Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? Leibniz’ Answer

Leibniz Philosophical EssaysGottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a prominent early modern philosopher and polymath, is famous for asking the question: Why is there something rather than nothing? Leibniz’ question has generated much controversy and debate in the history of philosophical and religious thought. For Leibniz, however, the answer was clear: there is something rather than nothing because there must be something, namely, a divine necessary being that created the universe.

Leibniz’ reasoning has led to what is now known as the Leibnizian cosmological argument for the existence of God, or the argument for God’s existence from contingency. While modern formulations of this argument abound, this article very simply features Leibniz’ original thoughts that led to this historic argument.

(All quotations below are taken from works of Leibniz found in the anthology Philosophical Essays, edited and translated by Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber.)

Leibniz’ Two Principles of Reasoning

According to Leibniz, there are two fundamental principles that guide our reasoning. The first is the Principle of Contradiction, which says that P and not-P cannot both be true at the same time and in the same sense. (For example, it cannot be the case that God exists and that God does not exist; one has to be true and the other false.) This principle is at the foundation of our system of logic.

The second principle is what Leibniz calls the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which he defines as follows:

For any true proposition P, it is possible for someone who understands things well enough to give a sufficient reason why it [is] the case that P rather than not-P. (Principles of Nature and Grace, Based on Reason, sec. 7)

In other words, statements are true or false, and certain things exist in certain arrangements, for reasons. The world is comprehensible. For any given fact or thing, someone who knows enough would be able to explain why that fact is true, or why that thing exists. (This principle is more controversial than the principle of Contradiction, but nevertheless is intuitively plausible and appears to motivate many of our explanatory inquiries, especially science.)

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Leibniz goes on to say that, in light of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, the question of why there is something rather than nothing becomes a question of great significance:

Given that principle, the first question we can fairly ask is: Why is there something rather than nothing? After all, nothing is simpler and easier than something. (Sec. 7)

Leibniz: Why is there something rather than nothing?This indeed is a remarkable question, for it seems perfectly possible that the universe could have failed to exist. As Leibniz recognizes, there must be some reason that explains why the universe exists rather than nothing at all.

He goes on to argue that the sufficient reason for the existence of the universe may be found either in contingent things or in a necessary being. (Contingent things could have failed to exist, whereas necessary things must exist, in that they could not have failed to exist.) But the explanation or sufficient reason cannot be found in contingent things:

Now, this sufficient reason for the existence of the universe can’t be found in the series of contingent things…Any matter that is moving now does so because of a previous motion, and that in turn from a still earlier one; and we can take this back as far as we like – it won’t get us anywhere, because the same question – the question Why? – will still remain. (Sec. 8)

We may explain one contingent thing by means of another, the second by means of a third, and so on out to infinity. But even if the universe were infinite in the past, we would still be left without an explanation for why it exists, why the whole collection of contingent things is there rather than nothing at all. So contingent things cannot be the ultimate stopping-point.

God as the Sufficient Reason for the Universe

Leibniz concludes on the basis of the previous argument that the sufficient reason must be found in a necessary being:

[The sufficient reason] must lie outside the series of contingent things, and must be found in a substance which…exists necessarily, carrying the reason for its existence within itself; only that can give us a sufficient reason at which we can stop, having no further Why? question taking us from this being to something else. And that ultimate reason for things is what we call ‘God’. (Sec. 8)

Leibniz’s answer, therefore, for why there is something rather than nothing is that there is a metaphysically necessary being, a being whose non-existence is impossible, such that the reason for its existence is found in its very nature. This being, furthermore, stands as the source or cause of the universe of contingent things outside of it. For Leibniz at least, the best candidate for a being such as this is God.

To read more from the thought of Leibniz, we recommend picking up a copy of his Philosophical Essays.

What do you think about Leibniz’ reasoning? Is it sound, or do you disagree with it? Let me know in the comments below!

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2 Commentsto Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? Leibniz’ Answer

  1. Paul says:

    Interesting read Kiefer on this famous question of Leibniz’s. The name Leibniz seems to jog something in my memory but I can’t put my finger on what exactly — I do know that I learned about a theorem or some other piece of work by him in one of my math-based university courses. I believe it was calculus. Regarding the question, I don’t like to get too down and dirty when it comes to philosophy because I find that tends to screw up my thought processes. I will nonetheless take some time to think about this a little more.

    • Kiefer says:

      Leibniz independently invented calculus around the same time as Isaac Newton, so that may be what you are thinking of, Paul. I am sure Leibniz is credited with various other mathematical theorems as well.

      Interesting that you have such a negative view of philosophy. I find that it has an opposite, very beneficial effect for me, as it gives me the logical tools to systematically think through matters of deep significance. I’d be curious to hear why you think it has a more negative effect.

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