Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Everything Happens for a Reason?
I often hear people say things like the following: "I'm not religious, but I do believe that everything happens for a reason," or, "It's alright, you know everything happens for a reason."
Honestly, I don't think I ever believed that everything happened for a reason, even when I did believe in Yahweh. I guess I believed that Yahweh had a purpose, but not that everything that happened was part of his plan. At any rate, I now think that it's just false that everything happens for a reason and if everything does happen for a reason, this isn't a fact we should take comfort in or be happy about.
To be clear, I'm going to address the non-religious (re: non-theist) version of the thesis that everything happens for a reason.
First, the concept of a reason only applies when agents are involved. Yahweh does things for a reason. I'm writing this blog for a reason. In both cases, reasons help explain an agent's actions.
Why is John drinking that water?
-Because he's thirsty. (a reason)
Why didn't Susan have any cake?
-Because she's on a diet. (reason)
Why is Tom going to med school?
-To impress his ex-girlfriend. (a bad reason, but a reason still).
Now there seems to be no such answer to the question: "Why did that leaf fall?" We can give a causal explanation. ("The leaf fell because it was already loose and the bird landed on the branch it was attached to, which caused the leaf to fall."). But not, it seems, an explanation in which we appeal to reasons. Nature is not an agent, it does not reason and, thus, does not have reasons, does not do things for reasons.
[And I thank Anthony Mohen for making this point clear to me. Even though I know he doesn't remember our conversation on this topic.]
Now, one could say that there are deities that control nature and, thus, natural events can happen for reasons ("The lightning struck because Zeus was upset."). But I doubt many of the secular advocates of the "everything happens for a reason" thesis would go for something like this.
Now, obviously sometimes the occurrence of a bad thing makes the occurrence of a good thing possible. ( James's being dumped by Jane on that rainy night may have made it possible that James met Janice, who just happened to need an umbrella and a friend). And sometimes things just happen in such a way to create more misery. ("I'm just having one of those days!"). But that these things happen does not give us good reason to believe that some thing (or someone) planned for them to happen in this way.
So, first conclusion: if you don't wish to assign agency to natural phenomenon and do not wish to posit the existence of deities, you can't hold on to the "everything happens for a reason" thesis.
Now, let's assume that the various natural forces are agents with a collective plan. That the rain, the wind and gravity are acting together to produce certain results (or even one big result).
( To get in this frame of mind, think about the M. Night Shyamalan's movie, Signs. In the movie, the occurrence of a bunch of random, seemingly unconnected and even tragic events turn out to be necessary for a family to survive an alien invasion.)
Assuming that everything happens for a reason in this sense, do we have reason to take comfort in or be happy about this fact?
People usually say that everything happens for a reason after something bad happens in their life (and notice, when something good happens, this sentiment is rarely expressed). The underlying idea is that the bad thing is actually necessary for something good to happen, that the good that will come out of the bad event will outweigh the negative impact of the bad event. It's a nice idea. Nice, that is, until one actually thinks about it.
People assume that the good that will result from the bad event will be a good that is good for them. But why assume this? Every winter homeless people freeze to death on the cold streets of Washington, D.C. Now if everything does happen for a reason, and the homeless people in D.C. die for a reason, there's no reason to believe that nature is unwilling to destroy a life (or several) to achieve its goal. That is, no reason to believe that the good thing that will result from whatever tragedy will be a good for any particular individual who advocates the "everything happens for a reason" thesis. Nature's plan could be to ruin your life (reader) to benefit Will the janitor.
Second conclusion: We have no reason to take comfort in the "everything happens for a reason" thesis.
Additionally, should we be happy with ( or approve of) a plan that requires American slavery, malaria and George W. Bush? I don't care what good you plan to bring about, if your plan involves malaria or G.W. Bush, I say "find a new plan." If all of these horrible things are part of some grand plan, I say "count me out."
So,third conclusion: Even if we do assume that there is agency in nature and that everything happens for a reason, we have reason to lament (or even be angry about), not celebrate, this fact.
I know what you're thinking. "Black Socrates, you're destroying people's hope, their dreams, a deep and meaningful idea." To this, I reply that I am only destroying a "house of cards" (to borrow from Kant and Wittgenstein). We thought this idea was true, deep and meaningful, but it is neither of these. It rests on a confusion.
But, of course, the reader is free to develop an idea that is actually true, deep and meaningful.
Posted by Brandon Hogan at 8:35 PM