Brute facts and reasons to believe

September 6th, 2020 in clues. Tags: , , , ,
Two people discussing

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


  1. If your assessment includes the assumption that God exists, you can include God in your assessment.

    If your assessment does not include the assumption that God exists, you cannot include God in your assessment.

    You need to state prior to your argument what you assume wrt God – assume He exists, or not assume He exists.

    If you do not assume the existence of God, how does He gain entry into your argument?

    btw, by its nature, a Brute Fact does not explain anything – that is why it is called a Brute Fact rather than an explanation. rgds, Ian.

  2. “If your assessment does not include the assumption that God exists, you cannot include God in your assessment.”
    Ian, this is a very strange argument to me. Suppose an astronomer is looking for a previously undiscovered planet. They don’t know if there is a planet in that solar system, or not. And suppose I say to them: “If your assessment does not include the assumption that this planet exists, you cannot include this planet in your assessment.” It wouldn’t make sense. Their assessment will include the planet, or not, according to the evidence, not because of an assumption.

  3. Hi unkleE,

    Your astronomer/planet analogy relates to the known naturalistic realm, whereas any God-related explanation relates not to the known naturalistic realm, but to an assumed/unknown supernaturalistic realm.

    I infer that you have followed a process something like this –

    1. Propose a First Existent that has necessary and eternal existence. (aka the First Causer) (this is a reasonable proposition to assess)
    2. We have no evidence/knowledge of anything naturalistic that has necessary or eternal existence.
    3. Assume there is nothing naturalistic that has necessary and eternal existence.
    4. Assume the existence of the supernaturalistic realm.
    5. Define God such that He has necessary and eternal existence.
    6. Assume the existence of God who has necessary and eternal existence.

    If the assumption that “there is nothing naturalistic that has necessary and eternal existence” is replaced by the assumption that “there is something naturalistic that is unknown and that has necessary and eternal existence”, then we have no need of any assumption about supernaturalism and God. Rgds, Ian.

  4. Hi Ian,

    “Your astronomer/planet analogy ….”
    No analogy proves everything. I used the analogy merely to show your statement about assumptions wasn’t necessarily true, and likely meaningless. Nothing more.

    “I infer that you have followed a process something like this”
    That wasn’t the process I have set out. As I said before on another post, the logic is simple:

    1. Either the universe had a cause or it didn’t (simple logic).
    2. If a cause, then it caused itself or something external caused it (again, simple logic).
    3. If something external caused it, that something must have been non-material (ditto).
    4. No cause = no explanation and therefore less believable.
    5. Causing itself is illogical.
    6. Therefore most likely something immaterial caused it.

    There are no assumptions there, no reference to a godlike being. So that is the logic to argue against if you want.

  5. Hi unkleE,

    1a. I assume “universe” means “everything that exists materially”.
    1b. I assume “had a cause” means “the process by which it came to exist ex nihilo”.
    2. third option – spontaneity, otherwise ok
    3. ok
    4a. no cause = beginningless existence (or spontaneity) = no explanation = Brute Fact.
    4b. believability depends in part upon the assumptions – refer my list 24Oct.
    5. ok
    6. likelihood depends upon the assumptions – refer my list 24Oct.

    The reason I mention spontaneity is that in the God-explanation, the pre-creation eventless Mental Activity does not permit (consecutive) events such as the event of deliberation, followed by the event of choosing, followed by the event of actioning the creation event.

    If your item 4 allows for the possibility of beginningless existence of everything that exists materially, how is that not a sufficient reason? If it is a sufficient reason, item 6 is unnecessary.

    If your item 6 immaterial causer had no cause , why would item 4 not apply equally to this immaterial causer?

    Your items 4 and 6 seem to relate to likelihoods – you must have had a basis for assigning a number to the likelihood in each case – I see no way to do this, due to no data. So wouldn’t that require assumptions? Rgds, Ian.

  6. Hi Ian,

    Spontaneity I take to mean not having a cause, so it is covered in #1.

    “the pre-creation eventless Mental Activity does not permit (consecutive) events such as the event of deliberation, followed by ….”
    I don’t see any reason to accept this. I don’t see why it doesn’t permit a sequence of events, but neither do I see why God would need a sequence of events.

    I accept the possibility of a beginningless universe, I am just saying since there is no explanation for that, it is the least likely option.

    “If your item 6 immaterial causer had no cause , why would item 4 not apply equally to this immaterial causer?”
    God has an explanation – he is postulated to be an eternal necessary being. The universe is obviously not.

    “you must have had a basis for assigning a number to the likelihood in each case”
    No, I don’t assign numbers, I think that would be claiming to know far more than we can know. I am saying (i) intuitively, the God explanation makes more sense than the others, and (ii) the God explanation explains more and is logically sensible, whereas the alternative explanations explain less and are logically non-sensible. On that basis, I see God as much more likely than the alternatives.

    It isn’t a new argument, and I’m sure you’re familiar with it. I suspect you (parallel to my #i) intuitively feel God isn’t the right explanation. But I think you have not shown that any alternative is more logical or sensible.

  7. Hi unkleE,

    We need to look at the PSR so that some of the matters already discussed can be clarified. Our discussion relates to existence, so the version of the PSR is something like this – “for everything that exists, there is a sufficient explanation/reason for the existence.” There are two types of existence – necessary and contingent. So there are two parts to this PSR – (1) “for everything that exists contingently, there is a sufficient explanation/reason for the contingent existence.” (2) “for everything that exists necessarily, there is a sufficient explanation/reason for the necessary existence.”

    The PSR is a definition and is expressed as a principle. The PSR is descriptive rather than prescriptive – anything that is said to satisfy the PSR does so – either because it has been emprically verified, or because it is assumed.

    There are three common applications of the PSR –
    1. contingent existence that has occurred by exmaterialisation. [ exmaterialise – to bring into existence an altered form of existence of already existing energy/matter. ] This type of contingent existence is that which we observre daily. Every instance of observed/verified “coming into existence” is this type.
    2. contingent existence that has occurred by exnihilation. [ exnihilate – to bring into existence from nothing. ] This type of contingent existence has never been verified. In the context of God, it assumes the prior existence of supernaturalism, assumes the prior existence of God, assumes that God has the capability to exnihilate. These are extraordinary unverified assumptions.
    3. necessary existence that explains itself. This applies to every instance of necessary existence. This is not verified empirically – it is defined/assumed through argument.

    The case of “necessary existence that explains itself” is applied with equal validity to the God-explanation and the energy/matter-explanation, and requires further explanation of why there exists “a necessary being that explains itself”. This “internal explanation” either has an “external explanation” or is a Brute Fact. I welcome your comments. Rgds, Ian.

  8. Hi Ian,

    I don’t think I mentioned the PSR, though obviously I applied the broad concept. I don’t think the PSR can be proved. But I do think the idea is reasonable.

    It is true that your cases #2 and #3 cannot be demonstrated or proven. So we are left with the existence of ourselves in this universe which we cannot explain in a way that can be considered “proven”. So what do we do?

    People are curious and want to try to understand things. And some things most of us want to try to understand are whether there’s a God, whether there’s an afterlife, and how do those things matter to me. And these aren’t just academic questions. Psychologists have found that children naturally believe there’s an afterlife and some sort of supernatural agent akin to the idea of God. So the ideas are there, and we can decide to consider them, or not.

    I choose to consider them, and I still say that, however unproven the idea of God is, the idea of a universe that exists for no reason & from no cause is no more proven and much less sensible. It doesn’t make sense, whereas a God who is “behind” and “over” it all makes satisfying sense. My feeling is, I would want to know why people wouldn’t think that a much more likely explanation.

    So why would you not think that, if indeed you don’t?

  9. Hi unkleE,

    (I posted this a while ago, but it seems to have been deleted)

    I do not think that a God-explanation is more likely than a naturalistic-explanation. The reason is simple – a God-explanation requires the unverified assumption that supernaturalism exists. On the other hand, any naturalistic-explanation (including unknown) requires the verified assumption that naturalism exists. The (historical) track record of verified God-explanations is zero – all verified explanations are naturalistic. (this does not disprove other God-explanations, but the confidence level must be very low) I simply see no reason to include a God-explanation.

    For a naturalistic situation for which there is no demonstrated explantion, a list of possible explanations may be proposed. If the list is confined to explanations of realms whose existence has been verified, this would include naturalistic explanations, but exclude supernaturalistic explanations.

    In human endeavours such as science, engineering, medicine, aeronautics, information technology, communications, the judicial system, mainstream investigative journalism, and so on, there is no allowance made for supernaturalism. So I put it to you that you must justify the inclusion of explanations that belong to a realm whose existence has not been verified. Rgds, Ian.

  10. Hi Ian, sorry if your comment disappeared. I haven’t seen it until now so I’m not sure what happened.

    “a God-explanation requires the unverified assumption that supernaturalism exists”

    I think we have been here before. I don’t believe the God explanation requires an unverified assumption. It is simple logic.

    For every A there is a not-A. If A is true, not-A is not true, and vice versa.

    If Sherlock Holmes can demonstrate that no-one but the butler could have done it, then the butler must have. Likewise, if he can show that the butler didn’t do it, then someone else must have.

    Likewise if a line of argument indicates that a natural explanation is unlikely, then a non-natural explanation must be likely. There’s no assumption, it’s simple logic. Now of course we may disagree about the line of argument, but that is a different matter.

    “The (historical) track record of verified God-explanations is zero “

    I disagree. Of course it is a true statement if first of all you eliminate all God explanations as your first statement attempts to do. But I believe when it comes to some of the big things of life, it is naturalism that has a poor explanatory record, and theism fares much better.

    “In human endeavours …. there is no allowance made for supernaturalism.”

    Not by science, because we use methodological naturalism – an assumption of course! And a reasonable one, but still an assumption. But there could be occasions when it is a poor assumption, but we manage OK. Again an example. A microbiologist sets up some petri dishes with bacteria colonies and checks the result in 24 hours. They assume no-one has interfered with them in the meantime though they cannot completely rule that out. But the assumption generally works, and if they get a strange result, they may have to review that assumption. It is the same, for example, with miraculous healing. We assume that most of the time the doctor’s treatment is not interfered with (this time by God), but if we get a surprising result (e.g. an unexpected and unusual recovery) we may have to review that assumption.

    “So I put it to you that you must justify the inclusion of explanations that belong to a realm whose existence has not been verified.”

    I put it to you that that is a way (intentional or not) to avoid dealing with the evidence. The arguments stand. If not natural then non-natural. No assumption, just evidence and logic. The verification is in the evidence that you are seemingly refusing to consider.

    I suggest that it is better to address the evidence and the logic rather than try to try to rule them inadmissable.

  11. Hello, I am interested in your post.

    Given the problem that infinite regression is an impossibility, i.e both materially because of the 1st and 2nd laws of thermodynamics, but also spiritually (which includes the realm of ideas) because basically any type of infinity cannot actually exist as a real thing in any world – (the idea of infinity is like an abstract abstract )– there must be a first cause or ground of all other being.

    In this context I am not sure of the significant difference between a brute fact, a necessary entity or a properly basic idea.

    All of these are special cases where as such a circular reasoning seems necessarily to be justified. Which is of course troubling and needs a closer look. It is no longer why, why, why, why – instead and especially if you like Van Morrison – it just is! My query is what do you think the characteristics of a brute fact or necessary entity are, to avoid the problem of mission creep to ridiculous unjustified circular assertions?

    My suggestion is that the key characteristic is that they are necessary for explaining something else, where there are no gaps in our knowledge and which would otherwise be inexplicable.

    So where the physical constants are concerned (and these are only brute in terms of the natural world) they are fiddle factors to make all the other factors work. i.e. they are true because you need that number to make everything else work.

    I am not sure if that covers everything all allows garbage in though.

  12. Hi J Dee,

    I like the Van Morrison reference and I have that album (Common One).

    “what do you think the characteristics of a brute fact or necessary entity are?”

    I think there is a hierarchy.

    1. A brute fact is something that has no explanation. It just is.

    2. A properly basic proposition is a statement that argues that a brute fact is a reasonable basis for a logical discussion. So it is one small step better than a brute fact.

    3. A necessary entity is a brute fact that we can reasonably argue necessarily exists without cause. So it is two small steps better than a brute fact.

    I agree that they are necessary for explaining something else, perhaps everything else. But that is important because something that doesn’t explain anything (like a brute fact) is not very useful as evidence or a proposition.

Comments are closed.