Answering Adolf Grunbaum’s criticism of the Leibnizian Cosmological argument

Adolf Grunbaum is a philosopher of science who criticized several theistic arguments for God’s existence. In his academic article “A New Critique of Theological Interpretation of Physical Cosmology” he criticizes both the Leibnizian and the Kalam argument.

The Kalam cosmological arguments and the Leibnizian arguments are two argument for the existence of God which philosopher William Lane Craig made popular among layman natural theology.

The Kalam argument lays on the premise that “everything that begins to exist has a cause” (to then proceed to argue that the universe had a beginning and hence had a cause). The Leibnizian argument (which, as the name implies, is conceived by Leibniz) lays on the premise that “every contingent proposition requires an explanation” (to then proceed to argue that the universe is contingent and hence needs an explanation). Subsequently, the reached explanation or cause is argued to be God.
For a throughout defense of the Kalam premises, I advise reading “The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology” chapter 3 and the book “The Kalām Cosmological Argument” by W.L. Craig. For a throughout defense of the premises of the Leibnizian argument, I advise reading “The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology” chapter 2 and the book “The Principle of Sufficient Reason: A Reassessment” by A. Pruss.

Philosopher Adolf Grunbaum argues in his paper previously mentioned that both the proofs are based on the implicit wrong assumption of the “spontaneity of nothingness“. He says that in order for us to look for explanations for the universe we have to see its existence as remarkable, and (in his opinion) we would only see its existence as remarkable if the default state of existence of the world was nothingness. In order for Grunbaum’s argument to succeed it is clear that his argument has to meet this two conditions: 1) it as to be true that these two arguments really have this assumption and 2) it has to be true that the presence of this assumption would disqualify these two arguments.

In this article, we will refute Grunbaum’s attack on the Leibnizian argument

In Grunbaum’s opinion, this theistic argument presupposes that the natural state of the world is the one of nothingness. Therefore, the fact that we have existence, represents something to explain. If the default and natural state of the world were existence, such existence would not have to be explained.

By “default” and “natural” I mean “how it was supposed to be”. If the world was supposed to exist the need for an explanation would, in Grunbaum’s opinions, not be required.

There are several grave and elementary mistakes in this argument. Let’s see just a few.

a) First, the formulation of the criticism represents a “straw man” against the Leibnizian argument.

Grunbaum states in his paper that the Leibnizian Cosmological argument holds that “the most natural state of the existing world is to not exist at all” and this is clearly wrong. No serious theist scholar ever defended such proposition (unless they are misquoted, see The Kalam Cosmological Argument Vol 1 p.54, 55) given the fact that the assertion is clearly incoherent. How can the spontaneous state of the world be non-existence? Non-existence is never a state of something (for the state of a thing presupposes the existence of the thing to begin with!). Hence, as formulated, the state of the “world” (i.e. something) cannot be nothing.

b) The Leibnizian Argument doesn’t imply such assumption.

As we will see, this criticism doesn’t meet condition 1).
Besides Grunbaum’s floppy and flawed formulation of the theist position (as saw in criticism a), there are other several problems. His argument could be summarized more coherently as “you theist believe the universe shouldn’t exist! But you can’t know that? For what we know, things just exist”.

But the Leibnizian question “why is there something rather than nothing” which is a demand of a sufficient reason for the existence of the universe, doesn’t presuppose the “spontaneity of nothingness”, even called “SON”. That means that the principle of sufficient reason doesn’t presuppose that the universe “shouldn’t have existed”. The principle of sufficient reason states that because the universe is a contingent state of affairs, that is, a state of existence that could have been different, there has to be a reason why, among the numerous possible states, this specific state was actualized. Among the possible state of affairs, there was the state of nothingness, and hence we have to provide a sufficient reason why this state of specific existence was actualized instead of the one of nothingness. This is not to apply the SON to the universe but the PSR to anything that exists.

The question “why is there something rather than nothing” clearly assumes that this “something” cries out for an explanation, but the reason is not the SON. It is true, the PSR entails that if there isn’t a reason for something, that thing shouldn’t exist, but this is not to plead for the naturalness of nothingness. It is, in fact, clear that a state of non-existence would be the actual state of affairs if sufficient reasons for existence were not provided because nothingness doesn’t require an explicans (an explanatory cause). This is the case because nothingness has nothing that exists to explain.
Further, the contingent state of existence of an entity represents something remarkable and in need of explanation because such thing is 1) something that needn’t have existed by its own nature and 2) because its state of existence entails a state of particularity which demands an explanations of why, among a set of possibilities to actualize, this specific state of existence was actualized.
On the other hand, the state of nothingness has nothing to be particular and hence nothing that demands a sufficient reason. Hence the Leibnizian question doesn’t imply that the natural state of things is nothingness but that “something” is a much stronger explanandum (“what has to be explained”) than nothing.

c) The Leibnizian Argument would remain unaffected even if it implied such assumption

As we will see, this criticism doesn’t even meat condition 2).
Clearly, Grumbaun claims the cosmological argument lays on the foundation that the state of the world should be a state of nothingness because he wants to argue that the state of the world could be the one of existence. But because this is not the issue at stake, his proposed ontology wouldn’t explain away the problem that the Leibnizian cosmological argument poses. As W.L. Craig points out in his paper “Prof. Grunbaum on the Normalcy of Nothingness”, to say that the natural state of the universe is the one of existence (without taking into consideration God), is to hold to one of these two options: or 1) the existence of universe is a brute fact (that is, a state of affairs that is actual for no reason at all) or 2) that the existence of the universe is necessary (that is, a state of affairs is actual because it has to be actual).

But clearly option 1) goes against the principle of sufficient reason and option 2) goes against the fact that there is nothing in the universe that had to be the way it is. We can see this last point on two levels:
a) Neither the specific configuration of matter (which the fact that we can change shows that is not necessary. We can, for example, break a stick hence showing that its integrity wasn’t his necessary state of existence),
b) but neither the fundamental parts of matter which makes the configuration of matter possible are necessary for there could clearly have been a different set of fundamental particles of matter. There is nothing in the universe, that is, there is nothing intrinsic that would show why the universe would have to be like this (which means in this specific state).

Hence what the natural state of the universe is, isn’t strictly relevant to the argument for God’s existence. If the spontaneity of nothingness were true (that is, if it were a valid assumption) the argument would succeed; if the spontaneity of existence were true the argument would not be weakened since the universe cannot be either a brute fact (given the PSR) or a necessary entity (given its contingent nature). Hence the universe needs an explanation, independently of what this claimed spontaneous state of existence is.

Amedeo Da Pra

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