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 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.
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.
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?
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