Rebuttal of Carroll’s Brute Fact Hypothesis, Part 2

by Feb 26, 20180 comments

This is part 2 in this series of posts rebutting Sean Carrol’s recent paper titled Why is there Something, Rather Than Nothing?. In part 1 we were introduced to Sean Carroll, a cosmologist who wrote a philosophy paper arguing that the universe can exist as a brute fact. In doing so Carroll explicitly denied the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR).

I believe a denial of the PSR is a denial of reason itself.

We will explore more about why this is the case in the next post. Before we get there, we first need to look at one of the main underlying reasons for Carroll’s denial of the PSR. This underlying reason is that he also denies the Principle of Causality (PC from here on out). Instead of holding to the PC, Carroll holds to what is often called a Humean account of causality.

In this post, then, we will look at what a Humean account of causality is, and why it too is a very extreme position to hold to. I will show why the classical theistic view of PC better explains reality, and why this Humean account of causality is actually incoherent. Finally, we will also see that Carroll actually confuses the PC with PSR, which is a key reason why his position on the PSR and brute facts is mistaken.

An Uniteligable Universe? Part 1

Here is just one of the passages from Carroll’s paper that show his denial of the PC:

Aristotle treated final causes as a fundamental metaphysical category, an irreducible feature of the architecture of reality. Modern physics sees things differently. Rather than being a story of effects and their associated causes, the universe is described by patterns, called the laws of physics, that relate conditions at different times and places to each other (typically by differential equations). The difference between the two conceptions is that the former naturally associates things that happen with reasons why they do, while on the latter view every “why” question is answered by “the dynamical laws of nature and the initial conditions of the universe.” The idea that laws simply describe patterns, rather than actively governing what is allowed, is known in the philosophy literature as a “Humean account” of the laws of nature [1].
–Sean Carroll

Carroll indicates in this passage that he is denying traditional (i.e. Aristotelian) causation. In holding to a “Humean account” of causality, Carroll is denying that every effect has a cause. Carroll is also denying that these causes have an intrinsic ability (that is to say, the power) to produce these effects.  In the end, we will see that Carroll will use the denial of PC to posit “the dynamical laws of nature and the initial conditions of the universe”  as brute facts.

To deny PC is to make the scientific project untenable and to attack reason itself.

To unpack this, we will need to look at what the differences are between a universe governed by the PC and Humean causation. In other words, are cause and effect real or are cause and effect an illusion? Let’s begin with what Hume’s account of causality is.

Hume’s Fork

David Hume (1711–1776), was a famous eighteenth-century atheistic philosopher. Hume actually went as far to deny that we can attribute causes to things. He did so as he could not see a non-circular way to justify induction (Hume’s problem of induction).

David Hume was a Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, who is best known today for his highly influential system of philosophical empiricism, skepticism, and naturalism. Wikipedia

Induction is a method of reasoning that draws probable conclusions from particular experiences. This is what the scientific method does [2]. Inductive reasoning is how science can make future predictions based on past observations.

Hume argued that because we can imagine that random events could happen without causes, this makes it possible in reality.[3] The best we can do, then, is observe the associations between phenomena and look for patterns. From these patterns, we then try to draw probable conclusions about what other phenomena may be like in future. We should not expect this will be the case, though.

The reason that Hume’s (and Carroll’s) view of causation is so extreme, is that, on some level, they both deny that it exists. They both think that effects can happen without causes. Hume also believes that we cannot say with certainty that any observed phenomena are actually causally related. We can just say that we observe something happen (event A) and then we observe something else happen (event B). We cannot say that event A causes event B, though.

Here is Edward Feser, a contemporary Neo-Scholastic philosopher, describing Hume’s position with an analogy (and a bit of sarcasm) of a brick hitting a window:

The standard story goes something like this: Suppose a brick is thrown toward a window. That’s one event. Now suppose the window shatters. That’s another event. Obviously, the first event came before the second one. We also want to say (or so we are assured) that the first event caused the second one. But why do we say this? Many events are not caused by the events they follow. So why do we think things are different in this case? After all, even in this case it is at least “conceivable” that the first event could occur without the second. The throwing of the brick could, in theory, be followed by the brick’s vanishing into thin air, or turning into a rabbit or a Snickers bar. Logically speaking, the events are “loose and separate,” with no “necessary connection” between them. So maybe it’s just the fact that they are “constantly conjoined” in our experience that leads us to think there is such a connection. Maybe the necessity is in us and not in the objective world; that is to say, maybe there really is no objective connection at all between bricks being thrown and windows shattering, and it’s just the way our minds happened to be wired that makes us think there is. Maybe “cause and effect” is just a matter of there being regular or “lawlike” correlations between events, and science must rest content with discovering these correlations. Or maybe …[4]
– Edward Feser

Under the Humean account of causality, we can’t even say that given the exact same conditions, we should expect the same thing to happen again! No one does science like this (not even Carroll).

The scientific project is built upon discovering the reasons why things behave as they do.  Science studies causes and effects.

If the PC is not real, there is no reason to expect the method of science will produce anything true about the world. The method of science itself presupposes that things are intelligible. Science presupposes that there are real correlations between things that are discoverable. As such, Hume’s position leads us to a reductio ad absurdum. It leads us to an unintelligible universe, despite the fact that it appears intelligible.

Imagine = Conceive?

One of Hume’s missteps (and Carroll’s) here is to confuse what we can imagine with what is conceivably possible in reality:

To borrow an example from G. E. M. Anscombe (1981b), what Hume evidently has in mind is something like imagining a rabbit appearing, without imagining at the same time there being a parent rabbit around. But to imagine such a thing – that is to say, to form mental images of the sort in question – is simply not the same thing as to conceive something – that is to say, to grasp the abstracted, intelligible essence of a thing and determine what is possible for it given that essence.

Hume’s procedure reflects the early modern empiricists’ conflation of the intellect and the imagination, and Hume’s argument (indeed his entire philosophy) is gravely compromised by this conflation….To conceive of A without conceiving of B simply does not entail that A could exist apart from B even if it shows that A and B are distinct. For example, one can conceive of something’s being a triangle without conceiving of its being a trilateral, but any triangle is also a trilateral. We can conceive of a man without conceiving of how tall he is, but it doesn’t follow that any man could exist without having some specific height. Or, to borrow an example from Reichenbach, a certain evenly thick plate’s being concave on one side and convex on the other are distinct features of it, but they cannot exist apart from each other.
[5]– Edward Feser

To deny PC is to make reality incoherent. It even undermines reason itself. If this view of reality is true, then we shouldn’t even expect to trust our own perceptions or thoughts we are having about the patterns we think we observe in nature.

So does Hume mean to say that all of these claims about the mind and about causation are themselves mere projections based on nothing more than observed regularities in the order of our impressions and ideas, and have no objective validity? Presumably not; indeed, the very idea seems not only implausible, but utterly incoherent. All the same, consistently pushing through a radical Humean skepticism about causation would seem to require applying Hume’s analysis of causation to Hume’s own claims about the mechanisms that govern the mind. And while this would certainly undermine First Cause arguments, it would also undermine science too – precisely because it would undermine almost every claim to knowledge, including Hume’s own theory. The traditional, “radical skeptic” reading of Hume leaves us with a snake that eats its own tail. [6]
– Edward Feser

This position is truly radical. To see just how radical, let’s briefly contrast it with the Aristotelian view.

The Aristotelian View of Causality

I don’t want to dive too far into an explanation of Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) metaphysics here. This post isn’t meant to be a full-blown defense of the position. Exploring A-T metaphysics will be the topic of many future posts. I do want to give a brief introduction to some of the basics of the Aristotelian view of causation to give a sense of why it is a much more coherent (and sensible) view of causation compared to the Humean view of causation.

Aristotle was an ancient Greek philosopher and scientist born in the city of Stagira, Chalkidice, on the northern periphery of Classical Greece. Wikipedia

The Aristotelian view of causation is how we all naturally treat the world. We all act as if cause and effect are real. We all act as if things have essences and have specific powers of causation in nature. When I want to build a fire, I don’t grab a glass of water and a pile of wood and combine them together expecting a fire to happen. This is because we know that the configuration of atoms in a match or a lighter (when working properly, of course) have the inherent ability to produce fire. A glass of water does not have this ability inherent within it (i.e. water is not combustible). Likewise, a pile of dry wood has the ability to combust when in the presence of an open flame from the match or lighter.

The human mind has the ability to understand these powers. We understand cause and effect. This is why we grab a match and not a glass of water when we want to produce a fire.

Remember, under the Humean account we can’t say any of these events are causally related. They are just phenomena that we observe happen in time and space.

Change requires a changer

Speaking about causation is really talking about change. This is talking about change in the broadest sense possible – speaking in the metaphysical sense.

Change requires a changer. We find examples all around us in everyday experience. The cool air in the room brings the temperature of the coffee down. A flick of your wrist brings the flyswatter down on the fly. But the thesis that change requires a changer is not merely a generalization from instances like these. It follows from what change is: the actualization of a potential. We saw that while the coffee is still hot, the coldness of the coffee is not exactly nothing, since it is there potentially in the coffee in a way other qualities are not. But it is still there merely potentially and not actually, otherwise the coffee would be cold already, even while it is hot, which of course it isn’t. Now potential coldness can hardly do anything, precisely because it is merely potential. Only what is actual can do anything. In particular, the potential coldness of the coffee cannot make itself actual. Only something already actual can do that—the coolness in the surrounding air, or perhaps some ice cubes you might drop into the coffee. In general, any mere potential can only be actualized by something that is already actual. In that sense, any change requires a changer of some sort or other. [7]
–Edward Feser

Causality is the process of actualizing potentials. Again, this Aristotelian view of change is just common sense. Granted, using the words “potential and ”actual” may not be the words we typically use in our everyday lives to talk about change. These words do describe the process of change in a very precise manner, though.


Furthermore, things have essences. Part of what helps define essences is describing what specific differences a thing has that other things do not. This includes powers; capacities that a thing has to bring about change in other objects.  This also includes capacities of how a thing itself can change when acted upon by an external cause. For instance, liquid water has the potential to turn into ice, but it does not have the potential to turn into a basketball.

A-T metaphysics does account for what they call substantial change.  This is what happens when one substance becomes an entirely new substance.  For instance, if you took all the atoms out of a water molecule and added them to the other atoms necessary to produce a basketball, you would have a new substance that would have its own new essence. There was nothing inherent in the essence of water to become this basketball. Conversely, inherent in the essence of water is the power to freeze at 32 degrees Fahrenheit under normal conditions here on earth. The water in a liquid state or a frozen state is the same substance with the same essence.

Summary of Aristotelian Causality

Here is a brief summary of Aristotelian causation, then:

  1. Change is real
  2. Change is the process of potentials becoming actual
  3. Only things that are actual can cause change
  4. Things have essences
  5. Essences dictate the abilities (powers) that a thing has to cause change or be changed in the world.
  6. We discover these properties of the world through induction and the scientific method.

The PC is actually just the common sense view of the world. Of course, this alone doesn’t prove it is true.   But, there are many other arguments that will be explored in later posts on A-T that do.  Arguments for the existence of God from change, from contingency, from universals, from divine simplicity, and many others, all make a strong case that God exists necessarily.  God is the ground of all causation (PC).  These arguments show that the common sense view of classical theistic metaphysics is coherent and justifiable.

Hume and Carroll, on the other hand, deny that causality is a real property of the world. Their answer is radical skepticism of causation. As we have seen, this leads to absurd positions like the denial of the scientific project itself.

The burden really should be on the person who denies the PC to show why the Aristotelian view is incorrect. This is precisely what Carroll’s paper does not do.  Instead, Carroll just calls the PSR antiquated.  Also, Carroll just boldly asserts that modern physics has shown there to be no need for a cause to the universe.  Classical theism has very strong metaphysical arguments that show neither of these claims of Carroll’s is true and Carroll just does not interact with any of them.

I firmly believe the best way to discover truth is to seek out the strongest arguments against your position and see which ideas are best. Unfortunately, Carroll does nothing of the sort, and instead just simply dismisses the common sense view of the world and offers a very radical view instead.

A Confusion of PC and PSR: An Uniteligable Universe? Part 2

Magician Clipart Image: A Happy Magician Performing Magic Tricks.


This denial of the PC is what Carroll uses as an initial step toward the even more radical view, the denial of the PSR. As you can already see, this is riddled with problems. But there is one more important misstep that Carroll makes with the PC.  This is to confuse it with the PSR.

Next, Carroll makes the move that if we can’t say that things have causes, we also can’t say that all things have reasons for why they exist. Like many others, here Carroll makes the mistake of conflating the PC with the PSR.

From a modern perspective, arguments of this sort [PSR] are not very convincing, as the justification for the PSR is somewhat antiquated. Once we think of the laws of nature as describing patterns rather than causal forces, and the notion of cause and effect as being appropriate to higher-level emergent descriptions of the world rather than the fundamental level, the PSR loses its luster. It is sometimes defended as a prerequisite for understanding and talking about the universe at all: if things happen without reasons, how can we possibly make any sense of the world?3 But the requirement that the world be orderly and intelligible is much weaker than the demand that everything has a cause or reason behind it; there is a sizable gap between the PSR as usually understood and “anything goes.” In particular, somewhere in between is the idea of an orderly universe which follows impersonal, unbreakable patterns– precisely the kind of universe that is described by modern physics. Such a property is more than enough to allow for sensible investigation and discussion of how the world is, without implying the existence of anything outside the world; as we’ve seen, there is no shortage of ways the physical world could be both orderly and self-contained.[8]
–Sean Carroll

Carroll thinks that because not everything needs a cause, not everything needs an explanation. This is a confusion of the PC and PSR. Classical theists also agree that not everything has a cause. They believe that God exists necessarily and uncaused.[9] Classical theists do believe that everything must have an explanation of its existence, though (PSR). Even God does – His essence is to exist.

PSR is reminiscent of the principle of causality…but it is important to emphasize that they are distinct principles. One difference is that, while a cause must be distinct from its effect, there need not be a distinction between a sufficient reason and that for which it is a sufficient reason. That is to say, though nothing can be the cause of itself, there could in principle be something which is self-explanatory… A related difference is that while (as we have seen) the principle of causality does not entail that everything has a cause, PSR does entail that everything has a sufficient reason. Everything which has a cause has its sufficient reason in something distinct from it, whereas if there is something which does not have a cause, it would have to have its sufficient reason in itself. All causes are reasons in the sense of making their effects intelligible, but not all reasons are causes. [10][11]
-Edward Feser

This is a very key distinction between the PC and PSR that is very commonly confused by people. We will see in our fourth post that this very confusion of the PC and the PSR leads to the most common objections to the classical theist position. Particularly the “what caused God?” or God is special pleading objections.

Softer version of Humean Causation

There is a softer version of Hume’s causation that some naturalists try to hold onto. Carroll isn’t explicit about this, but either version has the same problems.

In the soft version, one may hold that causation really does emerge from some initial state of conditions. We just don’t have complete knowledge to be able to demonstrate causation with absolute certainty (Hume’s problem of induction). This is likely what Carroll is arguing when he speaks of initial laws and states:

What does this mean for the existence of the universe? If cause-and-effect language as applied to states of affairs can usefully emerge at higher levels but is absent in fundamental physics, looking for the “cause” of the universe would be a pointless endeavor. By construction, the universe is the most fundamental thing there is. The best we can ask is whether we can imagine laws of nature that fully account for how the universe behaves, even at the earliest moments, or whether we are forced to look outside of reality itself in search of some kind of cause. While we don’t currently know the once-and-for-all laws of nature, nothing that we do currently understand about physics suggests any obstacle to thinking of the universe as a fully law-abiding, self-contained system. In this case, there would be no such thing as the “cause” or “reason why” the universe exists, even if such notions are appropriate when talking about why a glass falls to the floor or why do fools fall in love. The latter examples are embedded within larger explanatory contexts, while reality is not. [12]
–Sean Carroll

The problem here is that again, this is a confusion of PC and PSR. The whole point of Carroll’s paper is that he is positing that the universe exists contingently as a brute fact. Carroll is saying that ultimately there is no explanation of why the universe exists, nor is there any cause for the universe’s initial contingent conditions.[13]

All contingent things do need a cause, though. The alternative is absurd, it is incoherent (again, more to come on this in the next two posts). The universe is clearly contingent as we can easily ask why these laws describe reality and not others. Appealing to the fundamental laws and initial states of the universe does not absolve us of the PC.  It just kicks the can down the road.

Since the equations of physics are, by themselves, mere equations, mere abstractions, we know that there must be something more to the world than what they describe. There must be something that makes it the case that the world actually operates in accordance with the equations, rather than some other equations or no equations at all. There must be what the later Russell called an “intrinsic character” to the things related in the ways the equations describe. There must, as he put it, be something “that changes” and something “it changes from and to”, something about which, as Russell admitted, “physics is silent.” Now if what the equations describe really is change, then as I have argued, this change entails the actualization of a potential. But to actualize a potential just is to be a cause. That means that causality must be among the intrinsic features of the things physics describes. [14]
– Edward Feser

The PSR does clearly state that everything needs an explanation of its existence. The PC does not say that everything needs a cause. We have already alluded to the fact that this objection does not apply to the classical theistic conception of God.

This is where Carroll and many others conflate PC and PSR. There really is an important difference between something necessarily existing without a cause and a contingent thing existing without a cause. For a necessarily existing entity, the reason for its existence is intrinsic, so PSR is preserved and the PC doesn’t apply. For a contingently existing entity the reason for its existence is extrinsic (it is caused by something else that already exists) and both PSR and PC are preserved. A contingently existing, brute fact universe breaks both the PC and the PSR.

Taxicab Fallacy – Causality is Inescapable


What is really going on in Carroll’s paper with causality, then, is a version of taxicab fallacy.[15] Carroll wants to make use of causation so he can study the world as a scientist. Even if Carroll holds to a soft version of Humean causality, he still wants to affirm causation all the way until we get the most fundamental laws of reality and then just posit that these contingent properties simply exist as a brute fact. In this argument, PC and PSR are both denied.

If Carroll’s metaphysical vision of the universe was correct, as we have seen repeatedly, there would be no reason to trust the findings of science or even our mind’s ability to reason.  This is a reductio ad absurdum. Again, God is wholly different than a brute fact and we will dive deeper into this aspect in the next two posts.

Even in just looking at Carroll’s view of causality, we can already see that it would take a lot more faith to believe that the universe exists contingently as a brute fact, rather than the universe existing as an effect of God (the purely actual actualizer of everything, whose essence is to exist).  The classical theist view of the world is that it is intelligible.  This view is sensible and coherent.  On the brute fact view of the world, if you follow conclusions logically through, you must end up in pure skepticism.  It makes the world unintelligible.

Next post, we will finally dive specifically into the PSR. In doing so, we will see even more on why saying the universe itself is a brute fact is incoherent.

Hebrews 3:4 English Standard Version (ESV)

For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.


  1. Sean M. Carroll – Why Is There Something, Rather Than Nothing? February 8, 2018 p. 3  ↩
  2. Specifically, the scientific method usually makes use of abduction, the inference to the best explanation. Broadly speaking, though, science does make use of induction and often people will include abduction as a specific form of induction. “the best way to distinguish between induction and abduction is this: both are ampliative, meaning that the conclusion goes beyond what is (logically) contained in the premises (which is why they are non-necessary inferences), but in abduction there is an implicit or explicit appeal to explanatory considerations, whereas in induction there is not; in induction, there is only an appeal to observed frequencies or statistics.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy  ↩
  3. “Historically, the most influential critique of the principle of causality has no doubt been Hume’s.
    Bruce Reichenbach (1972, p. 56) summarizes Hume’s argument thus:
    1) Whatever is distinguishable can be conceived to be separate from each other.
    2) The cause and effect are distinguishable.
    3) Therefore, the cause and effect can be conceived to be separate from each other.
    4) Whatever is conceivable is possible in reality.
    5) Therefore, the cause and effect can be separate from each other in reality
    The intended implication of (5), in turn, is that any “effect” – that is to say, any change and the actualization of any contingent, composite, or merely potential thing – could in principle occur without a cause.” Feser, E. (2014). Scholastic Metaphysics: a contemporary introduction. p.121  ↩
  4. Feser, Edward. The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (Kindle Locations 1344–1348). St. Augustine’s Press. Kindle Edition.  ↩
  5. Feser, E. (2014). Scholastic Metaphysics: a contemporary introduction. p.121–123  ↩
  6. Feser, Edward (TUESDAY, JUNE 16, 2009). Hume, Science, and Religion. Retrieved from  ↩
  7. : Edward Feser. Five Proofs of the Existence of God Mobi (Kindle Locations 198–200). Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition.  ↩
  8. Sean M. Carroll – Why Is There Something, Rather Than Nothing? February 8, 2018 p. 9–10  ↩
  9. It is important to note that God is not an exception the PC, rather He is the conclusion of an argument for the need of an unchanging changer to cause all change in the world. Again, many future posts will explore this idea further, but for now, it is important to realize that God as a self-existent necessary being is an entirely different metaphysical category than a self-existing contingent universe.  ↩
  10. Edward Feser. Five Proofs of the Existence of God. Ignatius Press. loc. 310  ↩
  11. “There are several important differences between PC and PSR. First, while a cause must be really distinct from its effect, there need not be a real distinction between a sufficient reason and that for which it is a sufficient reason (Koren 1960, pp. 231–32). The reason a cause must be distinct from its effect is that to cause is to actualize a potency, and no potency can actualize itself but must be actualized by something already actual. But the notion of a sufficient reason does not entail the actualization of a potency. Hence though God, as pure actuality, could not have a cause, he does have, in his pure actuality, a sufficient reason for his existence. For that he just is pure actuality rather than something needing to be actualized makes his existence intelligible or explicable. Thus while God is not his own cause, he is his own sufficient reason. A third difference between PC and PSR is that the former unambiguously concerns mind-independent reality, while the latter, with its references to intelligibility, explanation, and the like, is at least partially concerned with the intellect’s understanding of mind-independent reality. Causation is an ontological notion while explanation is an epistemological notion.” Feser, E. (2014). Scholastic Metaphysics: a contemporary introduction. p.119  ↩
  12. Sean M. Carroll – Why Is There Something, Rather Than Nothing? February 8, 2018 p. 3  ↩
  13. When I use the word universe here, I am trying to use it the broadest sense possible. Even if some version of the multi-verse were true, whatever initial conditions existed for the larger multi-verse are still prone to the same need for explanations of its contingent properties.  ↩
  14. Edward Feser. Five Proofs of the Existence of God Mobi (Kindle Locations 673–676). Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition.  ↩
  15. “This response commits what one contemporary philosopher has aptly called the “taxi cab fallacy.” This is based upon a remark by the 19th-century atheist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer pointed out that you cannot dismiss this principle enunciated in premise 1 like a hack when you have arrived at your desired destination. That would be arbitrary. You cannot say that everything has an explanation of its existence and then suddenly exempt the universe from this demand. That would be simply arbitrary. It would be arbitrary to say that the universe is an exception to premise 1.” Criag, William Lane. Defenders Podcast Series. Existence of God (part 2)
    August 29, 2010  ↩

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