Comments on the Principle of Sufficient Reason

Here are some comments I recently made in support of the principle of sufficient reason (PSR). The full discussion can be found here.

Somethingness might be the ontological default, and not nothingness.

Something could only be the “default state” if there was something that existed necessarily. The universe’s existence is contingent and so we need to ask what causes its existence. Clearly that something must transcend our universe.

We could start by defining the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) as saying that every fact has an explanation. Let us cover some reasons why you should believe the PSR.

  1. Many take the PSR to be self-evident. While apparently denying the PSR you still smuggle it into your post (see below).
  2. If the PSR is false then it is possible for your perceptual states to be occurring for no reason at all. Yet, without a hint of skepticism, you believe your perceptual states of the “atheism meme” are explained by the existence of an image and, in turn, the image is explained by the writing of some human being. You clearly accept the PSR in this context.
  3. Objective probabilities are explained by objective tendencies. However, if the PSR is false then there is no objective probability for the fact in question. Yet in the post you claim that we can’t come up with an objective probability of the default state (something or nothing) when you should have said there is no objective probability at all.
  4. Scientific inquiry assumes there are explanations to be found. In your “stupidism meme” you seem to hold that abiogenesis, cosmological evolution, organic evolution, thermodynamics, and natural selection explain certain facts. But without the PSR it is quite possible that life, say, has no explanation. There is no need to even posit abiogenesis.
  5. Inference to the best explanation is undermined. We can no longer just select the best explanation but have to seriously consider that there is no explanation at all. Furthermore, there being no explanation at all would be simpler than any explanatory hypothesis.
  6. If the PSR is false then it is quite possible for completely inexplicable things to occur. But we don’t see these things occur.

Accepting that there are explanations for many things is not the same as accepting that every fact has an explanation. Denying the PSR is not the same as denying that anything has an explanation.

By what non-arbitrary principle do you determine whether a fact has an explanation or not? How do you prove that your perceptual states are explained by anything?

Can you prove to me objective probabilities exist? And can you show me how exactly you know a tendency is objective?

The making of successful statistical predictions is evidence that some probabilities are objective. If you are going to consistently reject the existence of objective probabilities then you can’t use probabilities anywhere in your reasoning. For instance, you can’t accuse a young-earth creationist of ignoring radiometric dating since that depends on the half-life of some atom. If I search your blog do you think I’ll find you appealing to probabilities as if they’re objective or not?

The possibility that there is no explanation doesn’t undermine abductive reasoning. The possibility of a brute fact would simply be part of the equation of all possible explanations.

The problem is that you have no way to decide whether an explanatory hypothesis should be preferred over a non-explanatory hypothesis. How would you show that a bird’s beak is explained by natural selection and is not a brute fact?

Yes that would be true, inexplicable things could occur. I’m open to the logical possibility of that.

If you reject the PSR you have to be open to more than the logical possibility of brute facts. You have to truly believe that a gremlin, say, will pop into existence on top of your desk right now with no explanation (in principle). Do you believe that? Can we get you on the record saying this?

You cannot assume the PSR is true until you can logically demonstrate brute facts are impossible, because they would indeed have to be impossible if the PSR was true.

A brute fact (better, substance) would have no formal cause, but a substance without a formal cause is incoherent, so brute facts are logically impossible. Likewise my earlier arguments for the PSR are meant to show that your position is incoherent.

Even now you seem to expect a deductive proof where a conclusion (the PSR) is explained by the truth of certain premises. But, by doing this, aren’t you assuming the PSR itself is not a brute fact? You’re demanding that I provide a chain of reasons while you can simply claim the universe, or whatever, is a brute fact.

I’m not denying objective probabilities. . . . There may be objective probabilities in the universe when it comes to certain things, that doesn’t mean there are objective probabilities for everything.

Are you affirming there are objective probabilities? Because that’s what you need to do if you are going to invoke probabilities in any of your arguments (including those outside our present discussion).

Anyway, the middle-ground position you hint at is still incoherent. Suppose you start by proposing that there is a 1 in 52 chance of drawing the ace of spades from a deck of cards. You might claim that this is an objective probability. But then we have to remember that a card (perhaps not even a card that was in the deck originally) may be drawn for no reason at all. The odds of drawing the ace of spades is no longer calculable.

I’d show that by producing fossil and genetic evidence explained by a particular theory.

That would merely show the explanatory hypothesis has more explanatory power but it would fail to consider that the non-explanatory hypothesis is simpler. Why think explanatory power is more important than simplicity?

The laws of physics prevent such popping into existence of things in that way, but in principle it is logically possible.

That assumes the laws of physics provide a reason for things not popping into existence. Without the PSR you can’t make such an assumption.

What? This is hilariously nonsensical.

It is nonsensical but it is what is required for those who reject the PSR. It’s funny what atheists will believe if they think believing the opposite supports belief in God.

The odds of drawing any single given card in a full deck is always 1 in 52. It doesn’t matter if I draw the card as part of a game, or for “no reason at all”.

The second quoted sentence suggests you are missing the point. We are looking at what reason we have for thinking the odds are 1 in 52. We are not concerned with what internal reasons you have for drawing the card.

The odds are 1 in 52 only if the cards are randomly shuffled and each individual card does not change while we are drawing cards. Those who reject the PSR cannot assume the individual cards will not change for no reason at all while we are drawing cards. They must believe it is possible for the ace of spades to change into, say, the ace of squares. If that’s possible, how do you propose calculating the odds of drawing a given card out of the deck?

No it’s not, because the context in which we observe the physical universe is one in which we observe some type of causal explanation for the observable state of a given thing.

First, this doesn’t show the explanatory hypothesis to be simpler than the non-explanatory hypothesis. You are merely asserting it is not the case. How can (1) bird beak plus natural selection be simpler than (2) brute fact bird beak?

Second, as Hume might say, we don’t observe causes, we observe correlations. You are simply presupposing causality and the PSR in the physical universe. I don’t have a problem with you doing that because I think those are necessary presuppositions for the universe to be intelligible. I point it out to show your hypocrisy. You think theists are making some “jump” to apply the PSR to the universe as a whole but you make the same “jump” when considering things inside the universe.

Declaring an arbitrary point in evolution to be a brute fact would require us to abandon virtually all reliable, valid inductive knowledge attained throughout human history.

Exactly. Your choices are (1) the PSR and inference to the best explanation (IBE) or (2) no PSR and no IBE. The Thinker is trying to have it both ways. He needs to either accept the PSR or stop declaring that he knows much of anything at all.

It does not follow, however, that a causal explanation (or a logical explanation, or a metaphysical explanation, or whatever) must exist for the universe itself because we are incapable of observing “the universe” as an object.

It does not logically follow from any facts that explanation is even possible in the universe but you have no problem accepting explanations. This is a clear double standard on your part.

Rejecting the PSR does not require us to abandon induction; it only requires us to abandon the unsubstantiated notion that all possible existents must have some sort of logical, metaphysical (whatever that entails), or causal explanation.

Induction is thwarted because IBE will always result in a tie between an explanatory hypothesis and a non-explanatory hypothesis. The explanatory hypothesis wins on explanatory power while the non-explanatory hypothesis wins on simplicity.

Do you have a non-arbitrary means to decide what existents have or do not have an explanation? It seems like you believe everything in day-to-day life has an explanation but anything that might suggest God exists does not have an explanation. Do you have something that does not sound like special pleading?

the antithesis of the PSR is not, “anything can happen because there is no reliable causal structure to the universe”, but rather “there may be some fundamental aspects of reality which do not admit to causal or logical explanations; they may simply be”.

And why can’t the ace of squares simply be when you draw the card? The fact that there is a causal structure somewhere does not prevent an acausal event from injecting itself into that structure. You seem to create an ad hoc principle that acausal events can only occur outside of your experience.

Because as I already said, there is nothing “simple” about arbitrarily abandoning millennia of inductive knowledge.

You’re begging the question by assuming we have inductive knowledge when, without the PSR, it is not clear we have any such knowledge. We can only have inductive knowledge by having a reason to discard non-explanatory hypotheses. No reason has been provided.

No, there is a third option: things within our immediate, empirical frame of reference generally admit to causal or logical explanations (we can keep quantum weirdness out of the discussion for now); but that does not imply that all possibly existents or possible worlds, or possible facts must admit to causal or logical explanations.

That is the second option barring a defense of IBE. How do you know that things within our immediate, empirical frame of reference generally [weasel word] admit to causal or logical explanations? You’ve given no way to rule out non-explanatory hypotheses.

And for the purposes of undermining the PSR, we don’t need to show that any particular brute fact exists — only that it is, in principle, logically possible and we are thus not obligated to accept the PSR.

Outside of discussions about God, where else do you reject the PSR?

By what non-arbitrary principle do you determine whether a phenomena you inductively observe becomes a “metaphysical principle”?

First, the phenomena is not the principle. Briefly, we can start by noting that the things are, on the basis of all experience, intelligible (in principle). One can then reason about what must be true for things to be intelligible. The PSR would be one of those things that must be true for things to be intelligible.

Simplicity is not the only measure for success.

The quote from me says as much. One measure for success is explanatory power. That is possessed by the explanatory hypothesis but not by the non-explanatory hypothesis. Another measure for success is simplicity. That is possessed by the non-explanatory hypothesis but not by the explanatory hypothesis. So, rejecting the PSR, will always lead to this clash when trying to find the IBE.

I don’t have to assume, they already do provide a reason.

How do the laws of gravity, say, prevent a new planet from popping into existence right now for no reason? Do you have a logical proof that this is impossible.

And once again, no, I don’t have to assume the PSR in order look for a reason or think reasons exist. I don’t have to believe everything has a reason/explanation.

But you haven’t provided a non-arbitrary means to determine whether something has a reason to exist or not. You need to address my challenge about IBE.

I’m still waiting for your logical proof that brute facts are impossible.

No you’re not. I provided it and you rejected it because it appealed to formal causes. No point in re-hashing that here.

That’s absurd because Thomists admit we can never fully understand god. So that proves “things” aren’t intelligible in principle.

Wrong. You’re conflating full understanding in actuality with full understanding in principle.

No it won’t, and one of the reasons why is have have good inductive reasons to think that everything in the universe has an explanation through our understanding of how it works.

This inductive argument fails because there are things we don’t currently understand. And why should we accept an inductive argument from an atheist but not from a theist?

None of them prove their point, and none of them can avoid brute facts when you probe them.

The problem is that you consider a brute fact to be a fact without an efficient cause. Once you focus on substances and consider formal causes you no longer need brute facts since every substance has a formal cause.

You’re always going to hit a trilemma like the Münchhausen trilemma.

This could go off on a tangent. I’ll start by noting the trilemma effects you as much as it effects me. I lean towards a fallible foundationalism. You need basic beliefs but it’s possible to change basic beliefs.

The law of the conservation of energy and information would ban that.

But you can’t be sure we’re an isolated system where the law even applies.

It is not incumbent on me to create a principle when and when not a brute fact exists.

It is when you claim that X is explained by Y. You want to say that a bird beak is explained by natural selection despite not being able to tell us why that should be preferred to a non-explanatory hypothesis. You’re trying to have it both ways.

Because my induction is based on a solid scientific framework, while yours is based on philosophy derived from a faulty understanding of physics that seriously lacks a good principle.

First, whether induction is a valid form of reasoning is a philosophical question, not a scientific question. You shouldn’t be basing your faith on induction on science since science itself requires induction to work. Second, I’m basing my position on philosophy, not science. You’re clearly resorting to special pleading in saying atheistic induction is good while theistic induction is bad.

And I’m not claiming something is logically impossible, while you are, so you bear a much higher burden than I do.

I’m saying the PSR is a reasonable basic belief until it is disproven. It is a prerequisite for understanding much of anything at all.

The whole point of Carroll’s quote in my other post is that these Aristotelian notions of causality don’t apply, so you cannot keep referring to them to make your point.

I can refer to them to make the point that there are metaphysical systems that don’t require brute facts. Carroll can’t successfully dispose of formal causes until he gives up even trying to answer “What is it?” type questions. In that case there would be no point in his continuing to be a scientist. I don’t see that happening.

The point is that the trilemma is going to force you to accept a brute fact at some point, lest you want to get an infinite regress, or circular reasoning.

A basic belief is not the same thing as a brute fact.

This is absurd. If you have an actual explanation for something, you’d always go with that over a brute fact.

It is absurd but that’s where rejecting the PSR takes you. You’ve given no reason to prefer an explanatory hypothesis over a non-explanatory hypothesis. You’ve simply declared that’s what we should always do.

And you’ve shot yourself in the foot by saying: “If you have an actual explanation for something, you’d always go with that over a brute fact.” Apparently, when the theist provides an actual explanation for something, we should always go with that over a brute fact given by the atheist.

And as far as I can tell the Münchhausen trilemma can act as a principle that you’re going to hit a brute fact eventually in your chain of reasoning, unless you are going to tell me infinite regresses and circular logic are good foundations to have.

I think it indicates a form of foundationalism is necessary.

Perhaps it could, by some yet-unknown law of the universe.

If you reject the PSR the ace of squares can appear for no reason at all. This acausal event would not be effected in any way by the laws of the universe. Your admission undermines the possibility of having objective probabilities. You’re implicitly adopting the position you called “hilariously nonsensical”.

But millennia of accumulated observation and prediction alleviates the need to be concerned about that, and we can rest comfortably in a strong provisional assumption that the faces of cards have causal explanations.

Note the truth of the PSR explains why these observations are made. Why not provisionally accept the PSR?

Because, yet again, rejecting the PSR does not preclude causal patterns from being observed, induced, and (most importantly) predicted. It only precludes the notion that all possible things must have a causal explain, or that ‘the universe’ must somehow fit into the human cognitive and metaphorical framework of causation and explanation.

I’m not saying rejecting the PSR precludes the possibility of causal patterns. What I’m saying is that rejecting the PSR makes these observed causal patterns mysterious and gives us no reason to think they will hold in the future since an acausal event might interrupt them at any moment.

Through the wondrous magic of observation and the scientific practice of theoretical explanatory structures and predictive hypotheses.

I asked you why we should choose the explanatory hypothesis over the non-explanatory hypothesis. Merely saying we can come up with explanatory hypotheses does not answer that question.

I can’t say it’s ever come up anywhere else.

What I mean is, have you ever said of something that there is no explanation (in principle)? For instance, if a client asked you how they could get in shape you could tell them that there is no explanation at all why some people are in shape and others aren’t so you can’t do anything for him. That would be living out your belief that the PSR is false. If you only seem to reject it in discussions about God then it suggests you’re engaging in special pleading. My observation is that almost no one rejects the PSR in day-to-day life.


2 thoughts on “Comments on the Principle of Sufficient Reason

  1. “The universe’s existence is contingent and so we need to ask what causes its existence.”

    Not according to any definition of “and so” with which I am familiar. This is, strictly speaking, a non-sequitur.

    You are additionally handicapping your reasoning by failing to consistently and clearly distinguish between epistemic, logical, nomological modality. It would be a fruitful exercise to try rewriting your post where every modal term is explicitly tagged with which forms of modality you do and do not mean to apply (e.g. N-Necessary, L-Possible etc.) and see how many of your premises still seem plausible to you.

    For example, it’s E-Possible that the 7 quintillionth digit of Pi is even, and that it’s odd. But whatever the 7 quintillionth digit of Pi is is L-Necessarily fixed, and so it makes no sense to ask what N-Caused it.

    Assuming for the sake of argument that (physical) the universe is L-Contingent, it does not follow that it is N-Necessary. For there are both L-Possible worlds where the universe is N-caused, and L-Possible worlds where the universe is not N-caused. (Remember, even the staunchest defenders of PSR do not claim it is a logical truth!)

    If you doubt this, you can try and derive a formal contradiction from the statement “there is an L-Possible world where the physical universe is not N-Caused”. Keep in mind this must be a formal contradiction, and not merely a contradiction between this premise and some additional premise, and especially not with the disputed conclusion.

    Forcing yourself to get clear on what you mean by modal terms like “cause” by rigorously distinguishing between different forms of necessity does wonders for the mind.

  2. Hello staircaseghost:

    Not according to any definition of “and so” with which I am familiar. This is, strictly speaking, a non-sequitur.

    That’s how the PSR entered the discussion. I’m alluding to a Leibnizian cosmological argument.

    You are additionally handicapping your reasoning by failing to consistently and clearly distinguish between epistemic, logical, nomological modality.

    If I understand your terms correctly, I am speaking of nomological modality. I’m saying the world we observe makes the most sense if reality adheres to the PSR.

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