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Alexander R. Pruss: The Principle of Sufficient Reason: A Reassessment.

Alexander R. Pruss

The Principle of Sufficient Reason: A Reassessment.

New York: Cambridge University Press. 2006.

Pp. 350.

US$80.00 (cloth ISBN-13: 978-0-521-85959-2).

This is a masterly treatment of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) in a multitude of its philosophical guises and contexts. Usually, in Leibniz's hands for example, PSR refers to the principle that given any fact of the matter, there has to be a reason why it is so rather than otherwise. Pruss defends a version of the PSR according to which (necessarily) contingently true propositions always have an explanation. Given the diversity of PSR's applications such a work is long overdue, and Pruss, with his polymathic tendencies, was clearly the right author for the job. In its generality the book manages to cover virtually all the major areas of philosophy, from metaethics to philosophy of physics: this is a book that all philosophers should seriously consider reading--or investing in for reference purposes. I can certainly see myself thumbing through this work many times over the coming years. These well-earned superlatives out of the way, let's get to the contents, and then to some (minor) drawbacks with the book.

There are nineteen chapters and a short concluding chapter squeezed into a little over three hundred pages. These chapters are distributed over three parts. Part 1 provides three chapters' worth of background material. This includes a general motivation of the PSR and a restriction of the PSR to contingent truths--Pruss concedes that the PSR is potentially applicable to necessary truths too, but feels that it must await a deeper understanding of explanation in mathematics and philosophy. There follow chapters dealing with historical case studies from Parmenides to Kant (essentially arguing for and against the PSR) and, related to this discussion, the relation between the notion of a 'causal principle' and the PSR which are argued to stand and fall together--this is important for Pruss since many of his later arguments depend on the entailment relation, using causal principles to argue indirectly for the PSR (so that a commitment to some causal principle implies a commitment to the PSR).

Part 2 provides an overview of various objections to the PSR in seven chapters. These range from theistic arguments to arguments with a basis in various aspects of quantum mechanics. The first objection is a modern descendent of Hume's objection that there is no contradiction in supposing a brick to come into existence ex nihilo, without cause or reason. The new objection is based on cosmological considerations: there are models of general relativity with an initial singularity. This is not quite the example I would have chosen, since it is well known in physics that the initial conditions are not understood in the classical theory (the singularity requires quantum considerations, which are seemingly incompatible with classical general relativity). He mentions quantum cosmological models--supposedly the genuine article when it comes to creation ex nihilo (though there is much heated debate over this)--but only in a footnote. This rather mars the discussion. Theological considerations--more generally: a philosophically unsavory, causally efficacious necessary being--arise in the next chapter, where the bullet is bitten by Pruss. Chapters on objections based on modal fatalism (no contingent propositions) and the absence of free will follow. Then comes a chapter dealing with quantum indeterminism (conceptually aligned with the free will objections) and correlations; the discussion was way too loose here, almost to the point of inaccuracy. Part 2 ends with a discussion of Leibniz's use of the PSR (see below).

Part 3 considers various proposals for justifying the PSR in nine chapters. The discussion here begins with a nicely argued defense of the 'self-evidence' of the PSR. Then comes a series of 'Thomistic' arguments based on the idea that there has to be something that grounds the 'being' of objects. Related 'cause-effect' considerations follow. PSR is then shown to provide a solid basis for our everyday dealings (in investigating plane crashes for example) and our epistemic workings. To finish, Pruss argues that the PSR is entailed by an 'attractive' actualist account of possibility according to which the truth-makers of alethic modal propositions are concrete entities.

I come now to some weak points of the book. One of the few problems with the book is the sheer wealth of material that isn't allowed to mature into as deep a discussion as one would like (and of which Pruss is clearly capable). Some of the chapters are just a couple of pages long, which is, stylistically, not very pretty. However, one can well understand the desire to keep a book that is clearly written as an extended argument down to a manageable size.

Rather more serious, I think, is the somewhat surprising omission of relationship between PSR and symmetry principles in physics, such as Curie's principle, symmetry breaking, gauge symmetry and so on. This absence becomes very noticeable in the discussion of the Leibniz-Clarke debate. For example, in discussing Leibniz's PSR-based attack on Newtonian absolute space and time Pruss claims that 'the argument is not likely to be used for showing space and time to be relative' but is 'more likely to act as an attempt at a reductio ad absurdum of the PSR' (29). This ignores a massive chunk of work done by physicists and philosophers, much of it very recent, on the 'hole argument' (of Einstein, and then of Johns Stachel, Norton, and Earman), in which an analogous argument (involving a causal version of the PSR, one of Pruss' causal principles) is used to defend relationalism. Both Tim Maudlin and Simon Saunders have explicitly related the original Leibnizian argument to the later Einsteinian argument and, in Saunders' case, directly to the PSR. One can find this material elsewhere, it is true, but nonetheless it would be nice to find a discussion (or at least a note) included in this book, if only for the sake of completeness.

In fact, the only poor parts, as far as I can see, are the discussions that involve physics, where there are some claims that are simply false or at least highly misleading. These are, however, very minor shortcomings: overall the book is an excellent achievement, and I can think of no sufficient reason why it should not grace the shelves of any philosopher.

Dean Rickles

University of Calgary
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Author:Rickles, Dean
Publication:Philosophy in Review
Date:Oct 1, 2007
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