Friday, October 24, 2014

Nudge nudge, wink wink

Suppose you go out on a blind date and a friend asks you how it went.  You pause and then answer flatly, with a slight smirk: “Well, I liked the restaurant.”  There is nothing in the literal meaning of the sentence you’ve uttered, considered all by itself, that states or implies anything negative about the person you went out with, or indeed anything at all about the person.  Still, given the context, you’ve said something insulting.  You’ve “sent the message” that you liked the restaurant but not the person.  Or suppose you show someone a painting and when asked what he thinks, he responds: “I like the frame.”  The sentence by itself doesn’t imply that the painting is bad, but the overall speech act certainly conveys that message all the same.  Each of these is an example of what H. P. Grice famously called an implicature, and they illustrate how what a speaker says in a communicative act ought not to be confused with what his words mean.  Obviously there is a relationship between the two, but they are not always identical.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Could a theist deny PSR?

We’ve been talking about the principle of sufficient reason (PSR).  It plays a key role in some arguments for the existence of God, which naturally gives the atheist a motivation to deny it.  But there are also theists who deny it.  Is this a coherent position?  I’m not asking whether a theist could coherently reject some versions of PSR.  Of course a theist could do so.  I reject some versions of PSR.  But could a theist reject all versions?  Could a theist reject PSR as such?   Suppose that any version of PSR worthy of the name must entail that there are no “brute facts” -- no facts that are in principle unintelligible, no facts for which there is not even in principle an explanation.  (The “in principle” here is important -- that there might be facts that our minds happen to be too limited to grasp is not in question.)  Could a theist coherently deny that?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Della Rocca on PSR

The principle of sufficient reason (PSR), in a typical Neo-Scholastic formulation, states that “there is a sufficient reason or adequate necessary objective explanation for the being of whatever is and for all attributes of any being” (Bernard Wuellner, Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy, p. 15).  I discuss and defend PSR at some length in Scholastic Metaphysics (see especially pp. 107-8 and 137-46).  Prof. Michael Della Rocca defends the principle in his excellent article “PSR,” which appeared in Philosopher’s Imprint in 2010 but which (I’m embarrassed to say) I only came across the other day.

Among the arguments for PSR I put forward in Scholastic Metaphysics are a retorsion argument to the effect that if PSR were false, we could have no reason to trust the deliverances of our cognitive faculties, including any grounds we might have for doubting or denying PSR; and an argument to the effect that a critic of PSR cannot coherently accept even the scientific explanations he does accept, unless he acknowledges that there are no brute facts and thus that PSR is true.  Della Rocca’s argument bears a family resemblance to this second line of argument.

Friday, October 3, 2014


While we’re on the subject of Steve Martin, consider the following passage from his memoir Born Standing Up.  Martin recounts the insight that played a key role in his novel approach to doing stand-up comedy:

In a college psychology class, I had read a treatise on comedy explaining that a laugh was formed when the storyteller created tension, then, with the punch line, released it... With conventional joke telling, there's a moment when the comedian delivers the punch line, and the audience knows it's the punch line, and their response ranges from polite to uproarious.  What bothered me about this formula was the nature of the laugh it inspired, a vocal acknowledgment that a joke had been told, like automatic applause at the end of a song...