Smart people have a habit of asking good questions and nowhere is this truer than 17th Century mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz who asked what is simultaneously a very simple but very profound question:
Why is there something, rather than nothing?
In fact, Leibniz believed that this was “the first question that should rightly be asked” and with a little reflection it’s easy to see why he believed that. Many of us in asking the deep questions of life will come to a series of regression that leads us from the simple and mundane (“What am I going to do today?”) to the fundamental and profound (“What am I doing with my life?”, “What am I here for?”). Answering those deeper personal questions depends on an understanding of the purpose of life and the cosmos in general, which in turn requires an understanding of where those things came from and why. This chain seems to present a problem of infinite regress, with each step of the chain requiring its own explanation. The most common analogy for this problem is the infamous “Chicken and the Egg” scenario. Eggs come from chickens and chickens grow out of eggs, so which one came first?
What Leibniz was looking for was a way to stop the infinite regress of causes, an “uncaused first cause”; what James Sire calls “prime reality” or what Augustine referred to as “the unmoved mover” – that thing which explains everything else yet needs no explanation. The basis of all reality, physical or metaphysical. This thing, whatever it is, would be metaphysically necessary. It cannot not exist because if it does not exist, we return to the problem of infinite regress.
Leibniz’s so-called “Argument from Contingency” was originally intended to prove the existence of God in the face of atheism, but it also provides some clues for those of us who are searching for the “correct” God since, as we’ve discussed elsewhere, the nature and character of this God must line up with what we know to be true from other fields of study. Even if there are many gods such as those of the Norse, Egyptian or Greek pantheons, it would make sense to align ourselves not with those like Thor, Horus or Zeus when we can instead worship or align ourselves with the gods or goddesses that created them. Thor was the son of Odin. Horus was the son of Isis and Osiris. Zeus was the son of Cronos, the Titan. But even those gods and goddesses were not uncreated. They themselves were born or created by some other force at some point in the past. Whatever force created those first gods would also be subject to Leibniz.
So what does Leibniz’s first cause look like?
First, this first cause must be metaphysically necessary, that is, it cannot not exist and it depends on nothing and no one else for its existence. It is simply because it is and could not be any other way. This attribute is the easiest and most obvious because it is part of the definition of a first cause. If there is a possible world wherein this first cause did not exist, then it would not be necessary and we would ask what caused it to exist in the actual world. If this first cause did not exist at some point in the past, we would rightly ask what created it. In either case, it would not be the “first cause”.
Second, this first cause would be non-physical, that is, it would not be composed of or dependent upon any of the physical aspects of the universe. Even if we assume an eternal universe (which was common in Leibniz’s time), we still would understand the universe as contingent or dependent upon something else for its existence. We could easily imagine a possible world in which the universe as we know it did not exist, or perhaps might be quite different. The universe itself does not seem to be metaphysically necessary the way we would expect the first cause to be and thus the time, space, matter, energy that make it up also would not be metaphysically necessary. If time, space, matter, and energy are not necessary, then the first cause cannot involve them for its existence. Such things might flow out of the first cause or be eternally dependent on the first cause, but they cannot of themselves be the first cause.
Third, this first cause must be extremely powerful beyond our wildest imagination. If the universe were eternal, we would need some way to explain how such a universe could be maintained in direct opposition to the second law of thermodynamics. A universe wherein there is no motion and no change can easily be seen as existing from eternity past (though it would still require an explanation outside of itself), but ours is a universe that is in constant motion with planets and stars spinning, being born, and dying. Like a set of billiard balls ricocheting around the table, everything must eventually come to a halt unless there is some sort of input from outside the system. The force required to keep the entire galaxy in motion, to sustain it, is mind boggling.
Side note: Though Leibniz’s argument is indifferent to a finite or created universe, the second and third points are made that much stronger – nearly indisputable – in light of modern cosmology which has repeatedly affirmed that all time, space, matter, and energy were created (literally came into being) at some point in the finite past as a result of an event we call the Big Bang.
Fourth, this first cause must be an unembodied mind. This may seem like more of a baseless assertion than the others, but it’s not unfounded. The first three points illuminate a timeless, spaceless, immaterial and uncaused entity as the basis of all reality and only two categories fit this description. Abstract objects (numbers, shapes, colors – which may not “exist” in any real sense and are more likely just useful fictions we use to describe the physical universe) or unembodied minds. Since abstract objects, by definition, cannot cause anything it would not make sense to assign the status of “first cause” to one. An unembodied mind makes more sense and it would not be a stretch to call this unembodied mind a “person”.
So, taking Leibniz’s argument to its conclusion, we see that the first cause must be timeless, spaceless, immaterial, self-existent, uncreated, and personal.
What does this mean for us in comparing faith systems? It means that a faith system which posits an infinite regress of gods like Mormonism (what they call a plurality of gods), must be false. Similarly, a faith system that posits an eternal and uncreated universe or an impersonal force as the basis of reality must be false. We do not need to examine Hinduism or Buddhism in depth to know that they cannot be true, though such an examination would be interesting.
It’s quite surprising how far an examination of Leibniz’s Argument from Contingency, Anselm’s Ontological Argument or the Kalaam Cosmological Argument can get us in narrowing down what begins as an extensive list of faith systems and proposed deities. Really, these arguments cut out all but the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and some of their off-shoots. In fact, one might even exclude Islam since there is significant reason to believe that the Quran actually teaches that Allah is physical, regardless of what Muslims commonly believe or assert. If I may recall my car-buying analogy, the first step to choosing one item from among thousands of others is to rule out large portions of the pool of options with appropriate restrictions and requirements. Leibniz’s argument provides us with such a method by letting us go from “I need a car” to “I need a low mileage, four-door, mid-sized pickup with an automatic transmission and Bluetooth in my area for under $12,000”, narrowing our options from hundreds or thousands to just two.
Writer, artist, lay theologian, student of comparative religion.