Atheism and Leibniz

by Eric Steinhart

The cosmological argument is really a family of arguments. Some of the cosmological arguments are very concrete. Aquinas’s Second Way and the Kalam Argument (popularized by William Lane Craig) reason back to some first cause of the universe at the beginning of time. Atheists (like Quentin Smith) have given various replies to these first cause arguments (often based on the big bang, or some deeper physics).

These first cause arguments are debates about the structure of contingent physical existence. It’s fun to reason backwards in time along causal chains, but that reasoning remains entirely within the system of contingent physical things. The deeper questions are these: Why is there a universe rather than no universe? Why are there any physical things rather than no physical things? Why are there any contingent things rather than no contingent things? No first cause argument (or atheistic reply) even tries to answer those questions.

Aquinas’s Third Way and Leibniz’s Sufficient Reason Argument are much deeper arguments. Theists and atheists both ought to study them carefully. Leibniz’s Sufficient Reason Argument is especially interesting. Here it is:

(1) Neither in any single thing, nor in the total aggregate and series of things, can the sufficient reason for their existence be discovered. (2) Let us suppose a book entitled The Elements of Geometry to have existed eternally, one edition having always been copied from the preceding. (3) Although you can account for the present copy by a reference to the past copy which it reproduces, yet, however far back you go in this series of reproductions, you can never arrive at a complete explanation; (4) You always will have to ask why at all times these books have existed, that is, why there have been any books at all and why this book in particular. (5) What is true concerning these books is equally true concerning the diverse states of the universe, for here too the following state is in some way a copy of the preceding one (although changing according to certain laws). (6) However far you turn back to antecedent states, you will never discover in any or all of these states the full reason why there is a universe rather than no universe, nor why it is such as it is. (7) You may well suppose the universe to be eternal; yet what you thus posit is nothing but the succession of its states, and you will not find the sufficient reason in any one of them, nor will you get any nearer to accounting rationally for the universe by taking any number of them together; (8) The reason must therefore be sought elsewhere. (9) Things eternal may have no cause of existence, yet a reason for their existence must be conceived. . . . (10) Hence it is evident that even by supposing the universe to be eternal, the recourse to an ultimate reason for the universe beyond this universe . . . cannot be avoided. (11) The reasons for the universe are therefore concealed in some entity not in the universe, which is different from the chain or series of things, the aggregate of which constitutes the universe. (Leibniz, 1697)

As it stands, this argument has some well-known problems (it isn’t really even an argument, it’s just a proto-argument). But the argument can be rebuilt in ways that make it incredibly strong. Rebuilding it is mostly tedious logic. There’s no need to do that here. I’m going to assume that some rebuilt version of the argument is sound. What’s most interesting about this argument is what it says about existence.

Leibniz says the universe is the totality of physical things. It’s a spatially, temporally, and causally closed system. The entire universe is contingent – it might exist but it might not exist. Why does it exist? Why is there a universe at all? You can’t answer that question by appealing to anything that is internal to the universe. You can’t answer that question by appealing to any entity that participates in any spatial, temporal, or causal relations. This isn’t an inference back in time to a first cause. If there is a first cause, then it falls within the scope of the question. If there’s a first cause, it’s just another part of the universe – and thus it needs to be explained. And Leibniz is perfectly happy to say that the universe has always existed – no first cause at all. Leibniz says that “the reasons for the universe are concealed in some entity not in the universe”. Call this entity the ground.

Contrary to theists, the ground isn’t any concrete god. It isn’t the god of the Old Testament. It isn’t the creator of Genesis. It isn’t Yahweh or El-Elyon. And it isn’t any of the gods that have appeared in any of the mythologies of old paganisms. It isn’t Zeus or Thor. All those old gods are just concrete physical things – they participate in spatial, temporal, and causal relations. And since creation seems to entail causing an effect at some time, the ground isn’t a creator at all. For the theists, it just gets worse. Since the ground doesn’t participate in spatial, temporal, or causal relations, it can’t be a person. The ground doesn’t have any psychology. The ground doesn’t perceive the universe or intervene in it. The doesn’t have any thoughts, no beliefs, no desires. And the ground isn’t the god of deism. After all, that god is a first cause. The ground is deeper than all those gods.

What about the gods of the philosophers? Well, the ground exists. So it can’t be Plato’s form of the good; it isn’t the One of Plotinus. All those old philosophical gods are somehow beyond existence. And the ground isn’t Tillich’s ground of all being; on the contrary, it’s just the ground of the physicality of our universe. What about Spinoza’s god? I have to confess that I don’t entirely understand what that god is supposed to be – which makes me doubt that it’s Spinoza’s god. Anyway, the argument from evil entails that the ground certainly isn’t all-powerful and all-good and all-knowing. So the ground can’t be the big 3O god of classical theism. Leibniz’s argument doesn’t seem to support theism at all.

Onwards, then, to the atheists. Assuming that the ground isn’t one of those old-fashioned religious or theological entities, what would it be? Well, the ground isn’t any physical thing or structure or event. The ground isn’t the big bang or the cause of the big bang. It isn’t space-time or some quantum field or some black hole or any other exotic physical thing. It isn’t any physical thing at all. It’s important to understand the scope of this assertion.

It may very well be true that our observable cosmos, including everything that we can measure or empirically detect, is a simulation running on some alien super-computer. But if that’s true, then our observable cosmos isn’t the universe – it’s just the part of the universe that we can observe. The whole universe is a much bigger place. If our universe is running on some alien super-computer, then the Leibnizian question applies to that super-computer and to the aliens that made it. Why do those contingent physical things exist? The ground isn’t the super-computer or the alien civilization. The ground explains the aliens and their artifacts. Perhaps our universe contains many smaller cosmic domains (as in inflationary cosmology, or Smolin’s fecund universe hypothesis). If it does, then that entire multiverse is a contingent thing. Why is there a multiverse rather than no multiverse? The multiverse needs to be explained. If our universe is a big foam composed of lots of cosmic bubbles, then the ground explains that foam.

Given all this metaphysics, here’s the test question: Should atheists affirm or deny the existence of the ground?

Leibniz, G. W. (1697) On the Radical Origination of the Universe. In P. Schrecker & A. M. Schrecker (Trans.) (1988) Leibniz: Monadology and Other Philosophical Essays. New York: Macmillan, 84-86. The translation is slightly edited for consistency.

Guest Contributor Eric Steinhart is an associate professor of philosophy at William Paterson University. Many of his papers can be found here .

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.