Man and World

, Volume 1, Issue 2, pp 278–292 | Cite as

The cosmological argument and the principle of sufficient reason

  • William L. Rowe


Political Philosophy Sufficient Reason Cosmological Argument 
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  1. 1.
    Summa Contra Gentiles, Book II, Chap. 15, Sect. 6. I am indebted to Professor Francis H. Parker for drawing my attention to this argument.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    ‘The Existence of God, A Debate between Bertrand Russell and Father F. C. Copleston’, John Hick, (ed.),The Existence of God (The Macmillan Company, New York 1964), p. 175. The debate was originally broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1948. References are to the debate as reprinted inThe Existence of God.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    Hume,Dialogues, Part IX.Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    Samuel Clarke, for example, makes the following remark in correspondence with a critic: Nothing can be more absurd, than to suppose that anything (or any circumstance of any thing) is; and yet that there be absolutely no reason why it is, rather than not. ‘Tis easy to conceive, that we may indeed be utterly ignorant of the reasons, or grounds, or causes of many things. But, that anything is; and that there is a real reason in nature why it is, rather than not; these two are as necessarily and essentially connected, as any two correlates whatever, as height and depth, etc. The letter from which this passage comes is included in the 9th edition of the work from which our quotations from theDemonstration have been taken, p. 490. Clarke's use of the term ‘reason’ is not, I think, to be confused with the notion of purpose. He is not maintaining here that whatever exists must have a purpose of its existence. Rather, he is maintaining that for every existing thing there must be someexplanation of why it exists rather than not. Such an explanation may include purpose, but it cannot be given solely in terms of prupose. Thus if we ask the reason why a certain statue exists rather than not, it will not do to say simply that it exists for the purpose of satisfying aesthetic desires. But Clarke would, I think, count the fact that Jones made the statue as an explanation of its existence. And it would still be an explanation if it were true that Jones made the statue for the purpose of satisfying aesthetic desires.Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    See R.M. Chisholm,Theory of Knowledge, pp. 87–90.Google Scholar
  6. 10.
    John Laird,Theism and Cosmology (Philosophical Library, New York 1942) p. 95. As an example of an argument thought to show that the Principle of Sufficient Reason is false, we may consider the following passage in Antony Flew'sGod and Philosophy (Hutchinson, London 1966), p. 83. At every stage explanation is in terms of something else which, at that stage, has to be accepted as a brute fact. In some further stage that fact itself may be explained; but still in terms of something else which, at least temporarily, has simply to be accepted (Hospers). It would therefore seem to be a consequence of the essential nature of explanation that, however much may ultimately be explained in successive stages of inquiry, there must always be some facts which have simply to be accepted with what Samuel Alexander used to call “natural piety”.... The ultimate facts about God would have to be, for precisely the same reason, equally inexplicable. In each and every case we must necessarily find at the end of every explanatory road some ultimates which have simply to be accepted as the fundamental truths about the way things are. And this itself is a contention, not about the lamentable contingent facts of the human condition, but about what follows necessarily from the nature of explanation. Flew remarks that if what has just been said about explanation is correct, the Principle of Sufficient Reason is not merely false but demonstratively false. But if the argument presented by Flew is a demonstration of the falsity of the Principle it must be a demonstration of the Principle's denial (or some statement that entails the Principle's denial); namely, that some thing or fact has no explanation of its existence. It is, I think, clear that Flew's argument does not yield the conclusion that some fact has no explanation. The conclusion it yields is that there is always some fact or other that must be left unexplained by us. But this is compatible with every fact having an explanation. From the premise that it is not possible for us to explain every fact it simply does not follow that there is some fact that cannot be explained. Although the premises of Flew's argument are not inconsistent with the Principle of Sufficient Reason they do have serious implications for the Cosmological Argument. For the point of the Cosmological Argument is to show that there must be a stopping place to the series of explanations. The argument seeks to establish that there must be some ultimate being that is the explanation of other beings, but does not have the explanation of its existence in any other being. Granting this for the moment, it follows from Flew's premises that the existence of this being will be ultimate butunexplained. It will be unexplained because one of Flew's premises is that “at every stage explanation is in terms of something else”. But if nothing else can be the explanation of this ultimate being, and if any explanation of its existence would have to be in terms of something else, it follows that the existence of this ultimate being is an inexplicable brute fact. However, the Principle of Sufficient Reason requires an explanation for the existence of absolutely every being. Hence, although Flew's premises are consistent with the Principle of Sufficient Reason, they are inconsistent with the Principle when they are conjoined with what, in part, the Cosmological Argument seeks to establish; namely, that there is a being whose existence is not explainable in terms of anything else. What is puzzling about Flew's remarks is why he should think that it follows from the nature of explanation that “at every stage explanation is in terms of something else”. He does provide a few examples in which we do explain one thing in terms of something else — explaining why “the new white paint above our gas cooker quickly turns a dirty brown”, etc. But these examples, of course, in no way show that explanationmust always be in terms of something else. Indeed, even if every generally accepted explanation that has been given is an explanation of one thing in terms of something else, it hardly follows that the nature of explanation requires that it be so. Clarke, Leibniz, and other philosophers who have employed the Principle of Sufficient Reason in the Cosmological Argument contend that m the case of the ultimate being the explanation of its existence is to be found not in some other being but in its own nature. That the nature of explanation renders this contention impossible is something that needs to be established by a careful analysis of the concept of explanation. Merely citing a few examples in which the explanation of one thing is found in something else is simply irrelevant to the question at issue. Hence, although the Principle may be false, Flew's argument fails as a demonstration of its falsity.Google Scholar
  7. 11.
    ‘A Debate’, p. 176.Google Scholar
  8. 12.
    Richard Taylor,Metaphysics (Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1963), pp. 86–87.Google Scholar
  9. 13.
    ‘A Debate’, p. 176.Google Scholar
  10. 14.
    Ibid., p. 177.Google Scholar
  11. 15.
    Father Copleston, ‘A Debate’, p. 176.Google Scholar
  12. 16.
    G. J. Warnock has argued this in ‘Every Event Has a Cause’,Logic and Language II, edited by Antony Flew (Blackwell, London 1953). Warnock argued that it is impossible to describe any circumstance that could show “Every Event has a Cause” to befalse. From the impossibility of falsifying “Every Event has a Cause” Warnock inferred that far from being a necessary truth about nature, the principle is “vacuous and utterly uninformative”. But it is, I think, doubtful that this inference is correct. We must distinguish between (i) being able to specify what would have to happen in nature for ‘Every event has a cause’ to be rendered false, and (ii) being able todetermine that what would falsify ‘Every event has a cause’ has occurred in nature. What Warnock's argument, if correct, establishes is that we lack the ability described in (ii). (See pp. 106–107 of his article.) But he fails to establish that we lack the ability described in (i). And if we have the ability described in (i) then it would seem that ‘Every event has a cause’ is not vacuous and utterly uninformative. In short, apart from appealing to some form of the Positivist's verification principle of meaning what Warnock establishes does not suffice for the derivation of his claim that the principle ‘Every event has a cause’ is not a proposition providing information about nature.Google Scholar
  13. 18.
    Taylor,Metaphysics, p. 88.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© I. P. R. Associates 1968

Authors and Affiliations

  • William L. Rowe
    • 1
  1. 1.Purdue UniversityUSA

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