16 Reasons Why I Believe In God: (2) The Contingency of the Universe

8:39 AM James 9 Comments

Science looks for explanations. But can it find the ultimate explanation? Can science explain why the universe exists -- why there is something rather than nothing? Some physicists think it can; Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss are two examples. They've even attempted (unsuccessfully) to show what that explanation is. What these physicists don't realize, however, (and may not like, considering they are atheists) is that they are unwittingly presupposing an idea that points to God's existence.

The belief, "there is an explanation for everything," appears to be a common scientific assumption. In philosophy, this belief is known as the principle of sufficient reason, attributed to the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz. Leibniz used this principle to formulate an argument for God's existence from the contingency of the universe. Before I explain the argument, we need to first talk about what contingency is.

Have you ever thought about the fact that things could've been different? For instance, your parents may not have met and you could have never been born, or Mount Vesuvius might not have erupted and Pompeii may have been spared, or......the Big Bang could never have happened. Such thoughts reveal that everything in the physical universe is contingent -- that means it could have been different than it is (i.e. there's nothing that makes the current state of things necessary), and everything depends on something else for its existence. For example, your existence depends on your parents, Vesuvius' forming depended on a number of geologic events under Earth's crust, the Big Bang depended on.....?....you get the idea. Thus, when we look at the above image -- a picture of the leftover heat from the Big Bang event -- we are reminded that the universe itself is contingent.

Back to Leibniz. He reasoned that since everything in the universe is contingent, and there is an explanation for everything, then to explain why the universe exists one has to appeal to an explanation outside of the universe. In his famous book The Monadology, he concludes:
It must be the case that the sufficient or ultimate reason [for why the universe exists] is outside the sequence or series of this multiplicity of contingencies, however infinite it may be. And that is why the ultimate reason of things must be in a necessary substance... This is what we call God.[1]
For Leibniz, it doesn't matter if the universe had a beginning or is eternal, it's still contingent, and therefore requires an explanation outside of itself. Here's a version of Leibniz' argument that I find intriguing:
  1. Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an outside source.
  2. If a thing is contingent, then its explanation must be in an outside source.
  3. The universe exists.
  4. Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence.
  5. The universe is contingent.
  6. Therefore, the explanation of the universe is in an outside source.
If the principle of sufficient reason is true (as many scientists believe), and the universe is, in fact, contingent, then it follows that the universe has an explanation grounded in a source which is both necessary (i.e. does not depend on anything else for its existence) and outside the universe (i.e. transcendent). Necessity and transcendence are attributes of God. Thus, the contingency of the universe offers a good reason to believe in God's existence.

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Common Objections:

1. The principle of sufficient reason (PSR) is false. Could be. The PSR sure is difficult to deny though, for a couple of reasons: (1) it appears to be an assumption of scientific reasoning. So, if you're someone who puts a lot of stock in science, then by denying the PSR you're undercutting much of what you already believe; (2) for this objection to work, you need to explain why the PSR is false; which is ironic, since you're denying that everything has an explanation.

2. If everything has an explanation, then what's God's? Notice premise 1 says that everything that exists has an explanation, "either in the necessity of its own nature or in an outside source." Since God by definition doesn't depend on anything else for his existence, he is not contingent. Thus, the explanation for God's existence is in the necessity of his own nature, not in an outside source. Perhaps this helps to explain why in the biblical narrative God identifies himself simply as, "I AM" (e.g. Exodus 3:14). God (if he exists) just is. There's no further explanation.

3. There's no possible way we could know the explanation for everything. I totally agree! Good thing the argument doesn't say that. It merely says there is an explanation for everything that exists. It makes no claim about how much we can know.

4. If God is a necessary thing, and he created the universe, then doesn't that make the universe necessary as well? No, it doesn't. If God is a personal agent (i.e. can make choices), then it's possible that he could have chosen not to create the world. Hence, the universe is still contingent.

5. Why think the universe (or multiverse) is contingent? Maybe it's necessary. There are better reasons to believe the universe is contingent than necessary: (1) when we reflect on everything we experience, we are intuitively aware of the possibility that those things could've been different; (2) everything in our experience is dependent upon something else for its existence (see above); (3) as explained in my previous post, we have excellent reasons for thinking the universe had a beginning and therefore a cause, which gives us further confidence that the universe is contingent. In light of all this, why shouldn't we think the universe is contingent?

6. What if the "outside source" that explains the universe is simply the laws of nature? That doesn't work because the laws of nature are contingent as well. In fact, the laws of nature provide an additional reason to believe in God -- I'll explain more in my next post.

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NOTE: If you're brave (and nerdy) enough, check out the Necessary Being website and take their interactive survey. It uses your responses and advanced logic to supposedly prove a necessary being exists. Cool!

Further Reading:


*To better understand the goals and limits of this blog series, please read the Introduction, if you haven't already. Thanks!


1. Quoted in Roger Ariew and Eric Watkins, Modern Philosophy: An Anthology of Primary Sources (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1998), p. 238. 


  1. A timely response for which I can make no claim

    I see your reasoning as an extension of the God of the Gaps issue, though - by placing God outside the universe, it is hoped that the gap will never close - which your #2 coveniently protects.

  2. Hi Anonymous (I wish I knew your first name, at least). Thanks for your comments. A few things in response:

    (1) I'm not using God of the gaps reasoning at all. The God of the gaps fallacy is when someone appeals to scientific ignorance of the cause of a natural phenomenon as evidence for God's existence. For example, before people knew what caused lightning (a natural phenomenon), some said it was proof of the gods. That's a God of the gaps fallacy. But that's not at all what I'm doing with this argument.

    (2) I'm giving a philosophical argument based on what we do know (or at least what we have good reasons to believe). Everything we experience in the universe is contingent - that means it could've been different and it depends on something else for its existence. But no contingent thing can explain its own existence. For example, there's nothing about the concept of me (James) that explains why I exist. The explanation for why I exist lies in an outside source (my parents).

    (3) So, I did not arbitrarily make up #2 to protect a "gap." Premise 2 is simply a logical fact - it's something we know just by thinking about it. And it applies to the universe as well - if the universe is contingent, then the universe has an explanation in an outside source.

    (4) Moreover, I didn't *place* God outside of the universe. The monotheistic God, by definition, transcends the universe. The argument I gave shows that there are good reasons for thinking there is a necessary entity that transcends the universe, which is what we call God.

    (5) Finally, the Yahoo News article you linked to suggests that the universe doesn't need an explanation. But that's only true if the universe is necessary. But why think it's necessary? There seems to be better reasons for thinking the universe is contingent (as I explained in my post). In that case, it does have an explanation in an outside source.

  3. Thanks for your response.
    I maintain, though, that this is God of the gaps. The ancient man who could not explain lightning, claiming it God, did so because there was no way to even conceive of any other answer, let alone one that was close to reality. Ancient man filled gaps in science understanding with God. Trying to explain a reason behind the universe, for its coming into existence, with your admittedly skilled philosophical rhetoric, is still God of gaps. I am sure ancient people found their explanations “logical” – that is why the accepted them - but that was only because nothing close to the real explanation could enter into any kind of logic that was near their current understanding of the world. Universe origins still lay well beyond our current knowledge. That is OK. For science, that is not a problem. Our current understanding of genetics was way beyond concepts of science in the 1940’s, but today I can have my entire genome analyzed. The big difference between us and ancient man is that now we know we should not automatically seek some sort of external explanation.
    You did not personally place God outside the universe, but saying that is his traditional place is no different than saying you placed him there – there is no evidence either way. Tradition is not evidence. It was tradition for a long time that lightning was a god’s anger.
    Same with saying the universe is necessary or not – that is philosophy (theology), not factual or science. It is not what we know, and when you say “what we have good reason to believe”, what you mean is “what people of monotheistic religious faith have faith based reason to believe”, which is a very different thing.
    The short of it is that trying to argue god into existence is fallacy, gaps or otherwise. Faith is not rational. I do not mean that in a negative way, though hard to make it sound so given my position – but faith is belief regardless or in absence of reason or evidence. Faith does not require detailed apologetic rationalizations….when such arises the justifications only draw criticism to the faith’s shortcomings.

  4. Hi Mike, thanks for your response and for telling me your name!

    I simply disagree with most of what you're saying. There is a big difference in what science hasn't explained yet, and what science categorically can't explain. I believe there are questions that science can't answer. For example, questions like: What is science? Is there an objective moral right and wrong? Is there anything outside the universe? Does God exist? Science can't answer these questions - not because science hasn't progressed far enough to answer them, but because they are not scientific questions; they're philosophical questions. Science can only tell us about the physical world - things that can be measured or empirically detected. It can't tell us about non-physical things like moral values, God, meaning, etc. For that we must look to philosophy or theology.

    You seem to be espousing the view that science can eventually answer all questions, including why the universe exists (please correct me if that's not your view). Whether you realize it or not, your view is a philosophical one, called Scientism. It's the belief that science is the only source of knowledge - i.e. that we can only know things that can be scientifically verified. So, you should give philosophy a little more credit, since you yourself are advocating a philosophical view. :-)

    The problem I have with Scientism isn't that it's a philosophical view, but that it's illogical. Scientism says, "we can't know anything that is not scientifically verifiable." But that claim itself is not scientifically verifiable. There's no experiment or mathematical model one could provide to verify such a claim - it's purely a metaphysical assertion. So, by its own standards, Scientism is not knowledge. Thus, the view is self-refuting.

    If it's true that there are questions science can't answer (and I've just given you a couple reasons to think that is true) then surely the question "why does the universe exist" is one of them. Science can certainly tell us how the universe evolved throughout its history. But science cannot tell us how the universe came into being in the first place - that's a philosophical issue that is outside the purview of the physical/scientific domain. What I've done with this post and my last one is attempt to give a philosophical answer to the philosophical question of why the universe exists. You're correct in your comment that, "Ancient man filled gaps in science understanding with God." That's what the God of the gaps fallacy is - filling gaps in *science* understanding with God. But it's not a God of the gaps fallacy to give a philosophical answer to a philosophical question, as I've done. So, you're simply mistaken in accusing me of God of the gaps.

    Now, I'm not trying to be mean, but between the two of us, I am the only one so far that has given arguments to back up my beliefs (complete with responses to common objections). All you've done is (mistakenly) dismiss my arguments as an appeal to ignorance (God of the gaps). But you've given no argument to back up your criticisms. I think it's only fair that you do. Otherwise our dialogue will not be very productive or fruitful (or fun). You could start with backing up your claim, "now we know we should not automatically seek some sort of external explanation." How do we know that? Why should we think the universe needs no explanation? Why think the universe is necessary? Give an argument.

  5. Thank you for your continued responses. I appreciate the time and also the opportunity you are providing for our mutual mental flexing, which is valuable in the exercise regardless of outcome. So…
    The burden of proof lies on your side. You are invoking supernatural causes that are unnecessary, or at least that because they are untestable should be left out of consideration in any kind of useful dialogue. If a claim cannot be supported, it prevents any further discourse. If your position is that the universe is contingent and that god is the only possible cause, there is no room for discussion. Any further reasoning is not needed. Your answer is god. If I claim that my invisible unicorn told me to only wear purple clothes, it would carry equal weight of truth because like your claim, I am the only one that has to be convinced for it to be true to me. Dressed up or not, it is still unsupported belief. If I convinced 2 or 10 or 10 million people to believe me, it would still not make it true. All that would be true was that I was doing a good job of convincing people it was true.
    We can/do have an understanding of the world which is supported by empirical evidence, and which has no need to invoke supernatural elements. I do not say I “believe” it and I do not have to back my claim up because there is nothing to back up; the counter to my claim of explaining the world by natural cause is that there are supernatural elements at work in our world, and that is a claim which bears the burden of needing proof. I am not seeking to convince people that something I cannot prove exists does in fact exist (the basis of religious conversion). If you ask me a question to which I have to say “I (we/current knowledge) don’t know” that is not proof of supernatural influence, only the current limits of scientific inquiry. Saying we don’t know but may or may not one day, my position, is different than saying it cannot be tested.
    Removing supernatural forces from inquiry and decision making does not eliminate the field of philosophical inquiry, only theological philosophy. Your series is titled why you believe, but for anyone else to accept the arguments you have and are likely to put forth would require belief – which makes the arguments unnecessary. You could just say “believe because I say so”. That is the key point of my engaging you. After opening the door to the universe being contingent, you lay out the only possible answer as god, simply because we do not have any answer. If the basis for your ideas is a supernatural cause, one that by your own definition is outside the realm of that which we can in any way quantify in the material sense, then all discourse ends. I am not arguing you out of your belief, I am calling the belief out as not having anything that can be called rational reasoning behind it and thus making the entire serious superfluous. In the material/naturalistic world view, one has to be able to support a claim with evidence that can be independently verified by others. Which leads me to your claim of scientism:
    You claim that religion lies outside the bounds of that which can be investigated by the scientific method, so I take issue that god is the best explanation for the existence of the natural universe when you are also claiming that any system of inquiry that tells us about the natural universe cannot tell us anything about god. That is your gap – god being outside the universe but in your mind the only possible cause of it
    (and a separate discussion… if you are of anything resembling any modern western faith, you believe god regularly inserts itself into the natural world in real and measurable ways by influencing events in the natural world, which would certainly put it under the realm of scientific inquiry…)

  6. continued...
    Imagine a culture which developed parallel to ours, in that it was totally modern and literate, but lacked any sort of theological beliefs at all. Do you think they would have a basis for answering the kind of questions you claim science cannot answer? Not the “what is god”, since it would not occur to them, but all the questions around it – why is the universe here, what is good/evil/right/wrong. I would say yes, of course they would have philosophy, for the same reasons that those questions are pondered across all human cultures now, regardless of religious faith or lack thereof. Their system of answering these questions would lie somewhere at the intersection of where the data collected by science informs our human decision making processes, the weighing of pro and con and also trying assign weigh to the unmeasured or currently not measurable . This is what you would call scientism, but it does not require belief.

    Having a scientifically (data) informed debate on how to respond to a “big issue” question does not require belief. Here is a Michael Shermer quote I stole from Wikipedia defining scientism: “worldview that encompasses natural explanations, eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason”. His quote is in opposition to your use of the term, which really just uses it as a defense mechanism thrown out by believers when theologically based philosophy is challenged – that somehow science requires belief “so stop trying to be unfair by challenging me to support my belief”. Here is a good clip, with the main point about scientism at 5 min
    http://old.richarddawkins.net/videos/517674-daniel-dennett-on-scientism. Your refutation of scientism is the exact kind of science as religion extreme which Dennett gets at – it doesn’t really exist in scientists.

    I would also recommend the book The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris as well as a few chapters in the God Delusion by Richard Dawkins for some further discussion into how science can tell us about god and how science can answer questions that are supposedly outside the realm of scientific inquiry. Harris shows how science can inform these supposed “non-science” moral/ethical questions while Dawkins rejects the idea that god cannot be investigated scientifically and throws in some double-blind studies finding a lack of evidence of god (commissioned by believers, no less…)
    The majority of things supposedly out of the scope of scientific inquiry are very much open to it – love and beauty, two which you are planning to address, are just two things about which science can tell us much. You also have no reason for placing questions like why the universe exists or what exists outside the universe as categorically unanswerable by science. This is gaps again – the answers may seem incomprehensible to our current knowledge, perhaps the same way an iphone would appear to a primitive tribesman, but if the tribesman called the phone magic or demons or god, we would know better. If you claim god is out of the realm of material inquiry, you are at least right in the sense he is… as long as placing him there is part of his man-man definition.

  7. Hi Mike, thanks for taking the time to respond. You have still not given an argument defending your perspective. What you have done instead is:

    (1) Say, "I do not have to back my claim up because there is nothing to back up... [Yours] is a claim which bears the burden of needing proof."

    If you read the Introduction to my blog series, then you'd know that all I'm claiming is that belief in God is rational. That's it. And I've given rational arguments to support that claim; arguments that adhere to the rules of logic and are supported by reason and evidence. You haven't engaged any of my actual arguments, or the evidence I've offered to support them. All you've done is dismissed everything I've said and accused me of appealing to ignorance. And you haven't backed up that accusation either, even after I showed it to be false.

    (2) You've asserted, "You are invoking supernatural causes that are unnecessary,...[and] should be left out of consideration in any kind of useful dialogue. If a claim cannot be supported, it prevents any further discourse."

    I agree there is something that stifles useful dialogue, it is refusing to engage (or even acknowledge) an argument by repeatedly saying its false without showing how, as you've done; and denying that your view needs an argument to back it up, as it clearly does.

    (3) You claim that Scientism "doesn't really exist in scientists."

    I wasn't accusing scientists of the fallacy of Scientism, I was accusing you. Everything you've said in these last comments reeks of Scientism. You keep making the assumption that, "Science is the only source of knowledge - if something's not science it's blind faith." But, as I explained before, that is not a scientific perspective; it's a philosophical one. Your Wikipedia quote from Shermer just proves my point. A "worldview" is not a scientific conclusion from data; it is a set of starting assumptions from which you *interpret* the data (and reality). Hence, Scientism is not scientific; it's philosophical. Looks like you do have a claim to back up (more than one, actually).

    (4) You accuse me of essentially saying to my blog readers, "Believe because I say so."

    Ironically, by not giving any arguments, and refusing to engage mine, that is exactly what you are doing.

    (5) You refer to Sam Harris as an example of "how science can answer questions that are supposedly outside the realm of scientific inquiry."

    I'm familiar with Harris' work. At best, what he might show is that there are certain events/circumstances/behaviors that promote human physical/psychological flourishing, and others that do not. That's it. He doesn't show that an objective moral right and wrong actually exist, even though he claims to.

    There are a number of other wrong or mistaken (or uncharitable) claims/accusations you've made throughout our discussion that I don't have time or energy to address. At this point, we may just have to agree to disagree, because it doesn't seem like our conversation is going anywhere. It's been fun! Take care!

  8. "You are invoking supernatural causes that are unnecessary, or at least that because they are untestable should be left out of consideration in any kind of useful dialogue."

    The issue/argument at hand is that God, a being above nature, is needed to explain the contingencies in nature. That's what the argument concludes. Mike's comment is just pure question-begging. He is simply assuming that God is not needed to satisfy the PSR, when that is precisely the issue that is being debated. Also, about the whole "unnecessary" bit, have you read this post by Pruss? It's not an argument yet, but it's a start. Pruss demonstrates that the number of explained entities does NOT count against simplicity, only un-explained entities do. If successful, it would provide an easy response to atheists who attempt to appeal to Occam's Razor and say that adding God to the explanation "less likely."


  9. Hi Anonymous, thanks for your excellent comments! I hadn't seen that post from Pruss. Looks interesting!