Leibniz and the Best Possible World by Jonathan Zaikowski

One of the classical arguments against the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good God is the fact that evil exists in the world.  You don’t have to look far to see it – just turn on the nightly news and you’ll see plenty of terrible things happening.  If God exists, why doesn’t He stop these bad things from happening?  Gottfried Leibniz advocated a rather radical solution to the problem of evil – he said there was no evil in the world.  All the “bad” things that we see are actually good things, although we may not immediately understand why.  This week’s piece will examine the specific reasons for his argument that this is the “Best Possible World.”

The Argument

When you were a child and misbehaved, your parents (probably) punished you for it.  At the time, it seemed like a terrible wrong, and you couldn’t see any positive aspect to it.  Now, however, you (again, probably) recognize that it was for the best.  Yes, getting grounded was unfortunate at the time, but it helped you mature and become a better adult for it.  Leibniz thinks that those things we call evil can be thought of in the same way.  When we were children, we couldn’t see the “big picture” and the good that would come out of our suffering at the time.  The same may be true for us as adult humans – we can’t see the good that will come from all the so-called evil that takes place in the world.  If your best friend gets murdered, at the time you’re of course going to see it as purely evil, with no redeeming qualities.  But, Leibniz believes, this is no different than the child being punished.  We only focus on the immediate, and are quick to judge the event as evil without seeing the big picture.  When “evil” actions are taken, we must believe that “the course of things (particularly punishment and atonement) corrects its evilness and repays the evil with interest in such a way that in the end there is more perfection in the whole sequence than if the evil had not occurred.”  Perhaps in the wake of your friend’s death, you’ll become an advocate for new legislation that ends up saving hundreds of lives, and your life finds direction and meaning.  The evil of his murder has now been repaid with interest, as Leibniz says, and the whole sequence of events is now “more perfect” than if you had just become a lobbyist and helped pass the bill.

You might object that this obviously isn’t how things end up.  Just look at the Holocaust – nothing good seems to have come out of that.  We still turn our back on genocides (like Rwanda), and millions of lives were taken all because of one maniacal dictator.  If this evil is going to be “repaid with interest,” God sure is taking his time on this particular loan (and many, many others).  Leibniz’ response to this criticism is to agree with the last point – God may be taking his time to sort it all out, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.  Even an event as horrific as the Holocaust may, ultimately, produce more good than evil, even if “we cannot always explain the admirable economy of this choice while we are travelers in this world,” and in such a way that the sequence of events would be less than perfect without the Holocaust in there.

The Rebuttal

Leibniz’ argument clearly has a number of issues.  First of all, it obviously require belief in an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good God.  In addition, it still seems to raise a number of problems with Leibniz’ other beliefs.  Leibniz believed that “the happiness of minds is the principal aim of God.”  If God set up the rules of the universe, and if He wants to maximize happiness, why didn’t He just make it so that people are in constant bliss AND it’s the most perfect set-up imaginable?  Why force us to “invest”?  Perhaps you’re willing to believe that there is some reason God has which we couldn’t possibly understand, but that’s a pretty big leap of faith.

The Implication

Unlike most of the arguments I look at, if you accept this one as truthful, you’re actually going to feel a whole lot better about your life.  No matter what happens, you should be ecstatic knowing that it’s all contributing to the absolute perfection of the universe, and the maximum amount of pleasure imaginable.  You just need faith in God, and the inability to believe that He would allow evil in the world.

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