Brute Facts

I should say that the universe is just there, and that’s all. — Bertand Russell

One can be excused for finding in Russell’s claim the secular equivalent of ‘God did it’. In saying that ‘the universe is just there, and that’s all’, Russell is of course alluding to what philosophers have come to refer to as a ‘brute fact’, a turn of phrase that confuses more than it clarifies. If by a brute fact one has in mind something for which we simply refuse to give an explanation, then it seems that in principle we could make of any fact a brute fact, either by remaining silent, or by simply arriving at an arbitrary point in our explanation and saying nothing further. But here a brute fact turns out to be more of a dismissal, a shrugging of the shoulders, than a genuine metaphysical stopping point. Hence, it will not do to say that the universe is a brute fact in this sense, for it is simply contrary to the spirit of metaphysical inquiry to seek to rest any explanation on the unexplained or inexplicable. To be sure, it may be the case that some explanations can only be pushed so far; but there is a difference between looking to a brute fact as an explanans, and genuinely arriving at an axiomatic stopping point within a given domain, or even arriving at some explanans that does not assume the existence of the explanandum. This latter sense of ‘brute fact’ is no doubt more reputable than the former; it is also not the sort of predication that can be reasonably made of the universe.