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.

  • Jeff Dale

    > Should atheists affirm or deny the existence of the ground?

    If, by definition, “the ground” is always (at least) one step beyond any existing thing we might point to, then isn’t it pretty much useless here? By definition, we can never see it or know what it is, because by getting a handle on it we discover that there’s something beyond it, so it isn’t “the ground” after all, and so on ad infinitum. It seems analogous to infinity when considering real numbers: there is no real number that counts as infinity, because by definition infinity will always be larger than any number we point to. But at least infinity is useful as a concept in mathematics, as when characterizing the limits of an infinite series; if “the ground” is supposed to be something with metaphysical, then it’s out of reach of all possible investigation and therefore literally meaningless. This is just off the top of my head: am I making sense?

    • Eric Steinhart

      You wrote: “By definition, we can never see it or know what it is, because by getting a handle on it we discover that there’s something beyond it, so it isn’t “the ground” after all, and so on ad infinitum.”

      Nothing in Leibniz’s argument implies that. On the contrary, the ground should be entirely comprehensible.

  • mikespeir

    My head hurts and it’s Leibniz’ fault, abetted by you.

    I’m with Jeff, though. If this ground is so far out of reach that all we can do is attach the word “ground” to it in lieu of any real meaning, why fool with it? It’s not that I don’t want to fool with it; it’s that it’s the ultimate impossible thing to fool with. Or something like that.

    • Eric Steinhart

      Yeah, Leibniz will make anybody’s head hurt! He was one smart guy.

  • Mitchell Massey

    I don’t see a need to affirm or deny the existence of the ground because it seems to hinge on a question of purpose. This assumes “intent” and I am not sure there was any. If the ground has no actual intellegence then there can’t really be any intent.

  • Patrick Jenkins

    If the ground exists, it would seem to be a logical absurdity given it’s paradoxical existence within and apart from our universe. Why then are you so quick to box in a logical absurdity within the confines of our logic? It doesn’t quite add up to me.

  • David E

    “Why is there a universe at all?”

    Probably a meaningless question. Trace it back and you have to get to something whose existence and properties are just brute fact….and I see no reason why that can’t be something which is, in some sense, physical. A sea of quantum fluctuations works as well as a deity.

  • Kevin Scott Joiner

    For the Ground to be comprehensible means that it must fall within the set of all ideas, i.e. thought objects. Since thought objects are a part of the contingent universe, any comprehensible Ground cannot be the true Ground, unless it only becomes comprehensible when viewed in relation to its product, which is the universe. This further requires consciousness, which as a by-product of a contingent universe must first arise before thought objects can exist. Call it contingent comprehensibility.

    Fortunately, this quality of contingent comprehensibility is true of nothingness. It is far easier to simply postulate that the universe, whatever its structure and qualities may ultimately be, arose from nothingness. If you say something cannot come from nothing because nothingness cannot contain any properties, you are saddling nothingness with limitations. This is a contradiction, because limitation itself is a property. Nothingness can logically be considered to be unlimited in that it possesses the infinite statistical probability that it will spontaneously create some type of universe or multi-verse. What is interesting is that this infinite statistical probability may be said to exist, but only after consciousness comes into being in order to comprehend it. I hate to sound all New-Agey, but consciousness is a prerequisite for existence, in that the existence, as a thought object, requires consciousness in order to exist. Without consciousness, existence doesn’t exist! There is something very Thomas Young/Erwin Schrödinger about this whole thing.

    The question of a “beginning” to time is also answered with this solution. Since nothingness does not contain time, i.e. a series of transitional states, any instance of transition from nothingness to universe can be said to have happened instantaneously and apart from time. Time begins with the creation of the first state-change, which is the transition from nothingness into universe. Again, very wave/particle duality, superposition/wave function collapse.

    When taken as a whole rather than bit by bit, any infinite set is comprehensible. This fact allows us to perform math using infinite functions. However, when examined piece by piece, infinite sets, like nothingness, are ultimately incomprehensible. Though all infinite sets are not equal in quality – the set of even numbers vs. the set of odd numbers, for instance – they are, by definition, equal in quantity. Therefore, the individual comprehension of every member of a given infinite set will take an infinite amount of time, meaning you will never have enough time examine every member of the series. Referring back to the set of all even numbers, you can say that each number in the set is, by definition, divisible by 2 and 1, but little beyond that without examining each number individually. We are getting into Gödel territory here.

    Nothingness fits the bill for a comprehensible but transcendent Ground in that it is comprehensible, but only in relation to the consciousness-possessing universe it produces. Unfortunately, this cannot be said of any kind of a personal god, which must have certain properties, i.e. contingent attributes, prior to the creation of contingencies – a logical contradiction. Otherwise, the creator god can be said to have come into existence with the universe, which is also a contradiction. Self-creation is a harder (read: impossible) sell, unless you stray into pantheism, which would be a semantic redundancy.

    Have you noticed that this whole ground thing sounds an awful lot like the Tao? “The Tao which can be named is not the true Tao.” ~ from the Tao Te Ching, attributed to Lao Tzu circa 6th century BCE

    For the record, I’m an atheist.

  • James Sweet

    I suspect that the question to which “the ground” is the answer is not really the right question, perhaps not even a meaningful question — it may be one of those questions which appears meaningful due to inherent linguistic defects and/or possible cognitive defects inherent in the very nature of what we think of as sapience. Note I am not asserting this, I am only saying I suspect this is the case.

    I’m also perennially leery of lines of thinking which attempt to say something about reality while relying purely on logic. Particularly when you get closer to fundamental/existential questions, our natural intuitions have proved so wholly inadequate for accurately modeling reality at that level, I think that even the most apparently airtight logical argument stands a good chance of having some hidden flaw that would become obvious with just a bit more empirical data. As an example, I would posit that in 1880, you could have made a purely logical argument against both relativity and quantum mechanics, and that not a damn person on Earth, whether physicist or philosopher, could have uncovered the fallacies in such an argument. In fact, there are still some rather impressive arguments (IMO) that Born probability just can’t possibly make any sense, and yet the data is incontrovertible.

    I recognize that by its very nature, the question to which “the ground” is the answer (from now on, the QTWTGITA) could never possibly be informed by empirical data (well, we can make a purely logical argument to that effect, at least), so I’m not suggesting we’ll get some answer from further investigation. I do think it’s conceivable that some further data will make it obvious why the question itself is flawed, though I’m not holding my breath for that either.

    As to directly answering your final question: “Should atheists affirm or deny the existence of the ground?” I’ll answer it the same way I would answer the question “Should atheists affirm or deny the existence of free will?”: Neither. I do not think the concept is sufficiently defined.

    I do think atheists should freely admit there appears to be an intractable existential problem, well described here by Leibniz. Krauss’ “Nothing is unstable,” for example, is a nice catchy answer to the question “Why is there something instead of nothing?”, and illuminating in a physical sense, but it doesn’t really get to the heart of the QTWTGITA. The question is either a) fundamentally unanswerable, in which case “the ground” is a placeholder for what the answer would be; or b) pure nonsense, a linguistic and/or cognitive artifact, in which case “the ground” is just empty mumbling. In neither case do I feel it is necessary to “affirm or deny the existence of ‘the ground’”.

  • Rollie Smith

    Good discussion. I remember Bernard Lonergan’s discussion of “inverse insight”–the insight that there is really nothing there to be understood. I think that is the case here. I don’t think this is a question for physics or metaphysics, but for evolutionary psychology. The questions shows more about us than the universe. We are a species with an insatiable desire to know. Indeed some philosophers define us as quest for meaning. I like that about us. It is the affirmation of “faith” over “beliefs.” However, there are points where we come to the insight that there is simply nothing there to be understood. Ground, like God, is just a mythological expression of that.