There Is No Why

There are questions religion, and theology in particular can’t answer. At least in my opinion, they can’t answer them. They attempt to answer these questions, and I believe that they fail to. The classic question “why do bad things happen to good people” comes to mind. One could also ask “why do good things happen to bad people.” It seems just as relevant in light of how the world actually works. The ancient Greek thinker Epicurus worded the dilemma of evil this way:

“The gods can either take away evil from the world and will not, or, being willing to do so cannot; or they neither can nor will, or lastly, they are able and willing.

If they have the will to remove evil and cannot, then they are not omnipotent. If they can but will not, then they are not benevolent. If they are neither able nor willing, they are neither omnipotent nor benevolent.

Lastly, if they are both able and willing to annihilate evil, why does it exist?”

Of course, as humans we have to agree that evil is even a real thing. We have to accept that evil exists and is a force in humanity. We have to agree on an acceptable definition of what activity or behavior is evil. Humanity does not have this agreement, different cultures have different values, but most cultures at least have a conception of evil, even if they disagree on the definition. Some extreme religious cultures view blaspheming God as evil and deserving of death, while other cultures (I would argue more civilized ones) would view the killing of a “blasphemer” as evil or immoral. Anyone that accepts the concept of evil and also believes in God is confronted with the Epicurean dilemma, even if they might not directly acknowledge it. In philosophy this is known as The Problem of Evil. Attempts to answer this problem have been made over the many thousands of years, usually by people trying to justify a belief in God.

I believe this happens because as humans we have a strong desire to answer the question “why?” Why is the world this way? Why would God allow this? Why do bad things happen to good people? In a way I am asking why. Why do we need to know why? The stand-up gag about a 3 year old constantly asking his dad why is a classic bit in comedy. I would say our desire to know why is not merely strong, it is pathological. This desire has driven most of Western thought and science. We want to understand our world. Not every philosophy or culture assigns as much importance to the question why, however. Buddhism sees no need to explain the nature of God or the origins of the universe. To know why in these cases is simply misguided desire and a waste of time. In a way Buddhism is disputing the notion that there is always some answer to the question why.

Sometimes, I believe, there is no why. Because we can view cause and effect in nature, allowing us to make scientific discoveries about how things work, we wrongly assume that cause and effect is a principle that applies everywhere. We may learn one day how the universe came into existence, and in a way that answers why, but in a way it does not. If we never make contact with a God or gods, we can still ask, what is the purpose of this universe, why are we here? I doubt there is any answer to this question. There is no why. There is no greater purpose or answer to discover here. We exist, we came into being, and it is up to us to assign our own meaning to this existence. On a personal level, I don’t find any need to have some made up story about God’s plan for the world or the afterlife to find meaning in this world. There is meaning in struggling to survive in this harsh universe, to make our mark that we existed and flourished in spite of the odds.  The very concept of existing and discovering more about our world and the universe is exhilarating to me, and I don’t need any greater meaning or purpose than that.

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