamma generated in the present moment. Anyway, I haven’t think very deeply on this, or understand this interpretation well enough to have anything much to say.

Which leaves the Bohm’s interpretation, I wrote a bunch of stuff here many years ago.

My issue with Bohm’s interpretation is that it’s deterministic. Where’s the space for the future to be different given a set of past events? I am not sure if non-local influence is sufficient to render the interpretation as non-deterministic, certainly it would be non-predictable, as all quantum indeterminism are, practically speaking.

Classical indeterminism like Norton’s dome can be triggered for the particle to fall down one direction or another via quantum indeterminism randomly putting the particle’s position closer to one side than another which then started the roll downhill. So it might not leave enough space for indeterminism if we use one of the hidden variables interpretation, both are deterministic.

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Are you implying that karma is necessarily a hidden variable theory? I personally find many-worlds not just possibly compatible with karma, but plausibly more so.

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There’s either hidden variables or inherent randomness, because there’s nothing under the hood to determine this or that result for a certain quantum statistics, the probability is known, but what results an individual experiment will yield is uncertain.

If we wish to posit that it’s kamma which influences somehow the result of individual events, then it’s hidden variables.

Of course all of the above is assuming no many worlds splitting. Many worlds interpretation is weird, but let’s explore if it is compatible with the notion that kamma is the one which decides what happens in an individual quantum experiment.

Before splitting, the world is identical, same kamma and everything. Let’s imagine a quantum experiment has 2 results, and say they amplify via the classical realm leading to good fortune for the person on one end and bad fortune on another. For example, linking a quantum random number generator to buying a lottery. There’s a slim chance to get the right number for the lottery, but we leave it up to the quantum random number generator.

Say the odds of winning is 1 in a million. So the many worlds splitting splits from this one world to at least a million different worlds, with only 1 in a million of those where the result is that the person wins the lottery based on buying the number from a quantum random number generator.

Kammic wise, how can we explain this?

Same kamma before splitting, why after splitting, only one world out of a million that person wins the lottery and the other worlds he didn’t. If kamma is the same, shouldn’t it operate to give the same outcome?

Naive attempt one failed to use kamma as a way to determine individual results using many worlds interpretation.

Ok let’s try to integrate kamma in a more creative manner. We can just retroactively say that, the world in which the person wins the lottery, the kamma for being generous in the past is used up for that world, and the other worlds, the kamma doesn’t have the conditions to mature. So kamma becomes more of an accounting tool. If that person keeps on buying lottery, maybe there’s less chance for the person who already won to win again.

Except that this type of thinking is mixing in one world probability thinking with many worlds interpretation. In many worlds, anything with non-zero chance will happen in one of the worlds. Thus, there will be a world in which the person wins lottery every single time. Although it’s just one world out of many other splits, there’s still that world. Say if the kammic bank account of good kamma for that person runs out, would then the person who keeps on winning the lottery from that point onwards cannot win at all? Would then kamma changes the probability of the quantum result to purposely exclude the winning lottery number for that person?

This could be an interesting experiment to conduct as this is an actual prediction that something would be different for many world interpretation if kamma is mixed in the picture. Should we somehow are able to have access to many worlds to do observation of them. Of course, there’s basically no way this experiment could be done. What we can do in the one world we are subjectively stuck in is to see that the laws of probability is still working and even if the person in the next trillion times doesn’t win the lottery, one cannot thereby conclude that there’s no chance at all to winning it. Probability being what it is is very hard to test for.

Maybe you have another way to integrate kamma with many worlds that I didn’t cover yet?

Yeah, I think you’re still being a bit too materialistic in your assumptions. I’d think of the multiverse as providing infinite possibilities and mentality selects the one compatible with all our karma. Just because other universes physically “exist” doesn’t mean they’re all observable.

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