Not everything happens for a reason

The phrase “everything happens for a reason” came up in a couple contexts recently (conversation with a friend, Radiolab, etc.). It’s a good example of an obviously false statement that contains plenty of useful insight, and is interesting to think about in that context.

We’ll get the pedantic out of the way first: “everything happens for a reason” is literally true in the sense that the future happens for the reason that is the past. What people are usually implying is “everything happens because of a simple event in the future”. It isn’t worth wasting time tearing apart that absurdity.

What’s more interesting is why people say such a thing. Here are some possible related statements:

  1. I choose not to regret the past.
  2. Every event contains benefits.
  3. We’ll make it work.

I was imagining writing more, but I think that sums it up. You do not need to be irrational to be optimistic and positive.

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2 Responses to “Not everything happens for a reason”

  1. Jim Atkinson Says:

    I think you’ve left a couple of key related statements:

    1. The Lord works in mysterious ways.
    2. When the Lord closes a door, he opens a window.

    I’ve really only heard people use “everything happens for a reason” when they are ascribing the event to God’s plan, karma, or some other justifying force that will balance out the inherent injustice of the event and eventually make everything all right again.

  2. Geoffrey Irving Says:

    Well, my point was that one can discard the, shall we say, extrarational part of the statement and arrive at something reasonable, so I’d translate your two as:

    1. The universe is complicated.
    2. Every event contains benefits.

    On the other hand, I had a long conversation with a friend where she was convinced that my notions of wonder and complexity were subtly but fundamentally different from her notion of mystery, so (1) may be incomplete.

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