A Starting Point for the Rationalists

I hear the president is on tape from months ago saying how dangerous the virus is, but that he didn’t want the public to know the facts (and protect themselves?). An impeachable offense, you say, if only his time wasn’t running out? He is also reported to have said that joining the military and possibly being killed or wounded is dumb. It’s the kind of thing losers do. And California has its worst wildfire in history as the globe keeps on warming. But I’m on a news vacation until November, so enough of that.

In May, I wrote about a philosopher, Michael Della Rocca, who argued in an interview that we should adopt monism, which I described as:

. . . the view that reality is somehow one thing; the universe doesn’t consist of many things (such as electrons and gluons, or apples and oranges). Neither does it consist of only a couple of things (like mind and matter).

I didn’t like his argument, which is why the post was called “Punished by a Philosopher”.

One of the things Prof. Della Rocca said was that the Principle of Sufficient Reason is crucial to understanding “rationalist” philosophers like Spinoza and Leibniz, and presumably Descartes, their predecessor:

Rationalism can mean lots of different things to different people, but for me the Principle of Sufficient Reason (the PSR) is central to rationalism. The PSR is the principle according to which there are no brute facts that obtain or no things that exist without an explanation. That is, each thing or each fact has an explanation. The PSR is the guiding force of Leibniz’s and Spinoza’s work. . . 

I was reminded of Prof. Della Rocca’s interview when I read an interview with another philosopher at the same site. John Carriero is also an expert on the rationalist philosophers. He doesn’t think the Principle of Sufficient Reason is as fundamental as Della Rocca does:

You ask about the secondary literature. I think scholars have become increasingly sensitive to the role that the First Principle Theory is playing in early modern rationalism. I think there sometimes remains a tendency, perhaps out of a principle of charity, to try to work around the First Principle Theory and extract something that feels less alien.

For example, sometimes scholars are more comfortable working with a (what seems to me ungrounded) “principle of sufficient reason”—or some other disembodied form of “rationality”—than thinking in terms of a really existing First Principle that is ultimate the universe’s intelligibility. Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz do hold that reality is deeply intelligible, but that’s because reality originates in a First Principle with certain features, and, for them, the intelligibility of the universe bottoms out in the First Principle’s essence. 

I don’t think Prof. Carriero denies that the rationalist philosophers endorsed the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Unlike Della Rocca, however, he just thinks philosophers like Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz believed there was something more fundamental. He calls it their (or a) “First Principle”.

I’m not 100% certain that I understand what this First Principle is supposed to be. But somebody named Uma who posts on the internet may have part of the explanation:

Aristotle defined a first principle as “the first basis from which a thing is known”.

A First Principle is a basic, essential, foundational truth that is “known by nature.” It is not an assumption or deduction based on another theory or supposition. A key element of First Principle thinking is that just because something is “known by nature” or true in the universe does not mean it has ever been articulated and described by humans.

Here’s what Corriera says about the rationalists’ First Principle in response to the interviewer (Richard Marshall aka 3:16):

3:16:  I think you position Descartes’ radical thinking in terms of a philosophical theology. So what’s the place of philosophical theology in Descartes’ work? You say something surprising (to me at least) when you say that it was probably more important to Descartes than it was to Aquinas! How come?

JC: Let’s think of philosophical theology as the theory of the universe’s First Principle: whether the universe has a First Principle, and, if so, the nature and character of that First Principle.

For Aquinas, First Principle Theory is the culmination of philosophy, what philosophy leads to. Each of the arguments for the existence of God in the Summa Theologiae —the so-called Five Ways—is based on each of the Aristotelian four causes . . .  Before you embark on philosophical theology you need to have studied the natural world, and learned what change or motion is, learned about . . . what form and matter are, and learned about the four causes and how they are related. So, for Aquinas, not only it is possible to do a lot of philosophy before you get to First Principle Theory, it is necessary to do so.

Descartes reverses this. A large part of the Meditations project is to position us as knowers within the universe, and for him that project is inextricable from philosophical theology. This means more than ticking off the “God exists” and “God is not a deceiver” boxes. It means understanding our position: this involves understanding what the First Principle is . . . , the nature of our dependence on God, how error enters a universe authored by a supremely perfect being, and, finally, seeing how all Scientia [knowledge] depends on the recognition of God. Descartes views the need to orient ourselves in this way as a sort of propaedeutic [preparatory study] that has to come before other disciplines; and so, for him, First Principle Theory does not come after natural philosophy, as it does for Aquinas.

But what is this First Principle? This is a long interview but I couldn’t find a precise definition. This comes closest:

[Descartes] thinks that Scientia requires a systematic understanding of our position as intellectual beings within the universe . . .  Achieving such an understanding involves knowing something about the First Principle of the universe (God), as the source of the universe’s intelligibility, the origin (or author) of our natures, and the Being that ultimately accounts for our minds’ being plugged into the universe’s order.

So, for the rationalist philosophers, the First Principle, apparently more fundamental than the Principle of Sufficient Reason, is God — or rather what the existence of God as a perfect being and creator of the universe means, as far as we human beings are concerned.

I think this makes a lot of sense. I don’t mean it makes sense for our intellectual starting point to be a perfect creator of the universe. I mean it makes sense that certain 17th century philosophers had that starting point. The rationalists began with their understanding of God and went on from there. Their writings are more understandable if they had God as their intellectual bedrock. It explains why God shows up in their arguments, sometimes seemingly out of the blue (like the most wonderful deus ex machina there could possibly be). Having this kind of philosophical/theological perspective explains why they rely on their understanding of God to justify so many other beliefs. 

Prof. Corriera’s view does explain a passage from Spinoza that he cites. Spinoza argues that empirically-minded philosophers or theologians who begin with the natural world and then draw conclusions about God have it backwards:

For the divine nature, which [philosophers like Aristotle and his followers, as well as, presumably, later philosophers as well] should have considered before all else—it being prior both in cognition and in Nature—they have taken to be last in the order of cognition, and the things that are called objects of sense they have taken as prior to everything. Hence it has come about that in considering natural phenomena, they have completely disregarded the divine nature. And when thereafter they turned to the contemplation of the divine nature, they could find no place in their thinking for those fictions on which they had built their natural science, since these fictions were of no avail in attaining knowledge of the divine nature. So it is little wonder that they have contradicted themselves on all sides. (Ethics, 2p10s)

The professors can argue whether God or the Principle of Sufficient Reason was more fundamental for the rationalist philosophers. Did God make things so that everything happens for a reason? Or does that fact that everything happens for a reason explain God’s presence and proclivities?

Or is there no God and stuff happens for no reason at all? That may be too cynical a view, but it’s definitely in the running.

By the way, I’m 100% certain the professors would agree that Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz would all recommend making every effort to vote for Democrats this year. God or no God, it’s the only rational thing to do.

Punished by a Philosopher

I was slightly tempted to discuss a new book that lays out the argument for considering The Toddler to be a toddler (The Toddler In Chief by Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University). But even thinking about that subject would be a form of punishment.

Instead, I’m going to consider a different kind of punishment: being subjected to a bad philosophical argument. It’s not the worst kind of punishment. It’s often interesting or amusing to consider what a philosopher says, however implausible it might be.  Punishment is what came to mind, however, when I went from reading about the Toddler book to reading Richard Marshall’s interview with Yale philosophy professor  Michael Della Rocca. (Note: This isn’t the typical post I’ve published in recent years in terms of either subject matter or length; there’s nobody watching if you’d like to turn back now.)(PS: Another option is to read the final few lighthearted paragraphs.)

Professor Della Rocca specializes in metaphysics and early modern philosophy — “Early Modern” primarily refers to the ideas of Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Leibniz and Locke, all published between 1615 and 1715.

This is the argument that Della Rocca makes:

… in virtue of what are [any two things] A and B not identical? If one answers: “in virtue of being in different locations,” then the question just re-arises in a different form: in virtue of what are these locations not identical? … So this response … goes no distance toward offering genuine illumination on the issue of what it is in virtue of what A and B are distinct.

Why do we need “genuine illumination” on what makes A and B distinct? If we have what seems to be an excellent reason to believe A and B are different things (one’s here and the other is over there), why shouldn’t we believe they’re different without being required to explain the difference sufficiently well?

Della Rocca continues:

I take such why-questions seriously—i.e. I think that they demand an answer, and I’m certainly not alone here. Such questions are for me a hallmark of rationalism. Rationalism can mean lots of different things to different people, but for me the Principle of Sufficient Reason (the PSR) is central to rationalism. The PSR is the principle according to which there are no brute facts that obtain or no things that exist without an explanation. That is, each thing or each fact has an explanation. The PSR is the guiding force of Leibniz’s and Spinoza’s work….

The Principle of Sufficient Reason tells us that every fact, including whether or how A and B are different, requires a sufficient (genuinely illuminating? satisfactory? compelling?) reason to admit the difference exists or explanation for why or how it exists. But must we accept that Principle? Is it true?

Professor Della Rocca doesn’t say. Instead, he points out that philosophers often demand reasons and explanations, and once you start down that road, there is no reason to stop until you get to the finish line, i.e. you are justified in demanding reasons or explanations in every case, until you get one that’s “sufficient”. That is the Principle of Sufficient Reason. (Bright children who keep asking “why” questions until their parents lose patience may be covert adherents of the PSR.)

[Philosophers] accept explanatory demands in particular domains, and I point out that it seems right that they do accept these explanatory demands. I think that explanatory demands are the lifeblood of philosophy, and you don’t need me to say that they make sense and should be taken seriously. People already do take them seriously. After showing that certain explanatory demands are accepted, I then try to make life difficult for my interlocutors by showing how the explanatory demands that they already accept lead to surprising or even troubling consequences.

He holds that one such troubling consequence is being forced to accept the principle known as the “Identity of Indiscernibles”.

This is the case with my defense of the identity of indiscernibles. I begin with explanatory claims that very many philosophers embrace or seem to embrace—claims to the effect that such-and-such a situation is to be ruled out precisely because it would involve inexplicable facts. I then ratchet up the pressure by showing how this explanatory demand generates momentum to go further and, in this case, eventually generates pressure to accept the identity of indiscernibles and indeed the full-blown PSR.

I believe the idea here is that if we cannot sufficiently explain what it is, for example, for A and B to be in visibly different locations, not only should we withhold judgment, but A and B aren’t in different locations at all. The same rule applies to the other apparent differences between A and B, their color, their size, I suppose their importance, whatever difference you care to name. But if there are no differences between A and B, they must be the same thing. They are identical. A = B.



Since the variables A and B can be assigned to anything, we end up with a version of the classic philosophical position called “monism”. Generally speaking, monism is the position that reality is one thing and not a collection of things. The ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides is credited (or discredited) as an early monist. Della Rocca thinks Parmenides was serious about what sounds like an incredible position:

Parmenides, as I interpret him, is a strict monist in the sense that he denies that there are any negations or distinctions whatsoever (i.e. one thing’s not being another). Indeed, for Parmenides, such distinctions, such negations, and any multiplicity are unintelligible—they cannot even be thought.

Parmenides’ successors—notably Plato and Aristotle—were haunted by Parmenides’ vision, and they sought to make the world safe for distinctions and multiplicity. Whether they succeeded is another matter. My view is that this move in Parmenides from the PSR to a strong version of monism or a rejection of all distinctions and multiplicity is repeated time and time again in the history of philosophy. Attempts to avoid this result either by limiting the PSR or denying it outright fail.

Della Rocca than presents his own take on monism:

I endorse Parmenideanism in my own voice for reasons stemming from the PSR…. Thus, there are no differentiated substances or beings, actions, knowledges (instances of knowledge), or meanings. There is, one might say, being or substance, but not substances or beings; there is action, but no actions. For me, these terms (“substance”, “action”, “knowledge”, “meaning”) are not count nouns, but are something like mass terms.

The challenge in each of these cases is this: we ordinarily think of actions, etc. as differentiated, as relational, but for me there is no good way to make sense of such differentiation, such relations, and so—in order to save or redeem the concepts of substance, action, knowledge, and meaning—we have to ascend to an undifferentiated, non-relational version of these phenomena, if they are to be saved or redeemed at all.

We take the reality that we were trying to capture in terms of differentiation and, instead, we capture it better by appealing to undifferentiated versions of these phenomena. In this way, my account is deeply skeptical, not in the tame sense of denying that we know that there are instances of these phenomena, but in the sense of denying that we have a coherent conception of these phenomena, at least of these phenomena as involving distinctions.

I think this is the structure of Della Rocca’s argument, even though it’s not how it’s presented in the interview:

1) The Principle of Sufficient Reason is a fundamental, highly plausible principle.

1a) It is so fundamental that it might not be justifiable, but to be consistent, anyone who has ever required a good enough reason to believe something exists or some statement is true should require a good enough reason in every case.

2) Once we accept the PSR, we realize that the explanations we ordinarily accept are insufficient, because we can ask for those explanations themselves to be explained.

4) Among the insufficient explanations are those that attempt to explain how or why two or more things are different (e.g., “you might think these two objects are different because they are in different locations, but in virtue of what are their locations different?”).

5) Since such explanations are insufficient, the supposed differences don’t exist.

6) The Identity of Indiscernibles is another plausible principle. But it says that if there are no differences between two things, the two things are only one thing; “they” are identical.

7) Therefore, we should adopt some kind of monism, the view that reality is somehow one thing; the universe doesn’t consist of many things (such as electrons and gluons, or apples and oranges). Neither does it consist of only a couple of things (like mind and matter).

8) In particular, we should think of certain things, action and meaning, for example, as one thing (action or meaning) rather than many things (e.g. the actions you performed yesterday or the meanings of the words in Della Rocca’s interview).

I don’t think I’ve expressed the argument very well, but, since it’s part of an interview, it’s not presented with crystalline clarity. No doubt it’s clearer and has more detail in Della Rocca’s articles or books.

Nevertheless, I think it’s nuts. On the face of it, denying that reality is made of different things, things that have relationships and distinctions between them, seems so wrong, so counterintuitive, one wonders if “all is one” means something deeply and obscurely profound, not what it appears to mean.

Anyway, here are a few observations.

The obvious place to start is the Principle of Sufficient Reason. What makes a reason or explanation sufficient? Ordinarily, when we evaluate a reason or explanation, we think it’s sufficient if it meets our purposes now and (we hope) in the future. But the Principle of Sufficient Reason doesn’t include a statement of purpose, so the meaning of “sufficient” is hard to determine.  If somebody is visiting our house for the first time, it would be helpful to tell them that there is a tree on either side of our driveway, and their leaves are (somewhat surprisingly) different colors. Asking for further explanations of these facts would be a waste of time. It wouldn’t change the original facts about location and color. It would serve no purpose.

But Della Rocca thinks apparent differences like location and color require further explanation. Perhaps physics could do the job. A physicist can explain various characteristics of spacetime and light. But only up to a point (or down to a point). The further the explanations proceed, questions will come up. Why do certain constants have the values they do? Is there a reason for the strong nuclear force to have the strength it does? Or is it a brute fact? If it’s a brute fact, the PSR is false. Does everything happen in a chain of cause and effect, even at the quantum level? Or are quantum events random? How about the Big Bang? Did it happen for a reason or simply happen? If there are any brute facts, or anything happens (or once happened) randomly, the PSR is false. Why presume it’s true, as Della Rocca does?

In step 5 above, there is a leap from “such and such explanations of difference X are not sufficient” to “the supposed difference X doesn’t exist”. But being unable to explain X doesn’t demonstrate that X is unreal. There must be other evidence for the existence of X, or why bother trying to explain it?  The most we should infer from our inability to explain something is that we don’t understand it as well as we’d like to. We might want to reserve judgment. If we want to further justify our belief in X’s existence, we have more work to do.

One of the more surprising claims Della Rocca makes is that there are no relations or distinctions. He begins by referring to actions and then broadens his thesis to cover substances, meanings and knowledges (which is, in fact, the plural of “knowledge”). Revisiting a paragraph from above:

… we ordinarily think of actions, etc. as differentiated, as relational, but for me there is no good way to make sense of such differentiation, such relations, and so—in order to save or redeem the concepts of substance, action, knowledge, and meaning—we have to ascend to an undifferentiated, non-relational version of these phenomena, if they are to be saved or redeemed at all. We take the reality that we were trying to capture in terms of differentiation and, instead, we capture it better by appealing to undifferentiated versions of these phenomena….  we [do not] have a coherent conception of these phenomena, at least of these phenomena as involving distinctions.

Della Rocca says we should think of substance, action, knowledge and meaning as “undifferentiated” phenomena. Yet he differentiates between substance, action, knowledge and meaning. Why? Following his lead, we have to ask what the difference is between substance and action, for example. Is there a “genuinely illuminating” explanation of the difference between them? Or between them and phenomena like quantity or intention?

For that matter, Della Rocca (like Parmenides did in the past) uses words to communicate. If there are no distinctions or relations, why choose one word rather than another? Why say “attempts to deny” instead of “deny to attempts”? Why not say “cornflakes green belief” when he greets a colleague in the philosophy department? If meaning is an undifferentiated phenomenon, the words one chooses and the assertions one makes shouldn’t matter.

Finally, the typical monist response to being challenged regarding the existence of different things is to invent new language. The English philosopher G. E. Moore once said (in his “Proof of an External World”) that he could prove the existence of the external world by holding up one hand and then the other while intoning “Here is one hand … and here is another”.

From the article on “Monism” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

[In “The Philosophy of Logical Atomism”, Bertrand Russell declared:]

“I share the common-sense belief that there are many separate things; I do not regard the apparent multiplicity of the world as consisting merely in phases and unreal divisions of a single indivisible Reality.”

Whether due wholly to argumentative force or at least partly to historical contingencies, such declarations [as Russell’s and Moore’s] had the effect of ending any interest in monism … for nearly one hundred years. And so philosophical fashion swung from some form of monism in the nineteenth century, to some form of pluralism in the twentieth century.

By “phases and unreal divisions”, Russell was referring to a standard response a monist might give to Moore’s proof of an external world. Again from the Stanford Encyclopedia:

For instance, when one claims that there is a hand here, the … monist might hold that what is strictly the case is that the world is handish here.

I don’t see much difference between “here is a hand and here is another” and “the world is handish here and also handish here”, or “handing here and also there”. But I don’t find monism appealing.

Wittgenstein is often quoted as saying “philosophy leaves the world as it is”. What he actually wrote (in German, Philosophical Investigations, 124) was on the relationship between philosophy and language: “philosophy leaves everything [i.e. the way we actually use language] as it is”. I don’t think that’s true, but what Wittgenstein wrote could be interpreted in a way that pertains to Della Rocca’s argument for monism.

Philosophers often argue about which terminology to use to describe facts they agree on. All philosophers agree that people have hands. But, if we want to be as precise and accurate as humanly possible, how should we talk about that fact? G. E. Moore insisted he had two hands, by which he meant that his hands were objects external to his mind, that is, part of the external world, something he would only bother pointing out when responding to “idealist” philosophers who denied such an external world exists.

Della Rocca would agree that Moore had two hands, and probably agree that Moore’s hands weren’t ideas in Moore’s mind or anyone else’s (like the idealists did), but he wouldn’t want to say that Moore’s hands were part of anything. I don’t know exactly what he’d say, but he’d have to somehow refer to them as aspects (?) of the one reality while denying that they are distinct objects related to each other (in Russell’s words: “unreal divisions of a single indivisible Reality”). He thinks that when we really get down to it, notions like “difference” and “relation” make no sense. That makes no sense to me. And people continue to have two hands regardless.

Philosophical arguments like the one between monism and pluralism (there are many individual things) have been going on for centuries. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Quoting Wittgenstein again:

Philosophy hasn’t made any progress?—If someone scratches where it itches, do we have to see progress? Is it not genuine scratching … or genuine itching? [Culture and Value, 86e].

And once more:

I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; he says again and again “I know that that’s a tree”, pointing to a tree that is near us. Someone else arrives and hears this, and I tell him: ‘This fellow isn’t insane. We are only doing philosophy” [On Certainty, 467].

I’m done. If you read this whole thing, you’ve been punished enough.