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“Brute Facts” vs. “Sufficient Reasons”

The metaphysical principle that every thing must have a sufficient reason for its being or coming-to-be is challenged by those who claim that some “brute facts” exist, that is, things for which there are simply no reasons at all.

The opponents of sufficient reason’s universality claim that science works quite well by finding reasons for many things, even though we allow that one thing or some things might turn out just to be “brute facts,” that is, things without a reason. But that is to ignore valid logic.

Even a single exception to a rule refutes the rule, since it is now always possible that the next thing encountered will be another “exception.” Moreover, it simply isn’t how science or the human mind actually works.

Does anyone seriously suggest that the driving force behind modern science is not the effort to “unlock the secrets of the universe?” Why not say that the whole of physical reality is just a bunch of “brute facts,” and then forget it all?

The incontestable history of science has been to probe ever deeper understanding of cosmic mysteries – from the “aether puzzle” of the Michelson-Morley experiments to the orbital oddities of Mercury to the  present conflict between quantum mechanics and relativity theory. Since when have scientists been heard to say, “We give up! Maybe it is just a bunch of brute facts,” and then end their enquiries? Rather, they are frustrated at their inability to find answers beyond the latest frontiers of knowledge, while relevantly, they still cannot resist asking, “Why?”

If scientists did not hold the universal conviction that phenomena reveal the underlying reasons that manifest themselves through those phenomena, they would not even bother making observations at all.

Thomism, common sense, and natural science concur in seeking reasons for all things. Certain atheists, though, seem obsessed with vacating the scientific quest for reasons when it comes to why the universe as a whole exists – yet, they arbitrarily and illogically seek to protect the demand for reasons as they are needed for the rest of science. This is totally illogical and a case of special pleading, since they refuse to see that they have allegedly already ruined the intellectual foundations for their beloved science.

Why should it bother anyone if claims are not fully intelligible and logically coherent?  Atheists steeped in scientism are very much into logical demonstrations. But, that is to demand true premises and valid inferences. Premises stand as causes to their conclusions. So skeptics universally demand logical proof for all philosophical claims – except, of course, for their claim that something “just is” without a reason.

Still, as Aristotle points out in his Posterior Analytics, logic is ultimately grounded in premises that have no prior premises. No, these are not “brute facts. Rather, logical conclusions ultimately lead back to either self-evident or immediately evident initial premises. If such initial premises ultimately were grounded in irrational, unintelligible “brute facts,” why bother with all the pretense of pursuing the strictly rational and logical steps leading back to them?

Some statements are self-evident because their denial would be self-contradictory. But this presupposes the metaphysical principle of non-contradiction. Why are even scientistic atheists so sure of the truth of that principle that they apply it universally with logical rigor? Is it just an irrational “brute fact” that has no reason to be true? If that were the case, it would be worthless for either logic or common sense. Clearly, this metaphysical first principle is grounded in a philosophical birthplace quite foreign to “scientific verification.”

More importantly, what of those statements that are “immediately evident?” Are they not “brute facts?” For those who are not willfully blind to the reality of immediate experience, consider the immediately-given fact of motion or change. Is that merely a “brute fact,” concerning which nothing further can be known? Amazingly, some of those who affirm the existence of “brute facts” actually take the philosophically absurd position that change or motion is impossible! In so doing, they employ a highly convoluted process of reasoning that contradicts an undeniable given of the very starting point of human knowledge.

Some are so deceived by their own alleged “logic” that they fail to realize that even if the experience of change is purely illusory, hallucinatory, subjective, based solely on mistaken neural patterns, and totally removed from any objective extramental order, it is still real in its own “psychotic,” delusional order. That is because no aspect of immediately experienced being is totally non-being – and the mind immediately recognizes it as something having some kind of changing existence. As such, it constitutes real change or motion, which is immediately evident, and that still must be rationally explained as real, rather than simply denied. The posited illusory experience of becoming itself entails becoming.

Does its property of being immediately evident make change itself a “brute fact?” Not if we can explain it, or if there is a reason for its existence, even if we cannot fully understand it ourselves. Just because motion or change is a first for us in the order of immediate experience does not mean that it is also first in the order of being – since its intelligibility can still be examined and explained.

In his Physics, Aristotle explains motion in terms of potency and act. Skeptics may not agree with his explanation, but the mere fact that one can argue about what constitutes an adequate explanation again points to the ability and need for the human mind to seek intelligible reasons for things.

Why do skeptics demand that philosophical claims be intelligible and logically defensible – and that there be no “holes” in that logic? If they are correct about the existence of “brute facts,” then perhaps claims are simply true without reason and should be accepted on face value.

The fact that those who deny the universality of the principle of sufficient reason universally and absolutely and insistently demand even a single prior premise for claims bespeaks the urgency of the mind’s demand for reasons for all things. It is the same intellectual impulse that makes the mind challenge every philosophical or scientific claim with a firm, “Why?” or, “How do you know this?”

That includes the anti-intellectual claim that something “just is.” Such a claim is a proclamation that being is essentially unintelligible, that there is nothing to understand. But the proper function of the intellect is precisely the opposite. Its natural driving impulse is “to understand.”

Yet, we are told that the very basis of this whole universe – a universe that yields itself to the mind of brilliant scientists with a panorama of intensely complex structures fully amenable to the highly intellectual parsing of sophisticated mathematical physics -- that this complex and highly intelligible universe is really, at its very existential foundation, essentially unintelligible and meaningless. That is what it really means to say that the cosmos “just is.” We are being asked to believe that the cosmos, with all its near-infinitely structured splendor, is, in the last analysis, just the product of some sort of deaf, dumb and blind cosmic “burp.”

We cannot resist the urge to know the “why” of everything – that is, unless we have a reason not to see reasons for everything. It is always possible to say things that, in practice, we don’t really believe or live by.

Psychosis is an abnormal condition of the mind that involves a loss of contact with reality.” What makes psychosis an “abnormal” condition is that the normal human mind does stay in contact with reality.

If the human mind cannot resist searching for the reasons for everything, including the universe itself, how could it be that out of contact with the way reality really works, without us having to conclude that we are all psychotic? Conversely, since, by definition the entire human race cannot be abnormal or psychotic, it must be that the natural tendency of the human mind to demand reasons for all things is grounded in its natural ability to see the implications of the concept of being itself – the same ability that enables it to see the universal certitude of the principle of non-contradiction, which latter principle even scientistic atheists affirm -- although they cannot explain the basis for its certitude through natural science alone.

Just as the intellect cannot think a contradiction because it thinks in terms of being itself, so it cannot think anything at all without a reason to do so. If it thinks something with certitude, it does so because it is compelled by a sufficient reason to do so. True thought is simply being in the intellect understood as forced by a reason to affirm it. The “rules of logic” do not dictate the rules of thought, but reflect the intellect understanding its own conformity to being, and then, carefully describing the actual process by which it attained that conformity.

This is why the principle that all things have reasons is simply described as “self-evident.” The intellect must seek reasons in all things because its natural function is to demand the intelligibility of what it knows – and, as shown above, that natural function must conform to the laws of being itself.

That every being must have a reason for being or becoming does not say whether the reason must be intrinsic or extrinsic to that being. If it is extrinsic, it is called a “cause.” But that in no way rules out the possibility that the reason for being is intrinsic to the being itself.

Metaphysicians advance a concept of God in which his essence or nature is identical with his own act of existence, making him the Necessary Being. Completely unlike a “brute fact,” which has no reason at all for existing, God would be his own reason for existing – which is perfectly consistent with the principle that every being must have a reason for its being or coming-to-be.

Dr. Dennis Bonnette

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Dr. Dennis Bonnette retired as a Full Professor of Philosophy in 2003 from Niagara University in Lewiston, New York. He taught philosophy there for thirty-six years and served as Chairman of the Philosophy Department from 1992 to 2002. He lives in Youngstown, New York, with his wife, Lois. They have seven adult children and twenty-five grandchildren. He received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Notre Dame in 1970. Dr. Bonnette taught philosophy at the college level for 40 years, and is now teaching free courses at the Aquinas School of Philosophy in Lewiston, New York. He is the author of two books, Aquinas' Proofs for God's Existence (The Hague: Martinus-Nijhoff, 1972) and Origin of the Human Species (Ave Maria, FL: Sapientia Press, third edition, 2014), and many scholarly articles.

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