The Principle of Sufficient Reason

In the 2008 film The Dark Knight, audiences were treated to one of acting’s greatest spectacles – Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker. Throughout the film we are asked to ponder: why does he do what he does? who is he? what is the reason? Alfred – Batman’s butler – suggests that some men just want to watch the world burn. While the Joker describes himself as a mad dog – he doesn’t think, he just does. 😬 Even the scars which form his macabre smile, are given multiple backstories. 
“Want to know how I got these scars?” he asks, before spinning a tale of an abusive father or unsupportive wife.

… but we know there must be a reason.

Ever since we were children, when our parents asked, “why did you do that?”, we have been taught that actions have a reason – whether it be a face smeared in chocolate cake or drawing on the walls.

This is the Principle of Sufficient Reason, put forward by the 17th-century philosopher Gottfried Leibniz. In philosophical speak, it states “for every state of affairs or true proposition, there is an explanation of why it is the way it is.” Or in regular speak, “Everything has a reason.” 😮

But what are these reasons? Well, Leibniz argued there are two kinds: 

  • self-contained;
  • external.

Self-contained reasons refer to abstract objects, definitions, or maths. For instance, a triangle has three sides and angles equal to 180 degrees, or a bachelor must be unmarried. It is because it is.
External reasons apply to the messy nature of reality, including events, objects, creatures; it is these latter reasons with which the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) is concerned.

Humor is reason gone mad. Groucho Marx

In the hilarious Great Emu War, we can say the Australians fought the Emus. 
“Australia” is the subject. 
“Fought the Emus” is the predicate. 
Leibniz argues that for a statement to be true, the predicate must “belong” to the subject. Therefore, as the Australians DID fight the Emus, it is true. But it didn’t have to be true, unlike a triangle which has to have three sides…
But here we are left asking, why does “Fought the Emus” have to belong to “Australians”? There has to be a reason! Here Leibniz gets a little woolly 😂, never explicitly stating why the PSR is so, but arguing that “nothing happens without a cause.” 

Leibniz expanded PSR, stating, if two distinct objects share the exact same properties (e.g. temperature, mass, size, material), they must be the same object. For there can be no reason for two objects with the exact same properties to be in two different places, therefore by Leibniz’s logic, there must only be one object.🤔

By understanding the world in this way, we are faced with an infinity of whys? Like a child asking questions. 
Why did the Australian fight the Emus?
Because there were too many. 
And why were there too many?
Ask Leibniz. 😂 And on and on it goes… 
Eventually, getting to the beginning, Leibniz concluded there must be a “necessary substance,” a first cause, or as Aristotle would have it, a “Prime Mover.”

Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why. Kurt Vonnegut

For Leibniz, there are no reasons or laws beyond the simple succession of events. Things are because they follow from what they were. Many philosophers profoundly disagreed with him. David Hume, for instance, argued that we expect events to follow each other, simply because that is the way it has always been.

What do you think are cause and effect: a mere habit, or do they necessitate each other? Ah, and of course, how did the Joker get his scars?

Next post – Book Review 


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34 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    Haven’t watched it yet. Heard it was a good movie. And yes, everything has a reason.

  2. Interesting. When my parents asked me why, I answered, “Because.” That never turned out well… 😄😄🙄😒😲😏

  3. I feel bad for the poor harmless emus.

  4. George F. says:

    Time is mysteriously non-linear. Cause and effect is not so simple as past to future.

  5. Beside the fact that Leibniz is a carrier of the headache , everything has a reason is an excellent way to approach writing a novel. If the writer can logically explain the cause of outcomes to the reader by words or action then the book is bound to be better. The “trust me,” or “poetic license” method of plot development leaves a lot to be desired. Thanks for this VR. I need to have a nap now. 😜

  6. My argument would be; Australians fought the emus because they’re black-hearted, evil blighters that are only any good on the end of a spit roast. Seriously – have you ever gone eye to eye with one? Stuff of nightmares…

    • Victoria Ray NB says:

      No… never met. Only if in the zoo? Don’t recall our meeting tho 🤪
      So, Schopenhauer & Leibniz were right- there’s always the reason 🙂 🕺✌️

  7. Eilene Lyon says:

    You’re too deep for me!🤔🤔 I’ll have to tackle this later, if there’s a reason.

  8. I am still looking for a reason to procrastinate! 😉

  9. I sometimes think that events are independent but a person then tries to link them. The more we spend time trying to link things, trying to over think then we too often let the actual moment we are living pass. Dark Knight was great. So very dark and disturbing.

    • Victoria Ray NB says:

      Thank you! Yes… Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world… maybe this is where our problems begins

  10. Sorryless says:

    Once again you go deep with such a funky verve to your sauce. I dig the Dark Knight movie, but this post is more interesting. Just saying.

  11. masercot says:

    For a guy who created calculus, Leibniz is quite linear…

  12. Hello. This is a very complicated subject, one that is way beyond my abilities. In some ways, the answers seem obvious. But they are not. Far more is at play.

    • Victoria Ray NB says:

      Thank you… yes, it’s complicated matter & no one (yet) has an answer. Maybe joker 🃏 has… cause every scar begins somewhere