Brute facts and reasons to believe

September 6th, 2020 in clues. Tags: , , , ,
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How do we explain the universe? Are there reasons to believe God made it, or that it appeared out of nothing? Or should we give up on finding an explanation and say it just is (a “brute fact”)?

There are arguments both ways. But should we prefer an answer that offers an explanation over one that doesn’t?

The oldest argument?

It seems we humans are always asking “How?” and “Why?”questions. And one of the oldest questions is how this world began.

It’s not surprising that people long ago came to believe the world was created by a God or gods. And that thought has been developed into one of the oldest, and still most argued about, arguments for the existence of God.

In simple terms, the argument is that everything has a cause, so God must have caused the universe.

The logic of causal chains

Cosmologists can model the physical processes of a causal chain that goes back to the big bang. And if the multiverse caused the big bang, perhaps one day they will be able to continue the causal chain back further to the beginning of everything.

We can ask what caused it all? And if we say God caused the big bang, then we can ask “What caused God?”

This illustrates the clear logic of causal chains. Either they go back forever, or they have to stop somewhere.

An infinite causal chain?

There are mathematical, physical and philosophical reasons to feel uncomfortable about an infinite causal chain. How could it start? (You can’t count back to infinity!) Wouldn’t all physical processes have “run down” by now?

Elly Vintiadis, co-editor of Brute Facts, wrote of scientific and everyday explanations:

“it is generally expected that by retracing a causal chain backwards …. we will eventually arrive at fundamental laws or first principles rather than continue on indefinitely.”

Where to stop?

We can’t just stop a causal chain wherever it suits. For if a step in the chain has a cause, we must go back to that cause and ask if it has a cause …. and so on.

There seem to be three different ways we may find a step in a chain that has no cause:

  1. A necessary entity. Something that couldn’t NOT exist, and doesn’t owe its existence to anything else. Example: an eternal, timeless God.
  2. A proposition or belief that is properly basic. The proposition stands on its own, because it is either self evident or is based on our own sense experience. Example: belief that the past occurred.
  3. A brute fact. Something that cannot be explained, it just is. Example: the laws of mathematics.

The principle of sufficient reason (PSR)

Most famously expressed by Gottfried Leibniz, the PSR expresses what most of us intuitively feel, that everything that exists or is true must have a reason, cause, or ground. The PSR is often invoked in support of the Cosmological argument leading to the conclusion that the causal chain of the universe can only end in God. The PSR, if true, would rule out brute facts, and would challenge the idea of properly basic propositions.

The PSR seems reasonable, and no-one would deny it is mostly true – things that happen do generally have a cause. But some people argue that it cannot be always true, for then there would be no brute facts and we would have to accept infinite chains of logic.

This isn’t strictly true, of course. If there were necessarily true propositions, they would terminate the causal chain. (Well actually they’d begin it.) But many philosophers are sceptical that there are necessary propositions outside of mathematics and logic, and doubtful there are necessary beings such as God.

Explanations are what we want

The philosophers can argue about all this, but it seems to me that we can approach this in a simple practical way. A scientific hypothesis, or a theory in a police investigation, that explains most of the evidence is surely better than a theory or hypothesis that explains very little.

A brute fact doesn’t explain much. It means a causal chain lacks an explanation right at the start. So while we might be forced to accept something as a brute fact, it doesn’t seem to be an attractive conclusion.

Is the universe a brute fact?

The origin of the universe is a question where all these ideas can be applied. Is the universe best explained as caused by a necessary being, i.e. God? Or is it a brute fact that just is, and that is all we can say?

In the past, when I discussed this question with atheists, it seemed that most said they didn’t know. They believed science might find out one day. But lately it seems that more are suggesting the universe is a brute fact. I think they may see this as a more philosophically respectable alternative to God-belief.

Sean Carroll and the universe as brute fact

Sean Carroll is a cosmologist who commands respect both for his science and for the way he expresses his atheism. He defends the idea that the universe is just a brute fact.

He argues that the laws of physics tell us little about the origin of the universe. So, he says: “There’s certainly no reason to think that there was something that “caused” it; the universe can just be.”

However it is telling that Carroll doesn’t actually show that the universe is indeed a brute fact without explanation. He simply says it could be.

Or is it?

Writing on the Catholic Strange Notions website, Karlo Broussard offers 5 Reasons Why the Universe Can’t Be Merely a Brute Fact.

  1. If it is reasonable to say that the universe is just a brute fact, then it is reasonable to say that God is a brute fact. Most atheists would reject this, suggesting that it isn’t reasonable to say the universe is just a brute fact.
  2. We don’t commonly appeal to brute facts when dealing with questions in ordinary life, so why with the universe?
  3. If we rely on finding explanations everywhere else in life, why think it is reasonable to stop with the universe as a whole?
  4. Believing the universe is a brute fact is a denial of the PSR. But if we believe some things don’t have a reason, then where should we stop? Perhaps there is no reason for trusting our thinking, including our conclusions about brute facts?
  5. So denial of the PSR, in the end, denies the validity of rational argumentation.

I don’t think those are all separate reasons, and I think some may be overstated. But I still think there is force to those reasons.

In a nutshell

The universe is a mystery. Whichever view we adopt, there will be difficulties.

But it seems to me that believing a personal creator God who necessarily and eternally exists is a more satisfactory explanation for the universe than it being a brute fact. Both views entail mystery, but at least God explains a lot, whereas a brute fact doesn’t really explain anything much.

Photo Credit: Hindrik S Flickr via Compfight cc

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