Karma... a word that both is eminently scientific, and also annoyingly religious. I've spent a lot of time exploring both meanings of karma.
Ever since I was a kid I've enjoyed learning about science. In my childhood room I set up a card table that fit oh-so-perfectly inside a corner of my closet. I'd sit down at the table, slide the closet door shut, turn on a light that I'd strung over the clothes rod, and spend many happy hours performing experiments with science kits.
Then, as now, the essence of science for me was cause and effect. Do this, and observe that. (See my "Thanks for the chlorine gas, Mom" post.)
That's the believable side of karma: causes lead to effects which lead to more causes which lead... ad infinitum, back to the beginning of the universe.
Karma, though, generally is viewed as having something particular to do with conscious beings. Usually billiard balls richocheting around a pool table aren't thought of as generating karma. But if a person risks her life to save a child about to step in front of a speeding truck, bystanders will say "that should get her some good karma."
Especially if they're Buddhist.
Buddhism, like karma, comes in both scientific and religious guises. I'm enjoying Owen Flanagan's new book, "The Boddhisattva's Brain: Buddhism Naturalized," which aims to sort out the unbelievable supernatural aspect of Buddhism from the believable natural aspect.
This includes karma. Flanagan likes how the current Dalai Lama supports scientific inquiry and findings of modern science, albeit with some caveats which allow supernaturalism to remain part of his Buddhist teachings.
Flanagan says one form of karmic causality discussed by the Dalai Lama is eminently reasonable and scientific.
The idea can be understood straightforwardly as follows: once sentient beings exist they think, feel, and act in ways that have effects. These effects are of two kinds: personal -- both intrapersonal (on the person herself) and interpersonal (on those with whom the person interacts) -- and environmental, affecting the natural and built worlds. To these one should add social, economic, and political effects.
Karmic causation as depicted in this way is natural. It is not due to theistic intervention at the beginning of the process, say, in creating a Big Bang with a plan, nor is there intentional (intelligent) design along the way other than the effects of the sentient beings (human and nonhuman) who eventually emerged and are creating karmic effects = effects via their actions.
However, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other religious faiths which have karma as a central tenet don't only look upon karmic causality in this scientific fashion. If they did, karma would be an undeniable truth. Flanagan says that karmic causation then could just be called "sentient-being causation," a subtype of ordinary causation.
There's what he calls a less tame (meaning wilder, farther out, much more unbelievable) Buddhist interpretation of karma, though.
Karmic causation untame... names an ontologically unique kind of causation that accounts for how the psyches of future beings are determined by a set of causal processes that involve more than the environmental cum psycho-social-political-economic effects of previous occupants of the earth.
What is meant by the idea of "the law of karma, by which an intentional act will reap certain fruits" [a Dalai Lama quote] is this: my consciousness does not die when my body does, it goes on and reaps in the next and possibly many (many) future lives what it sows in each antecedent life.
The Dalai Lama, along with his Buddhist followers, admits there's no demonstrable scientific evidence of past lives. So the aforementioned caveat is brought in:
Science finds no evidence for rebirth, but it has not found its "nonexistence."
Well, science also hasn't found the nonexistence of the Tooth Fairy.
But once we get beyond a certain age, we realize that Mom and Dad are better explanations for why a quarter appears under our pillow after a tooth is put there than the Tooth Fairy. (Not sure what the going rate for a tooth is these days; back in olden times, when I was losing my teeth, I recall getting a quarter.)
So regular cause and effect, not involving karmic causality extending over past lives, now seems much more believable to me than Buddhism's karma untamed version. Religious believers, however, will keep on believing until the impetus for belief loses its energy. That's what happened to me, after I wrote a book which espoused the unbelievable aspect of karma.
Which is the essence of karma tame version. People do stuff; then they do different stuff, because causes keep happening, as do effects.