Sacred Pathways:

The Brain's Role in Religious and Mystic Experiences

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Questions from readers

if the reason for the "life review" is to avoid harmful or negative or "bad karmic" behaviors...then why do people still behave poorly to others in this life?

The answer is simple.

Humans (as individual organisms) benefit from aggression, selfishness, and deceit even as our social groups can be harmed when people act out these tendencies and traits.

The tension between self-interest and the interests of the group might be another "evolutionary pressure" which favored the evolution of reincarnation.

I would turn the question around, and pose it thus: People can behave poorly towards others, so why are we able to avoid harmful behavior even though it can mean turning away from advantages to themselves?

It seems that Neanderthals are not one of our immediate ancestors, but we can still learn from them. Several Neanderthal skeletons have been found displaying "monteggia fractures". These are the tell-tale signs that a person was attacked violently - they raised their arm to ward off a blow, and the forearm was broken. Other Neanderthal skeletons have been found displaying signs of injuries that suggest they had frequent fights with weapons.

Our early ancestors - the ones that appeared just before homo sapiens, may have been plagued by too much aggressiveness.

A "moral code" - one that was flexible enough to adapt to changing cultural and environmental factors - would have acted to prevent insults to the integrity of the social group.

It may be that aggressiveness wasn't the only direction in which maladaptive behavior might have appeared. Other common primate behaviors (such as mounting) might have also been restrained, but violence was the one with the greatest chance of threatening our newly-evolved complex cultures, and so, threatening our survival.

However, each individual must weigh the advantages of acting in self-interest against the advantages of acting to preserve their social rank and the needs of their whole group. And they must do so in each unique situation. The 'uniqueness' of each specific moral situation makes it impossible to have a genetic instinct to guide us, or to have a formal moral code cover every instance. The latter point is not so relevant here. Our early ancestors did not have writing, so they could not have scriptures, or codes of law.

The question is another way of stating an ancient moral query: "Why do good people do bad things"? The answer is simple - it brings them advantages, and they think they can get away with it.

Morality exists only in the context of human culture, where few, if any interpretations of moral rules, aphorisms, sayings, or scriptural guidance are really self-evident.

Evolution may have provided us with the karma to sense right and wrong, but not algorithms to ensure they are always observed. Our emotions can be so extreme that we are unable to think about our actions, or to feel that our restraining thoughts are important.

If karma were restrictive enough that we were incapable of bad behavior, it would also be so restrictive that it would not have changed when our cultures did.

Karma is a flexible guide to behavior, and that very flexibility allows its rules to be bent (adaptive departures from social norms) and, for some individuals, maladaptively broken.

We are not a species with perfect behavior, but that's not what karma is for. Rather, its serves to protect the cohesiveness or our cultures and social groups.