10/22/2014 12:01 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2014

Do Unexpected Things Ever Happen for a Reason?

In the Sunday New York Times, Paul Bloom, a Yale professor of psychology, and Konika Banerjee, a graduate student there published an essay with the very large title:

"Does Everything Happen For a Reason?"

And then, with a bold font subtitle, probably supplied by the Times, we read:

"Of course not. But studies suggest we have a natural tendency to think so."

I love Yale, having done a double PhD there long ago, and I'm fairly confident that Bloom and Banerjee are fine people and great scholars of how our minds work. But their essay is badly argued, when it's argued at all, and their rhetoric ends up being misleading, and perhaps even insulting to lots of people, which I'm sure they didn't intend.

They first seem to conflate two distinct beliefs, and then practically assume the falsehood of one of them, as if it covers all the territory. And they announce that this belief is false, as if a strong statement of their view is the same thing as a rational argument. They may be utterly convinced that the world is not at all "full of reason," the way so many of us naïve souls outside New Haven may think, but they need to give us a good reason to agree with them.

Their concern is that in a broad cross section of people, whether religious or not, there seems to be a strong natural tendency to see intentions, purposes, and goals at work in life, far beyond the explicit actions of people or other conscious animals. We reflect back on how we met our spouses, or on how we chose our vocational path in life through some serendipitous occurrence, and we say, "It was clearly meant to be," or "It certainly seems to have happened for a reason, and a good one!" We may even reflect this way on some challenge we've faced, or a tragedy we've overcome that's made us into the people we are today. "It was hard at the time, but it happened for a reason." And yet our esteemed Yale Nay-Sayers warn against any such tendency, recommending instead what they obviously consider to be the sober truth of an impersonal, "mechanistic" universe utterly devoid of reason outside the scope of human or animal intention.

They conclude their essay by saying that we should resist our natural urge to think that there is, or was, a reason behind any happy "coincidence" or development that was outside our control. But the only consideration they provide that's anything like an argument to undercut our natural tendency to surmise reasons or intentions behind such things is a brief mention of apparent unfairness or injustice in the world. Bad things can happen to apparently innocent people. Good things can happen to jerks. Surely, our Yale guides suggest, we can't believe that everything happens for a reason, or we'd end up like the new age authors who once embarrassed themselves on Oprah by suggesting that we're all responsible, because we provide definitively sufficient reason by our actions and attitudes, for everything that happens in our lives, even including in the scope of that wild surmise the tragedies that afflict newborns and infants.

The assumption of Bloom and his associate seems to be that the existence of evident unfairness and injustice shows that it can't be true that everything happens for a reason. And there is some force to this consideration. Apparent unfairness in the world does tend to indicate that not everything happens for a good reason, or at least for a moral reason that we can understand. But once we add these qualifiers, we can begin to wonder about the overall strength of their position.

There also seems to be a background consideration behind their reasoning, and the overall thrust of the essay. The authors appear to feel that, since a good many modern scientists and philosophers believe that a traditional idea of God is nothing more than an outmoded superstition, there can't be any such purposive agent behind the vastly many complex swirls of events in our world, and so there is no intelligent being to provide reasons for everything that happens. They give no argument for such a non-theistic worldview, but simply seem to assume it as true.

And that assumption has seriously problematic implications, which I'll mention in a minute. But there's more to be said. One unfortunate and crucial oversight in their essay is that the authors fail to distinguish between two very different beliefs, either of which could in principle lie behind the reportedly widespread human tendency to ascribe reasons to events in the world that don't seem to result from human or animal agency in the requisite sense. We could believe either:

A. Everything happens for a reason.

And this is, of course, something that some people actually do believe. It's what the Yale guys focus on and seem to think is clearly behind the tendency to see reasons for unexpected things that happen in the world. Or instead, we could believe the much less grand statement:

B. Lots of things happen for a reason, beyond explicit human or animal intention.

And I think this is a more modest claim that many more people would actually endorse.

I would suggest, first, that those of us who see purpose in the world beyond the range of ordinary human and animal intention don't necessarily believe (A), but more often (B). To see the world as "full of reason" is not thereby to believe that every leaf that falls does so at a precise time and lands on a specific spot for a discrete reason, as distinct from a cause, or a complex set of natural causes.

To see purposive reason behind a great many surprising things in the world, you don't have to believe that every lotto number that's ever chosen is the result of a secret cosmic or divine intention. And you don't for a second have to think that everyone who meets someone in a crowded room has a spooky and meticulous Match-Maker-Destiny to thank for it. Certainly, you don't have to believe that every bit of human suffering is purposely and intentionally inflicted for particular and sufficient, or even modestly good, reasons.

If the unfairness consideration has weight, it's against (A), and not (B). And even then, it wouldn't be decisive. Reasons behind occurrences wouldn't always have to do with individual merit and fairness. So to point out that a particular event seems to violate standards of fairness and justice wouldn't necessarily show that the event could not have happened for a reason of some sort.

But, you might say, the assumption of atheism on the part of the authors, the hidden worldview that seems to lie behind the particulars of their essay, certainly would count against both (A) and (B). And if you are also a disbeliever, as most sophisticated atheists are, in any other sort of fate or destiny or secret, powerful non-human agency that might not be of literally divine origin, you'd likely not be able to endorse either view, (A) or (B). But, again, the authors have given us no argument at all that we should join them in such a worldview assumption.

Back nearly a century ago, as physics began to develop more subtle views of matter and nature, the prominent scientist Sir James Jeans remarked that the universe was beginning to seem to him less like an object and more like a thought. However we react to such a claim, or parse it out, it's clear that the direction of fundamental science has portrayed a stranger universe than ancient materialists could even have begun to suspect. And as they've done so, the difference between the worldview of a person who sees reason behind happenstance and one who resists any view not rooted in manifest nature, is perhaps not as great as it was in the past, and gives the negative proclivity of our Yale friends less to hold onto firmly.

Moreover, if we were to endorse the flat naturalistic worldview that Bloom and Banerjee seem to assume, holding that there are no supernatural agents like a God, or even immaterial souls or minds distinct from material brains, then as it turns out, we'll have an embarrassingly difficult time believing that anything actually happens for a reason in this world, as distinct from a natural cause. But that's not often acknowledged, and rather tends to mask itself in the creation of new definitions of free will, intentionality, and purposiveness that desperately try to accommodate human reason and responsibility in a universe actually devoid of real agency.

The Yale guys want us to resist our natural urge to look for reasons in the world, but in the end, they give us no good reasons not to do so. And we have to look for such reasons, or else we have no grounds for sharing their discomfort.

I even think that there's a reason their article appeared when it did, and caught my eye. How about you?