Changing How the World Thinks

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The best possible world

Leibnizian optimism in the secular West

optimism

Despite a myriad of disasters in his lifetime, Leibniz – perhaps philosophy most famous optimist – maintained ours is the best possible world: varied, lawful, and happy. Might we in the 21st century plot a similar course through our own disasters and crisis, transferring Leibnizian optimism to the secular west? Although some have tried, their optimistic accounts unravel quickly, argues Lloyd Strickland.


Is our world the best possible world? It is a strange question at the best of times, but even stranger in the midst of a global pandemic. Despite this, many philosophers have asked this question and answered it in the affirmative.

To think that ours is the best of all possible worlds is also known as “optimism” in the philosophical sense of the term. The most famous proponent of this idea is the German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716). Leibniz never wavered from his optimism, despite a million lives being lost in the European wars of his time, as well as the natural disasters and bouts of plague.

Once we understand why Leibniz said that ours is the best possible world, and what he meant when he said it, we will see that the idea is not as daft as it might initially seem.

So there is no doubt that - if he were alive today - he would still be optimistic, in spite of the pandemic. Once we understand why Leibniz said that ours is the best possible world, and what he meant when he said it, we will see that the idea is not as daft as it might initially seem.

So why did Leibniz think that our world was the best one possible? He deduced this conclusion from the nature of God: God is all powerful, so can create any world desired; God is all-knowing, so knows which worlds will be better than others; and God is perfectly good, so will want to create only the very best world. If God were to create the second best world (or any other) then something would be wrong – either God wouldn’t have enough power to create the best world, or have enough knowledge to know which world is best, or enough goodness to want to create it. But all of these suggestions are ridiculous, because God’s nature is perfect. As such, God will create the best possible world.

If this conclusion strikes us as implausible, or even absurd, chances are we have not understood what Leibniz means when he talks about our world being the best. When we come across the expression “best possible world” we are apt to think of a kind of utopia or paradise in which everyone is blissfully happy and no one ever suffers. We think it means the best possible world for us humans here and now. And, since the world as we know it doesn’t fit this description, we find it easy to dismiss Leibniz’s claim with a casual wave of the hand.

But Leibniz never claimed that the world as we know it is a utopia or paradise. Instead, he thought that the best possible world was one that contains the greatest variety of things produced in the simplest ways, and also as much happiness as is possible. This is worth a deeper dive.

If you are not convinced that variety adds to the world’s goodness, consider this: Suppose you had to make the best possible library. What would you include? Would you find the best book ever written and purchase as many copies as your budget allowed? Or perhaps you would restrict yourself to a hundred choice titles, and buy as many of each copy as you could? Probably not. Instead, you would opt for variety – different books, by different authors, on different subjects, of varying quality. Generally, the more variety, the better the library will be. So it is with the universe, according to Leibniz. He accepted the longstanding belief that every created thing contains some of God’s essence, so the greater the variety, the more God’s essence is multiplied.

Now, Leibniz believed that God would produce this great variety using the simplest means possible – no wise being would use complex and inefficient means when simpler ones were available. For Leibniz, this meant that God would establish a few, simple laws of nature that would generate the greatest variety of things. God’s use of simple laws would make the universe rational, orderly, and intelligible, so making it possible for human beings to understand the world and its workings.

Lastly, Leibniz believed that the best world would contain the greatest possible happiness, deducing this from God’s perfect goodness. After all, a perfectly good God would surely want to maximize happiness. If it does not seem as though our world contains the greatest possible amount of happiness, we are taking too narrow a view. For Leibniz the world includes all past events, all current events and all future events, including those in the afterlife. Leibniz thought that the afterlife would be an eternity of happiness so it accounts for much of the happiness in the best possible world. Present misery would be vastly outweighed by the eternal happiness to come.

This happy thought can inspire contentment in this life. Anyone who understood Leibniz’s reasoning could have no complaint about the way the world is governed, secure in the knowledge that God will provide a happy future for all virtuous beings. Accordingly, such people have every reason to feel contentment and satisfaction, even if they suffer inconveniences or troubles. Leibniz practised what he preached, claiming that he was perfectly content whenever he encountered difficulties or was thwarted in his enterprises. He accepted problems as part of the best plan for the world, a plan which would ultimately bring immeasurable benefit to him and others.

In this way, Leibniz’s philosophical optimism has metaphysical, moral, and psychological components.

The metaphysical component concerns the structure and contents of the world and the moral component concerns the governance of the world. The psychological component comes close our everyday idea of optimism as a mood or attitude - a confident expectation of good things to come. According to Leibniz, one should be positive or confident about the future because this is the best possible world, chosen and governed by God.

While Leibniz’s philosophical optimism has won its fair share of supporters over the years, it is an option only for those who believe in a perfect God. In the secular West of today there are many who do not share that belief. Can Leibniz’s hypothesis be reworked to appeal to them?

American philosopher, Nicholas Rescher, has tried to do exactly that. Rescher has developed a secular version of Leibniz’s doctrine which he refers to as “optimalism”. Instead of God choosing which possible world to create, Rescher supposes an “optimality principle” inherent in the nature of things. This principle is a naturalistic selection mechanism, preventing all but the best possible world from coming into existence.

Leibniz’s philosophical optimism has metaphysical, moral, and psychological components.

Optimalism works like this: all possible universes as having an impetus to exist and, as such, are engaged in a sort of virtual competition for existence. The optimality principle blocks the existence of all but the best. And the best succeeds simply because it is the best. But why there should be such an optimality principle at work? Rescher can simply answer: why not? There has to be some reason why our universe exists and other possible universes do not. Being the best one seems as good an explanation as any. As for what makes our world the best, Rescher points to factors such as “stability, symmetry, continuity, complexity, order, and even a dynamic impetus to the development of ‘higher’ forms possessed of more sophisticated capabilities.”

There is nothing in this account to make us think that the universe will cater to our happiness, now or in the future. But, even if we leave that aside, there is an obvious drawback with Rescher’s theory. For if there were an optimality principle at work such as he describes, it does not seem unreasonable to suppose that it would bring forth God rather than a world, since God is supposed to be the greatest thing there can be (a point on which all the great monotheistic religions agree). And, once God exists, one might reasonably expect him to create the best possible world, for the same reason Leibniz gave. In which case, we are right back where we started, with Leibniz’s theistic form of optimism.

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