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Does Everything Happen for a Reason?

February 5th, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments


It’s one of the oldest philosophical questions in the book, and it’s constantly staring us in the face whether we’re atheists or believers. Is everything that happens the result of a combination of blind chance and free will, or do events unfold according to some predetermined formula written in the laws of nature or in the mind of God? The answer would profoundly affect the way we live in this world, as it touches upon fundamental issues such as whether people are morally responsible for their actions and whether tragic circumstances are unavoidable or if there is a good reason for every bad thing that happens.

A recent piece on the concept karma at the Huffington Post got me thinking about this subject again, and because it’s been awhile since I’ve written a good philosophical musing I thought I’d delve more deeply into the issue. My hope is that I’ll offer some ideas to those who read this that they haven’t considered before, and that I’ll draw in some comments expressing ideas I’ve never thought about either.

As I see it, the idea of predestination can be either religious or scientific. Scientific predestination is a consequence of metaphysical materialism, or the belief that the universe consists solely of forces and particles that operate according to a rigid set of immutable laws. If this is true, then there is no such thing as a free agent because every movement of every atom in the cosmos follows a specific path along a chain of causes and effects from the beginning of time to infinity. You might think that you’re freely choosing to read these words, but in actuality you had no choice. Every neuron that is firing in your brain is a result of previous neural activity stretching all the way back to your birth. Your genetic makeup—itself a product of billions of years of evolution unfolding according to a strict set of chemical laws—combined with the experiences imprinted on your brain throughout your lifetime filled with events that could have only unfolded exactly as they did, all led you to this exact moment in which your eyes are scanning the words on the computer screen in front of you. You had no choice but to read this blog post, just as I had no choice but to write it.

Those with a religious worldview can’t escape this possibility either, whether their beliefs are more closely aligned with Eastern or Western philosophy. The Judeo-Christian religions posit a singular creator of everything, with a divine plan and the property of omniscience. If God is all-knowing it follows that God knows everything that is going to happen to every molecule in the universe from the beginning of time to the end, which brings us right back to strict determinism. The Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism often incorporate the concept of karma, the idea that the universe must always be in balance and that all events serve to maintain that balance. While there is a bit more room for free will in such a scheme (you are free to tilt the universe out of balance and can take as long as you want to tilt it back) there is still a strong element of predestination, particularly when it comes to the luck of your birth. The cards you are dealt at the beginning of your life are a result of how you’ve lived your previous lives.

This kind of soft determinism is actually what most Christians believe as well. Very few people, religious or otherwise, accept strong determinism because to do so would call so much of what we take for granted into question. We all judge other people for their actions, but such judgments become meaningless if we believe that people have no actual choice but to do the things they do. If the universe is set up in such a way that events can only occur exactly as God or the laws of nature have determined them, then the rapist can’t truly be held accountable for his crime because the rape was bound to happen—it was inevitable from the moment of the Big Bang, or from the instant the universe was created.

Unfortunately there is no logical way to disprove strict determinism. The best we can do is make arguments as to why such a scheme of things is improbable. Scientifically, we can base those arguments on the properties of nature’s most basic elements. In particle physics, the locations of things like electrons with respect to the nuclei of atoms can’t be measured with any certainty but can only be expressed in terms of probability, which opens the door for chance to play a major role in the unfolding events of the universe. Furthermore, quantum mechanics seems to indicate that particles behave differently depending on whether or not they are being observed—they exist as particles only when they are being observed and exist merely as waves of probability otherwise—which paves the way for the free will of conscious beings to serve as agents of causality. However, our knowledge of the subatomic world is still severely limited, and it is theoretically possible that with sufficient technology every movement of every particle could one day be predicted with 100% accuracy.

As for the Christian doctrine of pre-destination or the Eastern idea of karma, it is purely by intuition that we tend to accept the softer versions of these forms of determinism. If God created intelligent beings, a Christian could argue, it would be nonsensical of Him not to endow them with free will or their lives would have no value. He may know what each and every one of them is going to choose at every moment, but it is still they who make these choices (whether or not such a proposition is internally inconsistent is a question that has generated endless debate all on its own). But at least when it comes to karma, soft-determinism is practically a given. In a universe where everyone’s lot in life is a result of their decisions in previous lives, it stands to reason that those decisions were made freely. However, we still run into problems when we consider the bad things that happen to people through no fault of their own: if someone says “it was her karma to be raped” that implies that the rapist had no choice in the matter either.

I’d like to turn now from the question of whether everything happens for a reason to the question of whether we ought to believe that everything happens for a reason, and in doing so I will put scientific determinism to the side and focus only on religious interpretations. What separates science from religion is that all propositions are inherently assumed to be fallible. If we accept a strictly scientific worldview we don’t really have to wrestle with the question of free will and determinism, as we must simply accept that our current technology is insufficient to perform the kinds of experiments that answering this question would require. We could conceivably know the answer in the future, but for now the best we can do is assume we are free agents while acknowledging the possibility that we aren’t.

When it comes to religion there is not as much of a willingness to accept “we don’t know” as an answer. The whole appeal of religious systems, in my mind, is precisely to avoid the existential angst of not knowing why we’re here or how we’re supposed to live. The question of whether or not everything happens for a predetermined reason is an absolutely essential element of the question of the meaning of life. How much of what occurs is attributable to God or karma and how much of what happens is a result of our own decisions makes an incredibly significant difference with regard to the meaning of our lives. Are we responsible for almost everything we do, for nothing we do, or merely for how we deal with the situations that God or karma puts us in?

It is helpful to think in terms of concrete examples, and one of the questions to which spiritual determinism has the utmost significance is that of abortion. Most people, whether pro-choice or pro-life, see abortion as a moral evil. The most vociferous opponents of abortion’s legality are motivated by a completely understandable revulsion at the idea of innocent life being terminated without it having any say in the matter. For whatever reason, the idea of terminating a fetus in the early stages of development does not horrify me to the same degree and as such I am staunchly pro-choice, but I do feel just as powerful a revulsion at the idea of the death of children who are old enough to understand and fear death but too young to make peace with it. But whether it’s an unborn baby or a child, we have a case in which the person dying can not be said to have any responsibility in the matter. The same cannot be said for the mother who chooses to abort, or the vile creature who murders a child.

Under strong determinism, neither the mother nor the aborted child has any responsibility for the termination of that life. That life was simply not meant to be and therefore could never have been. I often wonder at the fundamentalist Christians who believe in a divine plan yet speak out so strongly against a woman’s right to choose an abortion. If God is in control of everything, isn’t He responsible for the woman’s choice? She’s not preventing a life that would have otherwise existed from existing—it would have never existed in the first place. Indeed, under strict determinism I could not even condemn a child’s murderer for committing that crime.

It is clearly best for humanity to reject the belief in strong determinism. We must be able to hold people accountable for their actions and punish those who commit wrongdoing, and we must be able to believe that doing so makes a difference. Otherwise we would all just throw up our hands and accept all of the evils of the world, whether they be horrifying crimes or merely the unjust scheme of things in the world whereby the few have so much and the masses have so little. If we accept that this is the only way it can be we must also accept that this is the way it should be, and there are some things we must be able to say should not be.

But is soft determinism any better? If we believe in karma, we may believe that the aborted baby or the murdered child actually deserve that fate due to actions committed in previous lives. If we believe in the Judeo-Christian God we may believe that these individuals were deemed unworthy of living out their lives in full. If we believe in karma we may believe that the privileged few who live lives of luxury at the expense of the poverty-stricken masses have earned this success and that the masses should accept their fate because their souls are not yet worthy of anything better. If we believe in the Judeo-Christian God we may believe that there is an unknowable but just reason for inequality in the world and that any attempts to bridge the divide between ultra-rich and ultra-poor are both unnecessary and futile.

I must admit that there is a strong appeal to the idea of spiritual determinism. If all is as it should be then we are absolved from any responsibility to change it. Nor must we feel moral horror at any terrible action. The pro-life people need not sweat the aborted babies because those babies were supposed to be aborted, and I need not lose sleep over the murdered children because those children were supposed to die. The universe unfolds exactly it must unfold and in no other way, and we are under no obligation to do anything to change it. We can slip into a state of spiritual detachment and live out our entire lives as though merely going along for a ride.

However, it’s easy to see how it would be disastrous if everyone were to think this way. If I want my government to stop dropping bombs on foreign countries and killing children, I have to be able to believe that those children do not deserve to die, that they could have lived if my country had acted otherwise. This greatly increases the feeling of tragedy regarding such events—just as it horrifies the pro-life people to think that all of those babies could have lived rich and fulfilling lives—but it also serves to push us in the direction of putting a stop to them. If we believe that things like war and poverty are not inevitable and that a future of peace and higher standards of living for everyone is possible, it makes the last few millennia more tragic to think these things could have been avoided but drives us that much harder to work towards that future in which they no longer plague us.

We may never know whether events are predetermined from the beginning of time, if we’re responsible for everything we do, or if it’s some combination of both, but in our ignorance we must choose to live our lives under one of these assumptions. I firmly believe that the assumption most likely to take our species in a better direction for all of us is to assume that everything does not happen for a predetermined reason and that we must face the responsibility for everything that happens in the future. It’s a huge responsibility—downright terrifying even—but rather than retreat into lives of spiritual detachment and acceptance of the way things are, I believe we must refuse to accept the current scheme of things and do everything within our power to change it.


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