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.


  1. Why would we lament if bad experiences occur due to a reason? Especially if we are the reason?

    Different Point: If that reason is outside of our control where do we get the right to approve or disapprove?

    Also, who are we approve of "the reason for everything" if such a thing exists. We as objects of this ultimate orchestration of the stars and all that is are but subjects if such a reason exists.

  2. It sounds as if your conclusion is that people should abandon using this phrase because the hope it's used to encourage rests on irrational grounds. However, I do not think this phrase needs to rely on these kinds of considerations to be effective and rationally grounded in its ordinary use. If I may use one of your favorite lines of reasoning, except in a Philosophical discussion (in this case, about reasons and causes), the statement does not mean and is not put to the use that you work through in your interesting essay. [I also don't mean to suppose that you weren't leaving this possibility open, but the ending of your essay sounded more pessimistic on this front, so I felt inspired to write this reply.]

    The phrase is, as you noted, used ordinarily to keep someone's hopes up when they are facing a difficult situation, perhaps even an extended one. I think that, as far as its underlying basis is concerned, it only needs to reflect a kind of generalization perhaps about the regularity of nature but mostly about the way in which things usually work out in a generally positive way. It gives the hope that the bad things before someone will resolve into a new situation and environment in which one can in fact find success, safety, peace, or whatever. The new situation cannot be entirely distinct from the old, so the future could in this loose teleological sense be considered the "reason" for the past.

    This kind of optimism can't be strictly universalized for the reasons you give, but it is reasonable to believe in most contexts of living. The world, in spite of appearances and the problems constantly before our minds, is generally a safe, rather than hostile, place to live in. It is not by nature antithetical to life. Most people survive to adulthood, overcome difficulties, escape difficult situations, raise families, achieve some goals, etc. If most people didn't, our circumstances would be hostile to life and our species wouldn't survive. Even if all of their bigger dreams and goals are not reached, the hostile or difficult circumstances they might complain about to a friend who tells them that "everything happens for a reason" are ordinarily overcome and pass away. The fact that there exists this general basis lets the phrase have a use even when someone is facing a particularly difficult challenge that really is a big deal, because they know that there is almost always some way of working things out or that they will one day find their situation transformed. They don't know whether it will for sure, but they can have a kind of reasonably probabilistically grounded feeling of optimism.

  3. It's true that the phrase itself says something stronger that you gave a solid criticism to in your essay, but I think it doesn't need to literally mean it to have a well-grounded use. I think that phrases are often hyperbolic in this way. Overstatement is rhetorically helpful, especially if you're trying to encourage someone.

    A point in favor of this reading would be to imagine two people living in a post-apocalyptic world in which it is all but certain that all life on Earth will end. Hope for this situation leading to a better one has become almost irrational in these circumstances and can only reasonably be put to a kind of metaphysical use, that the destruction of the world serves some divine purpose or something else that could not be encountered in this world. If you then imagine one person saying to the other in the ordinary way "everything happens for a reason" as their bodies succumb to radiation sickness, dehydration, and assault from the increasingly hostile environment, it can look more like a scene from a comically absurd movie than anything anyone would ever sensibly say. There is no way these people will ever be able to take anything in the future as a reason in their lives for which the past was used or transformed. It would reflect either an absurd kind of optimism or a religious longing (but the religious option is ruled out given the background beliefs you attributed to the people uttering the phrase). Given the restriction on the agents, I think in these globally broken down circumstances, the ordinary use of the statement becomes comical or absurd (unless, of course, the use shifts and the post-apocalyptic pals decide to have a debate about the principle of sufficient reason - philosophers to the end).

    On the basis of these considerations, I think that to get the force of its use, "everything happens for a reason" does depend on something about the world, but about something less Philosophically dubious and more in line with common sense, as one would think it would need to be to be a phrase in common use in the first place, and yet also does not have a merely arbitrary use to encourage hope. I will admit that other ordinary phrases are closer to what I have taken to be its acceptable basis and thus would be better to say in its place, such as "this too shall pass". "Everything happens for a reason" perhaps has the merit of expressing optimism concerning the present bad situation being tied through some presently indecipherable way (we aren't fortune tellers) to a future good situation, where this is based on the kind of reasonable optimism we develop thanks to the circumstances surrounding our form of life.

  4. Interesting post. It won't surprise you to learn that I've had a similar reaction to the phrase "everything happens for a reaosn". One correction I'd make is that I think it is sometimes used (at least, I can easily imagine it being used) after certain good turns that follow on misfortune - that is, the phrase is used to suggest that the future (now present) provides the reason for (or perhaps more charitably, makes sense of?) what was recently endured. This is of course the way Signs resolves, so I'll call these 'Signs-cases' for short.

    It's worth noting that these "present happiness as reason for past misfortune" explanations are basically a variant on the attitude Jason describes. His is an optimistic outlook, even in the face of an overwhelmingly pessimistic reality. In Signs-cases, it's a retrospective ascription of meaning to your past - that may have been unpleasant, but at least (in light of what followed) it was all worth it.

    Jason, I think your point of questioning whether people mean by that phrase anything like Brandon's sketch of a fleshed out reading is a fair one, and often it is just serving these ends, either of expressing hope (however misplaced) for something better or acknowledging the role that the low times played in light of the more recent high times. But I'm still inclined to gripe a bit about choosing this particular means of expressing that sentiment. This irks me in a way analogously to people's discussion of the "meaning" of life or certain developments therein. (I'll set to one side the question whether there isn't something more going on here - a relation between 'reasons' and 'meaning' - than mere analogy.) At the heart of it to me is that its an attempt to extend these fundamentally human concepts in ways where they lose sense. And I think Brandon's discussion serves to illustrate that if you really try to ascribe sense to this phrase, it starts to look absurd pretty quickly.

  5. Jumanji,

    I'm not sure I get your first point. If it means something like that we should not lament if we are the agent of our own misfortune, then there's at least something to that. (There's a psychological study that found that subjects reported less discomfort at a shock where they were given the illusion of control as to the timing of the shock, which suggests something similar.) But the phrase Brandon discusses does not mean (necessarily) that _you_ are the reason for the bad event - as he says, it could be that you are being thrown under the bus to help John. Why shouldn't you lament that?

    As to your second point, you question our approval of reasons beyond our control. Here's a silly example: I'm a contract killer who's part of a criminal organization. Walking down the street I see an assassin I know is trying to kill me, and seeing you nearby I am able to grab you and use your body as a shield so that I can get away with my life. The reason for your bloody death is clear - it was to save my skin - and it was entirely out of your control. But that it was out of your control says nothing about whether you can or should disapprove of the reason for that happening to you.

    To be less silly, obviously we're thinking there's a reason for everything we're thinking of something more elaborate than the earthly machinations of some person or other. But that's where I start to bottom out with this line of thought. Reasons are, so far as I know them, a human phenomenon, so I don't know by what other standard to evaluate the orchestration, ultimate or otherwise. Moreover, since we're going to be agents engaging in (as well as the subjects of) reason-responsive action, it doesn't make a grand difference whether we're agent or subject in a particular instance. It makes _a_ difference, to be sure, but it's not the be all and end all.

  6. I agree with B that this phrase is pretty ridiculous. At the same time, however, I support the principle of charity. Thus, when people use this phrase, I tend to attribute a more rational meaning to their words: "there is an explanation for everything." In other words, "everything is caused." When someone asks about an event, "why did this happen," but the event was not intended to occur by any conscious being, I treat that question the same as "how did this happen?"

    But, then again, maybe it is better to recognize people's mistaken ideologies (and, accordingly, to devalue one's opinion of their intellect), rather than find ways of pretending that such cognitive impairments don't exist.

  7. Good discussion so far.

    Jason, given what Anthony says about the retroactive use of "everything happens for a reason," it seems hard to read this phrase as a simple expression of optimism based on certain regularities.

    I take it that when folks utter this phrase, they mean that some bad event is (or was) necessary for some later good event. And that this structure of events was planned in some way.

    Of course, many people say things with no clue about what their utterances commit them to. But it's our job to make these commitments explicit, no?

  8. Also, I think the saying is bad because it can cause people to think that they have less agency than they actually do.

  9. Most people using this phrase have never given conscious thought to its meaning. Consider that these same people believe in unrestricted free will which is obviously in direct opposition with the idea--did you get that coffee because you wanted it, or were you compelled to get it because it allows you to meet Jane three years from now, etc.