Gottfried Leibniz’s Argument From Contingency

Hi folks,

I’ve realized all my substantive posts are responses prompted from a video on YouTube or something going on in the Internet.  It’s easy to draw inspiration from these things, and it’s always been fun for me to analyze and attempt to tear down someone else’s arguments.  I know that sounds terrible, but in my defense, I like the intellectual challenge of such an endeavor, not so much the poo-pooing on someone’s beliefs for self-vindication.  I do confess I must perpetually look in to ensure that is not my motivation to write this blog.  I want to be on here for the right reasons, and flexing the intellectual abdominals for the sake of my gratification ought not be among them.

That is why I want to offer something available for criticism to get the dialogue, well, dialoguing.  It’s fair and it’s a more representative way to showcase all our mettle, I think.  Hence, I’m going to present one of the arguments I find compelling for my theism, especially when I haven’t explicitly expressed which ones I do feel are provocative.

Leibniz, in all his hairy glory, pondering why there "is something rather than nothing."

I’m a proponent of cosmological arguments, and in my humble experience, the ones from contingency are the strongest.  As the title above reveals, I’ll be discussing German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz’s contribution to this storied argument.  I will use YouTuber Theologica37’s videos to help, which I admit, were of great inspiration for this post.  But let it be noted, I have studied the argument for my own in philosophy courses.

The Pre-game Show

For starters, I need to explain some terminology central to Leibniz’s argument.  First up are contingent and necessary beings.  Contingent beings are ones that require an external explanation for their existence.  In other words, they are finite, can change and have not always existed.  Contrarily, a necessary being does not have an external explanation, but exist due to the necessity found within its essence.  Its justification is inward, not outward.  Moreover, a necessary being is not dependent on anything for its existence, is immutable, and if it exists, it must have always existed.

Already embedded within these terms is Leibniz’s Principle of Sufficient Reason, which is as follows: everything that exists has reason for doing so, either in an external explanation or within the necessity of its own nature.  Leibniz puts it this way,

And that of sufficient reason, by virtue of which we consider that we can find no true or existent fact, no true assertion, without there being a sufficient reason why it is thus and not otherwise,[1]

YouTuber Theologica37’s video (below) goes into more detail.  Caution: he is heavy in the philosophical jargon, so it may not be for everyone.

The Main Event

Voila, here it is!

1)  At least one contingent being exists.

2)  This contingent being has a sufficient reason for its existence.

3)  A contingent being can’t be its own sufficient reason.

4)  Either another contingent being or a necessary being is the sufficient reason.

5)  There can’t be an infinite chain of contingent beings because a quantitative infinite is impossible.

6)  A necessary being must be the ultimate sufficient reason for the contingent being.

Therefore, a necessary being exists.

Possible Objections

It’s valid with the conclusion following from the premises, and premise 1 is uncontroversial and intuitively obvious.  If anything, Rene Descartes’ Cogito—I think, therefore I am— is solid justification for it.  It also should be evident that I haven’t always existed, and hence I am a contingent being.  Also, the definitions of necessary and contingent beings are well established.

Where I anticipate attacks upon this argument is against the Principle of Sufficient Reason, the possibility of quantitative infinities and what actually is the necessary being.

With the Principle of Sufficient Reason, I suppose you could reject it, but this isn’t without a heavy cost.  It’s denial undermines all of deductive science as the enterprise presupposes sufficient reasons and efficient causes for why the physical universe operates as it does.  I don’t think that’s a route that seems too appealing to many atheists who base their positive beliefs in science.

Quantitative infinities are also problematic.  They simply don’t exist.  It’s logically impossible  to traverse one.

for the state which is, in a sense, copied from the preceding, though in accordance with certain laws of change.  And so, however far back we might go into previous states, we will never find in those states a complete explanation for why, indeed, there is any world at all, and why it is the way it is.[2]

Thanks, Gottfried.  Not good enough?  Well, lets read a little admittance from one of the argument’s biggest detractors, Scottish philosopher David Hume, shall we?

If I ask, why you believe any particular matter of fact, which you relate, you must tell me some reason; and this reason will be some other fact, connected with it.  But as you cannot proceed after this manner, in infinitum, you must at last terminate in some fact, which is present to your memory or sense; or must allow that your belief is entirely without foundation.[3]

Still don’t believe me?  Then count to infinity, and when you get there, then we’ll talk, ye of little faith.

Now, I suppose you could say the universe is the necessary being, but this has a number of issues both philosophical and scientific.  First of all, the universe doesn’t exhibit any attributes of a necessary being.  It’s easy to consider how things could have been different.  For instance, you didn’t have to exist or cosmically speaking, the universe could have different physical laws governing it than it does.  Neither of which are entailed of a necessary being.  Moreover, our current empirical knowledge shows the universe to be finite: cosmic background radiation levels, the doppler effect with the red shift of galaxies and the universe would have already experienced heat death if it had been eternal just to list a few.  In conclusion, the universe isn’t metaphysically necessary.

So, there you guys have it.  I look forward to any critiques or issues you see with this.  Feel free to point them out, and we’ll go from there.  I’ll leave you guys with another video from Theologica37 which provides more argumentation than I did as a little bonus.


Modus Pownens

[1] Gottfried Leibniz, The Monadology, trans. Daniel Garber and Roger Ariew (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company), 1991, §32.

[2] Gottfried Leibniz, On the Ultimate Origination of Things, trans. Daniel Garber and Roger Ariew (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company), 1991, 42.

[3] David Hume, “Sceptical Solution of These Doubts,” in Eric Steinberg, ed., An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company), 1977, 30.


4 thoughts on “Gottfried Leibniz’s Argument From Contingency

  1. A very interesting argument! Thanks for sharing.

    A couple of objections from Swinburne:

    1. A necessary being can’t explain something contingent.

    2. It seems coherent to posit that the universe exists as a brute fact, while God does not exist. Since this is coherent, God is not a necessary being.

    Swinburne thinks that while there’s a good inductive cosmological argument, Leibniz’s deductive formulation has problems.

    (Cf. The Existence of God by Richard Swinburne, p. 147-149)

    1. Hi, sorry that’s it’s taken me a while to respond, Occam.

      Could you unpack 1 for me? I don’t understand what Swinburne’s objection here means. I don’t have Swinburne’s work in front of me. Someday I will, but not in the near future. I guess I’m confused at how he is side-stepping the problem of an infinite regress.

      2 seems to challenge God’s necessity because if it’s logically coherent to consider God’s non-existence, then he is no longer necessary. I don’t know if I have a satisfying answer to this, but couldn’t you flip this objection on its head? Isn’t it coherent to posit God exists as a brute fact, while the universe does not exist also? I realize it doesn’t follow that God is necessary, but I guess this is effective in undermining the objection of why can’t the universe just exist. Both propositions are logically coherent, and therefore neither subject is a necessary being. I know Swinburne believes God to be metaphysically necessary and not logically necessary. I will concede this is a good objection, and I might have to reevaluate my thinking.

      Where I do agree with Swinburne is that even if the deductive formulations of the argument is defeated, the cosmological argument won’t go away inductively. In Leibniz’s words, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is pretty powerful.

      I do confess, Occam, that I feel like I’m a step behind with what the current happenings in philosophy of religion as I’m presented these former formulations of these arguments devoid of most the criticisms and rebuttals that they have incited.

      1. Actually, I just found out Alexander Pruss is a proponent of this argument and spends a good deal of time defending this argument in the Blackwell Companion of Natural Theology. So, maybe he has a response to Swinburne, but it will be some time before I get to it. =(

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