Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Does Everything Happen for a Reason, or a Purpose?

What is the question?
This is an important question…perhaps the important question…and boy, is it a doosy. But that’s what makes it so much fun to think about…

First I would like to clarify some terminology here. I think that when people ask the question, they really mean ‘Does everything happen for a purpose?’ which is a religious or spiritual question. Whether or not everything happens for a reason, on the other hand, seems to be more of a question for science or philosophy. Both are interesting, important questions. Perhaps they are connected somehow, but for now I would like to consider them separately.

Does Everything Happen for a Reason?
As an aspiring scientist with a realist and perhaps coherentist epistemology, I would like to think that the answer to that is yes. In fact, I would like to think of science as the search for explanation—the search for reasons. Why did the apple fall from the tree? For Newton, the reason was the force of gravity (working in tandem perhaps with the wind to knock it loose). For Einstein, the reason was the curvature of spacetime. In many cases, the art of physics seems to be the art of creatively finding the reasons that things happen in the physical world. Given the laws of physics and the initial conditions, the apple was bound to fall. A physicist gets paid to search either for the laws or for the initial conditions (or a little of both). When they have both, they have found an explanation to the natural phenomenon.

Are you sure??
This view that everything happens for a reason, which I hold dearly, has some serious challenges. I cannot respond to all of them, which scares me. There are two main branches of physics that challenge the proposition in different ways—one attacks our knowledge of the initial conditions, the other of the very laws themselves.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955), (attributed)

Chaos theory threatens our ability to find the reasons behind things. ‘Chaos’ is defined in physics-ese as an extremely sensitive dependence on the initial conditions…therefore, for some things (like the weather & the stock market) we can never do the same thing over and over to test whether we have found the reasons behind it. However, there are patterns among the chaos that allow us to test them slightly more holistically; hence the ‘theory’ part of chaos theory.

Quantum mechanics presents us with a much more serious threat to believing things happen for a reason. In quantum mechanics, we can do the exact same things over and over, and the results are always different! All we can do sometimes is give the probabilities of an electron taking a certain path, and it is the probabilities that follow strict laws & equations. Take nuclear decay (please!). We can never predict exactly when a uranium atom will decay, but we can tell that it will have a really good chance of decaying after a certain time. Put another way, there is no reason for it to decay at any particular time. Einstein didn’t like quantum mechanics for this reason (among others), and famously quipped, “God does not play dice with the universe.” Well, Alby, I hate to say it but it seems like you were wrong about this one! Perhaps the most troubling aspect is when you realize that our everyday world is composed of these inherently random particles that do not obey simple cause and effect.

I have a hope, however, that reasons can emerge out of these little things that don’t abide by reason. For example, you are built out of about 10 trillion cells; each cell is its own living organism, but none of them are ‘you.’ None of them even know who ‘you’ are! It is through their myriad ‘you-less’ interactions that you emerge (fortunately for you). Likewise, perhaps everything in our macroscopic, everyday world can still happen for a reason, even though our everyday world is built out of a strange, reasonless quantum world. That’s my two cents, anyway.

Does everything happen for a purpose?
Like the previous question, I’m very conflicted on this. On the one hand, I want to answer with an emphatic “yes!” I feel it in my bones. It certainly seems like life is taking me on some sort of path…there seems to be some sort of grand plan. One of my first major results of grad school was proving that god exists…I proved this by finding a Dunkin’ Donuts on my way to school;)

On the other hand, and more seriously, I want to scream “NO!!” when I think about things like the Holocaust and senseless murder. What could possibly be the purpose behind such things?? I tend to think that no moral god could ever condone such atrocities, let alone build them right into His/Her plan.

Clearly, I have no qualifications to answer this question. It may be the biggest one of all. But you may like to hear the solution that sticks to my ribs these days. I think it may be sort of the opposite of emergence (‘de-mergence?’). On a large scale, there is no such thing as a grand plan. But on an individual level, it makes a lot of sense. It may be like being in love: by believing it, you make it true. In my mind, this does not belittle the notion of ‘purpose’ in the least. It makes it more real than anything.


Oberon said...


Brian said...

Can you define "happen" and "reason" and "everything" Once you have done all of that work, I will be able to give you the correct answer (which by the way is no)

Brian said...

A "calypso" from Kurt Vonnegut's Cats Cradle:

"In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in His cosmic loneliness.

And God said, "Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done." And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man. Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close as mud as man sat up, looked around, and spoke. Man blinked. "What is the purpose of all this?" he asked politely.

"Everything must have a purpose?" asked God.

"Certainly," said man.

"Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this," said God.

And He went away.

I think that Mr. Vonnegut suggests that, independent of whether or not there really are reasons for why things happen, humans are generally driven to assign meaning, reasons,and purposes to things that happen. Is this because we have some conscious understanding of our actions being caused by intentions? And so that both in the religious and scientific sense we are just imposing an intentional structure?

Unknown said...

I'll weigh in on the Why do bad things happen to good people, Why would God allow Hitler and the Holocaust, etc.-part.

The Christian concept of God requires total freedom for humankind; otherwise God has created automatons (dolls) which, among more sophisticated theological reasons, God would become bored with after about two (celestial) hours. If fullness of humankind requires total freedom and total freewill, then every unpleasant and putrid byproduct of that freedom (every variety of injustice and evil you can think of) are necessary in order that it may exist in the first place. If not, it's a controlled or partial freedom and thus an almost-humanity.

The metaphor of this is a field of wheat with weeds in it (at a time in which herbicides don't exist). The farmer needs to wait until harvest to gather everything together before separating the wheat from the weeds so as to not damage the good wheat that's growing by the weeding.

astrobassist said...


Thanks for your great comment. It sparks many related questions. Of the top of my head, here are some:

If God was the one who chose for humans to be free, are we really free?

In your version of the Christian conception of God, do you think God knows and understands all of our actions (past, present and future)?
-If so, wouldn't he be immediately 'bored'-as you say- as soon as the universe is set in motion?
-If not, then can he/she really be claimed to be God? (I suppose that last one is the 'does god play dice with the universe' question)

I would love to hear your thoughts...

astrobassist said...


Darn you, making me think and all. I dig that question: Do we look for purpose behind all things because all of our own actions have reasons & purposes behind them? I don't know. But Vonnegut's quote seems to assign God with a purpose at least for creating humankind (for sharing creation) and for leaving us alone (to figure out the purpose) serious was he being? I suppose I'll have to read that book...