The Principle of Sufficient Reason and the Holocaust

Here’s the problem concerning the principle of sufficient reason. If one posits that God has a good and sufficient reason for having allowed the Holocaust, the follow-up question obviously becomes, “Well, what is it?” Any particular answer proves woefully inadequate, ludicrous to contemplate, or even just plain morally abominable. Sometimes it even leads to a reductio ad absurdum. And when this is pointed out, the response simply shifts to something else, which on inspection is equally inadequate or grotesque.

So talking about God’s morally sufficient reason for allowing the Holocaust is akin to speaking to the ontological mystery (the mystery of being) itself. It’s incomprehensible. You can’t reach it. But with regard to the Holocaust, maybe you can’t reach this sufficient reason because it doesn’t actually exist. And if there is no morally sufficient reason for God permitting the Holocaust to happen, and the Holocaust nevertheless happened, then the theistic project itself collapses, for God is supposed to be all good and powerful.

That’s why it’s important to ask, “What was God’s morally sufficient reason for the Holocaust?” If you can’t think of any, what’s left of theism? Silence perhaps, like Thomas Aquinas adopted at the end of his life, or simple fideism? Belief in God after the Holocaust, it appears, requires a leap of faith that deliberately runs contrary to human reason.

Is there really any other theistic alternative? A command theory of God (whatever is, is right, so stop asking questions)? I don’t think so.

So if you’re a theist, where do you go intellectually after the Shoah? After WWII and the Holocaust, Albert Camus thought the first question of philosophy was whether or not to commit suicide. For the religious believer, I think the first question has to be, “What can one believe about God after the Holocaust?”

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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22 Responses to The Principle of Sufficient Reason and the Holocaust

  1. God didn’t have anything to do with the Holocaust.

    Why not blame the people who were responsible for it?

    And if God were to jump in and stop the Holocaust, why not have God jump in and stop every single act of wrong doing?

  2. keithnoback says:

    I think fideism is the only answer. There is room for it, but not much, and it requires a lot of sacrifices. As in: Aquinas probably got it right at the end. Speech is blasphemy.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I think you’re right that Aquinas probably went silent perhaps because of doubt surrounding his whole system, perhaps in despair. Hmm. And with regard to the Holocaust, I think you’re also right. To make an “excuse” for it feels blasphemous, and callous toward the victims.

      • keithnoback says:

        I guess I need to clarify. I mean to say that fideism is the only feasible position in the context of an incomprehensible God, which is the destination of this line of inquiry (see Bob’s comment below). In that case, anything we say about God necessarily misrepresents God, which is blasphemy. Perhaps that was Aquinas’ endpoint.

  3. Bob Shepherd says:

    Leibniz gave a name to this area of inquiry in the title of his book on the subject–Theodicy. Oddly, he didn’t solve the problem in a way that should have occurred to him, being, as he was, one of the independent inventors of the Calculus. God is infinite, according to traditional belief, and any finite amount of suffering would approach zero in a fraction with the infinite as the denominator and the amount of suffering as the numerator. This “solution,” of course, begs a lot of metaphysical questions and offends one’s moral sensibilities for reasons that are themselves illuminating.

    • Bob Shepherd says:

      Here’s Aquinas, btw:

      “I answer that, Nothing should be denied the blessed that belongs to the perfection of their beatitude. Now everything is known the more for being compared with its contrary, because when contraries are placed beside one another they become more conspicuous. Wherefore in order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned.”

      Sickening. But his was a common view in the Middle Ages, when punishments were public and deeply enjoyed by people generally, who treated them like public entertainments and even paid to have the venues of grotesque public punishments moved to their locations. See Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages for a thorough discussion of this.

      • Bob,

        Aquinas is referring to the saints sharing in the Passion of Christ.

        Understanding the suffering of the damned is not an intellectual exercise it is a direct personal experience that creates in man, boundless compassion.

      • Bob Shepherd says:

        this is not about understanding. A sickening as it is, this is about pleasure in others’ pain, but the sick minds that could imagine hell were like that.

      • Bob,

        Aquinas is famous for applying systematic thinking to Christian doctrine.

        Hell is part of Christian doctrine.

        A critical examination of doctrine cannot rationally be construed as sadism.

      • Bob Shepherd says:

        In other words, I wish that what you were saying were true, but boundless compassion and hell are incompatible concepts.

      • Bob,

        Boundless hell and endless compassion are indeed incompatible.

        The Christian calls such divine incompatibility, “mystery.”

        The atheist is unable to distinguish between what is absurd and what is mystery.

      • Bob Shepherd says:

        We are very much in agreement with regard to that last statement.

  4. Bob Shepherd says:

    How truly ghastly are the human attributes that people have, throughout the centuries, attributed to God.

  5. Santi Tafarella says:

    Bob, the Aquinas quote above is appalling. Wow.

  6. Johnboy says:

    If any worldview incoporates a metaphysical stance, even implicitly, and it aspires to a faith not independent of reason, beyond a mere fideism, the best it can do is to demonstrate logical validity coupled with a modicum of plausibility, which is grounded abductively. Arguments for and against such stances, as I receive them, are suggestive not decisive.

    The PSR, in the context of evolutionary epistemology, implies that the fast & frugal heuristics of human knowledge are sufficient to allow us to adapt to a very local niche in the space-time plenum, where we can survive, reproduce and variously thrive. It recognizes the triadic nature of human inference – abductive, inductive and deductive, each which presupposes and is integrally related to the others in a modal ontology of possibilities, actualities and probabilities, all which relies on first principles like identity, excluded middle and noncontradiction and on common sense notions of causation. That’s all quite sufficient to navigate our proximate reality. In a vague phenomenology, identity remains nonstrict, necessity prescinds to probability, where noncontradiction holds but excluded middle folds (B&W grayscales).

    Prior to the postmodern critique, these heuristics were often naively employed using concepts that, most now appreciate, may or may not successfully refer to – much less describe – realities, proximate or ultimate, primal or telic, physical or metaphysical. Even in medieval times, though, there were subtle arguments about whether such predicates applied univocally, equivocally, analogically, metaphorically, apophatically, etc This all means that quite a bit of conceptual disambiguation is required when critiquing arguments, beyond the truth of their premises and consistency of their structure. (It’s dizzying.)

    What does someone mean by cause when used atemporally? Does the concept “nothing” successfully refer to reality? What about concepts like infinity and necessity, which don’t obtain vis a vis physical instantiations? They “might” successfully refer. The tautologies that employ them might be true, but they don’t add any new information. Appeals on pragmatic and reductio grounds are suggestive, to be sure, but not decisive.

    The standards of evidence that take faith beyond reason while evading the charge of fideism are still rather weak and require normative justifications (wagers, leaps, trust and such). They are weak enough that most jurisprudence follows free exercise and nonestablishment rubrics for religion and matters of conscience? Religions properly enjoy more freedom regarding worship and devotions vis a vis putative ultimate realities much less regarding moral realities, which affect the common good, properly reflecting the lack of normative impetus enjoyed by ethical norms that are grounded in bad science, dubious metaphysics or religious dogma.

    The PSR gets more vs less controversial when coupled (implicitly or explicitly) with metaphysical presuppositions and similar tautologies, asking questions like “Why is there not rather nothing?” or “Why is there not rather something else?” We don’t know, a priori, that these successfully refer or not.
    At best, they’re suggestive – not decisive. Evolutionary epistemology reveals that reality’s intelligibility doesn’t rely on its comprehensibility.

    As for theodicy problems, Dostoevsky was right that the suffering of one innocent is sufficient to raise the moral question. Those in the Jewish tradition who take an anti-theodicy stance do so precisely since they consider it both blasphemous and callous, trivializing the enormity of human pain, the immensity of human suffering, the tragic character of human existence. Theodicy marks an abductive-inductive approach to the problem of evil. Those who desist from same, if believers, still, have either implicitly or explicitly assented to some logically valid solution. God’s incomprehensibility doesn’t
    translate into unintelligibility for them. This is to say there’s a distinction between suggesting THAT a sufficient reason exists and knowing WHAT it is.

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      That was an excellent summation of the issues. I enjoyed reading it. I do think that in your first and last paragraphs, however, that you’re leaving an awful lot of slack for keeping implausible claims in play. At a certain point, even given all the qualifications you stipulate, certain ideas are probably best abandoned (or at least not committed to, gambit or no gambit). “To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge” (Confucius). On the other hand, given the gazillion ways the cosmos could be, we will probably never locate the right language for interfacing with it, and so maybe the pragmatists are the better fit for us: use language as a tool, justify your reasons to your audience, and keep Galileo’s telescope pointed to the sky. It seems to be the best we can do.

      • Johnboy says:

        Thanks, Santi.

        Regarding that slack, your point is well taken and I anticipated such a critique but didn’t want to overstay my welcome by flinging too many more electrons at the OP, its subject evoking a certain amount of reverence and respectful silence.

        In keeping with an essential (semiotic-realist) pragmatism, the slack isn’t descriptive, not per se epistemic, as everyone’s bound to the same rules of evidence. Instead, it is normative, where each sphere of human concern requires a different burden of proof to establish, interpretively, its existential actionability.

        In other words, tell it what existential job you are doing and a semiotic realism will approximate both how much descriptive slack and how many interpretive strands you’ll need in your normative impetus rope.

        More concretely, one might need to normatively justify stopping, interrogating, arresting, imprisoning, releasing, charging, indicting, convicting, suing or making liable another individual. Different degrees of epistemic warrant obtain, such as reasonable suspicion, probable cause, preponderance of the evidence or beyond a reasonable doubt, reflecting various burdens of proof.

        There’s a great deal of epistemic infrastructure involved in establishing
        logical validity and abductive plausibility, which involves criteria like
        logical consistency, internal coherence, hypothetical consonance, heuristic fecundity, interdisciplinary consilience, ontological parsimony, abductive facility, external congruence, theoretic elegance, mathematic symmetry, term disambiguation, conceptual negotiation and more. There’s enough epistemic heft in such a rope to justify a research program in metamathematics or highly speculative theoretic physics and, arguably, enough to justify an interpretive stance toward reality with an evaluative disposition that lives in the hope that all may, can or, somehow, will be well, in the end. Such interpretive-metaphysical and evaluative-eschatological stances toward primal and/or ultimate reality require less normative slack than those stances we take regarding social, economic, moral, cultural and political realities, more proximately. Much of what we consider necessary and sufficient regarding the meta-interpretive stances related to the putative initial (?), boundary and limit conditions of the cosmos are thus necessary but not sufficient to navigate the entire spectrum of human concerns.

        It’s curious that few who’d impute the principle of sufficient reason to concepts like nothingness, smuggling creatio in on the metaphysical coattails of nihilo, feel similarly compelled to extrapolate a robustly philosophical – from a merely methodological – naturalism or vice versa.

        Epistemology only vaguely and probabilistically models ontology. The best interpretive stances require logical validity and an abductive plausibility meeting as many epistemic criteria plausible. They aspire cumulative case-like to a preponderance of the evidence but are left with the Scottish verdict – not proven or even a hung jury because abduction reasons very weakly from known effects/properties to unknown causes/objects.

        Without appeals or access to further epistemic warrants as inductive testing, empirical demonstrability, hypothetical falsifiability, event predictability, corroborating evidence and probabilistic analysis, and without heeding the negotiated status of one’s concepts in an earnest community of inquiry, one risks, based on plausibility, alone, proving too much, saying way more than can possibly be known, telling untellable stories.

        The problem of evil is only logical, not evidential, at least, for God conceptualizations properly conceived, those that aren’t proving too much. That’s because the evidential problem, which DOES strike
        at the plausibility of most conventionally held god-conceptions,
        does its damage counterintuitively to an auxiliary abduction, one strand in a multistranded abductive cable of intuitions, none which, together or alone, are decisive, all, which taken together, can be eminently suggestive.

        All that said, that’s why atheologians often lament that no evidence seems to be allowed for the logical problem of evil while no logic seems to be allowed for the evidential problem! It’s not the atheologian, alone, who’s had her normative slack taken up by epistemic weakness, by properly invoking epistemic immunity to the evidential problem of evil, the alert theologian will, taking account of the precise nature of his own epistemic leaps and bounds, gain suitable epistemic humility and, perhaps, better realize why others of large intelligence and profound goodwill refuse to cut their hermeneutic any slack in moral and political arenas, attenuating certain of their free exercise prerogatives, ignoring certain of their moral prescriptions.

  7. Johnboy says:

    the psr implicates the ontological directions inferences must point but not the epistemic distances they must travel, so are not to be interpreted as vectors necessarily extending across all spatiotemporal directions, much less beyond, whatever that would aspire to entail

    psr, to me, suggests the presupposed directionality of inferential reasoning, recognizing its irreducibly triadic nature,  supplementing inductive and abductive inferences (the fast & frugal heuristics of intuition and common sense, along with self-evident, nonpropositional, first principles) w/deductive inference, the latter implicating regularities that are indispensable to human reason, what peirce called thirdness, what scotus called the formal distinction, what aristotelian approaches refer to as formal and final causations, what polanyi called the tacit dimension, what deacon and goodenough call teleodynamics – not that all these concepts are not much more highly nuanced, so will only roughly map one to the next

    regularities don’t “necessarily” hold sway over reality, as anyone who skips her raisin bran and bananas has discovered, for irregularities also present …

    in a far from equilibrium thermodynamic environs, we witness a fugue of pattern and paradox, order and chaos, continuity and discontinuity, chance and necessity, random and systematic, static and dynamic, symmetry and asymmetry, determinacy and indeterminacy —- thus our modeling power gets impaired by the moving targets of this emergent cosmos, where novel emergent properties hold sway as the more primitive often yield way before reasserting ontological sovereignty with time’s passage …

     choosing root metaphors and assigning modal ontologies is a tad more problematic than many seem to realize … that’s why the psr only suggests the indispensable directionality of triadic inferences but doesn’t lend a vector analysis, for we just cannot a priori know how far any emergent regularities extend in the space-time-mass-energy plenum much less in a putative atemporal, nonspatial, immaterial, nonenergetic realm, neither environs wholly comprehensible, the latter not even inductively intelligible, although not logically inconsistent with physical reality in some models w/certain metaphysical presuppositions

    because it makes no sense to proceed in a manner that a priori assumes either an eventual methodological thwarting, in principle, or an in-principle ontological occulting, we provisionally adopt both a principle of sufficient reason and a methodological naturalism while bracketing any implicit or explicit metaphysical presuppositions, for example, whether monist (e.g. philosophical naturalism or panpsychism) or dualist (e.g. cartesian or even idealistic pluralism)

    thus, as the methodological naturalist need not commit to philosophical naturalism, neither would the employment of the principle of sufficient reason necessitate the reification of nothingness

    if we appear to restrict our search for our lost epistemic keys to the area of the metaphysical park illuminated by the methodological lampposts of naturalism and the PSR, it is not because we know they were not otherwise lost in the park’s corners, which happen to be darkened by the sunsetting of our methodological constraints or even by the eclipsing of some ontological occultings, it is only because, if those keys have been lost in such a nonilluminated space, we’d have precious little hope of finding them, anyway

    The search thus perdures:


  8. Johnboy says:

    The last post came from notes (poorly composed) that informed my previous reflection … so, I tacked them on here in case they were of interest. Hope that’s not an imposition. Thanks.

  9. Johnboy says:

    points of clarification:
    1) re directionality of inference, i mean conventional understanding of a) specific to general – induction b) general to specific – deduction c) known effects/properties to unknown causes/objects – abduction

    2) re telos – polanyian, peircean, aristotelian and so on, this is the metaphysically agnostic reference to downward causation w/no rush to closure re violations of physical causal closure or not (though i lean twd a nonreductive physicalism but couldn’t care less, really)

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