Colin and I have been having an argument about the principle of sufficient reason. I now think he is substantially right on several things. I wrote a long comment at his but screwed up somehow and lost it.

In brief, I think Colin’s view is that the principle of sufficient reason holds, along the lines of an affirmation of the proposition (a), “For any Y there is an X which is the reason or a reason for Y.” Colin holds, I think, that we can not reject proposition (a) without contradiction, and that this is not a matter of how we must think but a fact about the world independent of us.

I’m convinced of the first, I’m willing to go along with the latter but feel less strongly about it. Where Colin and I disagree, I think, is on two things. First, I want to maintain a difference between the phrase “we can not conclude other than” and “we can not other than conclude”, in relation to (a). This is in large part due to my having read a dialog by Lewis Carroll wherein Carroll implies that the act of drawing a conclusion is not guaranteed by the premises of a syllogism.

I’m convinced with regard regard to (a) we can not conclude other than (a) in any case. That is we can not conclude (~a). But I’m not convinced that this means one must conclude (a). “We can not conclude other than” means other conclusions are barred. “We can not other than conclude” means non-conclusion is barred. If “we can not other than conclude (a)” then (a) is guaranteed. If “we can not conclude other than (a)” we have eliminated the possibility of any other conclusions but concluding is not necessarily guaranteed, in the sense that we can still introduce intermediary premises before conclusion, as in the Carroll. I may be simply enganging in wordplay sophistry here, I’m not sure, but I think part of what’s involved here is a question as to whether (a) = (~(~a)), that is, if the negation of the negation of a term is equal to the term.

Second, Colin and my discussion has been vexed by a confusion on my part about what precisely is being claimed in (a). Recall that (a) is the proposition “For any Y there is an X which is the reason or a reason for Y.” (Part of what affirmation of this proposition aims to do is rule out any assertion like “For some Y there is no X which is the reason or a reason for Y.” Colin rightly argues that this is impossible.) It’s not clear, though, what “is a reason for” means. I’ll call this phrase “(r)”. On the one hand, (r) could refer to justification, the line of reasoning which makes something reasonable. In that case, (r) is related to the practice of reason giving and is something like an acceptable claim according to the standards of reason (the definition of which I’ll bracket). In that case, (r) is part of an answer to a question like “why do you hold Y?”

On the other hand, (r) could refer to causality, that which brings about a state of affairs. In that case, (r) is part of an answer to a question “why is Y the case?”

Colin holds that the reason for (a) is that contradiction results if we reject (a), that (~a) is out of bounds. This is unproblematic with regard to reason giving. In this case, (a) satisfies itself, it meets the criteria it insists upon. That is, if we take (a) as a value for Y, we can say “For (a) there is some X which is reason for (a).” That reason is that we can not reject (a) without contradiction. On the other hand, things seem murkier if we take this as a matter of causality. In terms of causality, taking (a) as a value for Y, we get “for (a) there is some X which is the reason for (a)” such that X causes (a) to be the case, X made (a) come about. Now, I may have a poor notion of causality here, but it seem to me that this version is more problematic. If we take some object, like a chair, we can find a temporally prior condition and some actor(s) in that condition which caused the chair. We can do the same with a proposition like “nuclear war will result in widespread loss of life” – we can find various causes for this proposition without too much trouble, including explanations as to why the proposition is true. I’m not clear what the cause could be for (a), though. Prior to doing so and proving it so, it seems to me that this should render (a) uncertain. Given that we don’t want (a) to be uncertain, then it seems to me that we should bracket (a) in terms of cause, which means instead we should limit ourselves to (a) in terms of reason-giving for now.