Another Vague Argument For Principle Of Sufficient Reason

P1. Only what can be fully understood can be partially understood
P2. If there is no sufficient reason for something about the world (any event, fact, and so on… in the world), then that something can’t be fully understood. (because understanding it requires understanding why it happened, why it is as it is, and the answers of those things are sufficient reasons)
P3. If something about the world is not fully understandable, then the world can’t be fully understood
P4. From P2 and P3 => If there is no sufficient reason for something about the world, then the world can’t be fully understood.
P5. From P4 and P1 => If there is no sufficient reason for something about the world, the world can’t be partially understood.
P6. We are bound to say that we partially understand the world.
P7. From P5 and P6 => There is a sufficient reason for everything about the world.

23 thoughts on “Another Vague Argument For Principle Of Sufficient Reason”

1. Well, it is an argument alright, but why should I believe P1 or P2?

2. Hi Colin,

I was having some picture like this in mind when positing P1…
If something is in principle understandable, then there is a sense in having part of that understanding. The more we understand, the more the partial understanding is closer to the full understanding. But if there is no full understanding to have, there is no sense in talking about parts of that understanding. That is, there is no sense to talk about parts of something which doesn’t exist.

About P2, I can try to rephrase what I put in parentheses there… If we don’t know answer to the question “why X?” about a thing then we can’t say that we understand why it is X. But if there is no sufficient reason, than there is no answer to that question, so it is in principle impossible to understand why X. So, in that case, that thing is not fully understandable (i.e. there are things about it that can’t be understood).

3. runtime says:

I agree with P1 and P2. But what about P6? That’s just a random generalization? The premise isn’t necessarily factual.

4. Yeah, I just thought that saying or accepting really that we can’t even partially understand the world is tough bullet to bite. I guess it depends on what is meant or what can be counted as partial understanding of the world. Would understanding of meteorological phenomena be counted as one? And how about understanding of a proof of a Pythagorean theorem? Or… maybe little less abstract, understanding of some metaphysical necessity which involves e.g. movement, space and time.

5. To me, all the premises seem pretty intuitive, but I guess given the choice I would give up P1 over accepting the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Or maybe there is a problem with the ambiguity of ‘understanding’ which makes the argument equivocal. Either way, it is really interesting–I’d like to hear more about why P1 is acceptable. Your discussion about ‘understanding the parts’ makes it seem that we CAN partially understand, even when a full understanding is impossible. For an explanation of the complete history of any given thing (or of the Universe as a whole) seems (at least to me) like at some point it HAS to collapse into something incoherent or at least not understandable.

6. I don’t think the part – whole analogy is a very good one for thinking about partial understanding. I just don’t see that. I see understanding as a process and the ‘relational’ view of subject to object is vague to me — a subject has some ‘part’ of understanding and there is (or possibly) some other parts to be gained that if all are gained there is a whole. Don’t see it.

But in regards to this post specifically, I guess what I would be interested in is whether there can be any criteria by which we know there is complete understanding? The skeptic here would invoke the well known ‘criteria’ problem (criteria must have a criteria that must have a criteria) in which case, the result would seem to be that full or even partial understanding is a sort of hypothesis. But what kind of hypothesis? Under what conditions could it even possibly be satisfied?

Interestingly, it seems fairly easy to point to the criteria for partial understanding..and also interestingly on the surface there is very little that is ‘metaphysically’ interesting about it. Either you can talk about something in a way that agreeable within a context of that subject, or you can do something — the distinction between theoretical and practical knowledge. I will grant that the principle of sufficient reason (to most of ‘us’) does have the feeling of necessity to it…but I just don’t think it does. As far as arguments, I think I would have to a see a reductio to really begin to take seriously the idea that there must be a reason for everything if there is to be any understanding at all. That is, something as strong as a contradiction in the very notion of partial understanding without the possibility of complete understanding. Perhaps that seems like asking too much, but to make a claim about ‘everything’ is a huge claim…I think.

Have there been any philosophers or scientists who reject the principle of sufficient reason? I can’t think of any outright.

7. Hi Preston,

I’m worried too that there might be some equivocation going on.

As for “understanding of parts” I tried NOT to use that term anywhere in the argument, and instead to use “understanding of something about the world”, because I think you are right that “understanding of a part” somehow might be problem for the argument.
I guess this touches on the mereological issues, of the relations between parts and the whole, but as far this argument is concerned, it seems to me (and this is a further reason why I find P1 acceptable) that we don’t have reasons to think that we can have full understanding of parts, because as far as we know, any part in this universe is finite (in time and space), it is changed into other things (e.g. different kinds of energy), and its behavior is very much related to other things (their fields). So, it seems we have good reasons to talk about “understanding of something about the world” vs. “understanding parts”.

But as I pointed to Colin, my logic this way – if something can’t be fully understood – if there is no such thing as understanding of something, there can’t be talk about partial understanding. This connects to the objection Tray has, but i will add additional comment on that one

8. Wouldn’t anyone who accepts things in themselves ala Kant reject 1? Even those who reject the particular Kantian approach are apt to reject 1. (Say Heidegger)

9. To add, your argument in comment 2 seems problematic. Consider something with infinite properties. One could well argue that in principle this is not understandable in any finite time span yet any time span is finite. Therefore the whole is unknowable but the parts are. (That’s but one example, but I think the issue of various kinds of infinities looms large here)

10. One last note. You ask if any philosopher has rejected the principle of sufficient reason. There’s an interesting argument against it.

1. “Nothing is without reason; all that is has a reason.”
2. This proposition itself “is” and thus requires a reason
3. This leads to an endless regress since any reason for the principle also requires a reason.
4. Therefore there is a vicious regress.

There are ways around this critique of course. Heidegger famously (or infamously depending on your view) focuses in on the “nothing” that is without reason.

11. Hi Trey,

I agree that analogy whole-part doesn’t quite work for full understanding/partial understanding relation. I think it would be better to speak of the partial understanding as being an aspect of the full understanding. What I said will still work – that is, given that there is no full understanding, there can’t be talk about aspects of that understanding.

As for what would count as criteria of full understanding, as I said I’m skeptical that we (as this species) can come to such understanding. So, I was thinking about understandable in principle. As for how to recognize it, I can only imagine that it would leave no “why” questions, I guess everything would be perfectly clear. I don’t think it can be hypothesis, as any hypothesis will leave open the question why that theory and not some other is true.

As for scientist/philosophers rejecting PSR, I think that some physicists would say that there is no reason for collapses in quantum mechanics happening this and not that way, and also, I think that there a few arguments *against* PSR (as far as quick search on google showed, most of the arguments about PSR is related to cosmological argument. I just want to say that I’m not interested in cosmological argument here)

12. Hi Clark, thanks for interesting comments,

1.As far as I’m concerned Kant’s notion of unknowable things-in-themselves, is not understandable (read not intelligible) :)

2.If infinity is possible, there is no reason that we don’t suppose that infinite intelligence could understand it. All talk about understanding in the argument is about something being understandable *in principle*, not necessarily by finite intelligent beings like us.

3.We could distinguish understanding of abstract truths from understanding of things about the world. The PSR might be put in the abstract truths, and we could take PSR to be about non-abstract truths about the world – i.e. those that concern particulars. In that way , we could say that e.g. understanding of 1+1=2 isn’t dependable of understanding of any other things in the world, and EVEN not dependent on the issue if the world in general is fully understandable.

13. Hmm. I think your response (2) is problematic unless one buys into the existence of a conscious God. I’m not sure most would. Are you sure you want to commit to an argument that requires the existence of God to work? (Of course perhaps in the context of Leibniz that’s a bad thing to bring up since none of his theory works without God)

With regards to (3) I don’t quite see how one could make that move and still have it remain the PSR. It sounds like you’re just rejecting PSR in preference to a more nominalistic view of efficient causation. i.e. it’s more the “every act has a cause” principle rather than PSR.

14. To add, one could argue that the nothing that grounds the PSR for Leibniz was God. So I think one could see (2) as a variation of Anselm’s argument for God and (3) as a variation of the cosmological argument. When the PSR rests on the acceptance of proofs for God then something fundamentally weird is up. As I said there are ways out and Heidegger is the most famous modern figure working on it. But I don’t think most will accept his reasoning.

15. Actually let me take back the Anselm comment. It’s more like a Berkeley God who has to be there to ensure that all the ideas are observed.

16. I can see the argument from an aspect view of partial understanding. A fundamental idea, one might argue, that would preserve this argument is the conservation of energy. Not in the sense that your conclusion would be a fact…but that it would at least be a concrete possibility (skeptical rhetoric..as one responder has made aware…as well as myself…would not alone be a very serious critique…against the possibility of the principle of sufficient reason if the world is a totality.

But, I will disagree in your claim that..and this might be weaker than your actual claim…that without the possibility of full understanding there can be no partial understanding. I see where you are coming from if you are using the notion of a totality of the world itself (a metaphysical claim, I take it) as the standard for what is actually, as I see it, an epistemological claim. What I mean is …human beings are temporal creatures that understand the world (partially) through a ‘web of beliefs’. To say that a full understanding is even possible…even if there would be no ‘why’left…I don’t think merits this metaphysical claim – PofSR. It does say something significant about our web of beliefs assuming we have reached this point. So I guess again I will just point out that understanding is..theoretical and practical, each a historical phenomenon and is a process that happens. But not because there is a full understanding or because the world is such that there actually is a reason for everything.. but because this is just what human beings do…part and parcel of the process of living a human life — it is very much a ‘learning process’…and beyond that to say something about the metaphysical character of a relation between our understanding of the world and what must be the case..such that there must be some explanation (even only possibly) for everything…just is not an inference for me. BUT…I don’t deny this either…I accept there very well may be a possible explanation for everything…how should I know?

That is food for thought…personally I don’t think such a clear distinction between the metaphysical and the epistemological can be made…but many people still take this distinction serious so it is something interesting to think about.

If I were in the audience and had one question for you about this argument, I would like to ask you…to what extent would you say that your notion of understanding..in any sense…is itself dependent on the principle of sufficient reason? It may sound like I am out right asking you if your argument is circular…but the thing is this…doesn’t understanding itself presume that one knows the reason for something…if there is no reason…then understanding simply is not what is going on. Interestingly, one might take a ‘transcendental deduction’ approach here…there actually is some understanding..so there is some reasons for some events. Is this an a posteriori claim? hmmm. I still don’t see us getting to a reason for everything…

17. Clark,

I don’t think that argument requires God. By ‘fully understandable in principle’ I meant that there is logical possibility (in wide sense of logical) and not that anybody actually has full understanding of the world. So, I brought up the possibility of infinite being just as logical possibility to counter the logical possibility of there being infinites in the world.

Re.your objection to 3 that limiting the PSR so it doesn’t include abstract truths is moving away from PSR to something else… I guess if you insist we can call it otherwise (e.g. “argument for PSR for all things except abstract truths”).

18. Trey,

Yes, I agree that there is a metaphysical assumption (about the totality of the world, as you say) behind the argument. As you, I’m inclined to see epistemology and metaphysics as related and interdependent, but sure, not everybody will accept this.

You say:”to what extent would you say that your notion of understanding..in any sense…is itself dependent on the principle of sufficient reason? It may sound like I am out right asking you if your argument is circular…but the thing is this…doesn’t understanding itself presume that one knows the reason for something…if there is no reason…then understanding simply is not what is going on.”

Yes, you are right that that is how I see the notion of understanding. I see understanding more in terms of awareness than webs of beliefs. Something like this – one understands why X, if he is aware of the sufficient reason for X and is aware of how that sufficient reason entails X. Or… it might be even more obvious if we talk about explanation than of sufficient reasons – I think it is more intuitive to relate possibility of understanding to an existence of explanation. One can understand something only if there is an explanation for that thing. (I use “awareness” instead of “knowledge”, as knowledge seems too limited a notion in relation to understanding. Knowledge doesn’t imply understanding – even if we have knowledge of the sufficient reasons, it doesn’t mean we understand why those reasons entail the fact in question.)
Does this make the argument circular or maybe begging the question? Might be, I guess. Might be that it is just about trying to make the same thing more intuitive by putting it in another way :)

19. Hmm. I guess I can see that. God doesn’t have to exist he just has to be possible. I suspect many would still deny that an infinite being is possible. Infinities are tricky beasts and many have famously just elected to eliminate them. (Look at the history of mathematical foundationalism)

With regards to the PSR applying to abstractions I suspect my qualm is that all we actually think about are abstractions. When I think about a tree it is always in some sense an abstraction rather than the absolutely individuated tree. So I think there’s still a problem there. Plus, to be honest, this whole abstract vs. particular seems rather arbitrary.

I still think there’s a regress problem there so I think you’re still restating something that demands an unmoved mover. On the other hand, as you know, I don’t mind many regress problems and don’t think an unmoved mover is necessary. (i.e. I don’t mind an infinite past) So that’s not a problem for everyone.

20. The question of awareness is something I think about alot. What would simple ‘awareness’ be like? And how would we get from this awareness to the actual cognitive structure of our phenomenological experience? It’s a deeply important question for me…because the implications seem so radically different if it turns out that there is no basic ‘awareness’; i.e. all experience, all thought, all speech, is mediated. A whole range of topics arise…mediated by what….how is it that we know this, or are aware, of this mediation, does this really negate any real status for ‘truth’? If we have a direct experience of the world then I think a lot of weight can be given to the principle of sufficient reason. For starters..I don’t think a representational theory of mind is compatible with a direct experience of the world…as such…because a great portion of this world that we directly experience is not a representation (or a “mental image”) along with the fact that much of this world seems structured by the psr…well…a strong case is here for the psr to be a metaphysical fact about the world, not just an epistemological principle (—without the mental image I am not even sure what an epistemological principle would be…..besides something that just really would not end up looking much like any kind of epistemological principle..haha).

The notion of this sort of awareness that you brought up would definitely deserve another topic…but it does really seem so critical here for the psr….

Or do you think so…if there is a real sense in which we can ALWAYS say that our experience of the world is mediated…doesn’t this kinda leave the psr debunked right from the start..well…any metaphysical thesis? This, from my understanding has been the position of a lot of ‘language’ philosophers…I’m not so sure that is the only alternative…

21. Clark,

Yeah, I also agree that “understanding something about the world” would necessary involve some abstractions – so to say – limiting the thought to some aspect of the world, and ignoring others, and even thinking of that aspect as falling under some general concept.
What I was thinking re. removing “abstract statements” was more about general truths which would include e.g. truths of logic, mathematics and metaphysics. (in which the argument for PSR would itself be included). I admit that I’m having trouble specifying a clean and clear ‘criteria’ to make the distinction, without getting into a another problematic topics :). I would like to say for example that I would exclude a priori truths as not needing sufficient reason, or not being “aspects of the world”, but then lot of people don’t accept there are a priori truths.

Interesting issue to think of, thanks!

22. Trey,

It seems we agree on what the interesting questions are, even we disagree on the answers to those interesting questions :). I put lot of importance to the notion of ‘awareness’. I basically see this notion as a valid alternative to the idea that theories are base of our conceptual thinking. If you are interested, you can check few posts which I think give the general idea: ‘There are two books on my desk’, `Bachelor` And the Phenomenon of Bachelorhood and `Chair` And the Phenomenon of Chairs.

And yes, it might be that those implicit assumptions are there in the argument for PSR. Thanks for pushing me on those issues. I suspected that there are lot of underlying assumptions in the argument which are not stated (which is why I called it ‘vague’), but you are helping making them explicit.