This week Unbelievable features a dialogue/debate between atheist Sean Carroll and theist Luke Barnes on whether God or naturalism best explains the universe. I was thirty minutes into the program when I found myself needing to press pause and ask, “Did Sean Carroll really say that?” And the answer is, yes, yes he did.
So now I need to write about it.
The set up: theist Luke Barnes has just observed that the naturalist faced the problem that the universe appears to be a brute fact. By contrast, the theist points to God as the explanation of the universe’s existence. In other words, Barnes is pointing out that the atheist must accept a brute fact that the theist does not.
So … advantage theist?
Not so fast. Carroll responds by asserting that the theist also has a brute fact: God’s own existence. This is how he puts it:
“I don’t think that I’m especially bothered by the existence of brute facts in a physicalist or naturalist account of the universe with a beginning. I think that theistic accounts also have brute facts and I know most theists disagree with that because they try to argue that something like God is a necessary part of the universe, not just a brute fact that could have been there or not. And that’s an actual intellectual disagreement. I do not think that God counts as a necessary part of the world.”
It is important that we appreciate what has just happened here. Carroll admits in this excerpt that theists define God in a particular way. He then rejects the very definition that theists accept, instead offers his own definition, and then proceeds to argue against the definition he’s provided.
And yes, that is as outrageous as it sounds.
To begin with, we should first take a moment to distinguish between (1) necessary fact, (2) contingent fact, and (3) brute fact as a type of contingent fact:
(1) Necessary fact: a fact that does not require an additional reason to explain its obtaining as a fact. It just is. (E.g. 2+2=4.)
(2) Contingent fact: a fact that does require an additional reason to explain its obtaining as a fact. (E.g. Ottawa is the capital of Canada.)
(3) Brute fact: a contingent fact that has no additional reason to explain its obtaining as a fact. Thus, though the contingency of the fact requires a reason to explain it, no reason can be provided. Hence, it is “brute”.
Carroll rightly notes that theists understand God’s existence to be a necessary fact (1). So when theists talk about God, they are talking about a necessary being. And when they invoke God as an explanation, they are invoking a necessary being to explain some contingent fact.
However, if Carroll acknowledges the theist’s definition of “God” then he must concede that the theist need not accept a brute fact (though of course they do need to accept a necessary fact).
Apparently, Carroll is unhappy with this outcome. This is where he takes a strange step. Rather than argue that his brute fact is more palatable than the theist’s necessary fact, he instead declines to discuss theism simpliciter further. In its place he opts to discuss a modified version of theism which we can call “Carroll’s Theism”. We can define these contrasting views as follows:
Theism Simpliciter: the view that if God exists then God is a necessary being who explains the existence of all contingent facts.
Carroll’s Theism: the view that if God exists then God is a contingent being who exists as a brute fact.
Obviously, any theist who accepts “Carroll’s Theism” must accept a brute fact no less than the naturalist. The naturalist accepts the universe as a brute fact while the Carroll theist accepts God as a brute fact. Parity has been achieved!
But at what cost? The obvious problem is that theists are almost all theists simpliciter (as defined above). That is, they accept that God has the property of existing necessarily. Carroll’s Theism is noting more than a rhetorical distraction, a strawman position that (virtually) nobody holds.
I’ll give Carroll this much: it takes some chutzpah to decline even to engage the views held by your interlocutor in favor of a creation of your own fashioning. But sadly, this is not the way to spur on a productive conversation. Instead of defining his own strawman version of Carroll theism, Carroll should have committed to engaging the theism simpliciter of actual theistic scientists, philosophers, and theologians.
At that point he could have argued that accepting the universe as a brute fact is preferable to accepting God as a necessary fact to explain the contingent fact of the universe’s existence.