Best of all possible worlds


Best of all possible worlds

Optimism

The phrase "the best of all possible worlds" ( _fr. le meilleur des mondes possibles) was coined by the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz in his 1710 work "Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l'homme et l'origine du mal" ("Theodicy"). It is the central argument in Leibniz's theodicy, or his attempt to solve the problem of evil.

The Problem of evil

Among his many philosophical interests and concerns, Leibniz took on this question of theodicy: how, if God is omnibenevolent, omnipotent and omniscient, do we account for the suffering and injustice that exists in the world? Historically, the question has been answered with all number of philosophical arguments, for example, by explaining away evil or reconciling evil with good. [The problem of evil as Leibniz discusses it is not--as it appears to be, e.g., for David Hume, an argument for God's non-existence. God's existence and primacy are assumed; rather, evil is something that cries out for philosophical explanation.]

Free Will versus Determinism

For Leibniz, also of 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 struggles with this issue: if God is "constrained" to choose the best, in what sense does God exercise free will? The general problem is to somehow reconcile the physics of Leibniz' day with human freedom, the necessity of God's decision-making, and human moral responsibility.]

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. [In addition to being morally best, according to Leibniz God's selection of this world also implies that it contains the best arrangement of natural laws, amount of matter, etc.]

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.

Criticism

One noteworthy criticism of Leibniz' postulate is that the world contains what appears to be an excessive amount of suffering, among other negative characteristics. For instance, does an event so horrific as the Holocaust have to occur, the detractor would ask, just for the sake of courage? It seems that courage would exist as long as some suffering occurs; the degree of suffering is too severe, so God must not have created the "best of all possible worlds," or so the argument goes. Leibniz attempts to address this concern by discussing what God desires to occur (his antecedent will) and what God allows to occur (his consequent will).

Voltaire famously satirized this notion in his novel "Candide", in which Leibniz is represented by the eternally optimistic character Dr Pangloss. [Use of the name "Pangloss" also points to Leibniz, who was interested in constructing a universal language.] Some argue whether Voltaire's characterization fairly represented Leibniz' philosophy, but in any case, the idea fell almost entirely from favor with philosophers after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake.

ee also

*Principle of sufficient reason
*Is-ought problem

Notes

External links

*Project Gutenberg provides an [http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/17147 online English translation of the "Theodicy"] .
* [http://www.maths.unsw.edu.au/~jim/think.pdf Leibniz's solution to the problem of evil]


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