If God’s a brute fact, why not the universe?

Objection: If you’re going to take God as a brute fact, why not just take the universe as one?

I hate the term “brute facts”, but why bother fighting over names? Let the term mean “a proposition for which there is no explanation, even in principle.”

NB it’s crucial to note that facts are propositional, by which I mean nothing more profound than that single terms like “Unicorn” or “first” are not facts. Neither is “God” or the “universe”. The point of the objection has to be about predicating existence, as in “If you are going to allow for no explanation for why there is a God, why not allow for there being no explanation for why the universe exists?”

The first response is that this is not how cosmological arguments work. We don’t start off with a single “Brute fact” post-it note that we can stick to any existence claim we want. We take explanations where we find them, and if we have one for the universe (i.e. the totality of space-time or motion or whatever) then we take it.

But given what brute facts are, some examples of them are  “Socrates is Socrates” or “man is human” or “A brute fact is a proposition for which…” at least when taken unqualifiedly and not in some exotic sense like “Why was that individual (Socrates) named what he was?” or “what is the principal of identity when applied to the teacher of Plato?” Notice that these exotic senses end up proving the rule, since the proposition only needs an explanation when we find a way in which the predicate is not immediate to the subject.

If this is right, then we have a very good reason to take “God exists” as a brute fact in a way the universe cannot be, since a brute fact is something about which we could know that it exists simply by knowing what one was. But what we mean by “the universe” (the solar system, galaxies, etc.) is not something that tells us that there is such a thing. We know that there is a universe by looking at it, not by defining it. We know what it is only after we see that there is something there.

God is not like this at all. We know only that there is such a thing, but we can’t even take the first step to knowing what God is since we cannot place him essentially within a genus of things that are the same as he. We know God only by his effects, in such a way as to know that there is nothing in his essence making him homogenous with the effects themselves.



  1. Will Farris said,

    June 29, 2017 at 7:19 am

    I understand brute facts to be something which has no satisfactory (current) explanation, as Bertrand Russell famously regarded the universe. It is a cop out of sorts, but prima facie the same is said of God within this definition: having no explanation. Were we to have some meaningful explanation, then we would be transcending our human condition, which is not possible in our finite created state. More to the point, things taken to be axiomatic, or properly basic, or whatever gives rise to epistemic foundationalism, are in a sense brute. I am not sure that identity, definitions (a bachelor is an unmarried male), or any other axiomatic proposition is called brute by logicians, preferring these other terms, God can be known through his works (the universe) but also through spiritual discernment. But, yes, care must be taken to define the meaning of “brute” as it can be used for both good and bad in apologetic discussions. Propositions are predications humans make of things and not brute in our general sense.

  2. John said,

    June 29, 2017 at 2:23 pm

    Can’t there be then another thing that is as brute as God? Say, if there was another universe out there but which we couldn’t ever prove empirically? Or if we could reason inductively that there is something outside the universe but we cannot exactly describe it nor ever empirically detect it?

    The proposition therefore that ”The thing we inductively conclude is outside the universe but can never be empirically verified exists” would indicate the same bruteness as ”God exists”.

    And one question about the existence/essence distinction:

    Does the fact that we can even coherently imagine that a certain object could pop out of existence and then back into existence again imply the essence/existence distinction?

    It would seem that the very fact we can imagine such a thing very strongly points to the distinction.

    • June 29, 2017 at 6:14 pm

      Can’t there be then another thing that is as brute as God?

      As I said in the OP, I despise the term brute fact for a lot of reasons (it has a way of clouding everyone’s judgment, and tends to group very different things together), but if you want to call per se predication of the first class as outlined in Metaphysics V a BF I’ll play along. I’m talking about predicating, for example, a definition of the word defined or an action of a primary agent. When you do this, there is no explanation of the statement. Cf. there is no explanation of why squares have four corners. This is the sort of predication one finds in “God exists necessarily” and it is of a different kind than the (also true) statement “The universe exists necessarily”. In this sense – which is the only sense it is ever used in ancient or medieval cosmological arguments – some other universe would not be a BF.

      Does the fact that we can even coherently imagine that a certain object could pop out of existence and then back into existence again imply the essence/existence distinction?

      I don’t think so since imagination does not track real possibility and is not constrained by it. It might establish logical possibility understood as a report of some guy’s failure to see a contradiction, but this is biography, not ontology.

      • Tony M said,

        June 29, 2017 at 8:37 pm

        Right, I don’t see why one could call it “coherently imagine.” What would be happening is you imagine (using “imagine” in the strict Aristotelian sense) an object popping out of existence, then another object with exactly the same attributes popping into existence, and taking the imagination’s inability to assert any difference to represent a TRUTH rather than a mere inability. The problem is that the imagination, if it followed the directions, did not imagine the thing persisting during the in-between period, and therefore there was, when the new object popped out, no basis to assert identity with the old object, either.

        Besides, properly speaking the imagination only has phantasms. It is the intellect that asserts true or false of propositions. Phantasms don’t have to be “coherent”, they only have to present themselves.

      • June 29, 2017 at 9:21 pm

        Anscombe points out somewhere that the imagination is underdetermined in the scenario described: if something actually was in front of us and then not there we would entertain all sorts of causal explanations without taking it as popping in and out of existence. What’s the difference between imagining a thing pop out of existence, disappear as a magic trick, be annihilated in some freak quantum event, be vaporized silently by advanced technology, or cease to have its existence maintained by God?

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