So in my idle moments (of which there have been few) recently, I've been wrestling with the expression "Everything happens for a reason." which is often offered in comfort to those that are suffering. The optimist I'm cultivating within me is sure that most people who use this expression do with the best of intentions, though I know for a fact that not all do, I feel I would still like to discourage its use, for reasons I will lay out.
This expression seems to me to be what Daniel Dennett describes as a "Deepity". A "deepity" is an apparently profound, but actually largely valueless, expression that can have two meanings: one that is trivially true, and another that is false but that would be amazing if it were true. If we take a look at our topic in this light, we might get the following:
1) All events are caused by other events.
2) All events are part of some master-plan of god(s)/fate/destiny/cosmic karma.
Meaning 1 here is obvious, at least to philosophical naturalists who aren't buying into some of the whackier interpretations of quantum mechanics; so obvious as to not be worth saying and, crucially, this can't be what is meant as it offers little comfort. It would be tantamount to saying "Yeah, shit happens!" and would probably deserve a punch in the face (or at least a stern look) in any real crisis.
Meaning 2 is the amazing if true, but actually wrong, interpretation. Not only is it wrong, but it is also often insulting. It seems to say "you deserve this", and as such would be a prime example of victim-blaming.
So why do people persist in using it?
One possible reason is the "just-world fallacy", where people take comfort from the belief that evil-doers will be punished, and the righteous will be rewarded, whether in this world or the next. It's a (wrong) way of explaining away the discomfort caused by our apparent lack of control over the universe and what happens in it. "If I can't do anything about that arsehole that did a bad thing, that's OK, he'll get his, the universe/god(s)/fate/karma will get him later". And the reverse may also be true, when we see good people going unrewarded for their actions and this makes us sad or mad, we can take heart from the fact that they will get their just reward at some later point, albeit possibly only the "hereafter". I can almost see this line of reasoning helping a little; some seem to take comfort in the idea that someone or something is in control, sometimes even if that thing is hidden, and sometimes even if that thing is evil (q.v. conspiracy theories) rather than face the reality that the universe is just chaos and randomness and pitilessly indifferent to our existence.
I imagine to the religious this may be a shorthand way of reminding each other of god's existence, saying "God has a plan", but surely even that is small comfort? If god's plan includes people suffering then he's a shithead, and I can't see how this would give succour to many who pay it more than the most glancing thought. It almost seems to me that these people are actually saying "You must have done, or will do, something to make you deserve your present predicament.", which seems of little comfort: "yeah you're suffering, but don't worry, everything's OK; it's because you were a little shit when you were a teenager/in a previous life". It's a mystery to me why even the religious or other magical-thinkers would draw solace from this platitude, let alone rationalists and naturalists.
Other interpretations (and this shit really happens with alt-meddlers), is that the sufferer is being blamed for failing to think positively enough, or taking enough exercise (despite their excruciating agony or chronic fatigue), or what the writer considers an improper diet, which usually means one free from sugar/fat/meat/GMO/whatever nutritionist bullshit happens to be flavour of the month. The victim-blaming that some of these people indulge in truly beggars belief, and shows not a jot of compassion. "If only you were to welcome your condition as a gift from the universe and a joyous challenge that must be overcome, you would see things differently". Fuck that, and the horse-hair stuffed homeopathic succussion pad it rode in on.
In an attempt to follow Dennett's advice and attempt to charitably interpret a position in order to best argue against it, the best interpretation I can come up with is that the person is really trying to say something like "we live in a just world, you are a good person, and this suffering must therefore be a means to an end by which you will receive some great reward, in this life or the next!" It's cold comfort at best. It's hard to see what the reward could be in this life, and if you're speaking to someone with no belief in fate, an afterlife or reincarnation, it's almost totally worthless.
One thing people say to me when I complain about this is something like "c'mon Tim, they're trying to be comforting and we should be sympathetic to their intent." They might be right, but I would still argue that it would be better if they didn't say it, and that they were sympathetic to the person with the problem, rather than additionally burdening the sufferer with the need to be tolerant of people who say stupid things.
Originally posted on Chronically Skeptical 26/07/13