The principle of sufficient reason (musings on religious arguments, and Ockham’s Razor)

The bold claim 

I think that the best way to prove the existence of God; iff there is to be any way, MUST appeal to the principle of sufficient reason. Let me explain the principle first.


Okay; my first proviso is this. I don’t usually like saying ‘the principle of sufficient reason’. I prefer the phrase “Explanatory Rationalism” (cf. Bennett, Cottingham). Many allocate this law of reasoning to Leibniz, but I think it has its ancestry further back. I can immediately cite Spinoza as (arguably) holding to this principle (although not explicitly, this is another issue I like to explain about, but not for this post). It has such an amazing appeal to Christianity apologetics, and furthermore, intuition.

Have you ever heard anyone say after a horrible breakup “these things happen for a reason”, or after a natural disaster, et cetera? Well, being the cynic that I am; I think people who say “these things happen for a reason” normally are full of teleological bullshit. But if they knew a little rationalism, a little Leibniz, for example; they might find some justification for their claim. The claim for explanatory rationalism goes something like this:

If there is something, then there must be something to explain it.

Okay; let me reformulate it:

Hempelian interpretation: If there is an explanandum, there must be explanans

Causal interpretation: If there is an effect, there must be a cause

Metaphysical interpretation: If something exists, there must be something to account for this state of affair

I want to make this bold point:

Explanatory rationalism may follow to a commitment to these other interpretations; but not all of them have to follow

 I think, this is where scientist-leaning people and religious minded individuals can find common ground; IFF this principle is true!


Let me give some real life examples:

  1. We know AIDS exists determinately, so there must be something determinate that explained it
  2. My badge is not where I left it, there must be a reason why it is not here. I (assumption) am certain I left it here last night. Something must have happened so as it is not here, or that I do not see it where it was when i left it last.
  3. Quantum phenomena occurs, therefore there must be explanations
  4. (If quantum phenomena is uniform, then there must be uniform explanations to account for said phenomena)

A law of thought

Many of my colleagues believe Ockham’s Razor is the most fundamental heuristic. I have slight reservations for explanatory parsimony over preference of explanatory power, but that’s all by the by. I think a committment to explanatory rationalism as a meta theoretic concern is more fundamental than the Razor itself. Isn’t our role as philosophers (or scientists) to explain?. I think people are afraid of Christianity so much they hold on to that Razor to cut any mention or suggestion of God away. Leibniz and Spinoza didn’t, and they are certainly no fools.

I’m not saying the Razor and ER are incompatible; in fact, I’d be happy if they both were, I’m not denying parsimony is important at all. I just don’t put it at the top of my list of characteristics of good theories (I prefer long, but truer theories, to shorter, but lacking ones).

With the exception of our post on Feuerbach’s eleventh thesis. I reiterate and say the most fundamental job we have as philosophers is to explain. That is the spirit of reason. To understand, to empathise, to care, to see, to know, to relate. Those are the key values we need as human beings; rational and sensitive. I say then, that we endorse Leibniz’s principle, and don’t fear what follows from it; be it the Christian God, or the coldness of lonely reason..

Michael (consultations with Destre)


2 thoughts on “The principle of sufficient reason (musings on religious arguments, and Ockham’s Razor)

  1. I am intrigued by your post. I also feel like there is a flaw in the logic of parsimony. I have found that life is not deducible to linear mathematics, but is a complex interaction of many competing variables. But I am a scientist, not a philosopher, and have never heard of Ockham’s Razor nor explanatory rationalism. Do you know where I could encounter an evenhanded discussion/debate about both previous subjects and the existence of God? Is there a philosophy class I could take?

    Thank you,

  2. Hello Sylvia;

    You are a scientist? I hope you continue to read my blog. The noumenal realm is beautiful and rich only in virtue of the people who contribute to it; like Barnaby Dawson of “The Seed of Reason” (a pure mathematician), and Chris of “Only a Game” (a games designer). Check out their blogs; they, from time to time, address Ockham’s Razor.

    Explanatory Rationalism? Check the following:

    1. Spinoza (Ethics, and preliminary works in metaphysics)
    2. Leibniz (various works in metaphysics and theology) – and Theodicy
    3. Hume/Kant (for the opinion AGAINST explanatory rationalism)
    4. Commentaries by J. Bennett, E. Curley on Spinoza [ I don’t know any leibniz scholarship]
    5. Hempel’s theory of scientific explanation (explanatory rationalism taken in the form of the DEDUCTIVE NOMOLOGICAL METHOD in science – a popular approach 100 or so years ago)
    6. Kant on Religion, Liberal Protestant theology (which replies to Kant); and Barth, and post-Barth evangelical theology.

    Ms. Jade; if you join us, we can go on a journey together to explore how explanatory rationalism and God could go together…this isn’t something i have thought much about, but I may have to in the distant future.


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