“‘It is demonstrable,’ said he, ‘that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings, accordingly we wear stockings. Stones were made to be hewn and to construct castles, therefore My Lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Swine were intended to be eaten, therefore we eat pork all the year round: and they, who assert that everything is right, do not express themselves correctly; they should say that everything is best.’”
These were the words of Pangloss, the foolish “wise teacher” in Voltaire’s 1759 satire Candide. Candide is a tale about a young man so named who— after enduring banishment from a castle, kidnapping and conscription in a foreign army, flogging, shipwreck, an earthquake, a tsunami, a fire, a battle with horny monkeys, nearly being cannibalized by Incas, and sheep-theft— concludes quite reasonably that none of those things happened to him “for a reason” at all, nor were they certainly “for the best” as Pangloss had taught him.
I mention Candide because I think it’s safe to say that most of us have a Pangloss in our lives. A person who looks at the events that happen to us, to others, or to themselves and firmly believes that some force “out there” is causing them for a reason. A person who comes very close to asserting that “the nose was formed for spectacles” and that “the legs were designed for stockings”. Perhaps even more specifically, the Pangloss in your life may assert that all things— good and bad— eventually work out for the best. In popular culture such fatalism might even manifest itself as “I guess we just weren’t meant to be” or “I guess I wasn’t meant to have this job”.
Unlike Voltaire— brilliant as he was— I do not wish to paint every person who believes like Pangloss in a negative light. We ought not assume that because someone believes that “Everything happens for a reason and for the best”, that they believe so because they are not very bright. For many it’s a coping mechanism. It might be easier, for instance, for a person who has lost a child to believe that they lost them because “Heaven needed another angel” rather than believe that their loss was something that just happened.
There are people who— even whilst enduring great tragedy— find comfort in the idea that their tragedy is for an ultimate purpose, and would find discomfort in the idea that their tragedy was for nothing at all. The Panglosses among us might find comfort in the idea that something is “in control” rather than the universe being a place of randomness. And those of us who take pride in our rationalism need to maintain our empathy toward such individuals. This, of course, is not to say we cannot gently push back against their claims, as I am about to do, but “gently” is the operative word.
It is indeed a mystery to me why one would find emotional refuge in the idea that a force— beyond one’s control and beyond the laws of nature— is guiding their pleasures and pains (whether that force be god, fate, “the universe”, or something else). I suppose it is as Bertrand Russell once said: “The world is a higgledy-piggledy place, containing things pleasant and unpleasant in haphazard sequence. And the desire to make an intelligible system or pattern out of it is at bottom an outcome of fear” (Conquest of Happiness, 1930).
But what I find comforting about the proposition that the events of our lives do not happen for a reason beyond human action and natural occurrence is rather simple: If fortune befalls you, you do not have to wonder why it has befallen you or “what you were meant to do” with your fortune. You can be at ease knowing that the good things that have come to you in life have come to you because of a person’s love, or because of your hard work, or merely because of chance. If misfortune befalls you (as it did Candide), you do not have to wonder why a “mind” of some sort saw fit to bring hardship (again, whether that “mind” be “the universe”, god, fate, etc.) You can be at ease knowing that, as bad as your misfortune may have been, it just happened— at no behest of the supernatural. And in the moments of our lives where everything we do feels monotonous, hum-drum, and boring (e.g. same terrible job, same circle of friends, same diet), knowing that that predicament is not “for a reason” empowers us to take our lives into our own hands and make the changes necessary to bring excitement and joy back again, rather than wait on some external force to come and rescue us. Finally, when it comes to the ones who have been taken from us too soon, I revert back to Russell’s logic that some people wish to “make an intelligible system as an outcome of fear”, though if one gives this idea any thought, the notion that a power of some sort is orchestrating our tragedies should be the least comforting of all.
Now, as for the few who do not believe “everything happens for a reason and ultimately for the best” due to emotional experiences, but rather because of dogma or ditziness, the kid gloves should come off during refutation and gentleness should be replaced with sternness. Get them in the intellectual rink and throw your punches bare-knuckle.
For example, ask them what kind of “plan” or “reason” does a supernatural agent have for miscarriages? Picture a woman who has struggled for years to get pregnant, she finally gets pregnant, she bonds with this baby inside of her for nine months, and then on the day of delivery the baby dies. What possible motive of fate/the universe/god could there be— other than sadism— for orchestrating such an occurrence?
Or conversely, say a person tells you that they asked the universe/god/fate to help them pass a difficult exam or land a job that they wanted, and they succeeded in their respective task and think this proof of their conviction. Respond in kind, “How can this force [whichever one they choose to thank] have done this, whilst still not lifting its cosmic finger to intervene on behalf of the diseased, the hungry, the cancer-ridden, or those in poor countries suffering severe droughts? Do these unfortunate victims also not petition higher powers to save them from their plights?” Ask this ardent believer in supernatural determinism, “You believe that the universe/god/fate pays such special attention to you that it bothers to resolve your trivial concerns, while the great plagues of the world still exist? How dare you.” Press on them further, “What sort of evil is this way of thinking? What level of narcissism, what level of arrogance, must you possess in order to be under the impression that a supernatural force pays enough attention to you to bestow upon your life severe misery, immense pleasure, both, or neither?”
It’s utterly contemptible. And if there were no risk of legal repercussion, one should slap a person for believing such nonsense— and here, again, I emphasize that I am speaking only of people who believe “everything happens for a reason” because of either dogma or ditziness, not because of personal tragedy.
The comfort of random chance is that nothing “above” is out to get you or “teach you a lesson” through suffering. There is no invisible mob boss saying “That's a nice life you got there. Be a shame if somethin’ were to happen.” Barring the natural consequences of bad actions, your suffering does not mean that you have done something wrong or that you are a bad person. We do nothing— and I say again, nothing— to warrant the death of a loved one, to warrant cancer, or to warrant any other tragedy beyond our ability to prevent. And this should be shouted from the rooftops, because it sure as hell will not be shouted by the psychics, the astrology writers in your local paper, the New Agers, or even some ministers.
The comfort of random chance is that there is no evil in chance. Chance just is. And thus, with the neutrality of the cosmos in mind, we ought to take the good things in life with the bad things in life, and should try— as I’ve said before in a previous article— to enjoy the ride as best we can. Because one day the ride will end and there is no riding again. There are no do-overs. Death stings.