Friday, November 3, 2017

Necessary vs. Brute Facts in Cosmological Arguments

So I’m a bit late to the party, but I was recently able to listen to the debate between Sean Carroll and Luke Barnes on the Unbelievable podcast.  There’s been some hubbub on Randal’s blog about the rather fantastic episode, and I’d like to make a few points now that I’ve heard it myself.

A lot of the debate was on the ground regarding a naturalist explanation of the universe, assuming the universe (defined as the entirety of physical reality) has a beginning.  The two of them didn’t debate any merits of naturalistic explanations of an eternal universe.

The first bit of hubbub I’m referring to is when Randal accuses Sean of redefining god to not be necessary and to argue against his own definition of god as a non-necessary being.

I think part of this stems from confusion on Randal’s part of what Sean was saying. In his book, Sean argues that there are no necessarily existing beings, so this isn't an imposition of a new definition it's an argued conclusion.  Further, in the debate with Luke, Sean’s main point is that even on theism one has to accept brute facts.   It's this second point of contention that I really want to focus on here.

I think that last point has more purchase than the former. Even if we grant the theist that they believe god exists necessarily, ie. he exists in all possible worlds with the same properties, the theist is still stuck having to accept a number of brute facts.

Consider the Christian idea that their god is a trinity: father, son, and holy spirit – three persons in one god.

Coherence objections aside, why is it a fact that god is a trinity rather than a single person, or duet, or quintuple, ad infinitum?

This is a fact that has no explanation, and so it is a brute fact. 

I notice that on Randal’s page he refers to a brute fact as a “contingent fact that has no explanation” but that’s not the usual definition of a brute fact: which is just a fact that has no further explanation.  It seems odd to me to want to import ideas about possible worlds (necessary vs. contingent), since we’d need a robust theory of talking about possible worlds to really hash out what is meant here – and there is a wide variety of views available on the topic. 

If you’re familiar with my Countering the Moral Argument series, you’ll know that a theist has to accept brute facts about the properties of gods nature.  This is because if a theist holds to the idea that god’s nature serves as the ontological basis for moral values – so that something like love is good only because god’s nature is loving, then the fact that god’s nature is say truthful instead of deceitful is itself a brute fact. This is because to say that god’s nature is the ontological foundation for goodness itself expressly leaves no reason as to why god’s nature has any given property.  This is the main thrust of Erik Wielenberg’s arguments regarding theistic morality. 

I posted this on Randal’s blog as a comment, where Randal replied:

“God's triunity and moral perfection, for example, are understood to be necessary facts about God across all possible worlds, not merely contingent brute facts in the actual world.”

But this misses the mark.  First Randal is importing the idea that for something to be a brute fact it has to be a contingent fact.  Even if we grant that theists hold that god is a necessary being, that is he exists the same way in all possible worlds, there is still no explanation as to why god has the properties he does.   For instance, let’s say Christianity is false but Islam is true, so the idea of god as a trinity is false – god exists, but is constituted of only one person not three and he exists this way in all possible worlds.

There’s nothing logically necessary about god having to have this property. There is no logical deduction to be had from “god exists” to “god has the property of being triune”.

I just don’t see how doing a top down imposition of “well I conceive of god having XYZ properties and being necessary, so the fact that god has XYZ properties is explained by his being a necessary being” actually adds anything to explaining why god has those properties.

Consider if an atheist said that “whatever the fundamental nature of physical reality is, it’s necessary”.  So when a theist uses the fine tuning argument to say that a physical constant having such and such a value is evidence for god, because if it were ever so slightly different then life couldn’t have existed in our universe, the atheist could just respond “but since I conceive that physical reality is necessary, the fact that we observe such and such a value for any given constant is explained by the necessary nature of physical reality”.

It’s really exactly like that when it comes to something like the trinity, where persons in the godhead = 3 instead of any other number.

If that move is valid, I certainly don’t begin to see how having a “necessary fact” as your starting point give any advantage over a brute fact. 

In the end however, I don’t see how any worldview avoids having some set of brute facts baked into its assumptions.


  1. Anyone who believes the following MUST believe in brute facts (contingent facts without explanation):

    1. God exists necessarily
    2. There are contingent facts

    This is because there are well known proofs against the Principle of Sufficient Reason showing the that there cannot be “total explanation.” Particularly, the gap between necessary facts and contingent facts cannot be fully bridged. If a necessary fact fully explained a contingent fact, it would entail it, thereby making it a necessary fact as well. Therefore, even if God exists necessarily, there must be some brute contingency in order to avoid collapsing all the contingency into necessary.

    Specifically, the existence of a contingent universe is a brute fact on theism. On theism, God’s necessary existence IS NOT the ultimate explanation for the contingent universe because then the universe would be necessitated by God’s existence, and therefore it wouldn’t exist contingently. Thus, the real explanation for the universe must instead be God’s free contingent choice to create the universe that explains its contingent existence. But then God’s contingent choice is unexplained. It can’t be explained by reference to God’s necessary nature/desires/properties, because then the contingent free choice collapses into a necessary fact. Ultimately, even on theism, the ultimate explanation for why there is a universe is a brute fact. Swinburne writes, “Against this claim that explanation ends with a logically necessary being I urge the point that…the logically necessary cannot explain the logically contingent…There can be no ‘absolute explanation’ of the existence of the universe” (p.148, The Existence is God). Jordan Howard Sobel writes, “The problem with cosmological arguments that would brook no brute facts, that demand explanations for everything including the sum total of everything, is radical and profound…The problem for cosmological arguments that want reasons all around is that, if anything is contingent, there cannot BE reasons all around: If anything is contingent, then it is not possible that, for every fact or entity, x, there is a reason of some sort or other for x (p.222, Logic and Theism)

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  3. Here's my comment reposted with an irritating typo removed:

    Hi CA,

    This conversation is ranging rather widely from my objection to Carroll. So let me approach it by way of an analogy.

    Imagine two individuals, Smith and Jones, in debate over another topic: the status of moral utterances.

    Smith is an emotivist and thus he believes that all moral utterances are reducible to non-cognitive emotional expressions.

    By contrast, Jones is a moral realist who believes that moral utterances convey true or false claims about objectively true moral facts. (Objectively true means true irrespective of the opinion of any human being.)

    And so, both Smith and Jones are aiming to provide the most satisfactory account of moral utterances. One important line of evidence in support of Jones' position is the intuitive support for the fact that at least some moral facts are indeed objective. (E.g. it is plausible to believe that "Rape is evil" is true irrespective of whether any human being recognizes it is true.)

    With that in mind, now imagine that Smith responds to that point by saying he instead defines moral realism as a position in which moral utterances convey true or false claims only about subjective opinions.

    If moral realism is defined in that way (i.e. as a thesis only about subjective facts), then it loses one advantage over objective version of moral realism. But the key point is that Jones does not hold this view: rather,she holds objective moral realism. And thus Smith's view that if moral realism is true then it is subjective in nature is not relevant.

    Now shift back to the present context. Carroll says that if God exists then God's existence is a brute fact. That weaker position loses the strength of the mainstream theistic position that God's existence is necessary and can provide a fitting "backstop" for explaining the existence of all other things. It also is most emphatically not the position held by Carroll's interlocutor. Consequently, Carroll ends up defending his position over-against a position his interlocutor does not hold. And that's not the way to win and argument.

    1. I don't really have much desire to defend the idea that god existence is a brute fact - so I'm willing to concede the point, especially for the sake of the argument.

      That said the wider point of contention here is the idea that terminating in a necessary fact should hold some kind of argumentative weight for theism is what I'm mainly after.

      I think this point can be made by showing that the theist has to accept a number of brute facts about god, just as the naturalist has to accept a number of brute facts about physical reality.

      That said, what exactly stops the naturalist from using a similar maneuver that I mentioned in the OP - the idea that the fundamental "physical stuff" (whatever its form is) is a necessary entity/thing.

      I just don't see how imposing a 'necessary' designation on something really adds any weight to one side given everything else that you're stuck with regardless of the move.

      PS. I didn't notice your typo FWIW, I just reposted my reply to this comment.

    2. “God's existence is necessary and can provide a fitting "backstop" for explaining the existence of all other things.“

      Can you elaborate on this? God isn’t really the explanation for the universe, because if God is necessary, and God is sufficient to explain the universe, then the universe must be necessary. So really, the theistic explanation of contingency refers to a free choice to create the universe, because we can retain the contingency of the universe by reference to a contingent choice. But that divine choice is not fully explainable by reference to any necessary facts about God, so the choice is ultimately an instance of brute contingency. God could’ve chose otherwise and there is ultimately no explanation why he chose to create rather than not, or to create this rather than that. Nothing in God’s necessary existence entails this choice, and even if God’s necessary nature probabilistically predicts he would make this choice, it is still a brute contingency that the result of this probabilistic coin toss turned out one way rather than another way.

      Moreover, I wonder if it is even coherent to explain the fact “there are contingent facts” by referencing anther contingent fact (“God contingently chose to introduce contingency into the world”). And if this is coherent, then we have a self explaining contingent (contingent facts are explained by a member of that set) and therefore contingency can be self explaining, so necessity is not the only method of self justification.

  4. CA, forgive my lack of philosophical sophistication, but would it be accurate to say that both theist and non-theist have faith in their starting assumptions, as in God exists or the material world is all there is?

    1. I don't think so, no. This is more about whether or not one explanation has an advantage over the other in a specific context. Also I think it's wrong to say the non-theist starts with the assumption that the material world is all there is.

  5. CA/Ron,

    It seems to me that causality and intentionality would be brute facts about God regarding cosmological arguments implied by creationist reasoning. Many apologists have argued some form of the Kalam, but I agree with you that any cosmological argument has these assumptions baked in: namely, that God must have created the universe causally and with intention. CA, you touched on this on one of your YouTube videos. You correctly, in my opinion, point out that God cannot have created causality. Wouldn't causality then be a 'necessary' property about God's nature? For instance, the naturalist can hold that causality, which is inherently temporal, cannot have existed before the first moment of time, so causality would be incoherent before t=0, but at t>0 causality can be understood to take some kind of meaning in the way that newly formed matter interacted temporally. If the theist tries to claim causality as a God property, they will quickly run into absurdities in trying to explain this one away (with metaphysical time, simultaneous causality, etc). Regarding intentionality, or 'aboutness' of mental states, God wouldn't just be the cause of the universe, he would, as a mental being, be the source of intentionality. But how could he 'cause' intentionality or 'intention' for it to exist before it did so? This same argument from Causality applies here to intentionality re: reductive absurdities, though this time regarding his omnipotence/omnibenevolence. I'm wondering if the theist would claim that God's intentionality is 'perfect goodness,' but this wouldn't explain WHY he created the universe, unless universe creation was the mandate of perfect moral duty. As a result, anyone making some version of the Kalam is making brute claims about God's nature, namely, (1) Causality is an eternal description of God's acts and (2) Intentionality is an eternal description of God's will. I don't see how this is coherent unless we are playing language games. This ties in with the material/efficient cause argument you have presented before, but anyone in the theist camp claiming that logical necessity voids brute claims about God seems to me to be passing the buck prematurely onto the naturalist. Is it then 'logically necessary' that God acts causally and with intention? Wouldn't this be 'adding' claims about God, or are these merely descriptors that apply to God's mental states?
    Can the theist rationally argue that intention and causality are implied by omniscience and omnipotence, respectively?
    In other words, am I just describing implied properties of God's nature the same way that saying '4' exists abstractly implies that '2^2' exists abstractly, even though the two represent different mathematical objects? I'm trying to work through this one and I would love some input. My instinct here is that 'all powerful' does not imply casual action and 'all knowing' does not imply intentioned will. Thoughts?