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Gottfried Leibniz

“Nothing is, for example, popularly held to be better than a dry martini but worse than sand in the bedsheets. On occasion, nothing could be further from the truth, but it is not clear how much further. Nothing is impossible for God yet a breeze for the rankest incompetent. In fact, no matter what pair of contradictory properties you choose, nothing seems capable of embodying them. From this it might be concluded that nothing is mysterious. But that would simply mean that everything is obvious–including, presumably, nothing. That, perhaps, is why the world abounds with people who know, understand, and believe in nothing. But beware of speaking blasphemously of nothing, for there are also many bumptious types about–call them nullophiles–who are fond of declaring that, to them, nothing is sacred.

The philosophers of antiquity were inclined to agree. Ex nihilo nihil, they unanimously declared: ‘Nothing comes from nothing.’ Not only does this maxim attribute to nothing the divine quality of being self-generating; it also impiously denies God the power to prevail against nothingness, to bring about a world ex nihilo

To say God created the world ‘out of nothing’ is not to elevate nothingness into an entity, on par with the divine. It merely means that God didn’t create the world out of anything. So insisted Saint Thomas Aquinas, among other Christian theologians. Still, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo appeared to sanction the idea of nothingness as a genuine ontological possibility. It made it conceptually possible to ask why there is a world rather than nothing at all.

And a few centuries later, someone finally did—a foppish and conniving German courtier who also ranks among the greatest intellects of all time: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. The year was 1714. Leibniz, then sixty-eight, was nearing the end of a long and absurdly productive career. He had, at the same time as Newton and quite independently, invented the calculus. He had single-handedly revolutionized the science of logic. He had created a fantastic metaphysics based on an infinity of soul-like units called “monads,” and on the axiom—later cruelly mocked by Voltaire in Candide—that this is ‘the best of all possible worlds.’ Despite his fame as a philosopher-scientist, Leibniz was left behind in Hanover when his royal employer, the elector Georg Ludwig, went to Britain to become the newly crowned King George I…

It was in these gloomy circumstances that Leibniz produced his final philosophical writings, among them an essay titled ‘Principles of Nature and Grace, Based on Reason.’ In this essay, he put forth what he called the ‘Principle of Sufficient Reason,’ which says, in essence, that there is an explanation for every fact, an answer for every question. ‘This principle having been stated,’ Leibniz wrote, ‘the first question which we have a right to ask will be, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’

For Leibniz, the ostensible answer was easy. For reasons of career advancement, he had always pretended to hew to religious orthodoxy. The reason for the world’s existence, he accordingly claimed, was God, who created it through his own free choice, motivated by his infinite goodness.

But what was the explanation for God’s own existence? Leibniz had an answer to this question too. Unlike the universe, which exists contingently, God is a necessary being. He contains within Himself the reason for His own existence. His nonexistence is logically impossible.

Thus, no sooner was the question Why is there something rather than nothing? raised than it was dispatched. The universe exists because of God. And God exists because of God. The Godhead alone, Leibniz declared, can furnish the ultimate resolution to the mystery of existence.

But the Leibnizian resolution to the mystery of existence did not prevail for long. In the eighteenth century, both David Hume and Immanuel Kant—philosophers who were at loggerheads on most issues—attacked the notion of ‘necessary being’ as an ontological cheat. There are, to be sure, entities whose existence is logically impossible—a square circle, for instance. But no entity’s existence, Hume and Kant agreed, is guaranteed as a matter of pure logic. ‘Whatever we can conceive as existent we can also conceive as non-existent,’ Hume wrote. ‘There is no being, therefore, whose non-existence implies a contradiction’—including God.”

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From Jim Holt’s compendious, mind-bending book Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story.

The man pictured above is Mister Leibniz.

Read related excerpts from Holt’s book below:

Baruch Spinoza

Could the World Cause Itself?

Constellation PerseusThe Cosmos as a Concept

John Updike

This Planet and the Stars were Once Bounded in a Point the Size of a Period

Henri Bergson

Try to Wish into Nonbeing the Entire Contents of the World

Raindrops on a Car

The Arithmetic of Nothingness