There Are No Accidents? Ruminations on Language, Culture and Time

I recently read a review of a book in which the following sentence stood out:

There are no accidents.

At first, I understood this as a two-part claim:

  1. Everything is an intentional act of a governing intelligence.
  2. This intelligence arranges everything for our sake.

However, does the original sentence support this interpretation?  How did I read so much into it?

(1) results from a view that categorizes events as either accidental or intentional.  These are mutually exclusive so denying one implies the other.

(2) results from my experience with religious people who often believe the divine works for their welfare on earth.

In short, I interpreted this sentence through the lens of concepts, and these concepts were a function of my culture.

How would I interpret this sentence if I was in a different culture — one that did not believe in free will (intention)?  Well, such a culture would not divide events into accidental or intentional.  Therefore, denying accidents would not imply an assertion of intentions, but simply the rejection of a wrong concept.  It would be like me denying that a tree dropped its limb by accident — of course it wasn’t an accident, for to say that would imply that it had the capability of doing it intentionally.

Interestingly enough, these two opposing views agree that there are no accidents, while interpreting that sentence in entirely different ways.  They may agree to the sentence, without agreeing to the message.

What is the message?  Well, if one wanted to deny the accident/intention duality, wouldn’t one directly do so, rather than simply denying one pole of the duality? Further, this sentence was part of a spiritual book; since people often fear chance, suggesting a ubiquitous, concerned intelligence is one way to soothe the anxiety. Whether or not this was the author’s intent, it should drive home how even trying to understand the author’s intention plays a role in understanding a message, and understanding that intention is also part of the cultural context — the fears, hopes and so on in common currency in a given place and time.

Let’s take this further.  Imagine 1,000 years from now, someone reads the same sentence — there are no accidents.  Imagine this person is in a culture that…

  • Embraces determinism and therefore rejects the accident/intention duality
  • Rejects religion
  • Is so secure that they no longer suffer anxiety

How would she read that there are no accidents? Could she even understand the author’s possible goal in asserting such a thing?  Perhaps if she studied the cultural context in which that sentence occurred, sure.  However, without it, how much could she understand?

Furthermore, it’s possible that the use of accident is so novel that it stands out and side-tracks her.  She can mistake the utterance for putting forth a doctrine of accident/intention.  She may think she has to believe in this duality in order to practice the message of the book.  She could even question the book’s validity based on her belief that it’s asserting an outdated worldview.

However, since accident/intention is a recognized concept in the original author’s culture, the author could simply have used that as a conceptual framework, without reflecting on it.  For that matter, the author may not have believed in the duality, but expressed the thought in terms the audience would likely understand.

We deal with this today.  We have many sources from ancient times, sources from cultures far removed in time and space.  We can read many of these texts, but what do we understand if we don’t take their (and our) culture into account? Two examples follow.

First, Buddhism.  Buddhism has a great deal to say about human happiness.  However, Buddhists texts also talk about things like Karma and Rebirth.  Upon encountering these terms, people often debate them, reject them outright, or even reject Buddhist teachings entirely.  However, if Karma and Rebirth were simply accepted cultural beliefs at the time, then Buddhism isn’t asserting them, but just using them as explanatory frameworks relevant to the intended audience at that time.  The real message is what these explanatory frameworks point to.

Second, the ancient Greek philosophical school of Pyrrhonism. Pyrrhonism’s position was often phrased as suspend belief on philosophical matters to achieve profound serenity.  To the modern ear this may seem curious; why would suspending judgment on philosophy be relevant?  Well, this reaction is the result of our modern view of philosophy, which regards it as an academic subject that’s divorced from daily life.  Yet in ancient times, philosophy was about how one lived and viewed the world.  With that in mind, the Pyrrhonist teaching is radically transformed.

This means a deep translation is called for.  Not translating the words or phrases, but the message. This in turn requires understanding the cultural context.  For instance, supernatural references, hyperbole, repetition and honorifics should be understood in terms of their purpose, then expressing the same purpose in ways meaningful to modern ears. This in turn requires not treating these texts as sacred, as such a view resits changing these texts.  Rather, one must take these texts seriously enough to want to know what they say (rather than how), while engaging in a healthy dose of iconoclasm that allows a ruthless purge of irrelevant cultural accretions that stand in the way of the message.

If there’s a relevant message in the text, it will be revealed by this process.  If not, then there was nothing of value there in the first place.

17 thoughts on “There Are No Accidents? Ruminations on Language, Culture and Time

  1. I think we can bring the Buddhist concept of Condition Dependent Origination in here can we not? There is no ‘intention’ here, and neither does this connote any randomness of events – ‘accidents’.

    The Buddhist concept of rebirth should always be understood within the context of anatta (non-self), or Advaita (non-duality). It is not a Pythagorean transmigration of any soul, a metempsychosis.

    Many thanks for another engaging and thought-provoking article.


    1. Absolutely! There’s a lot in Buddhism that can be brought into this discussion, and Dependent Origination is an especially fascinating one.

      Ideally, every (apparent) point put forward by any teaching should be subjected to this cultural analysis, since even things we think we understand could mean something unexpected once we take culture into account. In fact, these “safe” statements could be the most problematic, since we could be lulled into complacency by thinking we understand them, and thus look no deeper.

      Thank for the kind words and for reading and commenting!

  2. another powerful factor is one’s current state (“self”) with certain topic. For example, recall reading bible (or other holy) at 10yrs,age, 20, 30…, your interpretation and understanding is colored by the current state (“self”) you were/are in.

    as for karma in buddhism, I initially understood it as “fate” (good and bad), then i heard the popular “what goes around comes around”, “karma is a bitch” etc.etc. They all point to similar stuff, but interpreted differently depending the culture you grew up in.

    My current understanding of “karma” is that of “one’s creation”, literally. Every word we speak, thought we think, action we take, is karma. If you look at eight fold path, its all about doing “perfect action” (perfect karma). Perfecting one’s karma leads to nirvana. Nothing is lost (even small, supposedly inconsequential deeds/thoughts), as everything is “action” of some kind. Since nothing is lost, one’s self is considered to transmigrate upon death…aka rebirth. Karma stays with one, until one becomes “non-self” (nirvana).

    english word for “karma” is “action”, i believe.

    BTW, this concept of karma can be applied to anything…for example, karma of a society, or karma of a company, country, church, you name it. Everything they “do”, is creating their karma.

    This is the strongest argument for morality. Its the reality, and I believe there is no better way to look at it.

    Only if the masses truly understood what “karma” truly means…one can always wish.

    1. Agreed, one’s “self” or “state of mind” can have a powerful impact on how a text is read.

      Karma is a tricky subject. For those who want to treat Buddhism as a secular philosophy, Karma raises the question of rebirth, which I think secularists would reject. Even if Karma were restricted to this life, there’s the question of the mechanism of how one reaps what one sows.

      If one is willing to look at Karma in terms of clinging instead of morality, then I think it can be workable in a secular framework. In fact, an interpretation I found helpful was treating it as one’s conditioning formed by past clinging. If interested, I blogged about it here:

      1. karma is certainly due to different forms of attachment, clinging. The concept of “Inertia” captures it the best. Good inertia helps, bad one is trouble. This is the argument for morality.

      2. Interesting article. While I don’t agree with everything in there, it suggests looking at the path through the lens of karma, using the skhandas as an intermdiary. This changes karma from a view to reconcile to an explanatory principle; sufficiently naturalize the concept of karma, and there’s something intriguing there. I’ll need to mull this over — thanks for the link!

  3. My husband and I were talking about this very topic a couple of days ago. He was explaining to me how the whole view on what we are and are not responsible for has shifted dramatically over the last few centuries. Nowadays when we try to decide on an action (or inaction) we examine all the probable consequences and assume that we are responsible for ALL of them. Plus, when we have acted (or not acted) we assume responsibility for all the actual consequences. (If I had tortured that prisoner then I could have saved hundreds of bomb victims.) In the past we would only have had to be concerned with whether the intended outcome and the means to achieve the outcome were good or bad. (I want to save potential bomb victims but torture is wrong.) I think I’m explaining it badly, sorry. It made more sense when he said it. 😉 Anyway, he said what you just said in your article – about bearing this shift in mind when we interpret historical documents/events.

    1. Are you saying the justification for actions nowadays is more utilitarian, whereas in the past it would have been more deontological? If so, I can definitely see how things would have a big impact on how a variety of things were read, including religion and moral teachings.

      1. I wish my husband was interested in taking part in these discussions because he’d be able to answer your question. However it’s me who’s here and I hardly even understand your question let alone know how to answer it. One of the things that he said was that because so many people no longer really believe in an ultimate judgment, where everyone’s sins will be assessed and punished, we have taken on responsibility for consequences that would normally have been left to God to worry about. There used to be a clear-cut formula for deciding what the right course of action was (is the intended outcome good and is the means to achieve it good) whereas now we have a feeling that we should do whatever creates the most good regardless of the means. For example, it’s okay to torture this one man if it means that I can save hundreds of bomb victims. In the old way, you would corrupt yourself by knowingly committing evil acts even if your intentions were good, and if you didn’t torture the man you would have no need to feel guilty because you weren’t responsible for the bombing and the bombers would be punished by God. You didn’t choose inaction IN ORDER TO get those people killed. In the new way, if those hundred people died because you didn’t act then you would feel responsible. Also, we have this feeling that we need to choose the BEST outcome rather than just a good one, but “The best is the enemy of the good.”

  4. Interesting post. I think you’re absolutely right about bringing in historical understanding. Many of the ancient writings seem outright bizarre—especially the pre-Socratic fragments—and so we start digging around for a means to figure it out. But as you say, it’s the stuff that seems like it makes sense that we have to beware of. I think a lot of times we gloss over things that we consider obvious, chalk up the simplicity of the thinking to lack of advancement in those times, and go on our merry way. When really, we’ve missed the point. The simplistic thinking is not so naive, but sometimes quite profound, even in the context of our advanced times.

    In reference to the discussion, I think you’re right in pointing Sarah to Kant.

    “…if you didn’t torture the man you would have no need to feel guilty because you weren’t responsible for the bombing and the bombers would be punished by God.”

    Take out the God part and I think you have Kant.

    1. Exactly! So the followup I was considering would have taken Stoicism’s maxim to “Live According to Nature” and explore how we may misunderstand the message because of our understanding of “Nature” and what led to that understanding.

      1. This would be an excellent write-up. That maxim makes very little sense to me on its own. My first thought is, “How can we NOT live according to nature? Are we outside of it?” Of course, nature needs to be clarified.

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