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29 April 2022

Is this the best of all possible worlds?

Leibniz’s claim that God created the optimal world fails to explain the intractable problem of human suffering.

By AW Moore

The brilliant mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz famously proclaimed that this is the best of all possible worlds.

Leibniz didn’t mean “world” in the sense of “heavenly body” – as when someone asks, “are there any other worlds out there with life on them?” He wasn’t making a claim specifically about planet Earth. Leibniz meant “world” in a much broader sense. He was proclaiming that the universe as a whole is better than any other way it could have been. 

Why would anyone think such a thing?

If you believe in an infinitely wise, perfectly good, all-powerful God, as Leibniz did, then you seem to have no choice but to think such a thing. Why? Because, as Leibniz himself very pithily put it, what is best overall “God knows through his wisdom, chooses through his goodness, and produces through his power.” A being that’s infinitely wise, perfectly good and all powerful looks as though it can’t do anything but create the best of all possible worlds.

Note that there’s a conditional claim here – if God exists, then this is the best of all possible worlds – which a theist and an atheist may both assent to and yet draw opposite conclusions from. Any theist who assents to it will conclude, as Leibniz did, that this is indeed the best of all possible worlds. But someone else may look around at how things are, think it’s obvious they could have been better, and conclude that God doesn’t exist.

And isn’t it obvious that things could be better?

Here it’s important to appreciate that even the most trivial improvement in things would be enough to make the world better overall – provided all else were equal. All it would take is a slightly more intense sensation of pleasure whenever you bite into a peach – or, for that matter, when you bite into a peach just once.

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Not that we need to focus on such minutiae. Within a couple of generations of Leibniz’s death, Voltaire had published his famous satirical novel Candide (1759), in which he gave graphic expression to his opposition to Leibniz’s doctrine. The novel chronicles events in the life of the young Candide and his tutor Professor Pangloss as they travel the world. Pangloss subscribes to Leibniz’s doctrine. He resolutely maintains that everything is for the best, but with ever-increasing implausibility as one disaster after another befalls them – one of these being the real-life earthquake that nearly destroyed Lisbon just a few years before the novel was written, which resulted in tens of thousands of deaths.

The upshot is a powerful indictment of the idea that everything is for the best. Never mind the possibility of some fractionally tastier peach: things, it would appear, could be much better. And even if we row back on the idea that God would have created the best of all possible worlds, can’t we at least agree that God would have prevented the Lisbon earthquake? The theist appears to be in trouble.

But Leibniz wasn’t stupid. He knew very well that his doctrine was susceptible to this kind of incredulous reaction. He had a response, which he published in a book entitled Theodicy (1710). (“Theodicy” is the attempt to exonerate God in light of all the suffering and other apparent imperfections in the world.)

What Leibniz did was to fasten on the idea that even a small improvement would suffice to make things better overall, provided all else were equal. All else, Leibniz argued, couldn’t be equal.

We think it could, because we fail to see the apparent imperfection in the context of the whole. It’s as if we’re focusing on a tiny part of some painting, which, taken in isolation, could certainly be easier on the eye; but, once we see this tiny part in the context of the whole picture, we can see the indispensable contribution it makes to the painting’s overall beauty.

So yes, that peach you bit into could have been tastier. But then the laws of nature wouldn’t have been the same, and this would have entailed some defect in the grand scheme of things that would have made things worse overall.

But would it? By what standards?

Any satisfactory answer to this question had better not ride roughshod over our instinctive abhorrence of the Lisbon earthquake or any of the other horrors and afflictions that blight the lives of human beings. If it does – for instance, if the answer sets greater store by mathematical elegance in the laws of nature than by the relief of human suffering – then it really just changes the subject.

This is a charge that might well be laid against Leibniz’s own elaborate answer to the question. On Leibniz’s view, for one possible world to be better than another is (roughly) for it to contain greater variety but without paying the price of greater complexity.

But suppose we waive our concern that we and Leibniz are simply working with different standards for what makes one possible world better than another. Suppose there’s some appropriate, agreed set of standards. What then can Leibniz’s opponents say about all the terrible suffering in the world?

There’s one thing they can say that acts as a kind of trump card. In Dostoevsky’s brilliant novel, The Brothers Karamazov (1879), one of the brothers, Ivan, contemplates some heart-rending cases of suffering among innocent children and is moved to lament such suffering as too high a price to pay for anything. It’s as if one part of the painting is so abhorrent that it doesn’t matter what the rest of it looks like: the sheer fact that it is included means there’s at least one thing the artist could have done with the canvas that would have been an improvement, namely leave it blank. Or, in Leibniz’s terms, there’s at least one possible world that is better than this one, namely the world in which God creates nothing at all.

[See also: What the New Atheists miss about the meaning of God]

This is a very powerful response to Leibniz. Small wonder that most theists seek a way of denying the crucial conditional claim that led Leibniz to his conclusion. It’s not true, they’ll say, that if God exists, then this is the best of all possible worlds: God does exist, and it isn’t.

But how come? One common answer is that, in God’s infinite wisdom, perfect goodness and absolute power, God gave human beings the freedom to make a contribution to the overall shape of the world, but that we exercise that freedom badly.

The problem with this answer is that not everything that seems to be objectionable about the world appears to be our fault – the Lisbon earthquake is a prime example. What’s more, no theist, presumably, wants to say it would have been better for God to create nothing at all. Yet Ivan’s lament in The Brothers Karamazov still suggests it would have been.

The problem of suffering has accordingly proved to be the problem for theists. As an intellectual problem, it seems to me intractable. Even if it doesn’t constitute a decisive objection against theism, we shall never be able to explain how an infinitely wise, perfectly good, all-powerful God could allow for the suffering we see around us. This of course leaves room for us to play our part in relieving the suffering. It may even leave room for faith. But it leaves no room for a theodicy of the kind that Leibniz indulged in.

AW Moore is a professor of philosophy and tutorial fellow at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. He is the author of “The Infinite”, “Points of View” and “The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics”.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland. Wendland is vision fellow in public philosophy at King’s College, London and a senior research fellow at Massey College, Toronto. He tweets @aj_wendland.

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