Physics, Earth & Space Icon Physics, Earth & Space

Sean Carroll’s Preposterous Universe

Michael Egnor

Sean Carroll

Physicist Sean Carroll is a bit of a celebrity among New Atheists. Carroll is better credentialed (as a scientist) than many of his ideological comrades, and he is a prolific advocate for atheism and naturalism. His arguments have a superficial credibility, but generally lack any real logical or philosophical substance. He has famously made the argument that an infinite number of universes is more plausible than God. His views are the usual witless atheist/materialist boilerplate, with a patina of (fake) scientific credibility.

For reasons unfathomable, Carroll was asked by the Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Physics to write a chapter on the topic “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” The book isn’t out yet, but he blogs about it and raises issues that cry out for reply. His post follows, with my commentary.

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.

It seems obvious that there must be a brute fact of existence — something that must be taken as given, without a cause. That is the conclusion reached by all who have taken this question seriously. The difference of opinion is about what that brute fact is, and what we can know about it.

As you can see, my basic tack hasn’t changed: this kind of question might be the kind of thing that doesn’t have a sensible answer. In our everyday lives, it makes sense to ask “why” this or that event occurs, but such questions have answers only because they are embedded in a larger explanatory context.

The “explanatory context” in which we are embedded is logic, and explanations for existence only have meaning if they are logical. For example, we cannot violate the principle of non-contradiction, which states that a thing cannot be and not be at the same time in the same respect. We need to look at the logic underpinning Carroll’s nihilistic view that we cannot know anything about why the universe exists.

In particular, because the world of our everyday experience is an emergent approximation with an extremely strong arrow of time, such that we can safely associate “causes” with subsequent “effects.”

Gibberish. Carroll seems to mean that “causes and effects” are artifacts of our sense of time, without which we could not safely associate effects with causes. But surely Carroll looks both ways before crossing the street. Speeding trucks have a way of making the “emergent approximation” of cause and effect quite tangible.

In his everyday life, Carroll takes causes and effects quite seriously, and he wouldn’t do well if he did not. Causes and effects are obviously real, and are not “emergent approximations” foisted on us by a deceptive “arrow of time.” We needn’t take Carroll’s sophomoric skepticism about causation seriously, because he doesn’t take it seriously either. The only people who take radical skepticism seriously are in locked mental wards, or in morgues.

The universe, considered as all of reality (i.e. let’s include the multiverse, if any), isn’t like that. The right question to ask isn’t “Why did this happen?”, but “Could this have happened in accordance with the laws of physics?” As far as the universe and our current knowledge of the laws of physics is concerned, the answer is a resounding “Yes.”

Atheists have a risible idolatry for the “laws of physics,” on keen display here. Yet, whatever tale can be told about the Big Bang, quantum fluctuations, and the like, the laws of physics themselves are part of the explanandum, and stand in need of explanation themselves. To merely attribute the universe to the “laws of physics” explains nothing. It is an attempt to evade explanation.

Ironically, the assertion that the laws of physics are fundamental to the universe implies some sort of Mind underlying reality, which is certainly a conclusion that Carroll would try to elide, if he had deeper insight into his own argument.

The demand for something more — a reason why the universe exists at all — is a relic piece of metaphysical baggage we would be better off to discard.

The “reason why the universe exists at all” is a matter of logic, and logic is the metaphysical baggage Carroll proposes that we discard. The inference to a Creator of the universe isn’t an unfounded assertion nor is it magical thinking. The demonstrations of the need for a supernatural Source of existence are clear rigorous logical arguments that have been put forth by the best philosophers in history. These demonstrations don’t go away just because Carroll refuses to engage them. 

This [nihilistic] perspective gets pushback from two different sides. On the one hand we have theists, who believe that they can answer why the universe exists, and the answer is God. As we all know, this raises the question of why God exists; but aha, say the theists, that’s different, because God necessarily exists, unlike the universe which could plausibly have not. The problem with that is that nothing exists necessarily, so the move is pretty obviously a cheat.

Carroll is right. No “thing” necessarily exists. Things, whether the universe as a whole or any part of it, don’t necessarily have existence. Things are contingent; they depend on something else for existence. The theist argument is that the Source of existence isn’t a “thing.” The Source of existence, logically, is uncreated, immaterial, supernatural, metaphysically simple (not composed of parts), omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good, etc. This is not a mere claim based on revelation. This is a logically coherent argument, espoused most notably in Aquinas’ Summa Theologica and Summa Contra Gentiles, but also in the works of countless philosophers of a variety of backgrounds, from Aristotle and Plato to Plotinus, Averroes, Anslem, Maimonides, and innumerable scholastic philosophers, as well as many early moderns such as Leibnitz, Kant, and Descartes as well as contemporary philosophers such as Copleston, Craig, Feser, Garrigou-Lagrange, Haldane, Gilson, and Maritain.  There is massive scholarship affirming the logical necessity of supernatural creation. Carroll, commissioned to write a chapter on philosophy of physics, merely asserts atheism and addresses none of the classical arguments for theism.

I didn’t have a lot of room in the paper to discuss this in detail (in what after all was meant as a contribution to a volume on the philosophy of physics, not the philosophy of religion), but the basic idea is there.

Carroll “didn’t have a lot of room” to address the question he was employed to address? In a chapter on the philosophy of physics in which he denies the logical necessity for a Creator, Carroll doesn’t want to discuss philosophy, except to merely assert atheism, without explanation? Carroll lacks understanding, not space.

Whether or not you want to invoke God, you will be left with certain features of reality that have to be explained by “and that’s just the way it is.” (Theism could possibly offer a better account of the nature of reality than naturalism — that’s a different question — but it doesn’t let you wiggle out of positing some brute facts about what exists.)

 All participants in this discussion acknowledge the existence of a brute fact. We exist, after all. The question is: Can the universe itself be the brute fact of existence? No philosopher has ever made a coherent case that it can. There has never been a logically defensible argument that the universe itself can be the ground — the brute fact — of existence.

Carroll (surprisingly) acknowledges the irrationality of atheists who argue that the universe emerged from “nothing”: 

The other side are those scientists who think that modern physics explains why the universe exists. It doesn’t! One purported answer — “because Nothing is unstable” — was never even supposed to explain why the universe exists; it was suggested by Frank Wilczek as a way of explaining why there is more matter than antimatter. But any such line of reasoning has to start by assuming a certain set of laws of physics in the first place. Why is there even a universe that obeys those laws? This, I argue, is not a question to which science is ever going to provide a snappy and convincing answer. The right response is “that’s just the way things are.” It’s up to us as a species to cultivate the intellectual maturity to accept that some questions don’t have the kinds of answers that are designed to make us feel satisfied.

Is the universe really the most basic brute fact? Is an uncaused universe “just the way things are”? What nonsense. There are many reasons to infer a Creator — ten or more strong arguments, at least. I’ll discuss two here.

The first is sometimes called the Thomistic proof. It is not one of St. Thomas’ Five Ways, although it is related (but not identical) to the proof from First Cause, which is his Second Way. It goes like this:

  1. The universe and its contents exist, and have essences, which are the characteristics that make the universe and its contents what they are.
  2. The essence of a thing (the universe, etc.,) is not the same as the existence of a thing. That is, what a thing is is not the same as that it is. We do not know, for example, that something exists just because we describe it. We can describe a unicorn, but unicorns don’t exist.
  3. A thing which has a distinction between essence and an existence does not exist necessarily, because if it did, then we would know it existed merely by describing its essence.
  4. The only necessary existence is that in which existence is essence. If a thing’s essence is existence, then it must exist, because to describe it necessarily means it exists.
  5. For things in which essence and existence are distinct, there must be a cause that gives existence to the essence.
  6. A thing cannot cause itself.
  7. The only ultimate Cause of existence and essence must be Something in which essence is existence, which is therefore a Necessary Being.
  8. The universe and each thing in it have essence distinct from existence — they can be described without affirming their existence. That is, merely by describing the cosmos, I don’t necessarily demonstrate its existence.
  9. The universe therefore does not have necessary existence.
  10. The universe therefore cannot cause itself.
  11. The universe must be caused by Something that does have necessary existence — that is, by something Whose essence is existence.
  12. That is what all men call God.

Aquinas advanced this argument in On Being and Essence, in considerably more detail. Carroll gives no indication that he understands it, or that even knows about it, or that he understands any of the arguments that the universe cannot be the fundamentally existing thing.

The second reason that we should not assert that the universe is the most basic brute fact is because such an assertion violates the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). This is sometimes called the Rationalist proof. The Rationalist proof is of particular relevance to science, as we shall see.

The Rationalist proof goes like this:

  1. There is an explanation for everything that exists, in the sense that nothing exists without reason sufficient to make it what it is. This PSR means that things don’t happen for no reason at all. This is not to say that we understand every reason for everything; it merely means that such reasons exist, even if they are beyond our comprehension.
  2. The PSR is necessary for ordinary life, and for science. If the PSR were not true, then we could not confidently understand cause and effect in everyday life, and scientists would have to posit “it happened for no reason” for every event studied by science.
  3. There are contingent things in the universe. That is, there are some things that are caused by other things.
  4. Some of these causes are chains of causation that are ordered per se. That is, some of these causal chains require the simultaneous existence of causes for the final effect to hold.
  5. These causes in a per se causal chain may be either first causes or intermediate (instrumental) causes. Intermediate causes derive their causal power from prior causes, and thus have no independent causal power.
  6. An infinite causal chain ordered per se is impossible, because if it is infinite then every cause is an intermediate (instrumental) cause, and thus all causes lack independent causal power.
  7. In a causal chain ordered per se, there must be a First Cause, which is not Itself caused and which has necessary existence.
  8. This First Cause is the Sufficient Reason for existence of the universe.
  9. This is what all men call God.

The Rationalist proof was most famously advanced by Leibniz, and is described in considerable detail in Ed Feser’s superb Five Proofs for the Existence of God. It is noteworthy that denial of the PSR is a particular problem for Carroll, because a scientist’s vocation is to provide explanations for natural phenomena. If Carroll truly doubts the PSR, and believes that the universe exists for no reason, then he must infer that any part of the universe can exist for no reason as well, including the physical phenomena that he is studying. This of course makes science untenable. After all, why posit the existence of electromagnetism if “magnets attract for no reason at all” is a perfectly viable theory? Why would an evolutionary biologist infer evolution, if a species can exist for no reason at all?

If the universe needs no reason, then nothing needs reasons, and science is undermined fatally.

Of all people, a scientist cannot deny the PSR. Yet affirmation of the PSR necessarily affirms the existence of a Necessary Existence which transcends the natural world. Affirmation of the PSR is the affirmation that the universe cannot be the most fundamental brute fact.

Carroll’s universe — a universe without cause — is indeed preposterous. The material universe must be caused, and it cannot be the cause of its own existence. There are clear coherent reasons to infer a Creator, and the only way to deny creation is to deny logic and, ironically, to deny science.

Photo: Sean Carroll, by Sgerbic (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.