All right snaars fans, I’ve let you dangle far too long. After all, I am not a sadistic monster. Your ardor for me may be undeserved but it is not anappreciated, I assure you.
One of the few regular commentators recently sent me an e-mail to express his nostalgia for the good ol’ days when we used to discuss philosophy and religion on this blog. I would like to begin breaking the extensive silence by indulging my Humean hobby, my Socratic skill, my Platonic profession, my cosmological craft, my Voltarian vocation.
No, it’s not alliteration – it’s Aristotelian argumentation! It’s philosophy. Of religion. You know – Maimonic meditation!
No tricks, and nothing hidden up my sleeve. I’m working without notes, without a textbook (all my books are still in storage), and without a safety net. Er, I did use the internet as a resource, but that’s it. This is completely raw philosophy of the most amateurish variety.
I offer up for your consideration the Principle of Sufficient Reason – henceforth referred to as PSR.
PSR has been expressed and implied countless times throughout history, particularly in philosophical writings. Perhaps the earliest and most-quoted is that of Parmenides, who said: ‘Ex nihilo nihil fit,’ which means ‘From nothing, nothing comes.’
‘Nothing happens in vain, but everything for a reason and under necessitation,” claimed Leucippus (Who, incidentally, posited the existence of atoms approximately eleven hundred years before the invention of the microscope, and thirteen hundred years before John Dalton discovered the Law of Multiple Proportions.)
“Everything, then, which is such that its act of existing is other than its nature must needs have its act of existing from something else,” wrote St. Thomas in the De Ente et Essentia.
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, (who invented calculus), wrote:
Our reasonings are founded on two great principles, that of Contradiction …. And that of Sufficient Reason, in virtue of which we consider that no fact can be real or actual, and no proposition true, without there being a sufficient reason for its being so and not otherwise, although most often these reasons cannot at all be known by us.
Rogers and Hammerstein wrote “Nothing comes from nothing/Nothing ever could/So somewhere in my youth or childhood/I must have done something good.”
Er, Rogers and Hammerstein weren’t philosophers in any sort of formal sense.
But I love The Sound of Music. So there.
PSR is integral to various versions of the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God. Essentially, most of them go something like this:
- Everything has a cause.
- Nothing can cause itself.
- Everything is caused by another thing.
- A causal chain cannot be of infinite length.
- There must be a first cause.
- God was the first cause.
Okay, I got the above argument from wikipedia, and it seems to me that this formulation is inherently contradictory. If everything must have a cause, then how can there be a first cause? Why can’t a causal chain be infinite – is there a reason? To fix the argument, 2 should probably read, ‘Nothing except God can cause itself’, or something like that – but then the argument would commit the fallacy of begging the question.
I’m sure I’ve seen better versions. Despite it’s problems, the argument above illustrates the importance of PSR in philosophy. Other arguments attempted to use PSR to refute God’s existence, btw.
PSR has intuitive appeal. I believe that the philosophers cited above accepted PSR as a given. They didn’t spend a lot of time deliberating over it or defending it. It just seemed true to them. Is it really true?
Our day-to-day experience seems to support PSR. Whatever happens, we believe there’s a reason, don’t we? If my car starts making a knocking sound, and I bring it to a mechanic, and the mechanic tells me that there’s no reason for the knocking sound, then guess what? I’m going to another mechanic! I can easily believe that a mechanic could not know what causes a knocking sound, but I can’t easily believe that the sound has no cause whatsoever.
Why, PSR seems almost fundamental to our sense of curiosity and the scientific and philosophical enterprise! Why should we go around looking for the causes of things, if we’re not sure that things necessarily have causes?
Then again, why should we think that “no fact can be real or actual, and no proposition true, without there being a sufficient reason for its being so and not otherwise”? That’s a strong statement! How can anyone possibly know that? There’s a lot more to this universe than our own hum-drum day-to-day activities, isn’t there? What about the ultimate origins of the universe? Did the universe even have an ultimate origin? Is an origin necessary?
Whether we can know the answer or not, surely there is a truth to the matter of whether the universe had a beginning.
If there was an origin, does it require “sufficient reason?” But that would mean that there was something before the universe … Does that which came before the universe require “sufficient reason,” or would that thing carry its “reason” within itself, somehow? Many theologians believe that God is such a being. The fact that PSR is considered in connection with God is a testament to the power of philosophy.
Is there any reason to think that there could be a case in which PSR does not hold? I can think of one, which is our seeming free-will. PSR smacks of determinism, doesn’t it? If everything necessarily has a sufficient cause, then all of my actions have a sufficient cause, and so do yours! How do we reconcile PSR with our notions that we could have done something other than we did?
I don’t have an opinion one way or another regarding the validity of PSR right now. The purpose of this post is not to take a stand one way or the other, but to introduce the concept to a general audience.
Philosophy is not any particular doctrine. It is a method of inquiry. There are philosophers who believe in a god, and there are philosophers who do not. Both perform mental gymnastics in pusuit of the truth. The evolution of human understanding is slow. Some changes take generations. Some individuals may grow weary of the pursuit and call it pointless. And yet, without that evolution, what we call “hard” science might never have been born out of “natural philosophy.”
Who but a philosopher would even take the time to put into words a notion so fundamental to the very structure of our thinking as PSR, let alone reason productively about whether or not it is true!
It is the willingness of people to examine and question such concepts that is the cornerstone of human progress.