Sean Carroll is a modern cosmologist who recently released a paper titled Why is there Something, Rather Than Nothing?. Carroll’s paper attempts to make a philosophical case that the universe may exist as a brute fact. The opening paragraph of his paper states this very conclusion:
It seems natural to ask why the universe exists at all. Modern physics suggests that the universe can exist all by itself as a self-contained system, without anything external to create or sustain it. But there might not be an absolute answer to why it exists. I argue 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. -Sean Carroll
To help make his case that the universe is a brute fact, Carroll then goes on to specifically deny the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR from here out).
I believe the denial of the PSR is a serious error in logic.
This post marks the beginning of an anticipated 4 part series of posts that will highlight some of Carroll’s most serious philosophical mistakes. I will also begin to build a case for why a classical theistic view of reality is much more coherent than a naturalistic one.
Science and the Anti-philosophy Sentiment
Interest in philosophy appears to be becoming rarer among many in science today. At least rare for those that often have the most public voice. These are the science popularizers such as Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson, or Bill Nye. These are the people that are on many popular podcasts, Fox, Netflix, and YouTube.
Sean Carroll is a refreshing exception to this trend. Carroll has shown he has both an interest in and at least a rudimentary level of knowledge about philosophy. It is refreshing to hear Carroll at least acknowledge that philosophical knowledge undergirds all of scientific knowledge. Philosophy is necessary to explain anything at all.
Unfortunately, not all in the scientific community share Carroll’s sentiment toward philosophy. Granted, most scientists would not likely be as harsh a critic of philosophy as Lawerence Krauss. But there are plenty of other examples of anti-philosophy sentiment from other very popular scientists. Even the modern era’s arguably most famous scientist, Stephen Hawking, had this to say about philosophy:
“Most of us don’t worry about these questions most of the time. But almost all of us must sometimes wonder: Why are we here? Where do we come from? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead,”…“Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics.”-Stephen Hawking
You may ask, what’s the big deal about scientist’s worldviews? Or, what is so important about one scientist’s philosophical opinions? This paper is important because it shows the philosophical beliefs that make up a lot of scientist’s worldviews (whether they are consciously aware of them or not). These are the types of superficial reasons that are likely to convince many that do not believe in God that science helps make their non-belief in God rational. Or, these are some of the arguments that a young unsuspecting mind may find compelling, not knowing that these philosophical positions are actually riddled with problems.
I wish it weren’t the case that philosophy has been shunned by so many in science. This definitely was not always the case. Descartes, Newton, Bacon, Faraday, and many, many others were all examples of scientists who saw that philosophy (and in some cases, theology) was necessary to even do science. Again, it is refreshing to see a modern scientist who cares enough to try and philosophically justify his scientific claims and his ultimate explanations of existence.
The problem is that, on almost all accounts, Carroll’s philosophical arguments in this paper fail. At best, Carroll’s denial of the PSR show why I believe that scientific naturalism (or atheism in general) doesn’t have as much explanatory power as Christianity. Especially Christianity’s classical theistic formulations. At worst, this paper shows that scientific naturalism’s first principles make its entire project incoherent.
Carroll’s ideas in this paper are not new. He doesn’t make the claim that they are either, I might add. They will be new to many who have not studied philosophy before. Also, a paper such as this is likely to reach an audience that doesn’t typically interact with philosophy. This type of audience will not know that these are many of the same ideas that rationalists and logical positivists put forth in centuries past. Subsequently, these ideas have been discredited by many philosophers. And yet, these ideas seem to keep coming back. These are the same old ideas that many in a new generation will use to justify their lack of a belief in God.
This is another reason why philosophy is good for all to study. It is good to be familiar with bad ideas because they always seem come back. This also is a sign that we do indeed need to revitalize the study of classical theism, as it can make the strongest case against philosophy like this.
The Principle of Sufficient Reason
So what is the PSR? It is simply that everything that exists has an explanation of why it exists. Leibniz is typically credited with first formulating this principle, which can be found in his Principles of Nature and Grace Founded on Reason:
Up till now we have spoken as physicists merely; now we must rise to metaphysics, making use of the great principle, commonly but little employed, which holds that nothing takes place without sufficient reason, that is to say nothing happens without its being possible for one who has enough knowledge of things to give a reason sufficient to determine why it is thus and not otherwise. -Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
Most people may never have heard of the PSR before, but when it is explained to them, they would likely agree that it is just obvious. It’s just common sense.
Aristotelian-Thomism (A-T) is one of the main philosophies in classical theism. A-T philosophers will typically make a few other key distinctions in the PSR as well:
Two characteristic Thomistic formulations would be “everything which is, has a sufficient reason for existing” and “everything is intelligible.”1 A third is that “there is a sufficient reason or adequate necessary objective explanation for the being of whatever is and for all attributes of any being.” -Edward Feser
These further distinctions will become important when we begin to explore objections to the PSR (especially in post #4).
Carroll at least understands what the PSR is to some extent as he can formulate it and adequately describe some aspects of its conclusion:
These scientific considerations could be countered by an insistence that differential equations might describe what the universe does, but they don’t explain the reason why it does those things. That is true as far as it goes (why these equations, rather than some other ones? why equations at all?), but it is sometimes extended to a demand that such an explanation must exist. Demands of this sort often refer to Leibniz’s Principle of Sufficient Reason(PSR) or a modern version thereof: everything must have a reason or explanation, including the universe itself. To avoid an infinite regress, one can suggest that while the universe itself is contingent (it did not have to exist in its own right), the ultimate explanation for it can befound in a necessary being . Necessary beings, so the idea goes, don’t themselves require any further explanations or causes. -Sean Carroll
Unfortunately, Carroll does not understand the full implications of the PSR. As I will show in upcoming posts, denying this principle is tantamount to denying reason itself. Also, God is the conclusion of the PSR, not an exception to the rule. We will see this is exactly what Carroll will claim, though. There is, then, a vast metaphysical difference between God grounding all existence or the universe existing as a brute fact.
Our next post will begin to unravel how Carroll arrived at his extreme conclusions. We will do so by first investigating causality. Ironically, though science is often considered the study of causes and effects, scientific naturalism will often deny that this principle of causality even exists.
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
- Sean Carrol: Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing? ↩
- Sean M. Carroll – Why Is There Something, Rather Than Nothing? February 8, 2018, p. 1 ↩
- A well-known interview in The Atlantic where Lawerence Krauss disparages philosophy. Has Physics Made Philosophy and Religion Obsolete?* ↩
- Quote from Stephen Hawking at a Google’s Zeitgeist Conference in Hertfordshire ↩
- Gottfried Leibniz, Leibniz: Philosophical Writings, trans. Mary Manis (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1961 ), pp. 25–26. ↩
- Edward Feser. Five Proofs of the Existence of God. Ignatius Press. loc. 309 ↩
- Sean M. Carroll – Why Is There Something, Rather Than Nothing? February 8, 2018, p. 9 ↩