The concept of balance has been on my mind lately, in many different forms. The most recent of them was the fictional (is it?) concept of touka koukan (“Equivalent Exchange”) from the Japanese anime series ‘Fullmetal Alchemist’. The series is, predictably, about alchemy, but as a strict, practical science accompanied by laws and limitations, much like physics or chemistry. Touka koukan is one of these laws, explained at the beginning of every episode with this prologue: “Man cannot gain anything without first sacrificing something else. To obtain anything, something of equal value must be lost. That is alchemy’s Law of Equivalent Exchange.” (This, according to the show, is why the idea of a Philosopher’s Stone is so crucial to alchemy; it would allow the alchemist to bypass touka koukan.)
Outside of fictional worlds, we have the spiritual concepts of karma and the taijitu (yin and yang) and the scientific ones of equilibrium and Newton’s Third Law, all revolving around this general concept of balance. They’re all different interpretations of how it works and where it’s applied, but each reflects the same basic idea: that by nature, something is always equal to something else.
Correct me if I’m excluding anything important here, but it seems to me like these interpretations of balance–spiritual and scientific–can be divided into three types: cause-and-effect balance (touka koukan, Newton’s Third Law, karma), existing balance (yin and yang), and natural balancing (equilibrium). Not the best titles for each type, I know, but I hope the general idea gets across. The first type asserts that every action has an equal reaction, and it refers to action; there must be an initial action to spark the reaction. The second type is the idea that balance already exists, and will always exist; no action is needed, because the balance just is. The third type describes two unequal amounts of something balancing together (eg, the ideas behind carbon-14 dating and economic price theory), and is a sort of blend of the former two (action and pre-existing balance). All three are simply different views on balance.
Interpretations and applications of the balance concept are prevalent in many (if not all) cultures spanning the entire globe and thousands of years of human history. The ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead describes a ceremony called the Weighing of the Heart, in which the heart (believed to contain the soul) of the deceased was weighed against the feather of truth before they could be admitted to the afterlife. A strange example of balance, but an ancient and applicable one nonetheless. Better known is the Chinese idea of yin and yang, probably dating back even earlier than the Book of the Dead and developed independently thousands of miles east. The idea of religious sacrifice, present in early European and South/Central American religions (among others), is similar to touka koukan, because it stems from the belief that whatever is sacrificed will give them a blessing of similar value (hence the sacrificing of the more valuable things–best of the crops, best of the herds, sometimes children–was assumed to yield a better result).
So why is humankind so interested in the idea of balance? Why is it so widely spread out over so many cultures and time periods? “Because it’s true” is a very weak answer, because it’s hard to substantiate that (outside of equilibrium) without religious or philosophical claims. Why do some babies not survive to toddlerhood? They surely can’t have done something equivalently wrong already. It’s impossible to answer that without blaming a past life or claiming that the baby was ‘destined’ to die because his parents did something wrong. Why do bad things happen to good people, and why are murderers running free? Those kinds of questions can’t be answered with touka koukan or yin/yang or whatever form of balance we might think exists.
I haven’t reflected on the concept as much as I’d like (when do I ever?), or assessed my own personal beliefs on the matter, but I have a feeling that a belief in something like touka koukan might come from the urge to control. For most, I think, there’s a comfort associated with the knowledge that every result is deserved. It’s like a blending (balance?) of fate and control. We can’t control the balance itself, but we can control how we use it. If karma were true, whatever terrible thing that happens to us is our own fault. It’s controllable, yet not completely, and that’s what makes it such an appealing idea.
However, until the question of why bad things happen to good people can be actually answered, whether or not the prevalent concept of real balance actually exists can’t be determined. Speculation might or might not help; who knows?