Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Musings on The Principle of Sufficient Reason


The topic of the PSR has cropped up several times in my discussions with theists.  It has generally been seen by them as an inviolable law of nature that provides justification for belief in God as the ultimate reason for everything.  The thinking goes something like this:
1. Everything has an explanation. (PSR)
2. The world exists.
3. Therefore, the world has an explanation for its existence.
4. Whatever is the explanation for the world, must itself have an explanation or reason.
5. Contingent things (including the world) are explained as being caused by something else.
6. The causal chain of contingent things must either be infinite, or must begin with something that exists necessarily or exists as a brute fact.
7. Both an infinite chain of contingent things and a brute fact are rejected as violations of the PSR.
8. Therefore, the ultimate explanation for the existence of the world is something that exists necessarily.
9. God is the thing that exists necessarily, and necessity is the explanation for God's existence.
10. Therefore, God's existence is consistent with the PSR.
Why should we accept the PSR?  It seems that through much of history, there was not universal agreement among philosophers that it must be true.  Many of the Greeks, as well as early Christians, thought that the universe had no beginning, and as such, it simply existed as a brute fact.  It wasn't until the development of philosophically sophisticated theism that the PSR began to catch on as a key principle in philosophy.  Only then did it become fashionable to reject the notion of things that exist as a brute fact.

One thing that I note in reading the SEP article on PSR is that there is a distinction made between cause and explanation or reason.  God is said to be uncaused, but God has an explanation in the necessity of its being.  An explanation or reason is said to be something intelligible, as noted in the SEP article.  A cause is an explanation, but an explanation is not a cause.  That brings up an interesting point.  The reason for something, according to the PSR is not necessarily a cause, but an intelligible explanation.  However, in the absence of minds with the ability to reason, there is no intelligible explanation for anything.  Before humans existed, there were no explanations, there were no reasoning minds.  There was only reality.  So there was no reason for anything to abide by the PSR.  The existence of the world and everything else was independent of the PSR (which didn't exist until it was invented by mankind).  I point this out because reality is separate from man's ability to rationalize and explain things.  It doesn't matter whether we have an explanation for things.  Reality doesn't need an explanation.  Reality is what it is, and that's a brute fact.  It is only people who insist that everything must have an explanation.  Reality doesn't care.

One major factor in the justification of the PSR is the observation that there is a cause for all contingent things, as was noted by Aquinas.  However, in the modern era of highly sophisticated detection devices, we may no longer be justified in saying that the observation holds true for all things.  We are able to observe things that come into existence (such as the spontaneous creation of particles) and events that happen (such as atomic decay) without any apparent cause.  Adherents of the PSR will argue that there really is a cause for these things, even if we can't see it.  In fact that could very well be the case.  From a materialist perspective, there could be aspects of reality that are hidden from our perception.  There could be more dimensions than we are able to perceive, and there could be things that exist in that extra-dimensional space that are the cause of things that we can observe.  From a theistic perspective, God is the cause of everything we observe, and God is the go-to answer whenever we need an explanation for something.  But in either of these situations, materialistic or theistic, we don't really know.  The things we postulate as explanations for our world and everything we observe may or may not be true.  It might be the case that there is simply no explanation for some things. 

Of course, the theist will still insist that God is the ultimate explanation for everything we observe, and that's based on the reasoning of people like Aquinas.  The second way makes this explicit.  But the third way attempts to prove that God exists necessarily.  Aquinas' argument from necessity is as follows:
1. Since objects in the universe come into being and pass away, it is possible for those objects to exist or for those objects not to exist at any given time.
2. Since objects are countable, the objects in the universe are finite in number.
3. If, for all existent objects, they do not exist at some time, then, given infinite time, there would be nothing in existence. (Nothing can come from nothing—there is no creation ex nihilo) for individual existent objects.
4. But, in fact, many objects exist in the universe.
5. Therefore, a Necessary Being (i.e., a Being of which it is impossible that it should not exist) exists.
So according to this argument, the necessity of God follows logically from the existence of contingent things.  In other words, God's necessary existence is explained by the fact of contingent things.  So contingent things have an explanation for their existence, according to the PSR, and a necessary being, or God, is the ultimate explanation for them.  At the same time, the existence of contingent things is the explanation for the necessity of God, according to Aquinas' third way.  By his reasoning, a necessary being is the explanation for the world, and the world is the explanation for a necessary being.  This sounds dangerously close to circular reasoning.

Even if we accept that everything in the observable world has a cause, we need not accept that all things have an explanation.  There may be something that exists as a brute fact.  By rejecting the PSR, we can postulate that something is the cause of the observable world, but that thing need not have an explanation.  This avoids the circularity of reasoning that leads to postulation of a necessary being.  We already observe that nature apparently doesn't care about what happens in the world.  It's no great stretch to think that nature doesn't care whether we have an explanation for it.

18 comments:

  1. There are a three points that I disagree with you on. The first point was where you wrote, "However, in the absence of minds with the ability to reason, there is no intelligible explanation for anything. Before humans existed, there were no explanations, there were no reasoning minds. There was only reality. So there was no reason for anything to abide by the PSR. The existence of the world and everything else was independent of the PSR (which didn't exist until it was invented by mankind)." Even supposing that there hasn't always existed a mind, that we call God, it doesn't follow that because there were no sentient beings to think about explanations for things that there were no explanations for things. This is like saying that Newton's Laws didn't exist prior to Newton! Newton didn't create the laws he simply discovered them and formulated them. In the same way, people didn't create the PSR they discovered that it appears that everything around us has an explanation and formulated it. There was an explanation for the sun's existence long before humans knew what it was. The formulation of the PSR just came out of our observations of how the world works.

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    1. The second point is where you write, "One major factor in the justification of the PSR is the observation that there is a cause for all contingent things, as was noted by Aquinas. However, in the modern era of highly sophisticated detection devices, we may no longer be justified in saying that the observation holds true for all things. We are able to observe things that come into existence (such as the spontaneous creation of particles) and events that happen (such as atomic decay) without any apparent cause." All that the defender of the modest form of the PSR needs to do is show that there is some sort of explanation for each explandum. In the particle popping example, the explanation is that energy fluctuations in quantum vacuums cause particles to pop out of the vacuum. The explanation for particle decay is the seemingly random and occasional movement of conglomerations of protons and neutrons outside of the nucleus of an atom which, breaks the residual strong force's hold on the particles, and so creates a new decayed element.

      The third and final point is the most vexing as I see that I continue to fail to help you understand this issue that we've been over numerous times. This point is where you write, "So according to this argument, the necessity of God follows logically from the existence of contingent things. In other words, God's necessary existence is explained by the fact of contingent things. So contingent things have an explanation for their existence, according to the PSR, and a necessary being, or God, is the ultimate explanation for them. At the same time, the existence of contingent things is the explanation for the necessity of God, according to Aquinas' third way..." This whole paragraph is just spectacularly wrong on some many levels. No one, that I know of, has ever argued that contingent objects cause non-contingent objects to be necessary. God would be a necessary object even if he never decided to create anything. The whole notion of a necessary objects is that they are things that exist independent of everything else. What Aquinas and other proponents of cosmological arguments are actually saying is that the way to argue for God's existence is by pointing to the fact all contingent objects have explanations for their states/existence and so there must be a necessary being that explains the ultimate existence of contingent objects. So, in actuality it is only your straw-man version of cosmological arguments that is circular.

      I think a better question to ask yourself is why should I reject the PSR? It seems to me that the naturalist is committing the taxicab fallacy by saying that there are explanations for a mind boggling array of things like stars, planets, people, lightning, and on-and-on, but there must be at least one thing that has no explanation because it's the only way to make naturalism hold-up. Quite frankly, the only reason why I think that you are rejecting the PSR is because you don't like the implications of it. You certainly don't have a good argument against it as saying that, "It's logically possible that, maybe, there might be some mysterious object beyond our observation that is a brute fact," is hardly compelling.

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  2. Keith,

    Newton didn't create the laws he simply discovered them and formulated them. In the same way, people didn't create the PSR they discovered that it appears that everything around us has an explanation and formulated it.
    Newton's laws are nothing more than a statement of the observed regularities of things in nature. They are tentative, and in fact, they have been revised as a result of observing more details how things behave. The PSR is more of a statement of faith. It's about explanations, not causes. You can conflate those things. You can say that because we observe that things have causes, then everything must have an explanation. We don't observe explanations in nature. The PSR makes a leap from observation of causes for contingent things to the assumption of non-causal explanations for things that aren't observed. You need to make that leap because your theism depends on it. But as far as I can see, it's not justified.

    All that the defender of the modest form of the PSR needs to do is show that there is some sort of explanation for each explandum.
    That's wrong. To say that everything has an explanation doesn't mean that everything has some possible explanation that might not be true. You can postulate an incorrect or speculative explanation if you want, but that's not what the PSR refers to. The "explanation" of the PSR presumably refers to the correct explanation for something. Otherwise, the PSR would be of no use whatsoever.

    No one, that I know of, has ever argued that contingent objects cause non-contingent objects to be necessary. God would be a necessary object even if he never decided to create anything.
    That's not what I'm saying. By the structure of the argument, though, necessity is predicated upon the existence of contingent things. Without contingent things, there would be no argument for necessary existence, and in fact there would be no reason to think that a necessary being exists.

    It seems to me that the naturalist is committing the taxicab fallacy by saying that there are explanations for a mind boggling array of things like stars, planets, people, lightning, and on-and-on, but there must be at least one thing that has no explanation because it's the only way to make naturalism hold-up
    What I say is that things may or may not have explanations. It is observed that things have causes, and we suspect that that applies to all contingent things, but we don't really know. On the other hand, if there are things that we don't observe (especially things that are not caused), we don't know that they have an explanation. It is nothing but special pleading on the part of theists to insist that there is just one thing that is uncaused and also has an explanation that is contrived - not observed. The PSR is special pleading because it excludes perfectly reasonable possibilities.

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    1. im-skeptical wrote: "Newton's laws are nothing more than a statement of the observed regularities of things in nature. They are tentative, and in fact, they have been revised as a result of observing more details how things behave."

      All that being said, the fact remains that if one does not wear their seat-belt during a front end car crash they'll likely find them self flying through their windshield before landing on the pavement.

      im-skeptical wrote: "The PSR is more of a statement of faith. It's about explanations, not causes. You can conflate those things. You can say that because we observe that things have causes, then everything must have an explanation. We don't observe explanations in nature. The PSR makes a leap from observation of causes for contingent things to the assumption of non-causal explanations for things that aren't observed. You need to make that leap because your theism depends on it. But as far as I can see, it's not justified."

      How do you figure that? I would imagine that there have been at least 100 googol^100 events that have occurred that have explanations during the 13.8 billion year history of the universe. Even the act of typing these words demonstrates the validity of the PSR, as I am the explanation for the words you're reading.

      There is absolutely no leap of faith involved in the PSR; it simply states that: For every fact F, there must be an explanation why F is the case. The PSR itself makes no mention of a supreme, un-caused cause. However, the principle does seem to imply that for the ultimate set of all contingent objects F there must be a non-contingent object that explains why the set exists. And I think that it is only at this point that you reject the PSR because you find the idea of an un-caused cause i.e. God to be an abhorrent, distasteful idea.

      If a scientist's explanation for earthquakes doesn't come from observing natural phenomena then where does it come from?

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    2. im-skeptical wrote: "That's wrong. To say that everything has an explanation doesn't mean that everything has some possible explanation that might not be true...The "explanation" of the PSR presumably refers to the correct explanation for something. Otherwise, the PSR would be of no use whatsoever."

      All that's relevant to the PSR is that there is an explanation for contingent object F's state/existence.

      im-skeptical wrote: "Without contingent things, there would be no argument for necessary existence, and in fact there would be no reason to think that a necessary being exists."

      Well, there would be no cosmological argument for God's existence although the ontological argument would still exist in God's mind. However, all this is moot as God doesn't need arguments for his own existence.

      On a side note, Platonists would still argue that abstract objects like the number 2, sets and justice do exist necessarily.

      im-skeptical wrote: "What I say is that things may or may not have explanations. It is observed that things have causes, and we suspect that that applies to all contingent things, but we don't really know. On the other hand, if there are things that we don't observe (especially things that are not caused), we don't know that they have an explanation. It is nothing but special pleading on the part of theists to insist that there is just one thing that is uncaused and also has an explanation that is contrived - not observed. The PSR is special pleading because it excludes perfectly reasonable possibilities."

      All the evidence we have says that things have explanations. There is no good reason to think that things don't have explanations. If you're going to bring the problem of induction against the PSR then to be consistent you must throw out all of science because this problem applies to all empirical observations, as there is always the chance that we haven't observed an aberration of scientific law X.

      It is nothing but resorting to the taxicab fallacy that naturalists insist that even though there are explanations for stars, planets, babies, coffee beans and everything else we observe, that their must be some strange contingent object that is unlike everything we know in that it exists inexplicably because it's the only option left to them. You say that belief in brute facts is reasonable. OK, what arguments or evidence do you have that a physical brute fact exists?

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    3. All that being said, the fact remains that if one does not wear their seat-belt during a front end car crash they'll likely find them self flying through their windshield before landing on the pavement.
      - The point was that the PSR is not any kind of observed regularity, nor is it subject to revision.

      How do you figure that? ... There is absolutely no leap of faith involved in the PSR;
      - It's because (as I explained) the PSR is not about what we observe. We observe that things in out universe have physical causes. If we want to make a rule about that, we could say things in the universe have physical causes. But it's not true that we observe things outside our universe, or that we can say they have causes. If you wanted to extend the generalization of our observations to things outside our world, you'd say everything has a cause. But you can't say that, because you don't believe God has a cause. So instead, you formulate the PSR as everything has an explanation, and that with the understanding that God is explained by theistic arguments. But you've gone beyond generalization, to special pleading. The fact is, we don't observe things outside our world, and we don't know that they must have a cause or an explanation.

      If a scientist's explanation for earthquakes doesn't come from observing natural phenomena then where does it come from?
      - Earthquakes are observed in our world, and they are understood by observing things in our world. You can't say the same about things that may exist outside our world.

      All that's relevant to the PSR is that there is an explanation for contingent object F's state/existence.
      - Exactly.

      However, all this is moot as God doesn't need arguments for his own existence.
      - Nature doesn't need an explanation, either. If there is something that exists as a brute fact, so be it.

      All the evidence we have says that things have explanations.
      - The evidence says most observed things have physical causes. Nothing more.

      If you're going to bring the problem of induction against the PSR then to be consistent you must throw out all of science because this problem applies to all empirical observations, as there is always the chance that we haven't observed an aberration of scientific law X.
      - You miss the point. We have never ever made any observations of things outside our universe. All our observations tell us nothing about how they came to be, or what caused them, or how they're explained.

      It is nothing but resorting to the taxicab fallacy that naturalists insist that even though there are explanations for stars, planets, babies, coffee beans and everything else we observe, that their must be some strange contingent object that is unlike everything we know in that it exists inexplicably because it's the only option left to them. You say that belief in brute facts is reasonable. OK, what arguments or evidence do you have that a physical brute fact exists?
      - I keep telling you I don't claim to know what there is. A brute fact is certainly a logical possibility. And since I reject the special pleading of the PSR, I have no reason to exclude it.

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  3. "1. Everything has an explanation. (PSR)"

    If we accept '1.' as true, then that means that the PSR has an explanation, let's call this explanation 'E1'.

    If we accept '1.' as true and that 'E1' is indeed the explanation for '1.' then there must be an explanation for 'E1'. Let's call that 'E2'.

    And, so on to 'E-infinity'.

    But wait, don't some people have a problem with type of infinite regress?

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    1. Unless you resort to the theistic go-to explanation for all things.

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  4. Unless you resort to the theistic go-to explanation for all things.

    "Not that there's anything wrong with that!"

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    1. The go-to explanation ends all inquiry. It isn't intellectually satisfying, but it makes you feel good because it's what you grew up with.

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    2. im-skeptical wrote: "The go-to explanation ends all inquiry. It isn't intellectually satisfying, but it makes you feel good because it's what you grew up with."

      The go-to non-explanation i.e. the physical brute fact ends all inquiry. It isn't intellectually satisfying, but it makes you feel good because the concept of God disgusts and horrifies you.

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    3. The go-to non-explanation i.e. the physical brute fact ends all inquiry. It isn't intellectually satisfying, but it makes you feel good because the concept of God disgusts and horrifies you.

      A brute fact is not a go-to explanation. It is one of several possibilities for the source of the universe. A go-to explanation is what you use for explaining all kinds of things, such as the design of creatures, the existence of mind, good and evil, morality, the existence of the world, logic, etc. You get the idea. Whenever you need to explain something, you don't need to investigate it. You don't need evidence. Just claim God did it. That's your go-to explanation.

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  5. > Many of the Greeks, as well as early Christians, thought that the universe had no beginning, and as such, it simply existed as a brute fact.

    Being eternally old has nothing to do with whether something has an explanation for its existence or not. Aristotle thought the eternality of the universe is a fact in need of an explanation, which is why he postulated the unmoved mover.

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    1. Aristotle thought that the substance that makes up the universe exists eternally. All the mover did was put it into motion. So that stuff exits as a brute fact, even if Aristotle never called it that.

      Of course, we also know that Aristotle thought of himself as something of an empiricist. What we know or infer about the world derives from observation. Had he lived in this modern age of empirical knowledge, his metaphysics would have been drastically different. As it is, they're pretty much useless.

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    2. Again, being eternally old is not a replacement for "brute fact." An eternally existent thing that cries out for explanation still needs an explanation. "Explanation" does not necessarily equate to "it had a beginning."

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    3. People cry out for explanations. What Aristotle postulated was an eternal brute fact.

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  6. You're completely missing the point.

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    1. And what might your point be? Please explain.

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