Having written a book about karma (specifically, the karmic rationale for vegetarianism) called "Life is Fair," I'm well acquainted with the idea that everything happens for a reason.
For karma, when stripped of its supernatural notions of reincarnation and such, basically is just a law of cause and effect. You do this, you get that. Pretty damn simple. What complicates things is that while the effects are clear, in our life or the world at large, the causes are generally hidden to a large extent.
In Eastern philosophy this may be due to actions in previous lives bearing fruit in a present life. You wronged someone in the sixteenth century. Now that person is reborn, as are you, and does something nasty to you.
I no longer believe in that religious view of karma. However, I'm still very much a believer in cause and effect, or determinism, since it seems clear that this is how the world works.
That's one reason why I'm enjoying Fluke by Brian Klaas, so much, a book I first wrote about here. Though the subtitle, "Chance, Chaos, and Why Everything We Do Matters," implies that life isn't deterministic, actually chance and chaos involve causes and effects as everything else does.
But when the cause of something is unknown, we call it "random." Actually, randomness is another word for our ignorance. Klaas explains this in a footnote:
When I mention "random" events, I always mean apparently random -- events that seem random to us due to our ignorance. A dice roll produces an unpredictable outcome that appears random to us, but it isn't random -- each roll of the dice is a deterministic event that follows the laws of physics.
Apparently random events still have definite causes, though they're not part of some larger hidden purpose. (As far as modern science can tell, the only phenomena in the universe that may be genuinely random are quantum effects at the atomic and subatomic levels.)
In this passage Klaas sounds a lot like Robert Sapolsky in his book, Determined, which argues persuasively that free will is an illusion. Both men say that praise and blame aren't really justified. Sapolsky looks at this from the perspective of determinism; Klaas, from the perspective of chance and randomness.
Yet, if luck plays such an important role in success, that should affect how we think about fortune and misfortune. If you believe you live in a meritocratic world, in which success is doled out to the most talented individuals rather than partly by accident or chance, then it makes sense to claim full credit for each success and blame yourself for every defeat.
But if you accept that apparent randomness and accidents drive significant swaths of change in our lives -- and they do -- then that will change your outlook on life.
When you lose at roulette, you don't kick yourself for being a useless failure. Instead, you accept the arbitrary outcome and move on. Recognizing that often meaningless, accidental outcomes emerge from an intertwined, complex world is empowering and liberating. We should all take a bit less credit for our triumphs and a bit less credit for our failures.
Here Klaas speaks our tendency to ascribe more meaning to events than is justified. Again, when he says that some things just happen, this doesn't mean that they pop out of nowhere. Rather, they happen without an apparent reason, because the cause(s) are hidden from us. Since this ignorance can be uncomfortable, we humans have a strong desire to make up spurious reasons for something happening.
We're particularly prone to inventing and clinging to false explanations in the face of seemingly random misfortune. We can't easily accept randomness as an explanation for why we get cancer or end up in a car accident. Bad news requires something behind it that makes sense. It's impossible to move on from misfortune without figuring out the real reason for your suffering.
It becomes a quest for an elusive meaning in what may have been a meaningless calamity. "Everything happens for a reason" is a coping mechanism most often heard when jobs are lost, when we're blindsided by breakups, or when people die.
While it can help to make sense out of the senseless, comforted by the myth of a neat, ordered plan for everything, the saying isn't true. It's a useful, reassuring fiction. Some things -- even important and maddening and horrific things -- just happen. That's the inevitable result of an interconnected chaotic world.
Accidents, mistakes, and above all, arbitrary neutral changes create species, shape societies, and divert our lives.