I’ve been trying to analyze this statement in order to make sense of it. It is typically employed as a teleological explanation for things that have happened. So the idea is…All events occur in order for something else to take place. Event A precedes event B with the express purpose of bringing about event B. So the idea is…Everything is going to work out in the end.

‘Everything’ is an awfully big word. If we interpret “Everything happens for a reason” in a teleological sense, we are applying purposeful action to…you guessed it…everything. I will allow that people typically (but not always) do things for a reason. They have a purpose in acting in such and such a way. Billy Badass strikes his head with a beer bottle in order to a) break the bottle & b) prove to observers that he lives up to his name. So in some sort of causal sense, we have a class of things that fall under the category of ‘everything’ and that do, indeed, happen for a reason. Of course, the farther down the road the intended effect is, the harder it is to determine if a particular action will cause the desired result. More on that in a moment.

A note on causation: Hume said that we can have no knowledge of causation other than the witnessing of numerous conjunctive events and the subsequent psychological association that develops as a result of said repetition. Kant did his best to refute this position by saying there is something in the nuts and bolts of our mind that allows us to recognize causal relationships (this is a very bare-bones version of Kant, but I think it will suffice). And I think there is something kind of right about both of these positions. We might apply Hume’s theory to animals and perhaps small children (the mind hasn’t developed adequately) and how they view causal relationships, or cunjunctive relationships. They essentially have no knowledge of the difference between correlation and causation.

My dog might have the idea that me yelling “treat treat” ’causes’ him to receive a treat. He has noted the constant conjunction of event A (me calling “treat treat”) and event B (him getting a tasty treat) and has made a psychological association. Therefore, he comes to me when I call forth. But that doesn’t seem to tell the whole story. It seems that most adults have developed a pretty good sense of causation. We are typically able to differentiate between true causal relationships and events that just happen to occur in conjunction with one another. So Kant might have a little something right as well.

If we take Kant seriously, then our knowledge of causal relations will play a part in the way we will particular actions. Billy’s knowledge of the fragility of glass and the density of his head allowed him to determine striking one with the other would result in a broken bottle. We’ve got reasons here. But what does it mean to say something like “The avalanche happened for a reason?” or “His heart attack happened for a reason?” In this sense, we are applying willful action to the accumulation of snow on a mountain or the heart itself. And based on our scientific knowledge, it’s pretty safe to say that neither snow, nor hearts, have the kind of stuff (call it consciousness, or neural make-up, or whatever) to will particular actions. We do know (or have good reason to believe), however, that sentient beings do. The bottle did not will its breaking, Billy did. So who’s willing the avalanche and the heart attack? I don’t know of too many humans who have that kind of ability. So who (or what) is left?

The “Everything happens for a reason” camp is typically of a religious sort. The idea is…God’s got a plan. But the logical conclusion is self-refuting. Let’s take some hypothetical assumptions to see if the argument can hold given certain antecedents. First, we have to consider the ethical implications, so let’s take divine command theory as given. If we accept divine command theory (that moral laws are derived from a divine source), then we have to ask the question (thanks Plato): Are these moral rules good because God arbitrarily said they were good? Or are they good because there is a rationale behind them? From the more sophisticated accounts of the nature of God (which I won’t go into here) I think we can effectively establish the first to be no good, and the latter the way to go. So what is the rationale behind these moral rules? Again, I feel it is safe to go back to Kant, especially if we are thinking of morals in a religious sense.

From what I have read, Kant gives the best account for a morality based on rationality (and freedom of the will) that syncs up with accounts of God. And Kant’s big thing was all about intention, not consequences (which is typically referred to as deontological ethics). “The only good thing is a good will,” or something like that. What action you will determines the goodness/badness of the action. Here lies the contradiction. We started out with a teleological (having to do with ends; consequences) framework for the “Everything happens for a reason thing,” but if God is to be ethical, he must worry not of consequences, and act only on the goodness of his will. And I think we can safely say that avalanches, tsunamis, hurricanes, and heart attacks are not good actions to go around willing.

Now I know that you can say the line between intentions and consequences are going to be blurry when we are talking about an omniscient being. They know what the ultimate consequences of their actions they intend to do will be. But I refute you thus! The goodness/badness of an action, for Kant, was determined by two criteria: 1) the universalizability of the action as a law & 2) the respect for the autonomy of the person(s) being acted upon. As for #1, I don’t think it really applies to God, as his whole “omnipotent” status sort of makes it hard for his actions to be universalized. But #1 has been interpreted to be the rule for your everyday sort of action in an imperfect world. #2 is the biggie. It is the law that is to be followed in ideal situations. So the idea isNever act in such a way that will restrict the freedom of another person. Avalanches, tsunamis, heart attacks, if they are willed by God, very effectively restrict the autonomy of other people. So if Everything happens for a reason in the teleological sense, then God is a consequentialist. But if moral law is derived from rationality, and is consistent with the tenants of Judeo-Christian law, then it must be deontological (I need to think more about the other options, but it would certainly not be consequentialist; at least if we take the 10 commandments seriously). Thus, a contradiction in terms has arisen. I think.

In conclusion, if we take Everything happens for a reason teleologically, and take it to be a true statement, then we have three options that I can think of: 1) everything has the ability to will particular effects, or 2) that God is immoral on his own terms, or 3) that there is some other force acting on the world to make back things happen. Alternately, we could take Ockhams razor to the whole thing and take Everything happens for a reason to mean something like, There is a reason for everything that happens, in a more retrospective, rather than teleological sense. In this case we can say, Yes, there is a reason for the tsunami. The earth developed in such a way that the surface covers tectonic plates that sometimes move which result in very destructive forces. Finally, to say Everything happens for a reason in this retrospective sense is not to say that we can know every reason for things happening. It is only to say that there are causal explanations for events. When we see event A happen and know that it has a causal relationship with event B we can infer that event B will happen. Or, when we see event B, and know that it is caused by event A, we can infer that event A took place. So we now have a proper analysis of the phrase Everything happens for a reason. If anybody has actually made it this far I will be wholly impressed.

and my brief response….
I think the “everything happens for a reason” statement is merely a sweet little way to placate those who have experienced something negative. A more accurate assessment of the Judeo-Christian stance would be that which is put forth in Romans 8:28: “And we know that to them that love God all things work together for good, [even] to them that are called according to [his] purpose;” which is to say, even those things that are evil will work for the good of those who abide by such-and-such.

Now as a hard determinist, one believes that the world is going to go the way it is going to go – the will of man be damned. So, the will of Billy or some arbitrary will of an avalanche has nothing to do with the turn of events…what matters is that the world was set into motion in a certain way and that’s how it’s going to go. Shoot, I was willing myself to get pregnant for months before it actually happened. Did I will it anymore during the month of April? No. That was when God (or the universe, or whatever) said, “Thou shalt now be preggo!” Even if one were to believe in the freedom of the will, he/she must admit that there are those things over which our will has no power. I can will myself to lift my car, but I’m not going to be able to do it. And, like you said, what will does an avalanche have? So, I think the “will of man” question is a moot point.

Anywho, like I said, I think the “everything happens for a reason” thing is kind of a silly statement. How about something like, “it’s all going to work out in the end,” or “Hey, buddy, this was how it was supposed to happen!” Or one could say, “Everything happens for a reason, and that reason is the sum total of everything that happened in the past.” I think I like that one…