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Reading Voltaire’s satire Candide as an impressionable young man led me to think lowly of Gottfried Leibniz as a philosopher. In this satire, Voltaire 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,” is plainly absurd when against the backdrop of an unrelenting series of gross injustices, cataclysmic natural disasters like the Lisbon earthquake (1755) and overwhelming personal tragedies that befall the naïve Candide and his love interest Cunegonde.

In Candide, Voltaire was reiterating an objection to theism which was first formulated as a trilemma by the ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus, which goes as follow:

  1. “If God is willing to prevent evil but is unable to do so, then he is not omnipotent.”
  2. “If God is able to prevent evil but unwilling to do so, then he is not perfectly good.”
  3. “If God is both willing and able to prevent evil, then why is there evil in the world?”

Leibniz’s theodicy, an argument in defence of the goodness of God despite the manifestation of evil, does not provide a comprehensive answer to the trilemma. It merely explains why the existence of some evil in the world is compatible with God’s power and goodness. In particular, it proposes that God provisionally allows evil in the world in the process of optimizing maximum perfections for the world.

Leibniz notes that this world, including its set of physical laws, is contingent as one could envisage worlds based on different sets of physical laws. But God, in his perfect wisdom created a world which has the greatest variety, the greatest order and harmony. Leibniz offers different descriptions of this optimized order. In one such description, he says perfection is “obtaining as much variety as possible, but with the greatest order possible” (Monadology 58; AG 220). In another, he says perfection “is at the same time the simplest in hypotheses and the richest in phenomena” (Discourse in Metaphysics 6; AG 39). In short, God made this world based on the maximal simplicity of laws working in harmony to produce the maximal quantity of fecundity and felicity.

The wisdom of God, not content with embracing all the possibles, penetrates them, compares them, weighs them one against the other, to estimate their degrees of perfection or imperfection, the strong and the weak, the good and the evil. It goes even beyond the finite combinations, it makes of them an infinity of infinites, that is to say, an infinity of possible sequences of the universe, each of which contains an infinity of creatures. By this means the divine Wisdom distributes all the possibles it had already contemplated separately, into so many universal systems which it further compares the one with the other. The result of all these comparisons and deliberations is the choice of the best from among all these possible systems, which wisdom makes in order to satisfy goodness completely; and such is precisely the plan of the universe as it is. (Theodicy § 225; H: 267-268)

Specifically, Leibniz explains that the resulting creation of this world arising from all possible worlds is based on the criterion of compossibility which says there are many things that are possible in themselves, but they cannot exist together. As such, a possible world may be defined as a maximum set of compossible individuals. For the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, whatever could possibly exist must exist — and 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 college lecturer rather than as a kitchen worker is the result of a world configured in such a way that I had access to higher education and that I prefer intellectual discourse rather than cooking. The two possible world orders, one that brings about my existence as a knowledge worker and another that brings about my existence as a kitchen worker cannot exist together. Ultimately, this specific world which includes me as a college lecturer results from a choice made by the Creator.

The creation of this world entails making the optimum choices between conflicting goods of moral and physical perfection. In 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 reason that God would, for the sake of lessening moral evil reverse the whole order of nature. (Theodicy §118; H:188)

The creation of an ordered world based on natural laws entails both beneficial and ill consequences for life forms. For example, water gives life, but it can also lead to drowning. Leibniz points to the random nature of the weather to press his case. Not every place on earth 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 §134; H:206) We may 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.

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 that 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.

Voltaire accused Leibniz’s theodicy of suggesting that Candide suffered all the tragedies and misfortunes that he did because they will eventually bring him a felicitous life as this is the best of all possible worlds. But Leibniz is not suggesting that everything will turn out for the best for Candide or for anyone else in particular. Leibniz’s claim does not pertain to any particular individual so much as it pertains to the overall balance between the conflicting goods of moral and physical perfection for this world as a whole, regardless of the fortune of any individual. In short, this world is a package deal and since God necessarily wills the best, then this is the best of all possible worlds.

Leibniz concludes,

…if there were not the best (optimum) among all possible worlds, God would not have produced any. I call ‘World’ the whole succession and the whole agglomeration of all existent things, lest it be said that several worlds could have existed in different times and different places. For they must needs be reckoned all together as one world or, if you will, as one Universe. And even though one should fill all times and all places, it still remains true that one might have filled them in innumerable ways, and that there is an infinitude of possible worlds among which God must needs have chosen the best, since he does nothing without acting in accordance with supreme reason. (Theodicy §8; H:128)

We accept that we do not fully grasp the ultimate rationale why some undesirable things exist, but we may rest assured that their existence ultimately may still be explained in terms of God’s goodness and sovereignty. 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 legitimate ground to complain about evil in the world. As an atheist, Voltaire should be honest enough 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. At best, he may maintain a stoical determination in the face of inscrutable evil, but having denied himself of hope in a God who wills the best, he will have to go through life with a grimace.
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 pleasures than pain. Knowing that this is God’s best of all possible worlds does not exonerate the believer from doing his best to redress injustice and alleviate suffering around him, not that the believer is able to 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 renewed and perfected world in the future (Revelation 21:1-4).

In the end for Leibniz, life, for all its troubles, is still worth living. From the perspective, perhaps, it is Leibniz rather than Voltaire who should have the last laugh.

Gottfried Leibniz. Theodicy. Translated by E.M. Huggard. Open Court, 1985. (H)
Gottfried Leibniz. Philosophical Essays. Translated by Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber. Hackett, 1989. (AG)

Dr Ng Kam Weng is Research Director of Kairos Research Centre in Kuala Lumpur. Previously, he had been a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies and a member of the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton University. From 1989 to 1992 he taught at the Malaysia Bible Seminary Graduate School. He has a PhD from Cambridge University.