Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?


Gottfried Leibniz

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It’s a deep thought, I know. The mere existence of the universe is something we tend to take for granted. Perhaps the older we get, the more the world loses its enchantment. I tend to think this is a negative thing. As adults get so focused on “reality” that we forget about the big questions of life.

My mom was on business trips a lot when I first moved to the St. Louis area as a kid. Sometimes while she was away and I’d feel a little lonely, so I’d step outside just to think. I remember looking at the stars on a clear night and thinking to myself “where did this all come from?” I think we’ve all asked ourselves this question at one time or another.

Was Carl Sagan right – is the cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be? Or is there a cause to it all? The German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz believed there was a cause of it all. “Monadology” aside (don’t ask), Leibniz developed one of the more popular arguments for God’s existence, one that has been discussed for several centuries now. It’s been streamlined throughout the years.

Basically, in its simpler form, it shakes out like so:

  1. Anything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or for contingent things, an external cause.
  2. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
  3. The universe exists.
  4. Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence.
  5. Therefore, the explanation of the existence of the universe is God.

So what premises would the atheist attack? Only a nut would deny 3. 1 seems pretty uncontroversial and self-evident. Let’s you were in an airplane, flying from Chicago to Los Angeles, and you look out your window and you see a large, round, red stone floating in mid-air. You begin to notice other passengers in the plane gasping and pointing out the window, wondering how the rock got there. Then the captain comes on the radio and informs everyone to stay in their seats, and goes on to say “don’t worry about that, folks. That floating rock just exists inexplicably”.

You’d think that the captain was nuts, or start to suspect his involvement in some sort of conspiracy. Now, say that if this rock was larger; maybe the size of a baseball stadium, or a small town, or the size of the state of Iowa, or the size of a universe; it would still require an explanation. Merely increasing the size of the rock doesn’t give you less of a reason to need an answer for it being there.

Someone might say “it’s impossible for the universe to have an explanation” But that’s just arguing in a circle, because such an objection assumes atheism is true.

But what if one were to say that the universe has no explanation, that the universe just exists by the necessity of its own nature? First of all, that’s just the logical equal to premise 2, that if the universe has an explanation, that explanation is God. If atheism is true, then logically there is no explanation. Secondly, this conclusion is a radical leap and few atheists are willing to take such a stance. Take for instance atheist Thomas Nagel, a professor of law and philosophy at NYU. He says:

The existence of our universe might be explained by scientific cosmology, but such an explanation would still have to refer to features of some larger reality that contained or gave rise to it. A scientific explanation of the Big Bang would not be an explanation of why there was something rather than nothing, because it would have to refer to something from which that event arose. This something, or anything else cited in a further scientific explanation of it, would then have to be included in the universe whose existence we are looking for an explanation of when we ask why there is anything at all. This is a question that remains after all possible scientific questions have been answered.

Now we’re really going to get nerdy to demolish this objection. The universe does not exist because different elementary particles could have existed. A different collection could have existed, but that would’ve given rise to a completely different universe from the one we know now. So we can’t say the universe exists necessarily. Furthermore, everything which exists necessarily exists forever. Infinite is infinite. And whatever is infinite can’t be advanced by adding to it, nor can it be decreased from taking away from it, so we could never reach the present. So the universe itself can’t be infinite. And anyone with any elementary knowledge of cosmology knows the the universe is not infinitely old.

Let’s think about what the universe is: all of space, time and matter. It follows that the cause of the universe would have to be a non-physical, immaterial being beyond space and time, not to mention a being that is immensely powerful. Hmmm…I wonder what type of being fits that description? The Judeo-Christian God, maybe?

Finally, someone might ask “what is the explanation of God?” For the answer, go back to premise 1. God is not a contingent being, He exists out of the necessity of his own nature. The very idea of God basically implies it. Some mathematicians think of numbers, sets, etc. in the same way; that they just exist out of their own nature.

I’m not saying this argument proves God’s existence beyond all doubt, but then again I don’t think any of the arguments for God’s existence prove with 100% certainty that God does exist. But there are very few things we are 100% certain of, and we seem to get along OK for the most part.  What I do think is that it seems eminently more plausible that God is the reason anything at all exists, compared to the alternatives.

related: The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument by J.W. Wartick

Leibnizian Cosmological Arguments by Alexander Pruss (long!)

On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision Dr. William Lane Craig

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4 thoughts on “Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

  1. Hey Bob,

    Thanks for the comment.

    I’m sorry, but I gotta say – I find that’s worse than magic! When a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat, at least you have the magician and the hat! Nothing is by definition…no thing. I believe it was Aristotle who said nothing is what rocks dream about. Nothingness is the absence of anything whatsoever, even space itself, it literally has no properties at all, there wouldn’t be anything to have properties! Such a simple statement is just showing the faith of an atheist. Moreover, if something can come into being from nothing, why don’t baseballs and telephone poles and horses just pop into existence out of nothing?

    For instance, I don’t think anyone of us is afraid that over the weekend, some dog just popped into existence ex nihilo, and is sitting in our office, chewing up our paperwork and pooping on the carpet! Just our everyday experience tells us different.

    If you’re talking about some sort of cosmic vacuum, a vacuum is not nothing. To say that it is nothing I think would be a distortion of the theories I think you might be alluding to, correct me if I’m wrong.

  2. If there were nothing, we could not ask the question. Our existence presupposes the universe. The issue isn’t whether the universe implies a creator, but whether its existence requires a creator (rather than a random big bang) based on our understanding of the universe. Atheist scientists have no problem believing in a universe that randomly arises from the stew of – just what? They are able to build a consistent worldview and scientific system with no need for a creator.

    Theistic scientists have no problem believing in a universe that is full of wonderful design and purpose. This also creates a consistent worldview and system of science.

    Two people can look at exactly the same thing and see two completely different things: a Jewish rabble rouser dying on a Roman cross or the son of God surrendering his life out of love. It all depends on your presuppositions.

    Dan Knight, one-time philosophy major (a long, long time ago)

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