“Everything happens for a reason.” I've heard this said more times than I care to remember. It seems to be the last refuge of the abandoned and powerless. I suspect that really what they are saying is this, “Every bad thing that happens does so according to some larger orchestration by a higher power so that a greater good can come to pass.” As is my wont, I choose this to pick apart.
The statement implies that all events in the universe are controlled in order to bring about the greater good. Even within this are three tells: that there is a higher power; that there is something called the greater good; and that the creatures within the universe do not have free will. The first (the existence of a higher power, be it God or Fate) is nothing out of the ordinary. Many people are inclined to believe that such a thing exists. In fact, the vast majority of humans believe such a thing. It's not unusual and by itself is not necessarily a bad thing. The second (the existence of a greater good) is the converse to the existence of evil. However, I question the existence of objective evil. If a powerful natural event like a tsunami happens near a population centre, we say that there is evil. If, however, a star explodes and destroys a solar system of lifeless planets, we marvel at the majesty of the universe. No mention of evil there. Evil is only present where there are humans, it seems. This leads into an entirely other topic on whether human life is any more or less special than insect life – for another time, perhaps.
It is the third of these claims that causes the biggest problem. If the higher power has contrived events to happen so that the greater good is served, what happened to the free will of the people who were caught up in those events? To keep the initial statement true, we must say that the higher power has taken control over the wills of all the people in order that that would act in such a way that no other outcome is possible. That is, those people have no free will in those events. And we must extend this to all events, because everything happens for a reason, not just some things.
What, then, is the alternative? That nothing happens for a reason? Shall we believe that all we have is causality? “We are all victims of causality. I drank too much wine, and now I must take a piss. Cause and effect,” said The Merovingian. This, too, is a mechanistic view of the universe. He did, after all, choose to drink the wine. Already we have come back to the matter at hand: free will choices. In a world of free will choices, nothing happens for some cosmically determined reason but most things have a cause. While I have free will, I will use it. I choose to use it.
And yet my undoing is in neurobiology. Behind my eyes, behind the thin layer of skin, muscle and bone that is my face, is just a lump of grey protein. It is nothing but a complex series of chemical reactions. It is far too complex for me to unravel. In fact to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, any sufficiently complex neurobiological system is indistinguishable from free will. The terror (or perhaps absurdity) is not that we have no free will because some higher power insists on controlling us to bring about the greater good, but that we have no free will because we are nothing other than complex neurobiological systems, mere chemical reactions.