I am reading Adrian Bardon’s recent text, A History of the Philosophy of Time, and in it he makes the following passing comment :

The theist doesn’t accept brute facts about the natural world; she insists on the pertinence of the question of why things are the way they are - the answer to which, furthermore, requires a divine creator.

Bardon provides no direct elaboration, presumably because the comment appears to be “off-topic” (viz-a-viz time).

While my personal understanding of theism lacks depth, I assume the point being made is that a theist considers all facts of the natural world to be ultimately reducible to the will of God.

However, if one accepts that God gave man free will, then surely a fact arising from an act of a man’s free will cannot be reduced to God’s will (other than indirectly), for otherwise it cannot be an act of man’s free will. Perhaps I am simply misunderstanding the subtleties of the notion of free will. God may know how I will act, but that does not seem to undermine my freedom to act or reduce my free actions directly to the will of God.

Can a theist accept any brute facts about the natural world?


To be clear about what is meant by "brute fact", according to Bardon :

A fact about the world may be explicable by its subsumption under some natural regularity, which is explicable by reference to some more fundamental fact, which is in turn explained by some more fundamental natural law, and so on. But at some point, things are just the way they are. Bertrand Russell called these "brute facts". The only alternative is a chain of explanations without end, which is hardly more satisfying.

  • Nick, I agree with your logic that "God gave man free will and that a fact arising of a man's free will cannot be reduced to God's will.." However, although God COULD know how we will act, He chose not to know, by giving us free will.
    – Guill
    Jun 5, 2016 at 8:15

6 Answers 6


I haven't read the text in question (nor do I know the inner workings of the mind of the author) so my ability to answer effectively is limited, but I take it that much of this hinges on the definition of the term brute fact.


a brute fact is a fact that simply is so.

or something sufficiently similar to this. If we want to be clearer, I would guess the author thinks a brute fact is something which has no further explanation.

Given the expansive version, it seems the author presumes the theist must explain anything that is the case in terms of God. So, if we look at the "the fine structure constant". According to the author, the theist must explain the number in terms of either God's will in a voluntaristic (i.e. arbitrary sense) or possibly in terms of creation.

I'm not convinced the author's suggestion is accurate or useful.

In terms of accuracy, I don't know that all theists are committed to explaining everything in terms of God. Much here hinges on what is meant by explaining. If we mean simply some sort of causal story, then for many things theists would probably be committed having an explanation of this sort (Why are there elephants? --> God created elephants). But it's not clear this must apply to everything. Returning to the fine structure constant, a theist could believe that this is fundamentally the case in a way where God doesn't have a free choice about its nature (this sort of thing is a major topic of debate among the medieval philosophers). As a more obvious example, some version of a law of non-contradiction seems pretty fundamental to everything.

A second worry about this formulation is that explanations seem to come in different kinds. How did the bear get into the trash can and why did the bear get into the trash bin are pretty different. And the how doesn't seem at all to explain the why. To me it seems like bruteness should be focused on this sort of why explanation. But perhaps this is an area where people can disagree.

A third concern is that the bruteness of facts seems to be a epistemological concept. Or at least, we must either say they are brute with respect to our ability to know (whether this can ever be fixed or not) or we are stuck in the interesting situation of not knowing if there are any brute facts (because how can we know something has no sufficient explanation?). If we cannot know, then it's a pretty useless category. If we can, then to some extent the bruteness seems equally accessible to theists on a why-level. (This might be the idea behind Platinga's basic beliefs).

Returning back to your primary question, I think theists can accept brute facts about the world (or at least some). The free-will defense you suggest is an interesting angle, but it's efficacy hinges entirely on whether having a how-story fundamentally makes something non-brute. If so, then it won't work because the how-story will always go back to God (assuming a traditional account of creation) -- even if the how-story is not causal.

  • It's an excellent point you make about the epistemological issues raised by the nature of the claim, and one that, sadly, passed me by in my own reflections on the question. I agree entirely with your sentiments as to the ill-considered nature of the claim made by the author. I'm hoping one of the many theist users of PSE will provide some input, even if I believe this answer is correct and entirely acceptable.
    – nwr
    May 29, 2016 at 5:19
  • 1
    Thinking about your answer over my morning coffee, I am no longer able to see the relevance of epistemic issues here. While these issues are relevant to how we may understand God's will and the world around us, they do not appear to be relevant to an omniscient God. Also, while it is true that according to what we believe, the values of the various universal constants appear to restrict God's freedom of choice, if it is God's will that man exists, then their values will be explainable in terms of God's will. Regardless, I very much like the approach you have taken here.
    – nwr
    May 29, 2016 at 14:21
  • These are definitely good thoughts and a solid way to think about it. I'll see if I can defend the role of epistemology here again. I take it that bruteness is something we attribute based on whether or not we can figure out an explanation behind a fact. One key thing that comes up if you look at the SEP entry is that there's some debate on the epistemology front as to whether things are brute because we don't have explanations or because there are no explanations.
    – virmaior
    May 29, 2016 at 14:33
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    Regarding the epistemic debate, the assumption that every fact requires an explanation is implicit in Bardon’s claim and indeed this is a point made by Bardon. This assumption removes brute facts from the natural world and the chain ends with God. The problem I had when reading this point is that, if God is a fact, then according to this thesis, God must also demand an explanation. Perhaps the rules change in the realm of the supernatural. :-0 Perhaps a theist could accept that God achieves creation though the most elegant, Ockham type of action and that this necessarly (continued)..
    – nwr
    May 29, 2016 at 19:38
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    I think part of the author's point is that if there's a god that creates, then god is presumably the end of explanation (a pretty basic point in most varieties of theism). So I don't god would then need an explanation.
    – virmaior
    May 30, 2016 at 12:23

Both theist and atheist claim that they accept facts. Facts just happen. The difference is their explanation of the facts.

A theist has a personal world model with a certain god as the base concept of his model. While an atheist often employs a naturalistic word model, based on natural science. This model operates without a personal creator and controller of the world.

As a consequence, the atheistic world model has to leave open some questions. Questions where the theistic model offers the god concept as an anthromorphic explanation.

Conversely, the god concept of the theistic model is at risk of being contradictory. At least, it creates several delicate questions, e.g., the compatibility of omnipotence, omniscience, and being omnigracious. But also the compatibility of omniscience and the free will of man.

Summing up for a short answer to your question: Also the theist accepts any brute facts about the natural world, but he uses a different model than the atheist to explain these facts.

  • 1
    I like the model-centric approach you have taken here. However, it is not entirely clear why a theist would acknowledge any apparent contradictory attributes in the concept of God, simply because they would contend that God does not submit to logical analysis.
    – nwr
    May 28, 2016 at 21:54
  • @Nick R History shows that theists employ different strategies to cope with the accusation to use a contradictory model: One strategy is Leibniz' theodicy. An other strategy is to deny that god can be captured by our logic, as you remarked. Of course, the atheist calls the latter a strategy of immunisation.
    – Jo Wehler
    May 29, 2016 at 7:09
  • @Jo Wehler: I consider myself a Theist and I see no contradictions with omnipotence, omniscience, etc., because there is a difference between "having" these attributes, and "using" (put into action) them. Although, God has those attributes, He chooses when and how to use/apply them. History shows that He has done so sparingly and only when absolutely necessary.
    – Guill
    May 30, 2016 at 22:14
  • @Guill How does a theist justify that innocent people suffer or die from natural catastrophies like earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions?
    – Jo Wehler
    May 31, 2016 at 4:28
  • @Jo Wehler: I feel that no justification is required. However, if one is required, I would say - that's just the way "life" is! God cannot be given credit or blame for such disasters, and people that try to, don't know what they are saying.
    – Guill
    May 31, 2016 at 5:33

There are many different kinds of theists, so it's doubtful a statement this broad could apply to all theists. However, it does (interpreted charitably) apply to some theists. One kind of theist to whom it applies is one who believes in absolute predestination --all things are arranged precisely according to a divine plan, there are no accidents, and no "brute facts." For a theist of this type, free will is an illusion.

For the more interesting case, however, let us consider Karl Barth as an example of another kind of theist --one who believes that God's absolute power over the world is not incompatible with man's free will within the world because God's agency and man's agency are non-exclusive. To say "I did it" and "God did it" are not contradictory statements, although they say two very different things. (We might arguably extend this notion --I'm not aware whether Barth did so or not-- to claim we could also say "evolution created the blue jay" and "God created the blue jay," again without contradiction.) This is a theology with free will but without brute facts.

  • A nice, concise answer. Bardon does indeed to apply his claim to all theists, which is largely why I questioned it in the first place. I also like the way you have treated the problem of free will.
    – nwr
    May 31, 2016 at 21:04

I think that depends on which "fact" you are talking about. Even if there is a brute fact, how will you know that it is one, in regards to resources and devices available? A theist thus can accept "brute facts" (though he may not), it is just that he will not accept those "brute facts" that tend to explain away God for obvious reasons. It is also strange to stop the causal chain at one "brute fact" when it could be just stopped at the preceding one, if we have no other information/device/criteria available to decide about the issue.

It is also wrong to think that a theist (even if you mean a "classical theist") has to think that no fact is brute. For example Alexander Pruss, who is a theist, argues for "brute facts". He explains it somewhat like this -

Suppose there is a fact F that is the conjunction of all contingent facts. Now that fact, if no "brute fact" exists, must have an explanation. However that explanation cannot be contingent, for if it is contingent, then it must have further explanation, which is impossible, as there are no contingent facts outside F by definition. But if the explanation is necessary, then F must be necessary but it cannot be because it is a conjunction of all contingent facts. If F is necessary then that means all contingent facts in it are also necessary, which is an oxymoron and self-refuting.

Some theists (like William Lane Craig) probably believe that there can be "brute facts" about nature, however they might not believe that there are "brute things".

Now the free will part is a little tougher. Many people who believe in "free will" might not believe the facts arising out of it as being "brute". The facts may not be causally determined but there can be reasons why a person chooses one thing over other. There can be explanations of a choice. Actually if you look at it other way around, if the fact is "brute", then that person didn't "choose" anything.

Thus a fact arising out of a freely-willed decision may not necessarily be "brute" in one step though there may be a "brute fact" behind the decision a few steps away in the causal chain.

A little thing to note though is that there is not necessarily an infinite chain of causes, if there were no brute facts. There can be a metaphysically necessary end point to terminate the chain. It is not that 'it just is', it is that it is because it 'cannot not be'. A crude example is 'a square circle'. It is not because 'it just is not', but because it 'cannot not not be'.

  • A lot of interesting ideas here. Regarding the argument of Pruss, clearly "F" cannot be contingent because it cannot be a member of itself. So why is it argued that a conjunction of contingent facts must be a contingent fact - as in "then F must be necessary but it cannot be because it is a conjunction of contingent facts". This is confusing. I think the problem here is that F may not be well-defined. Further, your introductory remarks appear to suggest that a fact being brute depends on our ability to recognise it as such.
    – nwr
    May 30, 2016 at 21:41
  • Further to my comment (above), one of the problems with the set of all contingent facts is that it will be continuously changing. You might consider taking a "snapshot" of all contingent facts at a given moment of time, however forming such an object/set would appear to be contrary to natural law. I would say that F is not well-defined and does not exist.
    – nwr
    May 31, 2016 at 3:14
  • If F is necessary then the statement in it must also be necessary. For example, consider that F is conjunction of just two contingent facts -> 1. All Martians are greeen 2. Fifith planet of the Solar System is the largest planet of the Solar System. If F is necessary, then it must be that 1. and 2. both should be necessary facts. But they are contingent hence F is also contingent. Because if any statement in F can be other way, F will also be other way. It would be different. Like a number formed from addition of random numbers would itself also be random.
    – IsThatTrue
    May 31, 2016 at 5:33
  • No, if I gave that impression. I was just puzzled as to why would anyone accept there is a brute fact, much less a person whose worldview is dimished by it, if there is nothing to suggest that it is a brute fact. The question is about "acceptance". It might be that there is a brute fact, just that a person may be reasonable not to accept it as such, if there is no reason to think as such.
    – IsThatTrue
    May 31, 2016 at 5:47
  • Thirdly well we can frame F as conjunction of all contingent facts with their time stamps. For example we can say that F is "At time t, Goku is charging Spirit Bomb. 30 episodes later Goku is still charging the Spirit Bomb, but now his Bomb is bigger" Actually in any way we identify different facts, we can put that information in F to create a unique F. However, I must point out that even there is a problem in that argument, my main aim was touse that to show that some theists do accept existence of brute facts.
    – IsThatTrue
    May 31, 2016 at 5:54

Can a theist accept any brute facts about the natural world?

It depends on the theist positing the particular facts about the natural world. Indeed, theists tend to quarrel over what can be accepted as true, but what rests with theists in general is the presupposition that God exists and is more or less responsible for the manifestations of our natural world. Theism accepts objective truths insofar that it affirms the belief that the natural world is the result from the first principle, which is to say that all facts about the natural world is because of God. An atheist turns this claim upside down by stating that we can only know what is true about the natural world through our own perceptions, rather than resort to a presupposition stating that God is the reason. Theists regard the natural world as teleological, that there is an intelligent creator, and everything around us is because of something divine and not, according to atheists, from matter arranging itself in such a way that doesn't have a particular purpose or reason. So, to summarize here, I would argue that, yes, theists can accept brute facts about the natural world because these supposed facts stem from the belief that God is the reason for everything.

I suggest Spinoza's Ethics for more information.

  • But the whole point of the idea of "brute facts" is that they don't have an explanation. Saying that they are explained in terms of God is exactly the reason the OP says that theists do not accept brute facts. For theists to accept brute facts, they would have to be able to say that there are things that do not have an explanation. Therefore, brute facts are a logical contradiction for theists. It cannot be any other way! The quotes in the Question are statements of a tautology, or at least what the speaker is saying IS a tautology.
    – user16869
    May 29, 2016 at 18:42
  • If I am reading your answer correctly, you seem to be drawing a distinction between "reason" and "explanation". Could you elaborate on this. I have not yet had occasion to read Spinoza, though it appears inevitable that one day I will.
    – nwr
    May 29, 2016 at 19:47
  • This is an interesting point. I take it you're suggesting "God did it" is a brute fact for theists about the world.
    – virmaior
    May 30, 2016 at 10:03
  • A minor nitpick: Theists regard the natural world as teleological, citation need. Or rather, this is true for some not all theists. Many forms of protestans are not committed to a teleological vision of the world (though Aquinas and Aristotle (is Aristotle normally called a theist?) are).
    – virmaior
    May 30, 2016 at 10:03
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    @no comprende: I am a Theist, and I assert that there is only one "brute fact," which is the existence of God - and I accept it! Therefore, at least one Theist accepts "brute fact(s)."
    – Guill
    May 30, 2016 at 22:26

Adrian Bardon seems to be making an amateurish mistake, which is more surprising given his background according to Google - he wrote articles on Kant and on Empiricism.

His definition of brute fact, based the edit in the OP is a naive definition of Empiricism which has since been refuted by results from the philosophy of science and the philosophy of language.

All observations are theory laden, no observation is a brute fact free of theoretical presuppositions or auxiliary hypothesis. See, W.V.O Quine -- "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" (1951), "Word and Object" (1960), Sandra Harding -- "Can Theories be Refuted?: Essays on the Duhem-Quine Thesis" (1976). There are other sources for the "theory ladness" of observation - but I site Quine because he comes from a very scientific/materialist worldview himself, so its not like he's biased against Empiricism.

Consider the statement: "There is a policeman standing on the corner" - this might seem like a brute fact, but if someone comes from a society which has no police, then the statement is no longer a brute fact, but a statement loaded with the theoretical presupposition of what a policeman is and isn't.

Even something as basic as "The rock fell to the ground" is theory laden. How do we know that is is not the ground that moved up to meet the rock? or that the rock never moved but there was distortion in the visual medium that made it seem like it moved?

The point again is that no observation is completely free of any theoretical assumptions, a fact can never be "brute".

So to answer your question:

Can a theist accept any brute facts about the natural world?

No, a theist cannot accept any brute facts about the world, but neither can anybody else.

  • I find this answer very confusing. The claim that there are no brute facts certainly appears to be contrary to the overwhelmingly reductionist attitudes among scientists, which are also well represented amongst philosophers of science. Theory ladenness and the epistemic content of our scientific theories do not appear to be relevant to the status of a fact as being brute or otherwise, only to our ability to recognize the facts and understand those facts. The statement about the policeman is not (obviously) a scientific statement. "The rock fell to the ground" can be rephrased (continued.)
    – nwr
    May 31, 2016 at 18:02
  • (continuted) as a scientific statement, in which case it is reducible (i.e., explainable) in terms of those natural laws applicable.
    – nwr
    May 31, 2016 at 18:03
  • @NickR That is exactly the point of Quine (and other's) critique: "The rock fell to the ground" cannot be rephrased to be purely empirical, there will always be a minimum amount of interpretation necessary for it to be meaningful. This is due a) to the very nature of our language, b) to the underdetermination of scientific theories. Scientist can afford to (and do) ignore this only because they are dealing in pre-established mature paradigms. A physicist might be able to ignore the philosophy underpinning physical theories, but a cognitive scientist cannot. May 31, 2016 at 18:14
  • While I have no doubt that you are a far better philosopher that I, I continue to miss this point. Point(a)appears to me to be a reflection of the inadequacies of natural language and incompleteness of our scientific theories in expressing the true nature of reality. Why does this contribute to us rejecting the existence of brute facts. Point(b)is underdetermination - that the inference from data to theory is not deductive. Again, I fail to see how these combine to impact on the nature of reality and support the claim that there are no brute facts - they only say we may never know them.
    – nwr
    May 31, 2016 at 18:58
  • @NickR Consider a group of people who grown in an extremely sheltered environment with no rocks at all: The concept of "rock" is theory laden. Or a group of people who grow up in a futuristic space station and who never experienced gravity, the concept of "falling" for them is theory laden. The point is, something as basic as "the rock fell to the ground" is just as culture/context based as any other fact. The existence of facts isn't disputed (even Quine is a realist) , just that they can never be "brute". Kant knew this, and that's why Bardon, who wrote a lot about Kant, surprises me. May 31, 2016 at 19:15

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