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Leibniz: this is the best of all possible worlds


To: Scott B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Leibniz: this is the best of all possible worlds
Date: 16th December 2010 11:43

Dear Scott,

Thank you for your email of 8 December, with your essay for the University of London BA Modern Philosophy: Spinoza, Leibniz Kant module, in response to the question, 'What led Leibniz to claim that this is the best of all possible worlds? How successfully did he defend his claim?'

This is a good essay, which focuses on the question whether God, if he exists, would necessarily create the best of all possible worlds, and what exactly this would mean. You consider the challenge of the Problem of Evil, and offer considerations appealed to not only by Leibniz but by other theist philosophers, seeking to explain the presence of what appears to us to be avoidable evil. Your answer, on Leibniz's behalf, is to the effect that human beings never get to see the big picture, so that evil which we believe to be avoidable, was not really avoidable if the best possible outcome was to be achieved. Given the general considerations in favour of the belief that this is the best of all possible worlds, any objections fall by the wayside because we lack the requisite knowledge.

The standard treatments of the problem of evil distinguish between 'moral evils' and 'natural evils'. I would have liked to have seen a clearer account of exactly how Leibniz responds to the challenge under these two headings.

Some evils, you say, are necessary in order for certain goods to exist. An example would be heroism of rescuers coming the aid of victims of an earthquake. The earthquake is an evil, but it is more than balanced by the heroism which it prompts. The point, so far as Leibniz is concerned (we can leave aside theists who have a less powerful argument in favour of the general claim that this world is the best of all possible worlds) is that it is irrelevant how plausible or implausible we consider this defence. You and I, if we had the power, would prefer to prevent the earthquake rather than be inspired by the tales of heroism. But plausibility is not required. So long as Leibniz has the ultimate defence that 'we don't see the big picture', his claim stands.

The problem of fee will, seems at first sight seems a serious challenge to Leibniz's theory of monads. It is an indisputable good that human beings have the capacity to choose between good and evil. The fact that every 'choice' I will ever make is part of my 'individual concept' does not undermine this point, provided we are prepared to accept the kind of 'compatibilist' response to the freewill-determinism problem. But why couldn't God give us 'free will' (in the sense described) but so arrange things that, by a gigantic cosmic accident, we just *happened* to always choose good over evil? He has every possible world to choose from. Couldn't there be just one world (or a few worlds) where this occurred? (just as there is some possible world where a roomful of chimpanzees at typewriters type out the complete works of Shakespeare).

The objections from Malebranche and Arnaud are interesting, and again I would have liked to have seen how Leibniz is able to respond to these objections. It is undoubtedly an aspect of the goodness or perfection of this world that God doesn't have to intervene by breaking the laws of nature which he has decreed. Leibniz fully accepts this. But how do we balance this good against the question of human suffering? Does permitting exceptions to the laws of nature have absolute priority? why? If not, how is the balance to be achieved between such incommensurable considerations? Leibniz has a reply, however, along the same lines as before. We simply don't know. We can't second guess God's intentions, we can only accept the general truth that follows from the Principle of Sufficient Reason, that this must be the best of all possible worlds.

In response to Arnaud, Leibniz can say that we are being too literal in our interpretation of what 'the best possible' means. If a choice is made, it must be by some general principle. (Your suggestion that this could be the worst of all possible worlds can't be taken seriously, if one accepts that evil involves some lack on the part of the evil-doer.) We call this general principle 'choosing the best', but that is virtually a tautology. If one said instead, 'This world is the most preferable world from God's point of view', the tautology becomes apparent.

You mention Voltaire's response to Leibniz in Candide, but not what Voltaire actually said. 'This is the best of all possible worlds and everything in it is a necessary evil.' Why, indeed, could that not be true, given the kind of defence we have attributed to Leibniz? Maybe every attempt to create a universe that actually 'works' involves evil at every turn (including the empty universe!). Voltaire's remark highlights the problem with appealing to a purely general, logical principle like the Principle of Sufficient Reason.

Finally, there is a serious lacuna in your essay, if one considers what the question is asking. You talk about Leibniz's account of God, and about the Principle of Sufficient Reason, but nowhere is there mention of how or why we are able to infer God's existence in the first place. How successful is Leibniz's proof of God's existence on the basis of the Principle of Sufficient Reason? I think the examiner expects you to at least show that you are aware of the question, even if you choose to put it to one side.

All the best,