Does everything, in fact, happen for a reason?
People may say "everything happens for a reason", but I tend not to. But its not like I've never said it. The subject came up recently when corresponding with a friend who had experienced some recent personal tragedy. As often happens in such situations, one of the things people said was "Everything happens for a reason" (hereafter ehfar). This was interpreted by my (agnostic) friend as "God does things in people's lives as part of his (somehow ultimately fair) plan". Here are some adapted thoughts from our correspondance about it.
First off, "everything happens for a reason" is not an equivalent statement to "life is fair.". Not even the deeply devout believe life is fair. That's not what anyone means when they say ehfar, at least not in my experience. Here are some things that ehfar might mean instead, depending on the speaker and the circumstances:
1) in the strict sense of physics and chemical reactions, every thing that occurs does so because of some other thing having occurred previously. There are those who take this to it's deterministic limit and believe that the paths of all atoms, from distant black holes to the photons coming through your screen to your thoughts and mine, were written in the initial trajectories of the Big Bang. I believe in free will, because I believe in a thing called a soul, so I don't go that far. But even though I believe I and you and lots of other forms of life make choices, those things still happen for 'reasons'. As you might expect from me, I take a phrase like ehfar and immediately think;
a) Well, what is everything?
b) What is a 'reason'?
c) I'm giving you a free pass on 'happens', but I wouldn't have to.
Here's as simple as I can make it: At some level, every occurrence (thing), however small or great, occurs (happens) because it was enabled, caused, or otherwise influenced by the occurrence of other things (a reason). Vague, and perhaps over-reliant on sophistry, but probably true.
2) another thing that is sometimes meant by ehfar is akin to my friend's above interpretation but subtly different. Sometimes people who believe in a personal God actually do mean to say that everything that occurs does so because He either causes it to do so or allows it to do so. It is difficult to reconcile the idea of a loving God with a being who would stand idly by while women are raped, children are killed, and people generally commit grevious injustices to each other. Each religion attempts to reconcile this apparent paradox in it's own way, with varying degrees of logic or success. Let's just leave it at that. The details of those reconciliations vary, but even the strongest "it's all part of God's Plan for you" advocate wouldn't go so far as to say that all plans are equal (at least during mortality - some reconciliations depend on the balancing effects of a judged afterlife experience).
3) another, less spiritual meaning that is sometimes expressed by ehfar is the idea (or perhaps more accurately hope) that one day, after the present experience is gone, one will be able to look back on what has transpired since and at least accept that the destination achieved by traveling that road is an ok place to be. This hope does not always hold true; many lives take a tragic turn from which even a partial recovery is impossible. However, someone who says ehfar in this way isn't actually trying to state a fact: they're expressing a hope. That hope is that the listener will have future experiences and that these future experiences will be acceptable in place of whatever might've been that now cannot be. This is, I think, the usual meaning of the phrase.
Anyway, as you well know, ehfar does NOT mean that everything that happens happens for the greatest possible good or happiness of the most people possible. We would live in a very different world were that so. I don't think that's what anyone who says ehfar means.
Furthermore I don't even typically say ehfar so I don't know why I've just spent so long defending those who do. But it was nice to spend some time thinking about it, and maybe it helps you deal with the ehfarists in the future.
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