The cosmological argument from sufficient reason, which in its earliest form was propounded by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) and English philosopher Samuel Clarke (1675-1729), posits that there must be a sufficient reason, or explanation, for the existence of any contingent being as well for the contingent universe as a whole (1).
The argument from sufficient reason maintains that all things that exist in the world require an explanation for their existence. Nothing in the world, including the world, provides an explanation for itself, which means there must be an explanation outside of it – an explanation that is sufficient unto itself. This explanation is “God”.
The argument emerges from a set of questions Leibniz posits: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Why does the universe exist rather than just nothing? Doesn’t it seem reasonable to seek an explanation for its existence?” (2) An analogy helps elucidate Leibniz’s point that has us walking through a forest and coming across a translucent ball,
“Suppose, then, that you have found this translucent ball and are mystified by it. Now whatever else you might wonder about it, there is one thing you would hardly question; namely, that it did not appear there all by itself, that it owes its existence to something. You might not have the remotest idea whence and how it came to be there, but you would hardly doubt that there was an explanation. The idea that it might have come from nothing at all, that it might exist without there being any explanation of its existence, is one that few people would consider worthy of entertaining” (3).
“This illustrates a metaphysical belief that seems to be almost a part of reason itself, even though few ever think upon it; the belief, namely, that there is some explanation for the existence of anything whatever, some reason why it should exist rather than not. The sheer nonexistence of anything, which is not to be confused with the passing out of the existence of something, never requires a reason; but existence does. That there should never have been any such ball in the forest does not require any explanation or reason, but that there should ever be such a ball does.”
What the analogy attempts to illustrate is that it seems warranted, if not entirely dictated by reason, to ask what caused the translucent ball to be there. Similarly, it seems warranted to ask what caused the universe. Like with the translucent ball, we want an explanation for the universe’s being.
The proponent of this argument puts the skeptic on the backfoot asking “Who is being more reasonable, the person who maintains that there is a sufficient reason for the existence of the universe, or the one who denies it?” (4)
Syllogistically, the argument can be represented as follows (5):
P1. All things (beings) which exist must have a sufficient reason for their existence,
P2. The sufficient reason for the existence of a thing must either lie in the thing itself or outside the thing,
P3. All things in the universe are things of the sufficient reason of which lie outside themselves (i.e. nothing in the universe provides its own explanation for its existence),
P4. The universe is nothing more than the collection of the things of which it consists,
P5. Thus, there must be a sufficient reason for the universe as a whole which lies outside itself,
P6. There cannot be an infinite regress of such sufficient reasons, for then there would be no final explanation of things,
C. Therefore, there must be a first self-explanatory thing (Being) whose sufficient reason for its existence lies in itself rather than outside itself (i.e. a Necessary Being whose non-existence is impossible).
The cosmological argument from sufficient reason has not been without its objectors.
A first objection is that there is no way to demonstrate that the principle of sufficient reason is true (6). The critic argues that there is no empirical evidence to prove the principle and that it is not a logically necessary truth as it can be logically denied. This criticism attempts to undercut the argument right at its base at P1 that posts “All things (beings) which exist must have a sufficient reason for their existence.”
Supporters of the argument respond that it is far more reasonable to affirm the principle than to deny it. He argues that belief in the principle is properly basic and is therefore no different or less reasonable than believing there to be a world of objects external to one’s own mind, or that there are minds other than one’s own. It surely seems warranted to think there is some reason as to why things exist rather than not. Further, science affirms that the principle is true: “Imagine a scenario in which a scientist, intending to find the reason why twenty experimental mice in her lab developed large tumors, concluded that there was no reason at all for the growths! It’s doubtful that the scientist would be taken seriously” (7).
A second objection is that the principle of sufficient reason is incoherent, especially when used with respect to the existence of the universe. Philosopher Chad Meister states the logic behind this argument,
“Either the explanation for the existence of the contingent universe is itself in need of further explanation, or it isn’t. If it is in need of further explanation, then it too is contingent, and so it doesn’t provide an ultimate explanation (i.e. it isn’t a sufficient reason) for the universe. On the other hand, if the explanation for the existence of the contingent universe is itself a necessary one, then what it explains (i.e. the universe) must also be necessary. The universe would have to be necessary, rather than contingent, since that which is explained by a sufficient reason is also entailed by it. So if the universe is entailed by a necessary being, then it must also be necessary. If the universe is necessary, then it doesn’t need an external explanation for its existence” (8).
Defenders of the sufficient reason argument accept that the explanation for the existence of the contingent universe must be either contingent or necessary. They disagree that since the explanation of the universe is a necessary being, the universe must itself be necessary. God, it is claimed, possesses free will, which means that God could have chosen not to create the world. This means that it is contingent and therefore not necessary.
1. Meister, Chad. 2009. Introducing Philosophy of Religion. Oxfordshire: Routledge. p. 72.
2. Meister, Chad. 2009. Ibid. p. 73.
3. Meister, Chad. 2009. Ibid. p. 73.
4. Meister, Chad. 2009. Ibid. p. 74.
5. Meister, Chad. 2009. Ibid. p. 73.
6. Meister, Chad. 2009. Ibid. p. 74-75.
7. Meister, Chad. 2009. Ibid. p. 75.
8. Meister, Chad. 2009. Ibid. p. 75.