Why the Universe Can’t Be Merely a Brute Fact

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.

Double standards

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 notsaying 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” (inThe 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.

by Karlo Broussard



  1. Patrick Gannon Reply

    Double standards: The situations are not the same. One can argue (and I’m agnostic on the subject) that the universe just exists because we know the universe exists. We don’t know why or how, but we do know it exists, and we know a lot about how it evolved. We don’t know of any gods that exist. If a god or gods do exist, then the argument has meaning. It’s like comparing, “the universe just exists” with “fairies just exist.” We know that we only have evidence for one of these things.

    I don’t understand the analogy to Dawkins. Religion insists that God designed the universe, asserting that complex things can’t come into being on their own – so of course the question, ‘who designed the designer’ is pertinent, as anything that could create a complex universe must be more complex than that which it created, right? In this case nobody is asserting any design of the universe. You are allowed to ask why we should believe that the universe always existed – that’s a valid question that any skeptic should ask.
    Facts of ordinary life: I don’t understand the point here. Nobody is saying you shouldn’t question the hypothesis of the brute facts universe. Of course it should be questioned, along with evidence to support the assertion. As for the dead body, we know that bodies die for a reason. It’s unreasonable and illogical to assume that there was no reason for a dead body. Every dead body we’ve come across before had a reason. We’ve only come across one universe so far, so the comparison is hardly similar. If we had never seen a dead body before, then the brute fact argument might have bearing.
    I can’t get out of the taxi ether! Agreed that based on what we know today, there is no reason to think the universe has to have an explanation for its existence, but there’s also no reason to think that there isn’t an explanation. We know it exists and thus we can debate the question logically. We can’t do this with something that we have no evidence for, other than as an esoteric intellectual exercise. The author goes on to say that if God exists (which one(s)?) then the universe would have an explanation, but that’s not necessarily true, if said god didn’t intervene, the universe might have still come about by other means. We just don’t know, but at least we have evidence for a universe.

    What’s the difference between “God is brute fact” and “there is no reason or explanation for his existence”? A bunch of words follow that, but they add up to “God is brute fact.” The scientists referenced here might argue as well that the essence of the universe “is existence itself—ipsum esse subsistens.” They might argue that this is a “conclusion of deductive reasoning that starts with certain features of the world—motion (change), efficient causality, contingency, degrees of being, and final causality.” It all comes down to “brute fact.”
    Skepticism of the senses – hey, it’s possible that all this is a simulation. The simple answer is – we don’t know. Science goes at the problem with a process based on evidence, religion goes at the problem with faith based on preconceived conclusions. Historically we know which has always been the more reliable. Our senses ARE untrustworthy. We know that beyond doubt, just look at the different “experiences” of people who see accidents or identify suspects. Watch the show “Brain Games” and you’ll learn that the human brain cannot be trusted to always be correct – it fills in the blanks with misinformation all the time. It is true that we need to have some trust in our sensory perceptions (which can be backed up with mechanical devices in many cases), in order to discover truths about reality through empirical observation. But again – we have a universe to observe. We don’t have any gods to observe.
    No arguments allowed – I don’t jump readily to the idea that the universe is a brute fact. I’m inclined not to accept that, but I can accept that I don’t know, and that there are a lot of things we thought we knew that we didn’t, and that it is possible that the existence of the universe simply is a brute fact. I doubt it, and I would question it, as should any open-minded skeptic. The author is suggesting as I understand it, that science should not be allowed to have the ‘brute fact’ argument – and many scientists probably agree. If it is offered up as an explanation then it must be defended, and that is at least a possible thing to do because we actually have a universe to work with, and of course that is not the case for gods. Everything is or should be open to question, including the principle of sufficient reason – but the arguments for why that principle should be abandoned are going to have to be very, very good.
    In any event, we know there is a universe, so there are conjectures we can make and test. We don’t know if there is a god or gods, so there are no conjectures we can make and test. I’m not sure what the author was trying to accomplish here; but in my view, he’s comparing apples to oranges.

  2. Tom Rafferty Reply

    This article, like all of philosophy and theology, explains nothing. It is all speculation. The speculation of the universe being without any intrinsic “meaning” and being infinite in scope is at least as probable as the god speculation. If you disagree, evidence please.

Leave a Reply