Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Biggest Lie People Tell At Christmas

Many people tell lies at Christmas. Sometimes we think we have good reasons to lie; some people think growing up with a magical view of Christmas is reason enough to lie to children about the existence of Santa Clause. But an even bigger lie is told by those who might not even realize it's a lie.

“Everything happens for a reason,” we are often told. Countless Christmas specials produce this cliche, often by skeptical characters who have been turned into believers. But we even get this pearl from relatively secular genres, and from characters who never again profess any sort of religious belief. Many people who would say this are not, as we normally understand the term, religious.

When there are certain considerations on the basis of which we act, these considerations are our motivational reasons. If everything happened for a motivational reason, every gust of wind and every vibration of a molecule, this would imply that the world is controlled at the micro level by some immensely powerful agent (or perhaps many agents). What's not exactly clear is where this would leave us: are our actions still our own? I think we can plausibly explain our actions as our own arising out of a causal universe, but I am less confident that such explanations work if the world is purely motivational, rather than merely causal, in nature.

There are also justificatory reasons, the facts that count in favor of our acting one way or another. If everything happened for a justificatory reason, that could either mean that all the actions of the above-mentioned being were just actions, or perhaps that everything that happens happens simply because it is good. That everything happens for this kind of justificatory reason is deeply implausible, for the well-known problem of evil. However, there is no reason to believe either possibility.

It seems the substantive implications of the more interesting assertions that everything happens for either a motivational or justificatory reason are smuggled into the imminently plausible, but mundane, claim that everything happens for a causal reason. This is precisely why we must watch out for ambiguous meanings and equivocation.

Also, Merry Christmas.

No comments:

Post a Comment