Thursday, March 24, 2011

More on That False Truism

How the saying “Everything happens for a reason” combines presumption with obtuseness.

Last week, I posted an entry examining and denigrating the saying “Everything happens for a reason” (“A False Truism,” March 13, 2011). I subsequently learned that, by a curious chance, an article appeared a few days later at under the title “Five Popular Phrases That Make You Look Like an Idiot,” in which the very same phrase appears at the head of the list (though at the end of the article). Reading another writer’s attempt to identify what makes this saying so irritating gives me occasion to reconsider my own analysis.

I was not surprised to find that the author, whose name is given as “Gladstone,” does not share my logical objections to the phrase. Perhaps no one without some years of study of philosophy will do so. Gladstone even gives the saying a pass as far as its literal meaning is concerned:
I suppose this cliché wouldn’t be intolerable if it were merely meant to be taken literally. Everything does happen for a reason. People die young because they get hit by trains or get cancer. People are maimed and disfigured in wars because of bombs. I mean, if that’s all this cliche were trying to convey then it would just be vaguely annoying. You’d assume the speaker were just some mental deficient who says things like “water is wet,” “ice cream is yummy,” or “Tosh is funny.”
I, of course, disagree. Gladstone in effect takes the phrase to be equivalent in literal meaning to the truism “For everything that happens, there is a reason why it happens.” But in my estimation he lets the phrase off too easily. Getting hit by a train or getting cancer may be the reason why someone dies young, but it is not a reason for which someone dies young. People do not die for a reason, as dying is not something that people do, or can do, intentionally. They can intentionally kill themselves or get themselves killed or let themselves die (i.e., refrain from taking action to prevent or delay their dying); but “dying” does not name a possible intentional action, nor even an action at all. Dying is something that befalls one; accordingly, it cannot intelligibly be said to be done “for a reason.” The same goes for any occurrence that is not an intentional action.

For the sake of simplicity, I will hereafter use the phrase “mere happening” for anything that happens that is not the intentional act of an agent. Thus, for instance, someone’s dying is a mere happening; someone’s killing himself is an action. 

I argued in my previous piece that the logical confusions in this saying contribute to its currency by allowing it to pass—in lazy, sloppy, or corrupt minds—for a truism. But even if that is so, perhaps logical confusion is not the most objectionable feature of the saying. It is happens to be the sort of feature that tends to attract my attention, because of my peculiar irritability toward logical confusion and the satisfaction that I find in exposing it. But the logical confusion is just the means by which the phrase conveys its pernicious half-hidden meaning. That meaning combines presumption and obtuseness, as Gladstone vividly points out:
But the annoying thing about this phrase is that the speaker believes he/she has some inside track to God or Fate or whatever mystic unseen hand controls the universe. As if there is a power and that power decided there was an actual reason to inflict a newborn baby with Trisomy 18 or have a woman get gang raped. And given the existence of this rational force—that operates only with justification and reason—who are you to question why someone ravaged your wife, or blew apart your son, or took your leg? This cliché insists that either happy endings always exist (“see, they never would have found that tumor, unless they were repairing that machete wound to your abdomen”) or if there is no happy ending for you then your suffering was part of some greater plan that benefited another (“don’t be sad that you were imprisoned for twenty years by a racist jury for a crime you didn’t commit, I mean, think about the valuable lesson you’ve taught us about bias in criminal juries!”)
To say “Everything happens for a reason” is in effect to deny that there are any of what I termed mere happenings, except perhaps by an arbitrary choice of phrasing. It is to hold that the occurrences that appear to us to be mere happenings, such as someone’s dying of cancer or the fall of a leaf, are actually made to happen by an agent—presumably an all-powerful one that works in ways beyond our powers of observation. That would be, in Gladstone’s words, “God or Fate or whatever mystic unseen hand controls the universe.”

This much is implied by the phrase; and by itself it is outrageous presumption enough. But, as Gladstone rightly observes, the person who says “Everything happens for a reason” typically claims even more than this. It would be compatible with this saying to believe that the universe is governed by a petty, jealous, unjust, vindictive, capricious bully of a deity—such as the YHWH of the Hebrew Bible, for instance (see the opening paragraph of chapter 2 of Richard Dawkins’s The God Illusion Delusion*). Even people who believe that collection of texts to be divinely revealed tend to have a more favorable conception of the invisible agent behind the world’s scenes. They tend to believe, in defiance of the text, that God is just, loving, forgiving, wise, and so forth. Certainly Scripture abounds with passages in which YHWH is described in just such terms; the fact remains that the deity’s record in other passages gives the lie to such white-washing. A father who brutally beats or kills his children for failing to honor him properly does not earn the epithets “just,” “loving,” etc., by behaving more generously on other occasions.

But Biblical exegesis is not the issue. The point is that those who say “Everything happens for a reason” mean more than that some intelligent power of unspecified character makes everything happen. They mean that this power does so only for ends that are of some earthly benefit, either to the victim of suffering or to others. That is why devotees of this saying are given to using it to offer consolation to the afflicted. But to do so merely crowns theological presumption with obtuseness toward human suffering. For whatever the human benefit might be for the sake of which God inflicts misfortune, in serious cases the victim would almost never accept the bargain if he or she had a choice in it. Moreover, if God, or whatever the great stage manager is supposed to be, makes everything happen for a reason, then it is difficult to forgive that party for effecting a good end by evil rather than by good means. If the invisible puppet master can, say, take away a couple’s child to teach them compassion (and if this does not seem a convincing example of this line of thought, some other equally puerile rubbish can be put in its place), surely he or she or it should be able to effect the same end without inflicting such tragedy upon people.

Gladstone concludes with these remarks:
I’m not saying all suffering is random and pointless, or that nothing good can ever come out of a bad situation, but the arrogance that comes from the belief that tragic events are always justified as part of a larger plan is just intolerable. I don’t know why bad things happen, but I do know that no one who throws this cliché around knows either. So to everyone keeping this miserable expression alive, please leave people to their misery and save your cliché for yourself the next time you’re walking in the woods and step into a bear trap after getting shot in the eye by a drunken hunter.
This paragraph might leave those who are given to saying “Everything happens for a reason” complacent in the opinion that they are doing no wrong as long as they refrain from offering that formula for the consolation of others. The declared subject of the article, after all, is “phrases that make you look [“look”? not “sound”?] like an idiot.” But the saying is to be despised on its own account, regardless of the social use to which it is put. It may be handy to have reasons for this summarized here.

(1) The saying is logically confused: it applies to mere happenings a form of expression that applies intelligibly only to intentional actions.

(2) By means of this logical confusion, it assumes the air of a truism, which it decidedly is not. To take it for a truism is foolish, and to offer it to others as a truism is chicanery.

(3) Its half-hidden meaning is that all mere happenings are effected by an inscrutable power for the sake of some benefit to those affected by those happenings. This is an extravagant presumption without foundation in any known facts. To assert it as fact is therefore a fatuous piece of self-conceit.

(4) It implies a theodicy according to which all suffering and misfortune is for the sake of a good that outweighs the evil. This trivializes all suffering and misfortune.


*Richard Dawkins, The God Illusion Delusion (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), p. 51. (Thanks to Sarra for pointing out my error.)


  1. Our brains are wired to perceive patterns in everything from squiggles on a page to large events. Accepting randomness is counter-intuitive and, for some people, apparently impossible.
    Side note:I think the mother in the movie "The Fighter" utters that pestilential sentiment to the older son during the happy conclusion.

  2. Love this post. Thanks for your clinical, cerebral breakdown of this bizarre turn of phrase! Perhaps one of the aphorisms that most piss me off is the age-old 'everything happens for a reason.' It's pretentiousness, psychological immaturity, and poor theodicy all wrapped up in one. Thing is, I can never quite bring myself to offer a scathing rebuttal of everything it stands for when a desperately miserable and downtrodden friend uses it as an emotional crutch. I guess sometimes pragmatism is called for.
    Also, a quick note-- I'm sure this is a typo, but Richard Dawkins' book is called the 'The God Delusion,' not '...Illusion.'

  3. Sarra: Oh, my Science! I can't believe I did that with Dawkins's title—how embarrassing! That's not a typing error but a total cognitive blind spot. Thanks for the correction.