Does Everything Happen for a Reason?

06/22/2015 06:24 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

Does God answer prayers? Can God keep the clouds away from your outdoor wedding? Heal your grandmother? Help you find a girlfriend, as I once prayed in my youth? Is history the unfolding of God's providential plan or just, as Arnold Toynbee wrote, "one damn thing after another"?

Few people believe that things just happen randomly in the world, with no goal or purpose. In the Western tradition until recently this was attributed to God's providential care that -- although hard to square with plagues, wars, and famines -- was almost universally embraced.

The scientific revolution introduced another source of order into the world -- natural law. In the wake of Newton's revolution some argued that nature unfolded as cause and effect, with the present determined by the past and the future determined by the present. Any involvement by God was restricted to getting things started, a view known as deism. Nature was a grand intricate clock, and it was hard to see how God could do anything more than simply create the clock, leaving it to run on it own. Nevertheless, things still happened for a reason -- and some were inclined to trace that reason all the way back to the way God started the world.


The discovery of quantum mechanics revealed that not everything happens for a reason. At least at the atomic level events seemed to be genuinely random, and physicists were slowly convinced that some things did indeed happen "without a reason," or at least without a scientific reason. But might there be other reasons?

This question was explored in a fascinating exchange between Robert Wright, one of America's leading science writers and defenders of the reality of purpose, and Daniel Dennett, probably America's leading philosopher, and prominent atheist. Wright pushed Dennett until he agreed "Events happen for which there is no cause in the physical universe." The "choice" made by an electron -- the most famous quantum example -- when it "randomly" moves to location A rather than B is indeterminate. This provocative claim implies that the unfolding course of nature does not occur in a neat closed system of cause and affect. This post-Newtonian universe has an unclocklike openness, with the future not fully embedded in the present as the simple extrapolation of future effects from present causes. But, if the universe is "open," what is it open to?

If the universe is all that exists, then it cannot be "open" to any other reality, because there is no other reality. But if God exists, then the universe could be open to possible divine action -- action that would not disrupt the natural order in the way that concerned the Newtonians. The openness of the universe implies that God's influence within the natural order is, in principle, possible. Not surprisingly, Christian thinkers have been exploring this possibility in great detail.

Such speculations, of course, take us immediately from science to philosophy and theology so we must not immediately demand empirical evidence for such claims, at least not the sort of empirical evidence that scientists typically demand. But neither can we assert without reason that an open universe implies that God exercises providential control over events. What we know is merely that the universe is such that divine action is not ruled out. We might compare the situation to discovering a habitable planet -- a joyous event greeted with great excitement by astronomers. The joy arises from the possibility that there may be life on this planet. Whether this is the case requires additional consideration.

If the universe is open to divine providence then it is possible that "everything -- or most things, or some things -- happen for a reason." Is this question worth discussing? Or is it another "how many angels can dance on the head of pin" theological non-starter? Where would we begin?

One possibility would be to start with our deep-seated intuitions that this is how the world is. It turns out that this is a near-universal intuition, and one not confined to religious people because of their belief in God, as we might expect. Researchers at the Yale Mind and Development Lab discovered that even the majority of atheists believe in some sort of "fate," which is another way of saying that "everything happens for a reason." Even young children tend to believe this, regardless of how secular their homes are.

It is entirely possible, of course, that natural selection has programmed us to think this way. Perhaps believing in some sort of fate once had survival value; maybe it once motivated our ancestors to rise above happenstance, to believe that good things come from bad, to believe that procreating and passing on one's optimistic genes still made sense.


On the other hand, perhaps our intuitions of purpose are more than wishful thinking and are windows into the way things are.