Does God Exist? Leibniz’s Arguments for God’s Existence

How does Gottfried Leibniz attempt to demonstrate the existence of God as a matter of logical and metaphysical necessity? Does he succeed?

May 25, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology
leibniz god does not exist


How can we demonstrate the existence of God without any direct experience, or even a clear conception, of what he is like? The answer to this question is generally taken to require either showing God’s existence to be a matter of logical necessity, or for him to fulfill some role in the creation or function of the universe.


Gottfried Leibniz, one of the greatest early modern philosophers, offered several arguments for the existence of God. This article will attempt to summarize two of the arguments he offers, one of which falls into each camp: the ‘ontological argument’ attempts to show God’s existence is a matter of logical necessity, whereas the ‘cosmological argument’ attempts to show that God’s existence explains the existence of the universe. This article begins with a discussion of the ontological argument in general, and the most famous criticism of it. It then considers Leibniz’s version, and how far it constitutes a successful response to that criticism. The article then concludes by assessing the success of Leibniz’s cosmological argument.


Leibniz’s Ontological Argument 

leibniz statue photograph black white
A Statue of Leibniz, Martin Bernigeroth, 1710, via Wikimedia Commons


As a younger man, Leibniz remarked that “there is nothing more clichéd today than demonstrations of the existence of God”, even though such arguments are “the foundation of our greatest hopes”. Later in his life, Leibniz posited that all of the arguments offered for God’s existence would suffice “if they were perfected”.


What unites these seemingly opposing perspectives is the sense that those who preceded him had failed to support arguments which, in themselves, were sufficient to the purpose of demonstrating the existence of God. Leibniz saw righting this wrong as a task for himself. He offers proofs for God’s existence based both on the ontological and cosmological arguments. These are two venerable strategies for demonstrating the existence of God.


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The first argument that will be considered here is the ontological argument. This argument is now generally credited to the theologian Anselm of Canterbury, but Leibniz was primarily interested in the Cartesian version of the argument. It is a brief argument, consisting only of two premises and a conclusion. Here is the argument:


(1) God is perfect.
(2) Existence is a perfection.
(C) Therefore, God exists.


It is a deceptively simple argument. Why deceptively? Well, for a start, the second premise is doing a lot of work without much justification. It should be clarified that “perfections” are the supposed perfect attributes God has. The most famous critique of the ontological argument – which comes from Kant a century after Leibniz, is that existence is not a predicate and that because of this, premise 2 is malformed. The argument can be understood in roughly this way. Imagine a list of every quality which constitutes a perfection (the most this, the most that, the most the other thing, and so on). Existence wouldn’t be on that list – something is not more perfect for having existed.


A Defense Against Kant 

kant portrait oil painting
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Johann Gottlied Becker, 1768, via Wikimedia Commons


The response which one can offer to Kant’s criticism of the ontological argument is fairly straightforward (indeed, Anselm anticipated the criticism and offered it): it is better for something good to exist than for it not to exist (just as it is worse for something bad to exist), and so existence should be counted as a perfection.


Clearly, the word “perfection” has various connotations. Is it reasonable to hold that, if you think that something could be better, then it is not perfect? And wouldn’t it be better for God to exist? Evidently, the advocate and the critic can go back and forth, trading definitions and counter definitions of existence and perfection ad nauseam, but the argument can reasonably be settled in favor of the advocate of the ontological argument. Why? Well, those who advocate God’s perfection need to show that there is some sense in which existence is a perfection. God is the most perfect thing possible – if there is a perfection, He has it. If there are some senses in which existence is not a predicate (and therefore not a perfection), so what? The onus is on the critic to show that in no sense is existence a perfection, and Anselm’s response seems to show that this isn’t possible. It’s a difficult argument to vanquish.


Leibniz’s Contribution to the Ontological Argument 

frans hals descartes portrait
Portrait of René Descartes, Frans Hal, 1649, via Wikimedia Commons


The problem which Leibniz has with the Cartesian ontological argument is related to the criticism just mentioned. He is concerned that the conclusion we can draw from Descartes’ argument, as it presently stands, relies on the possibility that there could exist a wholly perfect being. Leibniz believes that prima facie this might be a contradictory idea, not least because none of us – no matter how committed a believer we might be – have the ‘idea’ of God, meaning that we cannot know that a perfect being is even conceivable.


In other words, Leibniz sets out to show that all of the perfections can co-exist in the same entity. Leibniz defines a perfection as a “simple quality which is positive and absolute, or, which expresses without any limits whatever it does express”, and holds that “perfections, or simple forms, or absolute positive qualities, are indefinable or unanalyzable”.


He then returns to the question of contradictory perfections. To say two things are incompatible, one must hold that either they are self-evidently so or that they are demonstrably so. What’s the difference? It is a difference of method. Roughly, we know what is self-evident by intuition, and what is demonstrable by reasoning. We cannot know that perfections are incompatible by intuition, given that Leibniz holds that we cannot have an idea of God in the strictest sense. We cannot demonstrate an incompatibility either – we have no grounds on which to do so, seeing as perfections are simple and therefore admit no analysis.


The Cosmological Argument

god judging adam blake
God Judging Adam by William Blake, ca. 1795, via the Met Museum.


What of the predication of existence? Leibniz has his answer, which is as follows:


“As I prefer to define it, perfection is a degree or quantity of reality or essence, as intensity is a degree of quality and force is a degree of action. It is also clear that existence is a perfection, or increases reality, that is, when an existing A is conceived, more reality is conceived than when a possible A is conceived”.


For something to be most real, it must exist. Yet this more or less constitutes an assertion, and one which is weaker than Anselm’s relation of perfection to betterness. At certain other points, Leibniz reverses his position here and claims that existence isn’t a predicate whatsoever. In any case, Leibniz’s ontological argument seems to have pre-empted a criticism which few are inclined to offer and failed to deal with the most pressing concerns for the argument.


What of Leibniz’s cosmological argument? It is worth clarifying first what distinguishes the ontological and cosmological arguments. Whereas the ontological argument is a priori, the cosmological argument is a posteriori. An a priori argument is one which precedes from deduction, whereas the a posteriori involves the use of induction, or reasoning from (or with) experience.


Leibniz is famous, among other things, for holding the Principle of Sufficient Reason – everything happens for a reason. It seems natural to say that if every thing has a reason, then everything has a reason – in other words: “why is there something rather than nothing”. The significance of the Principle is that it does not allow us to fall back on the view that, perhaps, there has always been something, or to say that every cause is preceded by another cause, ad infinitum (which, after all, comes to much the same).


The Success of Leibniz’s Argument 

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Portrait of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, anon, 1711, via Wikimedia Commons


Leibniz then proceeds to argue:


“[i] since the ultimate ground [ultima radix] must be in something which is of metaphysical necessity, and [ii] since the reason for an existing thing must come from something that actually exists, [iii] it follows that there must exist some one entity of metaphysical necessity, that is, there must be an entity whose essence is existence, and therefore something must exist which diers from the plurality of things, which differs from the world, which we have granted and shown is not of metaphysical necessity”.


Why does Leibniz hold that the world is not of metaphysical necessity? This is because each state of the world is determined by each previous state, it is only of physical necessity. The term metaphysical is, therefore, being applied in quite a literal sense – Leibniz says that something which both extends across and goes beyond the physical is required.


It is worth concluding by acknowledging how intuitive what Leibniz is saying. We know that there is something strange and dissatisfying about the explanation of the world which relies on infinite recursion. It is too natural a question to ask ‘what set the whole thing in motion’? There are many different creation myths, but very few cultures lack a creation myth altogether. If one accepts that our conception of the universe entails that it has a beginning, then one is forced to consider something ‘metaphysical’ in the sense Leibniz intends. After all, such an entity must be immune from questioning along the lines of ‘what created it’? In other words, it must not be an entity with a causal structure in the way that physical reality seems to be ordered.

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By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.