“Help, help the sky is falling! Help, help the sky is falling! I have to tell the King!” squawks Chicken Little in the opening of the popular children’s folktale. A mysterious object had just hit chicken little in the head, but when he looked up he didn’t see anything. Chicken Little concluded the sky was falling and ran off in terror for help.
The author tells us that the cause of chicken little’s hit to the head was just an acorn the dropped from a bird flying overhead. But, imagine for a moment that objects did suddenly start popping into existence out of nowhere and falling from the sky onto our heads. Like Chicken Little, there would likely be pandemonium. People would be afraid of what was going to fall on them next. Many people would rush to study these strange new phenomena. They would try to understand what was causing them and figure out what we could do to stop it.
Thankfully, this is not the world in which we live. But, this is, in fact, the world that Sean Carroll wants us to believe that we do live in. It may sound like I am being extreme with my analogy, but a world such as just described is exactly what a world without the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) would look like.
This is post three (Part 1 and Part 2 found here) in the series rebutting cosmologist Sean Carroll’s philosophy paper positing the universe exists contingently as a brute fact. In this post, we will now begin to look at what I think Carroll’s most serious philosophical flaw is in his arguments, the denial of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR).
I believe this is a denial of a basic first principle of knowledge, the result of which is to undermine all reason itself.
In this post, I will layout what first principles are and why classical theists take the PSR to be one. Next, we will look at what the word “nothing” means and what it means for something to come from nothing under the theistic and brute fact models. Finally, we will explore how the denial of PSR is another version of reductio ad absurdum and review some arguments why PSR cannot be false.
There are many examples in Carroll’s paper where he declares that the universe could exist as a brute fact. For example:
The idea of a universe created by a greater being, for some specific purpose or having some particular properties, seems somehow more satisfying than a universe that exists as a brute fact. (Our idea of satisfactory explanations has, needless to say, been trained on our experience within a tiny fraction of reality, not on the existence of the whole of reality itself; but we work with what we have.) Moreover, the presence of regularities such as the laws of nature is itself something we might want to explain, even if it alone is sufficient to render the universe intelligible. We are therefore welcome to search for evidence for such an extra-universal entity, using the conventional methods of science and reason. But there is no logical or empirical reason why such an entity must exist; the universe can just be. 
Here Carroll denies the PSR and posits the universe itself may just exist as a brute fact. Carroll thinks there is nothing illogical about this. This is absurd. Denying PSR is absurd because it is a denial of basic first principles of all knowledge.
First principles are self-evident truths. These are foundational propositions about reality that form the basis of all our knowledge.
Aristotelian-Thomists (A-T) will commonly list the Law of Non-Contradiction, the Law of Identity, the Law of Excluded Middle, the PSR and the Principle of Causality (PC) as the basic set of first principles. 
The A-T way of building up this list of first principles is to start with our sensory experience. We first know that “being” exists. Even if the external world is just an illusion, and our senses are deceived into thinking that it is real, then there is at least our experience of this “external world illusion” that we can say exists. This sense of experience (us) is “being” of some sort.
Now to simply know that at least something exists, it then logically follows that we cannot say that this something does not exist. This is the Law of Non-Contradiction (sometimes just called the Law of Contradiction). Logically, something just cannot both exist and not exist at the same time (don’t worry, quantum physics does not violate this principle – more to come on this in post 4).
There are interesting arguments for how all these first principles are derived, but for the sake of time, we will jump straight away into the PSR since it is what is pertinent to this discussion. 
The Principle of Sufficient Reason
As mentioned in the first post, Leibniz is the person usually credited with first formalizing the PSR. His formulation is “nothing takes place without sufficient reason.” This basic concept of the PSR has existed in many forms throughout human history, though.
To this principle of contradiction or of identity is subordinated the principle of sufficient reason, which in its generality may be formulated thus: “Everything that is has its raison d’etre [reason for being], in itself, if of itself it exists, in something else, if of itself it does not exist.” … We stand here at a central point. We see that the efficient cause presupposes the very universal idea of cause, found also in final cause, and in formal cause, as well as in the agent.  Thus the principle of sufficient reason had been formulated long before Leibnitz. Reality – A Thomistic Synthesis: by Pere Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. – Complete book online (ch. 4)
There are only two options for why something exists. Everything either exists for some reason intrinsic to itself or by some reason extrinsic to it. This is to say it either exists necessarily by its very nature, or it exists because of something else that already exists.
One may very well ask, “why is it that something cannot exist without a reason?” Also, can the universe exist for some reason intrinsic to itself? We will explore these questions in further detail below.
The PSR Argument for God
There is one clear reason that a naturalist would want to deny the PSR. This is because an implication of the PSR is that if everything has an explanation of its existence this should include an explanation of why anything exists at all. A logical conclusion of the PSR is that God is the ultimate reason why anything exists.
Here is the form of the basic Leibnizian PSR argument for God:
(1) Every contingent fact has an explanation.
(2) There is a contingent fact that includes all other contingent facts.
(3) Therefore, there is an explanation of this fact.
(4) This explanation must involve a necessary being.
(5) This necessary being is God. 
If this argument goes through, then the PSR is true, and God is the ultimate reason for anything’s existence. The aim of this post isn’t to argue for the existence of God, so I am not going to dwell on the merits of the argument. The point is to show that classical theism is built upon rational first principles, and following logical deductions through from the first principles, we can arrive at the necessary existence of God.
Is this just wishful thinking? Is reality intelligible? The alternative is absurd. Let’s now take a look why.
From Nothing, Nothing Comes.
There is a famous dictum that most throughout the ages have held to be true: from nothing, nothing comes (ex nihilo, nihil fit). There is sometimes a confusion among people today as to what this means for theists, and what the word “nothing” actually means.
Classical theists do believe that God created the world from nothing. Some may claim that classical theists also violate this principle of from nothing, nothing comes. This is a misunderstanding. Theists do not believe that God created out of nothing equivocating on the word “nothing” like many scientists often do.  Theists mean “out of” and “from” to just show temporal sequence. There was nothing – no matter, no fields, no vacuums, nothing – there was just God who is immaterial. Then God created and there was something. 
John Polkinghorne is a physicist (and Anglican priest) who helps clear this up more:
“The thought of the Creator’s sustaining the world in being has traditionally been expressed in Christian theology by the phrase creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing. It does not mean that God used some peculiar stuff called nihil from which to make the universe, but that the universe is at all times held in being, rescued from the abyss of nothingness by the divine will alone. When quantum cosmologists gaily characterize their notion of the universe as an inflated vacuum fluctation (pp.34–6) as being the scientfic equivalent of creatio ex nihilo, they entierly miss the point. A quantum vacuum is not nihil, for it is structured by the laws of quantum mechanics and the equations of the quanutm fields involved, all of which the theist will see as existing solely because God decrees that this should be so. There is no area in which the interaction of science and theology is more bedevilled by theological ingorance on the part of scientists than in the discussion of the doctrine of creation.” 
Carroll also deserves some credit here. He isn’t trying to make the claim that universe is brought into being from nothing. This would be to attribute causal powers to “nothing”, which by definition has none. He even points out this common error in his paper:
One place where science has exerted an impact on the question is in our definitions of “something” and “nothing.” In olden times, we might have described the universe as a collection of stuff (matter, energy, fields), distributed through space and evolving with time.We can then distinguish between two issues:
1. Why is there stuff? Why is there anything inside the universe, rather than just empty space?
2. Why is there space at all? Why is there anything we would recognize as “a universe”?
For the first question, the relevant notion of “nothing” is “empty space,” while for the second it is the non-existence of reality altogether. Clearly it’s the second question that most people have in mind when the ask why there is something rather than nothing, but answers to the first question (which are much easier to imagine obtaining) have often been passed off as relevant to the second. 
Such a scenario has given rise to the pithy saying that there is something rather than nothing because “nothing is unstable” [25, 26], if we allow ourselves the freedom to define “nothing” as “a symmetric false-vacuum state.” This has nothing at all to do with the origin of the universe itself, and certainly nothing to do with why there is a quantum wave function in the first place. 
We have established some agreement here. We can at least say that it is philosophical absurd to say that nothing can create something.
So far so good.
Unfortunately, this is where the agreement ends and Carroll’s own incoherence will begin. Carroll states that answering what brought the universe into existence is at least a conceivably scientific question to ask, but he also thinks it not having an explanation is an acceptable answer.
“What brought the universe into existence?” is conceivably a scientific question. Keeping in mind that “there is no such thing” is a perfectly plausible answer, attempts to identify a mechanism that brought the universe into being should, at the very least, be informed by our best current science, and ideas from contemporary physics have significantly affected what kind of answer we might reasonably expect. 
If this is true, there is no explanation for why the universe exists. Carroll is clear in his paper that he is not positing the universe is a necessary entity. Instead, he is making a denial of the PSR, and stating the universe may just exist contingently without a reason. We shall now see why this is absurd.
Reductio Ad Absurdum #1 – Unexplained Events Should Happen All the Time.
There are many reasons why denying the PSR is absurd. I will highlight just a few here. See Alexander Pruss’s excellent paper for a thorough treatment of the subject.
On page 10 of his paper, Carroll does claim that just because there isn’t a PSR that this also doesn’t mean that anything can happen.
“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.”
Carroll thinks the laws of nature are enough reason to explain the universe is orderly. If the laws of nature themselves just exist, this means that something does just exist without an explanation. Who is to say that other things wouldn’t too? Carroll offers no explanation, he just says that the laws of nature are orderly. Why?
The first reductio ad absurdum from throwing out the PSR is that events without explanations could happen at any time. And yet we have never experienced such an event.
Why should we believe PSR? One important argument for it is a variation on the empirical argument for the principle of causality we considered in chapter 1. Considered as an inductive generalization, PSR is as well supported as any other. For one thing (and as noted already) we do in fact tend to find explanations when we look for them, and even when we don’t, we tend to have reason to think there is an explanation but just one to which, for whatever reason (e.g., missing evidence), we don’t have access. For another thing, the world simply doesn’t behave the way we would expect it to if PSR were false.3 Events without any evident explanation would surely be occurring constantly, and the world would simply not have the intelligibility that makes science and everyday common sense as successful as they are. That the world is as orderly and intelligible as it is would be a miracle if PSR were not true. 
Without the PSR, it would be a miracle that these events don’t happen all the time. This is not what we experience in reality.
Reductio Ad Absurdum #2 – Our Perceptions Could Be Without Reason.
If PSR is false, you would have to be a perception skeptic; you would have to think that there is no way to assume that our perceptions about causation in the world are accurate. Science and almost all knowledge would be impossible.
But PSR is far more certain than a mere empirical hypothesis can be. If it seems difficult to prove, that is not because it is doubtful, but on the contrary because it is more obviously true than anything that could be said either for or against it. As Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange writes, “Though it cannot be directly demonstrated, it can be indirectly demonstrated by the indirect method of proof known as reductio ad absurdum.”4 One way in which this might go is suggested by some remarks made by Alexander Pruss, who was in turn developing a point made by Robert Koons.5 Denying PSR, Pruss notes, entails radical skepticism about perception. For if PSR is false, then there might be no reason whatsoever for our having the perceptual experiences we have. In particular, there might be no connection at all between our perceptual experiences and the external objects and events we suppose cause them. Nor would we have any grounds for claiming even that such a radical disconnect between our perceptions and external reality is improbable. For objective probabilities depend on the objective tendencies of things, and if PSR is false, then events might occur in a way that has nothing to do with any objective tendencies of things. Hence, one cannot consistently deny PSR and be justified in trusting the evidence of sensory perception, nor the empirical science grounded in perception. 
Reductio Ad Absurdum #3 – the Denial of PSR Itself Could Be Without Reason.
Denying PSR is self-refuting. Again, its denial would make any rational inquiry impossible, including the denial of PSR itself.
Of course a determined critic of PSR might suppose he can bite the bullet and accept perceptual skepticism, but the Pruss / Koons line of argument can be pushed further than they push it. Consider that whenever we accept a claim that we take to be rationally justified, we suppose not only that we have a reason for accepting it (in the sense of a rational justification) but also that this reason is the reason why we accept it (in the sense of being the cause or explanation of our accepting it). We suppose that it is because the rational considerations in favor of the claim are good ones that we are moved to assent to the claim. We also suppose that our cognitive faculties track truth and standards of rational argumentation, rather than leading us to embrace conclusions in a way that has no connection to truth or logic. But if PSR is false, we could have no reason for thinking that any of this is really the case. For all we know, what moves or causes us to assent to a claim might have absolutely nothing to do with the deliverances of our cognitive faculties, and our cognitive faculties themselves might in turn have the deliverances they do in a way that has nothing to do with truth or standards of logic. We might believe what we do for no reason whatsoever, and yet it might also falsely seem, once again for no reason whatsoever, that we do believe what we do on good rational grounds. Now, this would apply to any grounds we might have for doubting PSR as much as it does to any other conclusion we might draw. Hence, to doubt or deny PSR undercuts any grounds we could have for doubting or denying PSR. The rejection of PSR is therefore self-undermining. Even the critic of PSR willing to embrace perceptual skepticism and retreat into a redoubt of a priori knowledge will find no shelter there. To reject PSR is to undermine the possibility of any rational inquiry. 
Reductio Ad Absurdum #4 – Infinite Regress of Contingent Reasons Impossible.
We already covered that all things have explanations either inherent in themselves (necessary objects) or extrinsic to it (contingent objects). There also cannot be an infinite regress of contingent objects. Remember the PSR claims that all contingent things need an explanation. If every continent object just depended on the contingent object before it, you would still need an explanation for the series as a whole. This means the infinite series of contingent explanations would need an explanation itself, for which there would not be one.
Take any contingent thing—a stone, a Lego block, a tree, a human being, whatever. A collection of three stones is obviously no less contingent than a single stone is, and a collection of three hundred or three million stones is obviously no less contingent than the collection of three stones. Indeed, the collections are if anything more obviously contingent than the individual stone is. The individual stone is contingent on things like the laws of physics continuing to operate in such a way that the atoms making up the stone don’t dissipate, for example. But the collection is dependent both on all of its component stones being gathered together in just the way they are, and on each individual stone in the collection existing insofar as the laws of physics continue to operate in such a way that the atoms making up the stone don’t dissipate, for example. The collection is thus doubly contingent. It is quite silly to pretend, then, that when we get to the collection of all the stones there are, or all the contingent things there are, we might somehow suddenly have something that is not contingent. 
Sometimes it is objected that this line of reasoning makes the fallacy of composition. It is said that you can’t assume the whole has all the properties of the parts. This objection has no force against the PSR, though, but we will save this for post #4, responding to objections.
The infinite series of contingent (extrinsic) reasons is really just another attempt to avoid the conclusion that you need a necessary being, something with an intrinsic explanation of its existence to ground the series. This is just an attempt to kick the explanatory can down the road.
Reductio Ad Absurdum #5 – Argument From Evolution
If PSR is false, we cannot trust evolution is true. Most naturalists want to say that Darwinian evolution explains why life and the world is the way it is today. We are complex organisms that have evolved from simpler forms. If the PSR is false, there is no reason to expect that a causal chain such as evolution exists. Species could just spontaneously generate at any time. This is not to say random mutations, but entire new entities could just come into existence, uncaused by anything.
But, intuitively, if one weren’t confident of something very much like the PSR, it would be hard to be justifiedly confident that no biological features of the human species arose for no reason at all—say, that an ape walked into a swamp, and out walked a human, with no explanation of why. 
Carroll’s Conclusion: Brute Facts
Let’s revisit Carroll’s conclusion one last time. Despite all these reasons why the rejection of the PSR is false, Carroll still asserts that the universe may simply exist as a contingent brute fact. He thinks we shouldn’t expect there to be an explanation for everything.
Every attempt to answer the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”ultimately grounds in a brute fact, a feature of reality that has no further explanation.The universe is not unique, and there are no necessary beings; even if we decide that the concept of nothingness is incoherent, at least some properties of our particular universe are ultimately contingent. By the standards of modern science, it is extremely hard to see what could possibly qualify as a final and inevitable “reason why” the universe exists….Perhaps at bottom its existence and specific features include brute facts that are in some sense completely arbitrary; or perhaps there is a deeper principle that explains why it is precisely this universe, and the only brute fact is the validity of that principle. We are always welcome to look for deeper meanings and explanations. What we can’t do is demand of the universe that there be something we humans would recognize as a satisfactory reason for its existence. 
Unfortunately, Carroll just gives us no reason to believe why his assertions against the PSR are true. He doesn’t interact with any of the above objections, he just boldly asserts the PSR is an “antiquated” way of thinking about existence.
Carroll is certainly not the first to posit an orderly universe that is based on brute fact laws of nature. Bertrand Russell had done the same. I will leave you with Edward Feser’s concise refutation of Russell’s same claim.
There is another way in which science in particular implicitly presupposes PSR. Some philosophers have taken the view that there can be genuine explanations, including scientific explanations, even if PSR is false. One finds such a view in J. L. Mackie and Bertrand Russell.6 The idea is that we can explain at least some phenomena in terms of laws of nature, those laws in terms of more fundamental laws, and perhaps these in turn of some most fundamental level of laws. The most fundamental laws would, however, lack any explanation. That the world is governed by them would just be an unintelligible “brute fact”.
But this is incoherent. Suppose I told you that the fact that a certain book has not fallen to the ground is explained by the fact that it is resting on a certain shelf, but that the fact that the shelf itself has not fallen to the ground has no explanation at all but is an unintelligible brute fact. Have I really explained the position of the book? It is hard to see how. For the shelf has in itself no tendency to stay aloft—it is, by hypothesis, just a brute fact that it does so. But if it has no such tendency, it cannot impart such a tendency to the book. The “explanation” the shelf provides in such a case would be completely illusory. (Nor would it help to impute to the book some such tendency, if the having of the tendency is itself just an unintelligible brute fact. The illusion will just have been relocated, not eliminated.)
By the same token, it is no good to say: “The operation of law of nature C is explained by the operation of law of nature B, and the operation of B by the operation of law of nature A, but the operation of A has no explanation whatsoever and is just an unintelligible brute fact.” The appearance of having “explained” C and B is completely illusory if A is a brute fact, because if there is neither anything about A itself that can explain A’s own operation nor anything beyond A that can explain it, then A has nothing to impart to B or C that could possibly explain their operation. The notion of an explanatory nomological regress terminating in a brute fact is, when carefully examined, no more coherent than the notion of an effect being produced by an instrument that is not the instrument of anything.
The Sky is Not Falling
Do not worry Chicken Little, the sky is not falling. The PSR still appears to be intact despite the best efforts of some to avoid its conclusions.
Next post, we will wrap up our discussion of Sean Carroll’s paper by addressing the objections he raises in his paper against theism. These are some of the most common objections that have been answered repeatedly by theists throughout the ages.
16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
- Carroll, Sean M. Why Is There Something, Rather Than Nothing? February 8, 2018. p. 10–11 ↩
- Fitzgerald, Desmond. Gilson and Maritain on the Principle of Sufficient Reason. p.123 ↩
- “Yet even in these primary laws, we find a hierarchy. One of them, rising immediately from the idea of being, is the simple first principle, the principle of contradiction; it is the declaration of opposition between being and nothing. It may be formulated in two ways, one negative, the other positive. The first may be given either thus: ”Being is not nothing,“ or thus: ”One and the same thing, remaining such, cannot simultaneously both be and not be.“ Positively considered, it becomes the principle of identity, which may be formulated thus: ”If a thing is, it is: if it is not, it is not.“ This is equivalent to saying: ”Being is not non-being.“ Thus we say, to illustrate: ”The good is good, the bad is bad,“ meaning that one is not the other.  According to this principle, that which is absurd, say a squared circle, is not merely unimaginable, not merely inconceivable, but absolutely irrealizable. Between the pure logic of what is conceivable and the concrete material world lie the universal laws of reality. And here already we find affirmed the validity of our intelligence in knowing the laws of extramental reality. .” Reality – A Thomistic Synthesis: by Pere Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. – Complete book online (ch. 4) ↩
- ibid. ↩
- Pruss, Alexander R. Leibnizian Cosmological Arguments. W. L. Craig and J. P. Moreland (eds.), Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, Oxford: Blackwell, 2009 (section 1) ↩
- See Lawerence Krauss’s A Universe From Nothing (2012) for a prime example of someone who doesn’t understand what nothing means. ↩
- “We speak of creation whenever something which was not, begins to be. In other words, there is creation wherever a transition occurs from non-being to being, in other words from nothingness to being. Applying this notion to all existing things, we may say that creation, which is the emanation of all being, consists in the act whereby all things pass from non-being or nothingness to being [Summa Theologica I.44.1]. This is the meaning of the expression that God has created the world from nothing. But it is important to note that in this assertion the preposition “from” signifies in no way the material cause; it means simply a sequence. God has not created the world from nothing in the sense that He caused it to issue from nothing as from a sort of matter, but in the sense that, after the nothing, being appeared. ‘Creating from nothing,’ in short, means ‘not creating from something.’ This expression, far from putting any matter at the beginning of things, systematically excludes all conceivable matter, in the same way as when we say that someone is sad about nothing, we mean that his sadness has no cause.” Gilson, E. (1924). The philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. Cambridge: W. Heffer. p. ↩
- Polkinghorne, J.C. Science and Theology: An Introduction). Fortress Press. p. 80 ↩
- Carroll, Sean M. Why Is There Something, Rather Than Nothing? February 8, 2018. p. 5 ↩
- ibid., p.6 ↩
- ibid., p. 2 ↩
- Edward Feser. Five Proofs of the Existence of God. Ignatius Press. loc. 310 ↩
- ibid.,loc. 311 ↩
- ibid.,loc. 314 ↩
- ibid., loc. 327 ↩
- “Most atheists and agnostics (and many theists as well, but it is to atheists and agnostics that the argument is addressed) believe that there is a complete naturalistic evolutionary explanation of the development of the human species from a single celled organism. I claim that they are not justified in believing this if they do not accept the PSR.For consider what the argument for thinking that there is such an explanation could be. We might first try an inductive argument. Some features of some organisms can be given naturalistic evolutionary explanations. Therefore, all features of all organisms can be given naturalistic evolutionary explanations. But this argument is as bad as inductive arguments come. The error in the argument is that we are reasoning from a biased sample, namely those features for which we already have found an explanation. Such features are only a small portion of the features of organisms in nature—as always in science, what we do not know far exceeds what we know.Once we admit the selection bias, the argument becomes: “All the features of organisms for which we know the explanation can be explained through naturalistic evolutionary means, and so all the features of organisms can be explained through naturalistic evolutionary means.” There are at least two things wrong with this argument. The first is that it might just be that naturalistic explanations are easier to find than non-naturalistic ones, and hence it is no surprise that we first found those explanations that are naturalistic. But even if one could get around this objection, it would not obviate the need for the PSR. For the argument at most gives us reason to accept the claim that those features that have explanations have naturalistic evolutionary explanations. The inductive data is that all the explanations of biological features that we have found are naturalistic and evolutionary. The only conclusion that can be drawn without the PSR is that all the explanations of biological features that there are are naturalistic and evolutionary, not that all biological features have naturalistic evolutionary explanations.
I do not have an argument that there is no other way of arguing for the evolutionary claim absent the PSR. But, intuitively, if one weren’t confident of something very much like the PSR, it would be hard to be justifiedly confident that no biological features of the human species arose for no reason at all—say, that an ape walked into a swamp, and out walked a human, with no explanation of why.” Pruss, Alexander R. Leibnizian Cosmological Arguments. W. L. Craig and J. P. Moreland (eds.), Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, Oxford: Blackwell, 2009 (2.2.3) ↩
- Carroll, Sean M. Why Is There Something, Rather Than Nothing? February 8, 2018. p. 15 ↩
- Edward Feser. Five Proofs of the Existence of God. Ignatius Press. loc. 316 ↩