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In contemporary philosophy, a brute fact is a fact that cannot be explained in terms of a deeper, more "fundamental" fact. There are two main ways to explain something: say what "brought it about", or describe it at a more "fundamental" level. For example, a cat displayed on a computer screen can be explained, more "fundamentally", in terms of certain voltages in bits of metal in the screen, which in turn can be explained, more "fundamentally", in terms of certain subatomic particles moving in a certain manner. If one were to keep explaining the world in this way and reach a point at which no more "deeper" explanations can be given, then one would have found some facts which are brute or inexplicable, in the sense that we cannot give them an ontological explanation. As it might be put, there may exist some things that just are.

To reject the existence of brute facts is to think that everything can be explained ("Everything can be explained" is sometimes called the principle of sufficient reason).

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Bertrand Russell took a brute fact position when he said, "I should say that the universe is just there, and that's all." Sean Carroll similarly concluded that "any attempt to account for the existence of something rather than nothing must ultimately bottom out in a set of brute facts; the universe simply is, without ultimate cause or explanation."

Source: Brute fact - Wikipedia

Postulating that the universe just is, as a brute fact, devoid of an ultimate cause or explanation, is a viewpoint often embraced by naturalists and non-theists, exemplified by figures like Sean Carroll and Bertrand Russell. However, this notion runs contrary to the Christian faith's premise of a Creator God serving as the ultimate explanation for the universe's existence.

How might a Christian effectively persuade a naturalist non-theist, such as Sean Carroll, that it is metaphysically impossible for the universe to be a brute fact?


Bonus for the interested reader with about one hour of free time: God is not a Good Theory (Sean Carroll)

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    By pointing out that Russel's brute fact has no supporting evidence? I am a little unclear on the question although it is interesting. Commented Apr 4 at 1:10
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    @Korvintarmast Russell (and Carroll)'s brute fact is the universe. And we do have evidence for the universe's existence, right?
    – Mark
    Commented Apr 4 at 1:30
  • Everything can be explained, ask scientists. All the scientific laws have been observed and explained. So is the universe and everything in it Commented Apr 4 at 5:18
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    @Mark Then it's a useless statement. Thanks. Commented Apr 4 at 17:07
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    Personally, I find while humans have the ability to act rationally, our default state is rooted in emotion rather than reason. You'll rarely convince or persuade anyone of anything; you have to make them want it. Commented Apr 4 at 21:19

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It's important for the Christian to recognize that when naturalist, non-theists refer to the universe they are actually referring to a very specifically natural universe. Already, before the conversation has even begun, anything supernatural is definitively excluded. Recourse to scientific methods and discoveries are often taken to validate this assumption but science has no voice beyond the natural. The position that the natural is all that exists is an assumption that, in philosophical terms, is a very strong assumption (because it carries massive ontological weight) which makes it, actually, a very poor assumption.

This is the fulcrum: Getting naturalist non-theists to admit to having a non-scientific and very poor assumption. It's okay! We theists also hold a non-scientific and very poor assumption; that the supernatural exists.

If we define the universe as 'everything that there physically is' (whether already discovered or yet to be discovered) and combine that with the (scientific) methodology by which we discover what is physically discoverable, it becomes apparent that within 'all that there naturally is' cause and effect reigns supreme, as far as we can tell.

Whether we look at the natural on a larger and larger or smaller and smaller scale, what we are always chasing is the perception of an effect and its constituent cause(s). Temporary 'ceilings' have been and are encountered which produce apparent 'brute natural facts' but theoretical and technological advancements in science generally break through those ceilings unto yet further causes and effects.

When scientific inquiry hits such a 'ceiling' it does not assume a 'brute fact' has been discovered; it continues to search for a cause. It is theology/philosophy which desires to apply the label of 'brute fact'. Thus when the naturalist non-theist propounds a 'brute fact' he is not making a scientific claim, he is engaging in a theological discussion based upon his foundational assumption that the supernatural does not exist. This is an assumption about which science has no ability to speak.

The theist must convince the naturalist non-theist to admit that the assumption of 'no supernatural' is not scientific in origin and improper to be presented as a scientific conclusion. Further, that it is not a conclusion at all but rather a very poor philosophical assumption.

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    Good point regarding calling out a naturalist non-theist on their underlying philosophical assumptions. However, at best this would persuade someone like Sean Carroll to adopt a more humble agnostic stance with respect to foundational assumptions. Beyond that, it's not clear how further progress could be made in terms of persuasion.
    – Mark
    Commented Apr 4 at 15:21
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    @Mark If the naturalist non-theist can no longer be sure of his assumption then, if he is honest and humble, he can no longer be unsure about the theist's assumption. It's more of a continuing tenor in the persuasion process, I suppose. The real problem is that we are all very fond of our foundational assumption :) Commented Apr 4 at 15:31
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    Excellent point! The atheist's position is every bit as much an article of faith as is the theist's, however, many atheists fail to recognize that fact; they are confident that science supports their position: how far from the truth. If you can convince an atheist of this, you not only gain their respect for the theistic option as no less valid than their own, but you also begin to open their mind to the idea that there are question beyond the scope of science, and that they must look elsewhere for comprehensive knowledge.
    – user65254
    Commented Apr 4 at 15:46
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    Note that any scientist who starts with such an assumption (that the supernatural doesn't exist) is doing very bad science. And I say this as a scientist who absolutely believes the supernatural doesn't exist. That's my belief, not what I base my science on. The assumption that a scientist would make is instead that "only what is observable and demonstrable is relevant". That doesn't mean nothing else exists, only that whether it exists or not, unless it is observable and measurable, it isn't something science can investigate.
    – terdon
    Commented Apr 4 at 15:58
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    @NotThatGuy "I see physicalism (whether metaphysical or methodological) more as a rejection of things that are "outside the physical".". How is this not just what I've tried to describe? For clarity it is a "very poor assumption" because it is a "very strong assumption", philosophically speaking, in that it carries massive ontological weight. The "best" philosophic assumptions are "weak" ones. Commented Apr 5 at 14:00
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Atheists who are essentially strict naturalists must be convinced that there is a source of knowledge additional to that which can be obtained from the methods of empirical science; this modification of the naturalist's epistemic outlook is necessary because if all things that can be known or discussed by man intelligibly are derived from observation of the material realm, then there will never be anything more than a set of brute force facts that can be recorded and perhaps modeled. This is the ailment of the empiricist, viz. that he suffers from a peculiarly narrow epistemic outlook.

Arguments from the vantage point that ethics or morality constitute a body of knowledge extant and applicable in the world, and yet without any basis in natural law can sometimes work, however, most atheists will maintain that the moral law is itself a brute fact and consequence of biological evolution. Deductive argumentation from the ontological, cosmological and teleological angles have been shown unworkable by enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, and thus are not convincing to most naturalists, however, probabilistic arguments making use of Bayesian probabilities may serve to convince some that the evidence in favor of design is overwhelming, however, this is usually the argument that leads to the naturalist's retreat to the subject of the original question topic in the first place, that the universe is a brute force fact.

In short, good luck, one has about as much chance of convincing the strict naturalist that the universe's existence requires an explanation as the naturalist has of convincing the theist that the universe's existence does not require explaining.

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  • But the question implies that the naturalist believes the universe is special already.
    – prosfilaes
    Commented Apr 5 at 0:04
  • @prosfilaes By "not special" I am referring to the atheist's point blank acceptance of the universe as extant and requiring no further explanation as to its existence.
    – user65254
    Commented Apr 5 at 0:14
  • You may be using it that way, but it's not clear or helpful.
    – prosfilaes
    Commented Apr 5 at 0:22
  • @prosfilaes Well, I suppose I could edit the post to make more suitable as per your suggestion.
    – user65254
    Commented Apr 5 at 0:29
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I would hope the two of us to begin in total agreement that, "The universe is a fact". It exists; it is really, physically, materially present, and we form living and intelligent parts of that universe. However, there are some scientific theories going around that even call that into question. How to establish common ground for a starting-point? That would have to be done before discussing the difference between facts and brute facts.

It would only be fair for a natural-non-theist to read some of the literature presenting logical, reasonable evidences for one intelligent creator God, and for me to have returned the favour, showing we are both open to considering opposing ideas. And I have already read some scientific books that discount the idea of such a unique, intelligent God. (I'm not going to discuss turtles all the way down or, as Hawkings mentions, Skoll and Hati in Viking mythology, below, p.23.)

For example, there are books by Stephen Hawking. I have in front of me this one which states,

"...we now have a candidate for the ultimate theory of everything, if indeed one exists, called M-theory... It is not a theory in the usual sense. It is a whole family of different theories, each of which is a good description of observations only in some range of physical situations... The different theories in the M-theory family may look very different, but they can all be regarded as aspects of the same underlying theory. They are versions of the theory that are applicable only in limited ranges... According to M-theory, ours is not the only universe. Instead, M-theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing. Their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather, these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law." The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking, pp.17-19, Bantam, 2011

I have read the whole of that book so there would be hope for intelligent discussion. The question of intelligence is one strand of appeal worth pursuing.

To counter many anti-God-as-Creator ideas, I would expect a fair reading to be given to such books as What is Man - Adam, Alien or Ape? by Edgar Andrews, Elm Hill, 2018, or his Who Made God? Searching for a theory of everything, EP Books, 2009. Or Inventing the Universe, Alister McGrath, Hodder & Stoughton, 2015.

Let the starting point be to give a fair hearing (or read) to the evidences presented by the best minds on those matters. But a word of warning. When science enters the realms of metaphysics, it has exceeded its bounds and has no scientific authority. You ask how a Christian deal with a naturalist non-theist on metaphysical matters regarding the universe and 'brute facts'. My answer is, "You don't. Science must stick to matters of scientific enquiry, and Christians must stick to matters of Christian faith." Let each party consider one another's stances, being clear as to where the boundary lines must be drawn. After all, spirit-realm investigations require 'rules' unique to the invisible spirit-realm. Refusal to recognise that fact will mean no success will be possible.

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  • If something is claimed to be beyond our reliable methods of evaluating the truth of claims, that may simply be where it is (or possibly is), or maybe it's just claimed to be there to protect it from being disproven. A claim that defines itself to be exempt from standard means of evaluating truth should be treated with extreme skepticism, for there is pretty much nothing you cannot accept as true if you simply define it as an exception to how we evaluate truth. (But many atheists aren't in principle opposed to adopting your "rules"... as long as those can be shown to reliably indicate truth.)
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Apr 5 at 23:41
  • @NotThatGuy This is an initial problem if there is to be a meeting of minds; one group considers truth to be proposed as a ‘claim’ (a scientific theory in this case) that must then be evaluated to prove whether it is true or false. Christians have no problem with that applying to examination of the material universe. That is the scientific method. We have no problem with that when it is applied to matter. But natural non-theists seem to have a problem accepting that God, who is Spirit, invisible and immaterial, requires a different approach. There is no scientific test that could be applied
    – Anne
    Commented Apr 6 at 7:33
  • to such a One who requires us to approach him in faith to learn anything about his reality, his truth, his power, his purposes for his creation. Until this difference is acknowledged, no progress can be made in understanding Christian faith. The world demands evidence, then belief; God requires faith, then the evidence comes. This method of discovering how “God is truth” has been tried and tested for millennia. For Christian faith, truth is not a cold-blooded idea that can be proven scientifically; it is a Person who created us as persons made in his image and likeness.
    – Anne
    Commented Apr 6 at 7:36
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    @NotThatGuy To say that "God does not exist" is a claim. Christians have discovered the truth of God's existence with his personal interactions with them and others. Some used to be atheists. My point is not about other religionist's views of God but why non-theists won't accept that the reality of God requires going by criteria (a method, to put it crassly) different to how they establish confidence in the reality of physical, material 'things'. God is not a 'thing'. Nobody with that approach ever discovers his unseeable reality.
    – Anne
    Commented Apr 7 at 8:40
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    @NotThatGuy In that case it's a waste of time me replying further. The way you used might well have been unreliable if it wasn't God's way. So, your mind is made up. Hang on to non-belief if you wish (whatever the reasons). Comments certainly are not for trying to 'convert' anyone.
    – Anne
    Commented Apr 7 at 14:38

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