Jul 262006

On the principle of Sufficient Reason (the PSR)

Since this came up in various, let me give the classical defense of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) a principle which is, I believe, antithetical to Quentin Smith’s Principle of Simplest Beginning (SB) – an atheistic account of the principle of the origin of the cosmos.

Goldberg MachineGoldberg MachineIn the form I will defend it, the PSR states as follows:

PSR = “Anything that exists has a sufficient reason for existing.”

Theoretically, there can be two general types of sufficient reasons for existing.

1. The thing has a sufficient reason for existing within itself – it is the “cause” of it’s own existence.

2. The thing has a sufficient reason for existing which it receives from another thing or things.

With the possible exception of one type of natural phenomena (which I shall discuss momentarily) we know of no natural thing which does not have such a sufficient reason for existing.

Nor can such a thing exist – as we can demonstrate:

Let us suppose that something exists without sufficient reason for existing. This would mean that it neither has existence in and of itself – NOR does it have sufficient reason for existing from somewhere else. It does not get its being from itself – it does not get it from somewhere else.. hence, it HAS no being, and so does not exist – but we were supposing it DOES exist, therefore, this hypothetical entity would both exist and not exist at the same time, which would violate the law of non-contradiction. Therefore, everything that exists has a sufficient reason for existing.

A Possible Exception?

One thing that is suggested as an exception to this principle is a virtual quantum particle that comes into existence in a quantum vacuum. We can’t point to a deterministic cause of such a particle. We can only point to a PROBABALISTIC cause – a tendency. Does this violate the PSR? I would say no, for the following reason – the “existence” a virtual quantum particle has is an entirely different order of existence. Having only a probabilistic cause, it also has only a probabilistic EXISTENCE. In a sense, these particles DO both “exist” and “not exist” at the same time. They are an order of reality far different from, and inferior to, the normal realities of things like chairs, rocks and trees.

Jul 262006

All mystics would agree that in absolute, God cannot be completely comprehended by the mind nor described in human words and concepts. God can only be perceived directly through mystical union with him.

For example:

“Quit the senses, the workings of the intellect, and all that may be sensed and known, and all that is not, and is. For by this you may unknowingly attain, in as far as it is possible, to the one-ness of Him who is beyond all being and knowledge”
(St. Dionysis)
“Whatever you think concerning Allah – know that he is different from that!”
(Ahmad Lbn Ata’Allah)
“Tao is beyond words and beyond understanding. Words may be used to speak of it, but they cannot contain it.”
(Lao Tzu)
“Even though God cannot be comprehended, God can be loved. By love, not thought, he can be taken and held. “
(The Cloud of Unknowing)

This is not to say that the proper approach to God is emotionalism. Mysticism is not emotionalism. I’ve been to plenty of Christian gatherings where the primary purpose seemed to be to whip people into an emotional frenzy about God – and trust me, mystical union is the farthest thing from this kind of experience. I have no problem at all putting these kind of emotional experiences into words and human concepts – whereas mystical union is simply impossible to completely explain. It must be experienced.

The ThinkerThe ThinkerGiven, then that all mystics agree that words, concepts and rational arguments about God are to some extent, a “mind game” – they DISAGREE on whether this mind-game is useful. Some clearly think they are NOT…

“Someone who seeks God through logical proof is like someone who looks for the sun with a lamp.”
(Traditional Sufi Saying)

To such mystics, if you really want to know, become a mystic yourself, otherwise, stop wasting your time talking. Others, such as Thomas Aquinas (the real one that is) contend that while human concepts cannot completely comprehend God, they CAN give us limited truth about God which is useful. Bear in mind, of course, that before his death Thomas had a mystical experience which caused him to refer to all his books as “straw” and ask that they be burnt. 😉

But assuming we decide to play the mind game (and as most here know, I happen to really enjoy the mind-game), I still think we can refute the charges of non-cognitivism. The best book I know on this is “How to Think About God” by Mortimer Adler. Adler spends many chapters patiently explaining all the difficulties involved in thinking about God. These difficulties arise out of the fact that God is such a completely unique object of thought. Because of this, few of the categories applied to other objects of thought can be applied directly to God without qualification.

For example, if we say “God exists” we run into the problems pointed out by the non-cognitive argument. Ordinary objects of thought which “exist” have particular characteristics. God’s existence is like these things in some ways and unlike it in others. Ordinary existence is something of an “analogy” for God’s existence. This is why some of the mystics are quite comfortable with saying that “God exists” and “God does NOT exist” are equally misleading statements.

“If I say that “God exists”, this is also not true. He is being beyond being: he is a nothingness beyond being.”
(Meister Eckhart)


Adler, by the way, formulates a positive definite description of God in his book as follows (with a nod to Anselm) “That being, than which no greater can be thought of”. Adler has specific reasons for calling this a “definite description” instead of a “definition” – which center in the differences I mentioned above between God and other objects of thought.

A number of theologians look upon God not as “existing” in the way finite objects exist, but of being “existence itself” or as Thomas Aquinas put it “the essence of essences”. In spite of the Objectivists contention that “Existence exists” I’ve always thought this was trying to make verbs into nouns. Existence doesn’t “exist” any more than “redness” is literally red. Which is entirely different, of course, from saying existence is a fantasy or a fiction.

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