The Problem of Evil and the Best of All Possible Worlds in Leibniz’s Theodicy
The problem of evil is arguably the most intractable problem facing the theist. The first challenge for the theist is the logical problem of evil which says that the set of propositions comprising the following – (1) An omnipotent God creates this world, (2) God is perfectly good, (3) This world is not perfectly good, i.e. evil exists – is an inconsistent set. Holding to any two of these propositions requires dropping the third to avoid the problem of contradiction. For example, that evil exists demands either God is good but not omnipotent (since he fails to prevent evil) or that God is omnipotent but not truly good (since he allows evil despite having the power to prevent it).——
Reading Voltaire’s satire Candide as an impressionable young man led me to think lowly of Gottfried Leibniz as a philosopher. Voltaire in his book mercilessly ridiculed Leibniz’s philosophy of optimism embodied by Pangloss, the mentor of the protagonist of the tale Candide. Pangloss’ mindless muttering of the mantra, “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds,” was plainly absurd when set in the backdrop of unrelenting series of violent injustice, massive natural disaster like the Lisbon earthquake (1755) and personal tragedies of the naïve Candide and his love Cunegonde.
Not surprisingly, I simply ignored Leibniz in my youthful reading of history of philosophy. Little did I realize that I was intellectually impoverishing myself until by the cunning of divine providence I was introduced to Leibniz’s acute philosophical mind. I was mesmerized by the unfolding thrust and counter-thrust in a titanic controversy about the nature of creation that raged between the best minds at the end of the 17 century – Nicolas Malebranche, Antoine Arnauld, Baruch Spinoza, and perhaps, the greatest genius of them all – Leibniz. Leibniz’s versatile mind and acute philosophical analysis won my admiration.
Bertrand Russell cast aspersion upon Leibniz, charging him for insincerity (unjustifiably to me) for publishing only philosophy treatises that ostensibly defended Christian faith to ensure the good grace of his royal patrons, but kept the more skeptical writings in his drawer. This charge has been refuted by recent scholarship that highlights Leibniz as a man of sincere faith and ecumenical spirit. That his philosophy was coherent and integrated with his faith is evident from his wide-ranging but inter-connected inquiry into diverse disciplines that included modern logic, epistemology and theology. His publications were modest during his lifetime because of his restless temperament and that he was kept busy with official duties. However, his pioneering work in the field of modern symbolic logic and his original insight in resolving the problem of evil have gained widespread recognition in recent decades.
The problem of evil is arguably the most intractable problem facing the theist. The first challenge for the theist is the logical problem of evil which says that the set of propositions comprising the following – (1) An omnipotent God creates this world, (2) God is perfectly good, (3) This world is not perfectly good, i.e. evil exists – is an inconsistent set. Holding to any two of these propositions requires dropping the third to avoid the problem of contradiction. For example, that evil exists demands either God is good but not omnipotent (since he fails to prevent evil) or that God is omnipotent but not truly good (since he allows evil despite having the power to prevent it).
Alvin Plantinga’s response using the tools and arguments of logical analytical philosophy is widely celebrated as a successful demonstration of the possibility of holding all three propositions simultaneously without committing a logical contradiction. I will outline Plantinga’s analysis in a later post.
This present post addresses the second challenge for the theist, that is, the evidential problem of evil that claims that the presence of evil in the world inductively refutes the existence of God. The theist’s task is to provide a theodicy, the intellectual project that goes beyond the addressing the logical problem of evil and offers possible reasons why a good and omnipotent God permits evil. I shall focus on Leibniz’s theodicy that regards evil as provisionally permitted within God’s comprehensive providence that optimizes maximum perfections for the world. Evil undeniably exists but this does not undermine Leibniz’s affirmation that this world is the best of all possible worlds.
Leibniz’s theodicy is based on two fundamental ideas. First, the principle of sufficient reason – “’by virtue of which we consider that we can find no true or existent fact, no true assertion, without there being a sufficient reason why it is thus and not otherwise, although most of the time these reasons cannot be known to us” (Monadology 32; AG 217). That is to say, whatever exists must have a sufficient reason or every effect must have a cause. More significantly, regardless of how far back we seek to offer explanation for any phenomenon, such explanations eventually will involve the inter-connected relations of everything in the whole universe, however remote some of these relations may be. For example, I have been a knowledge worker for most of my working life in this world. The idea or possibility of me being someone different, say, a mechanic would entail an entirely different world. Amazing as it may appear, God’s decision to create me as I am instead of someone else entails creating this world and vice versa.
Second, Leibniz proposed there are two kinds of truths. Necessary truths are truths whose contraries are impossible and contingent truths are those whose contraries are possible. The corollary is that an object is said to have contingent existence if it may or may not exist. This sets the stage for the fundamental question, “Is the existence of this world necessary or contingent?” That is to say, “ Are there other possible worlds?” Leibniz’s central thesis is that there are other possible worlds.
Leibniz actually opts for a middle position: between one that asserts that this world exists necessarily (Spinoza) and another that says this world exists by an arbitrary decision made by God (Malebranche). Leibniz suggests that this world, including its set of physical laws of this world, is contingent as one could envisage worlds based on different physical laws. But God made this world based on one that would produce the most order, harmony and fecundity.
Specifically, Leibniz explains that the eventual creation of this world arising from all possible worlds is based on the criterion of compossibility. That is to say, a possible world may then be defined as a maximum set of compossible individuals. For Spinoza, whatever could possibly exists must exist – exists necessarily. For Leibniz possible existence does not entail necessary existence. There are many possible configurations for creating a world, but while one might envisage various possible worlds, the fact is, there are many things that cannot exist together. For example, my existence as a knowledge worker rather than as a sculptor is the result of a world configured in such a way that I had access to higher education and that I prefer crafting words rather than crafting figures. The two possible world orders, one that brings about my existence as a knowledge worker and another that brings about my existence as a sculptor cannot exist together. Ultimately, this specific world that includes me as a knowledge worker results from a choice made by the creator (hence, this is a contingent world) and rests on the principle of sufficient reason.
Leibniz’s developed view is that this world provides the best optimization between conflicting goods of moral and physical perfection. In the Theodicy Leibniz stresses that God’s goals in creation are not confined to moral perfections but include physical perfections as well. Sometimes there may be a conflict between choosing physical and moral perfections, but still there is no presumption that God would for the sake of lessening moral evil reverse the whole order of nature (Theodicy 188).
Leibniz points to the random nature of the weather to press his case. Not every place receives the most appropriate weather at all times. Leibniz writes: “Shall God not give the rain, because there are low-lying places which will be thereby incommoded? Shall the sun not shine as much as it should for the world in general, because there are places which will be too much dried up in consequence?” (Theodicy 206). We wonder why God did not opt for another world with less physical perfections and therefore less disasters and human tragedies than this present world. Leibniz’s answer would be that somehow these worlds do not comport to bring about optimal happiness for all God’s creatures, especially if we bear in mind not just the welfare of human beings but of all living creatures. At this juncture I can’t resist recommending F. R. Tennant two-volume work, Philosophical Theology (CUP 1935) where he comprehensively fleshed out Leibniz’s idea that upholding the natural order may entail unavoidable human losses.
God being perfect will create a world that has the most things that can exist in harmony. The final choice of the created world is based on one that provides the greatest variety and the greatest order. Leibniz offers various descriptions of this optimized order –“Perfection is “obtaining as much variety as possible, but with the greatest order possible” (Monadology 58; AG 220) or perfection “is at the same time the simplest in hypotheses and the richest in phenomena” (Discourse in Metaphysics 6; AG 39). In short God optimizes a world between simplicity, harmony and productivity or richness.
Any system of space-time order by definition provides a limited set of possibilities. In principle, there are other possible worlds that contain more overall happiness than ours, but they do so at such a cost in terms of physical perfection that they are less than optimal. Conversely, other possible worlds may contain more physical perfection than ours, but they do so at such a cost in terms of happiness and as such they too are less than optimal. Localized evil cannot be excluded if in the overall scheme of things they contribute to the optimization or maximization of goods of a particular space-time order. Leibniz’s final view is that the actual world achieves the best balance between the conflicting goods of moral and physical perfection.
In short, this world is a package deal.
God’s omniscience includes perfect understanding of all possible worlds. In the end he chose this world because many other worlds are simply impossible as they contain intrinsic contradictions. Imperfections are included in creation of this world because God does only what is logically possible. One may argue that such a God is limited in power, but it should be understood that such a ‘limitation’ is not imposed upon God by external forces or circumstances but arises from the very nature of God. God is omnipotent, but this does not mean he can act arbitrary or override contradictions. As Aquinas noted, “whatever does not involve a contradiction is in that realm of the possible with respect to which God is called omnipotent (Summa Theologiae 1.23.3).
Notably, Leibniz confronts the problem of evil not by denying the imperfections of this world. But for Leibniz, these imperfections do constitute decisive evidence against the theist’s affirmation of the goodness of God. In this regard, Leibniz working principle is inherited from Augustine, that is, evil is not a positive evil but a limitation or absence of good. That is to say, for Leibniz the phenomenon of evil is what God permits rather than what God wills (Theodicy 136-137). We accept that we do not fully grasp the ultimate rationale why some undesirable things exist, but we rest their explanations in God’s goodness and sovereignty – Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason. For Leibniz God necessarily wills the greatest possible good. Hence, despite the presence of evil, he still concludes that this has to be the best of all possible worlds.
It should be stressed that Leibniz’s theodicy is not one of naïve optimism. Admittedly, we do not fully understand the hidden providence of God, but surely, atheists like Voltaire have exaggerated the extent of evil in this world – an exaggeration he got away with in the name of writing a satire. Truth be told, an atheist like Voltaire has no ground to complain about evil in the world. An atheist like Voltaire should be honest to admit that if the world is a result of blind chance, then he has no moral or spiritual grounds to complain about his unfortunate lot in this world. An atheist like Voltaire may pretend to remain content tending his little garden after suffering all the tragedies narrated in Candide, but such a stoical indifference cannot hide the grimace of grim determination in the face of inscrutable evil – one without ultimate explanation.
In contrast, Leibniz’s affirmation that this is God’s best of all possible worlds is a celebration of the goodness of this world. Life has more pleasure than pain. Knowing that this is God’s best of all possible worlds does not exonerate the believer from doing his best to redress its shortcomings (addressing injustice and alleviating suffering), not that the believer can turn this world into a paradise but that he may make this world as liveable as possible. He may continue to enjoy the simple pleasures of life (Ecclesiastics 5: 18-20) while waiting for the final revelation of a glorious world (Romans 8:18-21).
In the end for Leibniz, life for all its troubles is still worth living. Perhaps, it is Leibniz rather than Voltaire who should have the last laugh.
This post constitutes part 1 on the problem of evil. For part 2 LINK
Leibniz. Philosophical Essays. Translated by Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber. Hackett, 1989. (AG)
Leibniz. The Shorter Leibniz Texts. Translated by Lloyd Strickland. Continuum, 2006.
Leibniz. Theodicy. Translated by E.M. Huggard. Open Court, 1985.
Helpful introductions to Leibniz’s philosophy:
Jolley, Nicholas. Leibniz: Routledge Philosophers. RKP 2005.
Perkins, Franklin. Leibniz. A Guide for the Perplexed. Continuum, 2007.