Best of all possible worlds
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The phrase "the best of all possible worlds" (French: le meilleur des mondes possibles; German: Die beste aller möglichen Welten) was coined by the German polymath Gottfried Leibniz in his 1710 work Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l'homme et l'origine du mal (Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil). The claim that the actual world is the best of all possible worlds is the central argument in Leibniz's theodicy, or his attempt to solve the problem of evil.
Among his many philosophical interests and concerns, Leibniz took on this question of theodicy: If God is omnibenevolent, omnipotent and omniscient, how do we account for the suffering and injustice that exist in the world? Historically, attempts to answer the question have been made using various arguments, for example, by explaining away evil or reconciling evil with good.
For Leibniz, an additional central concern is the matter of reconciling human freedom (indeed, God's own freedom) with the determinism inherent in his own theory of the universe. Leibniz' solution casts God as a kind of "optimizer" of the collection of all original possibilities: Since He is good and omnipotent, and since He chose this world out of all possibilities, this world must be good—in fact, this world is the best of all possible worlds.
On the one hand, this view might help us rationalize some of what we experience: Imagine that all the world is made of good and evil. The best possible world would have the most good and the least evil. Courage is better than no courage. It might be observed, then, that without evil to challenge us, there can be no courage. Since evil brings out the best aspects of humanity, evil is regarded as necessary. So in creating this world God made some evil to make the best of all possible worlds. On the other hand, the theory explains evil not by denying it or even rationalizing it—but simply by declaring it to be part of the optimum combination of elements that comprise the best possible Godly choice. Leibniz thus does not claim that the world is overall very good, but that because of the necessary interconnections of goods and evils, God, though omnipotent, could not improve it in one way without making it worse in some other way.1
Giovanni Gentile, in his work The General Theory of Mind as Pure Act, claimed that if God had created everything to fall into line with the most favorable possible condition, it would suppose that all of reality is pre-realized and determined in the mind of God. Therefore the apparent free will displayed by both God, by his necessity of being bound by what is the most good, and humanity in their limitations derived from God to be inline with the most good, are not free wills at all but entirely determinate. Thus ultimately relegated to blind naturalistic processes entrapping both God and humanity to necessity, robbing both of any true freely creative will.
Critics of Leibniz, such as Voltaire, argue that the world contains an amount of suffering too great to justify optimism. While Leibniz argued that suffering is good because it incites human will, critics argue that the degree of suffering is too severe to justify belief that God has created the "best of all possible worlds". Leibniz also addresses this concern by considering what God desires to occur (his antecedent will) and what God allows to occur (his consequent will).2 Others, such as the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga criticized Leibniz's theodicy by arguing that there probably is not such a thing as the best of all possible worlds, since one can always conceive a better world, such as a world with one more morally righteous person.3
The Theodicy was deemed illogical by the philosopher Bertrand Russell.4 Russell points out that moral and physical evil must result from metaphysical evil (imperfection). But imperfection is merely finitude or limitation; if existence is good, as Leibniz maintains, then the mere existence of evil requires that evil also be good. In addition, libertarian Christian theology defines sin as not necessary but contingent, the result of free will. Russell maintains that Leibniz failed to logically show that metaphysical necessity (divine will) and human free will are not incompatible or contradictory.
As is well known, the theory of the maxima and minima of functions was indebted to him for the greatest progress through the discovery of the method of tangents. Well, he conceives God in the creation of the world like a mathematician who is solving a minimum problem, or rather, in our modern phraseology, a problem in the calculus of variations – the question being to determine among an infinite number of possible worlds, that for which the sum of necessary evil is a minimum.
The statement that "we live in the best of all possible worlds" drew scorn, most notably from Voltaire, who lampooned it in his comic novella Candide by having the character Dr. Pangloss (a parody of Leibniz and Maupertuis) repeat it like a mantra. From this, the adjective "Panglossian" describes a person who believes that the world about us is the best possible one.
Objection 1: It seems that God does not exist; because if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. But the word "God" means that He is infinite goodness. If, therefore, God existed, there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.
He counters this in general by the quinque viae, and in particular with this refutation:
Reply to Objection 1: As Augustine says (Enchiridion xi): "Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil." This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.
- Divine simplicity
- Is-ought problem
- Just-world hypothesis
- Principle of sufficient reason
- Summum bonum
- World to Come
- J. Franklin, Leibniz's solution to the problem of evil, Think 5 (2003), 97-101.
- Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Peter Remnant, Jonathan Francis Bennett (1996). New Essays on Human Understanding. Cambridge University Press. pp. 182-190 ISBN 0-521-57660-1, ISBN 978-0-521-57660-4.
- Plantinga explained this point in an interview for Closer to Truth, with Lawrence Krauss. "Best of all possible worlds". Retrieved 2011-03-20.
- Russell, Bertrand. A Critical Exposition of the Philosophy of Leibniz. London: George Allen & Unwin (1900).
|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Leibniz on "The best of all possible worlds"|
- Project Gutenberg provides an online English translation of the Theodicy.
- Leibniz's solution to the problem of evil