Sunday, March 13, 2011

A False Truism

The common saying “Everything happens for a reason” is neither true nor a truism, but a swindle in which the preposterous is peddled in the guise of the obvious.

Logo of the True/False Film Festival

A truism is a statement that is self-evidently true. A false truism would be a statement taken for a truism that is in fact not one, either because it is true but not self-evidently so or because it is not true at all. In the latter case, it is doubly false: it is not a truism, and it is not true. The saying “Everything happens for a reason” is a false trusim of this double-dyed sort.

How does a falsehood get mistaken for a truism? Typically by a woolly-minded, or a devious, confusion with a truism. The saying “Everything happens for a reason” gets its hold on people’s minds, or at least their mouths, by a confusion of elements of two truths that are entirely distinct from it and from each other.

If you deny the saying “Everything happens for a reason,” people who are attached to it may react by saying, “So you think things can happen for no reason at all?” And now you may find yourself embarrassed; for an affirmative answer seems to imply that you think that things can happen without any cause. Thus, the saying in question gains some appearance of cogency from its suggestion of the entirely distinct thought that for everything that happens, there is a reason why it happens. The latter thought is, if not a truism, at least a truth, apart from such arcane reaches as quantum mechanics and cosmogony. It means merely that everything that happens is a consequence of some cause or causes.

Why, for example, does the sun go higher in the sky in summer than in winter? Because the earth’s axis is tilted relative to its orbit, and summer is the time of year when the polar tilt in a given hemisphere is toward the sun, winter the time when it is away from the sun. Why has my car’s fuel mileage suddenly gotten worse? I don’t know why, but I will take it to a repair shop so that a mechanic can find the reason. And so on. These are examples of the use of the concept of a reason why something happens.

The phrase “for a reason” has an entirely different meaning and a different range of application. We can ask for what reason someone does this or that, but it makes no sense to ask about the reason for an occurrence that is not the act of an intelligent agent. For instance, say a creaking sound comes through the ceiling. We might ask: “Why does that happen?” The answer might be: “Someone is walking around in the apartment upstairs.” That is the reason, or a reason, why the creaking happens. We might then ask further: “Why is the person upstairs walking around?” The answer might be: “She has things to do around her apartment (and why shouldn’t she walk around up there, anyway?).” That is the reason—or, again, a reason—for her walking around, or her reason for walking around.

Now consider the question: “For what reason does the ceiling creak?” This is a conflation of two different forms of expression. The ceiling does not creak for a reason; the ceiling does not have a reason for creaking. There is a reason why the ceiling creaks, but that is another matter entirely. It is senseless to attribute reasons to the ceiling because the ceiling is not an intelligent agent. If the person asking this ill-formed question meant exactly what he or she says, then he or she would have to think that the ceiling is an agent and that creaking is something that it does intentionally; for only then would it be intelligible to ask for what reason it does so. More likely, though, the question is just an affected or confused way of asking, “What causes the ceiling to creak?” (or more simply, “Why is the ceiling creaking?”).

So it is fair to say, “For everything that happens, there is a reason why it happens,” or to say, “Everything that is done intentionally is done for a reason.” The former is a truth, arguably a truism, and the latter certainly a truism, as it merely explicates the meaning of the expressions “intentional” and “(to do something) for a reason.” But when people say “Everything happens for a reason,” they do not mean either one of these things, though their utterance gains its appearance of plausibility from its suggestion of both. What do they mean? It is not easy to answer this question, as the utterance gains its hold on people’s minds precisely by its confusion and obscurity.

One cannot translate nonsense into sense, but one can sometimes identify a coherent thought that is half-expressed, half-concealed in an incoherent utterance. In the case of the saying “Everything happens for a reason,” the half-expressed, half-concealed thought is that everything that happens does so because some intelligent agent, whether human or superhuman, makes it happen for some reason. But the saying can only appear truistic by omitting all mention of agency. It incoherently combines the expression “for a reason,” which implies an agent, with “things happen,” which implies no agent (as I noted in my previous entry in this blog with reference to a recent utterance by Newt Gingrich).

Once the implicit thought is made explicit, it loses all appearance of truism, and indeed of plausibility. If someone said, “Everything that happens is intentionally made to happen by some agent or other,” the utterance, if it were not simply dismissed with a snort, would provoke such questions as “How do you know that? What agent or agents do you have in mind? What basis can you possibly have for such an extravagant claim? Do you seriously mean to imply that when I sneeze, there is a sneeze-spirit of some kind that makes me sneeze? Or that God pushes the molecules around to tickle my nose?” And so on. Few people would be willing to commit themselves to such a fatuous claim. Yet millions of speakers are unashamed to utter and to accept a saying in which this very thought is conveyed by subterfuge.

The saying is not just confused, preposterous, and dishonest: it is also insulting to victims of serious misfortune. Those who say to such persons, “Everything happens for a reason,” are almost certainly playing either Polyannas or Job’s comforters. The Polyannas mean that your misfortune serves some good end beyond itself. The Job’s comforters mean that you had it coming to you. Both meanings are obnoxious, as they trivialize the victim’s suffering and even put the victim in the wrong for feeling it. I include the qualification “almost certainly” in my statement because it is just possible that such people intend a different meaning: they could (though I doubt that many do) mean that God, or whatever spirit caused your misfortune, did so for a reason that has nothing to do with justice or goodness. The point is not to console the sufferers but to remind them that we are all helplessly in the shit together. This, to my mind, is the primary thought of the Book of Job, as I have argued in a previous entry, contra Rabbi Harold Kushner; though most people, Rabbi Kushner among them, prefer to impose a more conciliatory meaning upon that terrible tale.


  1. > Do you seriously mean to imply that when I sneeze, …God pushes the molecules around to tickle my nose?”

    I think that is exactly what most people mean. Especially because people rarely say that sneezes happened for a reason. It’s usually used when something unexpectedly turns out to have positive consequences, or when someone is trying to diminish the impact of something bad by telling himself or others that it’s really for the best because, “everything happens for a reason;” that is, God has a plan, this bad thing is part of His plan, and it’s really the best thing for you.

  2. You may be right. I confess that I have not actually investigated the thinking of people who use this expression or asked them what they mean by it: not because I am not curious, but because it would be nearly impossible for me to ask them about such things without my contempt showing through. It has been my impression, though, that there are plenty of people who favor this saying even though they are agnostic about God and providence. They use it to evade responsibility for filling in the theological picture that their saying presupposes.

  3. I like this blog. Well written. I found you because I was listening to Mitt Romney talk on the TV this morning about the Iowa Caucuses and he said "I want legal immigration, and we won't have legal immigration until we get illegal immigration under control." I just sat there with my mouth open and stopped listening. Huh? He said it with such conviction and followed it with his odd little Queen Elizabeth smile which seems to be calculated to comforting you into believing the doubly false statement you just heard.

    I think Mitt Romney is the MASTER of the false truism.

  4. Thanks for visiting and commenting. Interesting observation. I shall have to pay attention now to Romney in that perspective!

  5. Just read in today's sports section Serena Williams saying "I don't believe things happen for a reason". It's so rare to hear a public figure say something like that; I read it twice just to be sure.

  6. This post was my inspiration for - the section on truisms includes your false-truism definition (and credits you with a link!).

    1. Ah, thank you. I saw a few days ago that I was getting traffic from your page, but I couldn't find any link on it until now. To be exact, though, the phrase that you quote ("a swindle in which the preposterous is peddled in the guise of the obvious") refers only to the specific truism under examination here and is not a definition. My definition of a false truism would be what I say in the second sentence: "a statement taken for a truism that is in fact not one, either because it is true but not self-evidently so or because it is not true at all." But that is certainly less pithy.