Do Things Really Happen For A Reason?

Do Things Really Happen For A Reason?

Things happen for a reason, or so the ancient wisdom goes. But do they? And if they do, what can you do about it?

If there is a reason, how can you understand what it is? If there is no reason, then why do things happen as they do? Where does this ancient wisdom come from?

You probably have arrived at this point in your life with a lot of unsatisfactorily explained things that have happened to you. I know I have. Let's take a look at how we got here and what you can do about it.

Emotional Needs

Being human, you are naturally curious. Humans are never satisfied when there is a puzzle to be solved. When something happens, an effect, you're on the hunt for the reason, a cause. What made that noise? Something smells good, what is it? My stomach is upset, what did I eat? These are the simple questions you're good at answering.

Then come the harder questions. Why doesn't he/she love me anymore? Why did I lose my job and not that other guy who isn't half as good? Why did this happen to me? Often we follow up these questions with something like, "I'm a good person" or "I didn't do anything wrong."

You seek answers but none seem forthcoming. You cannot identify the cause, the reason why, neither internally, nor externally. Your nature, the curious explainer, is left very uncomfortable. You know from your simpler experiences, even intuitively, that all effects are preceded by causes. You don't need a philosopher to tell you this. You want answers so you can avoid the same problem in the future.

When things happen for a reason, that is they have a cause, then you can be at peace with the way things are, even when you're not very happy about the effects. When things happen for no understandable reason you're left confused and curious. Your natural inclination is to assign effects to causes, even when you do not understand those causes.

Effect and Cause

Perhaps you were expecting me to write cause and effect? That's the way we usually phrase it but that's backwards from the way you experience it and from the way your brain processes the information, even when you are explaining the past. Your experience, the present, is of instances of effect. You are affected (the emotional and intellectual change) by various effects. The light goes out, darkness, the effect, affects you by eliminating your sight and setting you into a state of disorientation.

Your next step is to explain the cause. Why is it dark? The light went out. Why? Did someone turn off the switch? Was it a power outage? Is there a thunderstorm, I don't remember hearing anything. The LED in the television is still on, so it's not the power. Bad bulb?

Whatever your mental process is exactly, you are looking for a cause. Until you find one you're uncomfortable, that discomfort possibly cascading into fear if you don't find a reasonable cause. Add some strange or threatening noises to your confusion and suddenly you find yourself in the plot device of countless scary movies.

Clerk Duty

It is human nature to explain causes you don't understand to an agent; a person, being, animal, or something 'alive.' A cause with intent. This is what Michael Shermer calls "agenticity." When the effect is intended, the causal agent becomes sentient. Aware of its effects, just as you are usually aware of the effects of your actions.

Current research suggests that relating items to one another by analogy is part of the filing mechanism of your brain. After you have experienced an effect, where do you store that information for later? You organize under like causes. Loud roar? File that under other loud, scary noises, dangerous beings with intent.

Thinking like this was evolutionarily adaptive. Explaining the rustle in the grass as the wind instead of a lion turned us into lunch. You're genetically programmed to expect unclear effects to have a sentient causal agent.

Fatalistic Filing

If causes are the filing categories of effects, then what do you do when you don't have a category? If you were to leave everything in the unfiled inbox, you'd be overloaded. Your solution? Pick a generic cause. It's fate, God's will, destiny, in the stars, it's meant to be, what will be will be, or it's a mystery.

When you cannot assign a known power to the cause, a power lower than yourself, and you cannot assign yourself as the cause, you assign a higher power to the cause. If the cause is beyond your understanding then it must be within the understanding of something or someone more knowledgeable than yourself.

Childish Approaches

It's easy to see where you get this notion. You know, as an adult, that your knowledge is superior to a child's. You can explain what the child cannot yet. You teach the causes of effects.

When you are left without explanations then you are once again as a child is to an effect. You seek a parent. You turn to someone who knows more than you do.

Often this has been a priest, rabbi, monk, imam, astrologer, wizard, or soothsayer. Someone who has invested time in the study and practice in the arts of explaining the inexplicable. And what of the quality of their explanations? What are the categories into which they place your affected mind's confusion? "God works in mysterious ways." "We cannot know the ends to all means." "You were born under a bad star." "It is karma from your past lives." The blame, the explanation, shifts away from you to another, an even higher power. To a past you cannot change, a future you cannot know, a God who cannot be questioned, or to the alignment of stars your parents were powerless to change.

You are treated like a child. "Don't worry. Be good and go back to sheep sleep." You are fed your Pablum. The soothsayer has soothed you. Be a good child and go back to sleep now, won't you?

Wide Awake

Keeping stuff out of your effect and cause inbox is a path to peace. That is what all the religious traditions have known and why, at their core, the teachings are intended to guide us on a path away from the confusion of unknown causes. Religions attempt to explain the causes for effects you do not understand by telling you that the To Be Filed Later items are simply the province of a higher power and are, therefore beyond your understanding.

What did your religion teach you? Did you learn the true cause or did you simply learn to file things in generic categories of the inexplicable, your To Be Filed Later folder? You can go through life with the To Be Filed Later folder but in your heart you know you've got that folder stuffed with things that don't belong there.

What if you were to open the To Be Filed Later folder, the one alternatively labeled "God's Will," "Karma," or "Fate?" What would you find in there? Are there files of effect you would like to re-file into categories connected to your other experiences, if only you knew how?

Why Now?

You and I live in an amazing time in human history. Human knowledge has, and continues to, expand at an exponential rate. I recently read an estimate that all the of information generated by the entire human race in the 30,000 years since the first cave paintings up until 2003 is in 2010 generated in just two days. That's projected to drop to just 60 minutes by 2020. What this means is that answers are available and becoming available for a wide range of experiences that we couldn't previously classify. Ancient wisdom and ancient religions did the best they could. You, with the help of all of the massively accumulated knowledge and wisdom of humanity, can now do better.

More knowledge will be gained in the next 25 years than in the previous 20,000 years. - Ray Kurzweil (2001)*

Let's take medical knowledge, for example. Back in the "good ol' days" people thought, as some still do, that evil spirits, bad stars, or the devil caused disease. We know (yes, for sure), and have for a long time, that bacteria cause infections. We know about viruses, parasites, and the genetic corruption that underpins cancer. You and I know enough to file the effects, say of a persistent cough, possibly under the category of "Bacteria, Strep Throat" and take it out of the To Be Filed Later folder marked "Evil spirits." Then you head off to the doctor, just to be sure and to get treatment.

By properly organizing your files, you gain power. Moving from the To Be Filed Later folder, for which you have no effective cures as there are no cures for the unknown and unknowable, you gain the possibility of connecting your Harmful Bacteria folder with the Antibiotic folder. You know these relate and that the primary effect of medicinal antibiotics is to cause the death of harmful bacteria. That further leads you to connect these folders to the Good Health folder.

Unfortunately, what slow moving religions haven't done a very good job with is keeping up with our rapidly increasing knowledge. As a result, lots of things wind up in your To Be Filed Later folder that don't need to be there. What you can now do, that religion hasn't done for you, is to get most things out of the To Be Filed Later folder.

Reorganize Your Folders

When you start to dig into your old To Be Filed Later folder you'll probably find there is a lot in there. It can be overwhelming to consider this task. Maybe it's easier to just leave it alone. You've been fine all along. This chore can wait. Maybe so, but you know you're not at peace with all that clutter in your mind.

The easiest way to start is just to start. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. The same goes for your To Be Filed Later folder. Just pull something out, do some research to learn what you need to know to file it properly, then move on. Each re-filed effect (and affect) will help with some others. Suddenly, you'll find you have some folders already set up and all you need to do is file with minimal or no additional research.

You probably already sense that re-filing so much information might take a while but you know that when you're done you'll have the satisfaction of a properly organized file cabinet. Not only that, you'll have some causes explained that will help you greatly with future effects.

There are countless numbers of files in most people's To Be Filed Later folder. You might be surprised how many you can re-file just by reexamining the documents you stuffed there in the past. You needn't worry that you'll be bored if you somehow manage to refile everything, thankfully there are still mysteries in the universe to explore. As you go along you may find many new questions to answer based on new knowledge. This is a good and proper use of your wonderful brain commonly referred to as learning and curiosity.

Knowledge = Peace And Wisdom

Once you have begun you will find you have new powers that you can use to live life more fully and peacefully, with a deeper understanding of yourself and the world. Knowledge of causes is your path to peace and wisdom.

Once you start getting past the low hanging fruit, you'll want to read the next article: It's Complicated - What You Don't Understand And Never Will.

So, is there a reason things happen? The more you learn, the more you'll find no purposeful reason behind the causes. Like the bumper sticker says, "Shit Happens." Fortunately, a lot of it is predictable.

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What have you found and re-filed from you To Be Filed Later folder?

Jim Callahan
Jim Callahan

I agree that a whole lot more of the world is understandable these days, and more knowledge is coming. But I don't think stuff like the origin of the universe can ever be fully explained as to the cause. I'm eager to hear what you say about this in your next article. Bring it on!


Excellent introduction to personal moral congruence. Thank you.

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