Like everybody else, I wonder why things happen. I mainly wonder why bad things happen. Thousands of years ago some guy saw lightning and thought it was cool. Let’s call him Chuck. Then lightning burned down Chuck’s hut and killed his cows. At that point he became really interested in lightning and why it happened to strike a certain place. He needed to understand what caused it, and he might not sleep well or enjoy his boiled rabbit until he understood.

Sadly, Chuck lived long before guys like Alessandro Volta figured out electricity, so he didn’t have much data to work with. By the way, I might have referenced Ben Franklin, but there’s a reason why we have 9-volt batteries and not 9-franklin batteries. But let’s return to Chuck, our fellow with no hut and a bunch of fried cows. He needed to understand why lightning had hurt him and not his neighbor, who everybody knew cheated on his wife, and who deserved to have his hut burned.

A lean, mean cow-cooking machine. Photo by National Geographic, courtesy of sky-wallpaper.com.

It couldn’t have happened by chance, could it? If it had happened by chance, what could Chuck do to keep it from happening again? Lightning must have singled him out for a reason, and if so maybe he could convince lightning to instead strike his jerk of a neighbor next time. So Chuck came to understand that someone was up there telling lightning where to strike. He realized that a thunder god resided in the sky, with a colorful name like “Teshub,” and maybe a fanciful costume covered in live lizards and chunks of smoking pine resin. And Chuck had better make Teshub happy if he didn’t want his next hut incinerated.

Not many of us believe in Teshub these days. We know that some smart guys have figured out how lightning works, although most of us can’t explain it any more accurately than Chuck could. We understand something called “causality.” When we drop a hammer, it will fall and land on our foot. When we eat an entire roll of cookie dough, we will gain more weight than we thought possible. When we listen to someone, they will walk away thinking that we cared what they had to say. By the way, that works better when we actually do care.

Causality was a pet project of a fellow named David Hume. He was smarter than Chuck, though a lot less fun at parties. Let me try to sum up Hume’s life’s work in one sentence. “We can say that rain causes mud when rain happens before mud, rain is in a position to affect mud, and you always see rain happen before mud happens.” Or put another way, “We can say that putting a mouse in your mother’s purse causes a you to get a spanking, because the mouse activity happens before the spanking, your mother owns the purse and also does the spanking, and you have been spanked each and every time you’ve done this.”

When I wonder why things happen, I am walking around in the land of causality. It’s a tricky place. Even Mr. Hume said that causality has more to do with what’s in our head than what may be happening in the world of mud and mice. For example, I didn’t see a limitless number of mouse/purse outcomes. For all I know, then next time I stuffed a poor mouse in that purse my mother might have given me ice cream. Or she might have thrown me off a cliff, perhaps justifiably. I can’t be sure. But despite the uncertainty, causality is what I have to work with.

As mammals with big frontal lobes, we are compelled to ask why things happen. It’s our nature, and it is one of the hallmarks of man. We ask why we hit every red light on the way to work. We ask why we suffer and die. We ask why we got the blue screen of death three times this morning. And as humans we are compelled to answer those questions and to understand—or else we won’t be able to enjoy our boiled rabbit.

When I’m asking myself why something bad happened, I sometimes hear a person say, “These things happen for a reason.” If he means that something caused these things, I agree with him. Something probably caused the bad thing to happen. The cause might be standing right there, like a dyspeptic Great Dane in an elevator. Or I may not be able to see cause, but I figure that the cause was indeed around there somewhere. I figure that because once we didn’t see what caused lightning but now we do, and that’s also true for thousands of other things we once scratched our heads about. So when that person talks about things happening for a reason, I nod my head and say, “Yep.”

However, sometimes people say that things happen for a reason, and they don’t just mean something caused those things. Instead they really mean a reason, like something made them happen on purpose. That’s when I get into trouble. Are they saying that my engine blew up not just because I didn’t check the oil, but also for some purposeful reason I can’t see? Did someone want my toe to be mashed off because that would make something else happen, or punish me, or make the doctor happy because he can afford new golf clubs? Is someone directing all this activity like Spielberg directing Indiana Jones through a trap-filled cave? Or like Teshub aiming lightning bolts at Chuck’s home? I personally have a hard time buying into this idea. I also advise not letting your toe get mashed off, because it hurts like a son of a bitch.

But just because I can’t buy the idea, that doesn’t mean it’s not a bargain. Lots of people believe that someone pulls all the strings according to a plan. If things seem to happen for no reason, that’s just because we can’t see the reason. Just like the rest of us, these folks need to understand why things happen. If their answers involve someone making things happen for sometimes-murky reasons, I can’t criticize them for it. Maybe they’re right. In any event, it doesn’t hurt me, and they can eat their boiled rabbit in peace.

My father told me once that nobody ever changed somebody else’s mind in an argument about religion. We already have plenty of people getting upset over how others answer the “why” question, and they don’t need me cluttering up their clubhouse.

In the end, for me the idea of an all-knowing, forward-planning string-puller doesn’t answer the “why” question any better than “because I said so” does. In fact, it is exactly like “because I said so,” except it’s about why a hurricane wiped out an island rather than why I can’t get an iguana tattooed on my forehead. I can’t accept it. And while I don’t criticize anyone else for accepting it, for me the answer to the “why” question ends with what causes what. Things do not happen for a reason. Things just happen.

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