Can the universe be a mere brute fact? Can we say, “The universe just exists and that’s that—it has no explanation at all”?
Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, thinks so. In a recent interview with Phil Torres at salon.com, Carroll says, “There’s certainly no reason to think that there was something that ‘caused’ it; the universe can just be.”
Carroll is in good company with such an assertion. Bertrand Russell, the late British atheistic philosopher, argued the same thing in the famous 1948 BBC radio debate with Fr. Fredrick Copleston: “I should say that the universe is just there, and that’s all.”
Notice neither Carroll nor Russell says the universe is self-explanatory in that its existence belongs to its nature, which would be the sort of explanation for God’s existence. Nor are they saying we don’t know what the explanation of the universe is. They are saying there is no explanation for why the universe exists rather than not. In essence they are denying the principle of sufficient reason, which states, “Everything that is has a sufficient reason for existing.”
How should we respond? Are we to exchange brute fact for brute fact and say, “Things just need an explanation, and that’s that”? Or is there a way we can show the appeal to brute facts is unreasonable? I answer the latter.
There are several arguments one can employ when arguing against the brute fact view, but for the sake of brevity, I will offer only five.
First, I find it interesting how it’s permitted for an atheist to appeal to unintelligible brute facts but not the theist. If a theist were to say, “God is just a brute fact, there is no rhyme or reason to his existence,” then an atheist would feel justified in denying him membership among the intelligentsia. This is manifest when atheists such as Richard Dawkins object to theistic arguments with, “Who designed the designer?”, thinking theists arbitrarily posit God as the terminus of causal series. If theists aren’t allowed to play the “brute fact” card (which we don’t do anyway), then atheists shouldn’t be allowed to do so either.
The facts of ordinary life
A second response is to point out that we don’t appeal to brute facts when dealing with things in ordinary life. For example, suppose a team of police officers come across a dead body on their shift and begin conjecturing possible explanations. “It’s murder,” one says. “No, I think this was a suicide,” the other officer responds. Another officer says, “No, I disagree, I think the cause is a heart attack.” The last officer says, “We’re wasting our time here—it’s just an unintelligible and inexplicable brute fact that this corpse is here. Let’s keep going.” What would we think of such a police officer? How about, “He’s not a good one!” I think his chief would concur.
So, why should an appeal to a brute fact when faced with the existence of the universe be reasonable when an appeal to a brute fact when faced with a dead body is not?
Can’t get out of the taxi
Our atheist friend might object, “I’m not saying we should accept the police officer’s appeal to a brute fact. I acknowledge everything in the universe probably has an explanation for its existence. But there is no reason to think the universe has to have an explanation for its existence.”
Besides the fact this objection begs the question against the theist—if God exists then the universe would have an explanation for its existence—it commits what some philosophers have aptly called the “taxicab fallacy”; thus a third argument against the brute fact view. Why commit to the idea “Whatever exists has a reason for its existence” and then dismiss it like you dismiss a taxicab once you arrive at the universe as a whole? Such a move is arbitrary and thus unreasonable.
“But,” our atheist friend might say, “isn’t a theist guilty of the same fallacy in saying God doesn’t have a cause for his existence?” The answer is no, because the theist is not saying God is a brute fact, i.e., he has no reason or explanation for his existence. It is essential to classical theism that God’s existence, though not caused by another, is explained by his essence. His essence is existence itself—ipsum esse subsistens. This is not something theists arbitrarily assert but is the conclusion of deductive reasoning that starts with certain features of the world—motion (change), efficient causality, contingency, degrees of being, and final causality. So the theist is not guilty of the taxicab fallacy.
Skepticism of the senses
Another reason the brute fact view is unreasonable is because it entails radical skepticism about perception. As philosopher Alexander Pruss argues in his essay “The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument” (in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology by William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland), if things can exist without any sufficient reason, then there might be no reason for our perceptional experiences.
For example, according to this line of reasoning there might be no connection between your experience of reading this article on a computer and the actual article the computer is showing on its monitor. Your experience might just be a brute fact having nothing to do with any of the objective things with which we normally would associate your experience.
Do we want to go down that bleak road of skepticism and say all our sensory experiences are untrustworthy? There might be some radical skeptics who choose to walk that path (such skeptics can read this article). But for most reasonable people this is not a path that can be traveled, because such a path leads to the demise of science, which is something I assume Carroll wouldn’t endorse because he would be out of a job.
We need to be able to trust our sensory perceptions if we intend to discover truths about reality through empirical observation. So, unless one is willing to throw science out, one shouldn’t allow brute facts in the game.
No arguments allowed
The last argument I’ll offer for consideration comes from philosopher Edward Feser in his book Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction. Feser argues the denial of the principle of sufficient reason is at the same time a denial of rational argumentation, including any argument for brute facts. Consider how when we accept the conclusion “Socrates is mortal,” we do so based on the premises “All men are mortal” and “Socrates is a man.” In other words, we recognize the conclusion as rational because the premises are true and the argument is logically valid.
But if brute facts are possible, and the principle of sufficient reason is false, then it follows that our conclusion “Socrates is mortal” might have nothing to do with the truth of the premises and their logical structure. It might also be possible our cognitive faculties themselves had no role to play in explaining why we came to that conclusion.
The bottom line is, if brute facts are possible, there might be no reason whatsoever we believe what we do, even the belief that we believe on rational grounds. This applies to any conclusion we might draw, even the conclusion “Things can exist without a reason for their existence.” But if the conclusion “Things, like the universe, can exist without a reason for their existence” might itself be a brute fact—namely, it has no connection to truth or logic—then we would have no reason to accept it as true. So to deny the principle of sufficient reason undercuts any ground one might have for doubting the principle. It’s self-refuting and thus unreasonable.
Sean Carroll is a brilliant man. He is courageous in taking on heavyweights of the likes of Dr. William Lane Craig. But why such a great mind can’t see the rational implications of denying the principle of sufficient reason, I do not know. Perhaps he just hasn’t thought it through. Or perhaps he just isn’t willing to open the door to a line of reasoning that leads to theism. Whatever may be the case, the appeal to brute facts is not a good parry when in the ring with a theist.