05 / 06

Why Does Anything at All Exist?

National Faculty Leadership Conference, Washington, DC

Time : 00:32:19

William Lane Craig speaks at the National Faculty Leadership Conference.


There is a handout going around, it consists of two parts. One part is an overview of the field of apologetics, which is the field of Christian philosophy or theology that I am interested in. Apologetics is that branch of Christian theology that tries to provide a rational justification for Christianity's truth claims, and it consists of both a positive (or offensive) element and a negative (or defensive) element. The outline lists some of the principles issues involved in both offensive and defensive apologetics. Then in addition to that there is a bibliography that goes around that hits some of the best work in each of these different areas. So I give that to you for your future reference.

I want to refer to a couple of other things that may be of interest to you. One of the most important parts of offensive, or positive, apologetics is natural theology, which is the demonstration or argument that God exists, that doesn’t appeal to authoritative divine special revelation. We’ll be talking about one such argument in today’s seminar, but I wanted to alert you to the fact that the cover story of Christianity Today, for July, carries an article on this called “God Is Not Dead Yet.” [1] The editors of Christianity Today asked me to write an article on the renaissance that is going on among contemporary analytic Anglo-American philosophers with regard to arguments for God’s existence, and they liked the article I wrote so much that they put it on the cover story. This describes the movement among contemporary philosophers to refurbish and re-defend the arguments for God’s existence, and it lists some of those arguments. So I would commend the article to you as something that would be of interest to you.

The other thing I want to mention that isn’t on the bibliography that is going around is my book Reasonable Faith which just came out a week ago in a brand new third edition which is completely updated and revised and contains a detailed account of the material I am going to share with you this morning. In our brief time together, 35 minutes, we can only outline this argument for God’s existence. But if you are interested, if it piques your interest, look at Reasonable Faith in the chapter on the existence of God and you will find the argument defended in greater detail. [2] I would also say that you could look at the website which has reams of free material on there, debate transcripts, downloadable articles, podcasts, question of the week, an open forum – lots of free material on the website which will supplement this seminar as well as the book.

What we want to talk about in this seminar today is a particular argument for God’s existence that was developed by the 18th century German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Leibniz said that the most fundamental question that needs to be asked is the following: why is there something rather than nothing? That is to say, why does anything at all exist instead of just nothing? This was a question I have asked myself ever since I was a little boy. I remember as a child looking up at the stars at night and saying, where did all of this come from? There must be a reason why everything exists. And little did I know that, as a boy, I had stumbled onto one of the most profound metaphysical questions which has troubled mankind ever since the days of ancient Greek philosophers. And I think that we can put this reasoning into an argument that will make the logic very clear and is easily memorizable so that we can share it with others. And Leibniz’s argument would basically go like this:

1. Everything that exists has an explanation for its existence.

2. If the universe has an explanation for its existence, that explanation is God.

3. The universe exists.

That’s it! [3] That is the argument. Those are the three premises. Now, what follows logically from those three premises? Well consider premises (1) and (3) – if everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, and the universe exists, then it follows logically that:

4. Therefore the universe has an explanation of its existence.

Now recall that premise (2) says that if the universe has an explanation of its existence then that explanation is God. And premise (4) of the argument has concluded that the universe does have an explanation of its existence. So from steps (2) and (4) it follows logically,

5. Therefore, the explanation of the universe’s existence is God.

Now this is a logically airtight argument; that is to say, if the premises are true then the conclusion follows with logical necessity. It is unavoidable. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like the conclusion, it doesn’t matter if you have other objections to God’s existence, so long as you grant the three premises the conclusion is unavoidable. It follows with logical necessity. So if someone – one of our agnostic or atheist friends – wants to reject the argument’s conclusion, he must reject one of those three premises. He must do so if he is to avoid the conclusion. But which one will he reject?

Well, premise (3) I think is undeniable for anyone who is a sincere inquirer after truth – obviously the universe exists. So the argument’s detractor is going to have to deny either premise (1) or premise (2), and so the whole question about this argument comes down to this, are premises (1) and (2) true or are they false? Note that the don’t have to be known with certainty in order for this to be a good argument, so long as they are simply more plausibly true than false then we should believe in them rather then their negations, rather than the opposite. So, are those two premises more plausibly true than false? Well let’s take a look briefly at each of the premises.

Take a look at the first premise, that everything that exists has an explanation of its existence. Now, at first blush, this premise might be seen to be vulnerable in a rather obvious way. If everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, then it follows that if God exists then God must have an explanation of his existence. But that seems absurd because the explanation of God’s existence would then have to be some other being that is greater than God. And that is impossible, so it would seem to follow premise (1) must be false, some things must be able to exist without any explanation. And the theist will say that God exists inexplicably. But the atheist will say, well then why not just stop with the universe, the universe just exists inexplicably. And so we seem to be in a stalemate.

Well, what I would say here is: not so fast! This rather obvious objection to premise (1) is based upon a misunderstanding of what Leibniz meant by an explanation. In Leibniz’s thinking there are basically two kinds of things or entities which exist, either things which exists necessarily, or things which are produced by some external cause. Let’s explain each of these.

First, things which exist necessarily exist by a necessity of their own nature, it is impossible for them not to exist. Examples? Well, many mathematicians think that numbers, and sets, and other mathematical objects exist in this way. Mathematical entities like numbers are not caused to exist by something else, they just exist by the necessity of their own nature. Now by contrast, things that exist contingently, that is to say not necessarily, are caused to exist by some external cause. [4] They exist because something else has produced them. Examples? Well, familiar physical objects like chairs and people and galaxies and nebular systems exists because they have external causes of their existence. So premise (1) could actually be reworded in Leibniz’s thinking to say that everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause. That is what he really means by premise (1). But now the objection falls to the ground, for the explanation of God’s existence lies in the necessity of his own nature, as even the atheist recognizes it is impossible for God to have a cause. And so Leibniz’s argument is really an argument for the existence of God as a necessarily existent being. So far from undermining Leibniz’s argument, the atheist’s initial objection actually helps to clarify and magnify who God is. If God exists, he is a necessarily existing, uncaused being. So that objection to premise (1), I think, falls to the ground.

So the question then is, what reason might be offered for thinking that premise (1) is true?

Well, when you reflect on it, I think that premise (1) has a sort of self-evidence about it. Imagine, for example, that you are hiking in the mountains and as you go through the woods you come across a translucent ball lying on the forest floor. Now, you would naturally wonder how that ball came to be there. If one of your hiking partners said to you, “Oh don’t worry about it, it just exists inexplicably!” You would either think that he was crazy or else he just wanted you to keep moving. But you wouldn’t take seriously the suggestion that the ball existed there with literally no explanation. Well, suppose that we increase the size of the ball in our story so that it is as big as a car. It wouldn’t make any difference; that wouldn’t do anything to satisfy or remove the demand of explanation of its existence. Suppose it were the size of a house, same problem. Suppose it were the size of a continent, or a planet, same problem. Suppose it were the size of the entire universe, same problem. Merely increasing the size of the ball does nothing to affect the need of an explanation. So if it is correct that the ball needs an explanation of its existence; similarly, everything else, even the entire universe, would need an explanation of why it exists.

I am going to skip the next part in the interest of time and go on to premise (2). There are more issues that could be raised but let us talk about premise (2) in the interest of time.

What about premise (2), that if the universe has an explanation of its existence then that explanation is God? Is this premise more plausibly true than false? Well, what is really awkward for the atheist, at this point, is that premise (2) is logically equivalent to what the atheist normally says in response to Leibniz’s argument. Now what do I mean when I say that they are logically equivalent? Well two statements are logically equivalent if it is impossible for one to be true and the other to be false. In other words, they stand or fall together. They are either both true or they are both false, but they cannot differ in their truth value if they are logically equivalent. Now, what does the atheist almost always say in response to Leibniz’s argument? Well, typically, what the atheist says is that if atheism is true then the universe has no explanation of its existence. The atheist typically says the universe just exists inexplicably, and that is all. [5] But you see that is logically equivalent to saying, if the universe has an explanation of it’s existence then atheism is not true. Those are logically equivalent statements. The first statement is, if atheism is true then the universe has no explanation of its existence; the second one says, if the universe has an explanation of its existence then atheism is not true. Can you see the logical equivalence between the two? The first one says, p implies q, the other one says not q implies not p. So they are logically equivalent statements. So you cannot affirm the one without affirming the other. The problem is, the statement that “if the universe has an explanation of its existence then atheism is not true” is virtually synonymous with premise (2) of the argument, remember, which says, that if the universe has an explanation of its existence then that explanation is God. So the typical atheist response to Leibniz is actually logically equivalent to premise (2), so that the atheist himself sees the intuitive truth of premise (2).

But besides that, premise (2) is very plausible, I think, in its own right. For think of what the universe is: all of spacetime reality, all of matter and energy, all of space and time. So it follows that if the universe has a cause of its existence, that cause must be a non-physical, immaterial being which transcends both space and time. This is really amazing. Now there are only two kinds of object or entity that could fit that sort of description: either an abstract object, like a number (which is immaterial, non-physical, and beyond space and time), or else an unembodied mind. And by a mind I mean a self, what in theology we call a soul, an immaterial mental entity. But the problem is, that of these two alternatives, abstract objects cannot cause anything. The number 7, for example, can’t cause anything; numbers are causally effete, they are impotent. So it follows that the cause of the universe must be an unembodied, transcendent mind. Which is exactly what theists take God to be. So I hope you begin to grasp here the power of Leibniz’s argument. If it is successful, it proves the existence of a necessary, uncaused, timeless, spaceless, immaterial, personal creator of the universe. This is no vaguely conceived and ill-defined flying spaghetti monster; rather this is the God of classical theism. This is really mind blowing.

So I think that this is a very powerful argument for God’s existence. Much more can be said about it, and I do say this about it in my book Reasonable Faith but to allow time for discussion I am going to end the defense of the argument. Given those three premises it follows that God exists.

So, what argument or objection or discussion or question do you have at this point?



QUESTION: Is it possible that the atheist would argue that the explanation has not yet been discovered. Is that also logically equivalent to your second premise, as you pointed out?

Dr. Craig: No, it would not be, they would deny the second premise and say, well if the universe has an explanation of its existence it is something that science hasn’t yet discovered. And I find among popular level atheists, this is a very frequent claim. I think however that it fails to understand what one is looking for here. We are looking for an explanation for why all of spacetime reality exists; why all of physical reality exists. So when you think about it, that can’t be a scientific or material explanation, because anything like that would be a part of spacetime reality. We are looking for something that has to be beyond that. So the person who says that is just reacting in the typical sort of “Well that is a God-of-the-gaps argument,” holding out for some naturalistic yet undiscovered scientific explanation, and they don’t really understand the argument, that we are looking for something here that would explain why anything at all exists. [6] And therefore it can’t be found in some sort of a multiverse or prior physical cause of the Big Bang, because then Leibniz’s argument would just work all over again. We have got to get something that transcends space and time and exists necessarily.

QUESTION: In the nature of explanation an objection that has been pressed is: an explanation isn’t an explanation unless that explanation is predictive, or this person would say. And God isn’t predictive of anything in a statistical sense of this particular scientifically-minded person who has pressed this objection. So the nature of explanation is in question there. Is it explanatory to say “God did it” when you cannot produce a predication out of that?

Dr. Craig: I think that prediction is only important for scientific explanations, and this isn’t a scientific argument; this is a philosophical argument. This is not physics, this is metaphysics. And so the scientist who tries to impose the condition of predictability or empirical testability upon the philosopher is transgressing the realms of his discipline. He is assuming that somehow scientific criteria are the only criteria for assessing arguments, and I think that is just false. For example, in mathematics, you have explanations that don’t involve testability in the sense of making predictions which are then verified. You can explain something by means of axioms from which these theorems follow, and those are not meant to be causal explanations that involve empirical predictability. So I can grant, for the sake of argument, I don’t even need to address whether or not predictability is a necessary condition of scientific explanation. I am happy to concede that, but I am not a scientist, I am a philosopher and this is a metaphysical argument. I think quite clearly to posit a transcendent necessary cause of everything that exists is not only explanatorily sufficient but it is even necessary, as I say. The argument given premise (1) requires that there be such a thing.

QUESTION: I’m wondering if the atheist might push back and say with respect to the first premise, and just insist that the universe does exist necessarily by reason of its own nature.

Dr. Craig: Good point! I deal with that in the material that I have omitted. This is an argument that very few atheists have been willing to take because what it requires you to say is that the universe exists necessarily, and that seems extremely counterintuitive. It seems like things in the universe didn’t have to exist; we can imagine a possible world where only, say, mathematical objects exist, and there is no space and time or physical reality. And so if the atheist is going to say that that is an impossibility then he has some sort of burden to give us a reason for that. In other words, as one of my friends say, possibilities come cheap. What we are really interested in is plausibility, and so he would need to defend that. And I don’t know of any reason to think that that is plausible, to think that the universe exists by a necessity of its own nature. Moreover, I would say, that we do have good grounds for thinking that the universe doesn’t exist by a necessity of its own nature. And one argument I would give is that none of the things that make the universe up seem to be existing necessarily – planets, people, galaxies, dust, radiation; none of these things seems to exist necessarily and, in fact, in the very distant past none of those things did exist. Now somebody might say, what about the quarks that make up matter, maybe they exist by a necessity of their own nature? But to me it seems incredible to think that every single quark in the universe exists by a necessity of its own nature, that just this collection of quarks is the only possible collection of quarks that could have existed. That seems to me fantastic. And yet if a different collection of quarks did exist then a different universe would exist, this universe does not exist necessarily. Moreover, and this is my last point, we now have good evidence that the universe had a beginning, that the universe came into being and, therefore, is not eternal. And one of the conditions of existing necessarily is existing eternally. Anything that comes into being doesn’t exist by a necessity of its own nature. Therefore the contingency of the universe, I think, is also underlined by its temporal finitude. [7] So those would be reasons that I outline in more detail in the book to try to respond to that possible atheist riposte.

QUESTION: How would you deal with the person who says that the cause or the reason or what is behind the Big Bang is something that exists of necessarily, and is not God.

Dr. Craig: Well, again, I would respond in the same way that I responded to someone else who just asked that, that this would have to be transcendent, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, necessary thing, and the only things that we know could be like that are either mathematical objects or a mind. But mathematical objects are not involved in causal relationships so they cannot be the cause of the universe, so it must be a transcendent mind. Let me just make one more point: note this is not an argument based on looking for a cause of the Big Bang. Leibniz’s argument was formulated when it was thought that the universe is eternal. This is an 18th century argument, so this doesn’t presuppose that the universe has a beginning. Leibniz would say even if the universe has existed forever we can still ask the question why is there something rather than nothing, why does an eternal universe exist? The argument based on the beginning of the universe is an independent argument.

QUESTION: If the universe is complex, and if there is a creator, then that creator would be more complex, so why don’t we just stop with the universe

Dr. Craig: This isn’t related to that argument directly because it is not a design argument. That was an objection that Richard Dawkins raises to design arguments by saying that, if the complex order of the universe requires an explanation, then the explanation is even more complex then the complex universe, and therefore no explanatory advance is made. But that is irrelevant to this argument because we are not trying to explain the complexity of the universe. As for why Dawkins’ argument is fallacious, take a look at the question of the week archive at my website The number one question when we opened the website over a year ago was on Dawkins’ central argument of his book The God Delusion which is this argument and I explain why that is not a good objection to the design argument.

QUESTION: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Okay, notice that premise (1) as I stated it does not say that every fact has an explanation or that every truth has an explanation. That would be a more radical version of what is called the Principle of Sufficient Reason and would be vulnerable to this objection. Premise (1) as I have stated it is more modest, it just says any thing that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in some external cause. So it is compatible with there being truths or facts for which there are no explanation, brute facts for example. But what it says there can’t be is some thing, some actual object, that exists that has no explanation of its existence at all. And I would just reiterate the defense I gave of premise (1) as to why that is quite plausible. So that objection would be pertinent to, I think even Leibniz’s own statement, he had a more radical statement of premise (1) but it wouldn’t be pertinent to the argument as I have framed it.

QUESTION: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I mean, one apologetic argument doesn’t have to fit all. I mean this fellow needs more help in understanding . . . well, I don’t know what his mindset is. . . . What you would probably have to do with someone like that is try to persuade him that his view is self-defeating, it undermines itself, so you don’t even need to argue against it because it itself contains the seeds of its own destruction. He is like the person who says, “I can’t speak a word of English.” That person may be only reachable through prayer, because it is a darkened intellect, frankly. I mean, if he cannot understand the problem in a self-defeating affirmation, then he is just in real dire straits. [8] And you may need to try to reach him relationally, say, through being there for him when his wife divorces him or when his child is killed in a car accident, or something. You may reach him in another way. But I would share with him the self-defeating nature of his position and explain how it is self defeating, like the person who says he can’t speak English, or something of that sort, and then if he fails to see it then that is his own problem, and you have done your duty as a Christian apologist and now need to just be there as a loving friend and Christian companion.

QUESTION: You mentioned quarks a moment ago. How helpful do you think are quantum mechanics today, the search for the Higgs Boson particle, the so called “God particle” as it has been called recently in National Geographic and these kinds of things. I mean, if we are going to talk about transcendence of space and time, it seems the further we go in that area the more it is helping us, is that true?

Dr. Craig: I wouldn’t be impressed with labels like the “God particle” for the Higgs particle that they are trying to find. I think this is just one more of these colorful scientific names that can be very misleading, but I do think it is important for the contemporary apologist to have an understanding of quantum mechanics and this field of physics. It can be challenging as well as helpful. There are interpretations of that which seem to lead to observer dependent reality and indeterminism and things of that sort, so, it can be challenging as well as helpful. So I think we need to be familiar with it but I haven't seen that it carries some kind of great theological freight that I have found especially helpful, so I have yet to see that, I suppose.


All right, well we are out time, but thank you for coming, and again I would commend the book to you if you are interested in learning more about this particular argument. [9]

  • [1]

    William Lane Craig, “God is Not Dead Yet”, Christianity Today, July 3, 2008, (accessed August 15, 2013; the full article is accessible via subscription only).

  • [2]

    William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), pp. 106-111.

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    Total Running Time: 32:19 (Copyright © William Lane Craig 2008)