Leibniz and the Problem of Evil

For many centuries philosophers have been discussing evil, how it exists in the world, and how this relates to God. The discussion on evil and its relations to us is not an easy one though. It is commonly called the problem of evil. The problem is generally used to disprove God’s existence by showing an inconsistency between an all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing God and evil. Christian philosophers over the centuries have tried to show that there is no inconsistency with God and evil. Gottfried Leibniz was born in Leipzig Germany in 1646. Leibniz was a Christian idealist philosopher who was heavily influenced by Benedict Spinoza. Leibniz tried to solve the problem of evil. He said that we live in the best of all possible worlds because God chose to create this world. Philosophers have objected to this claim and maybe rightly so. This paper will focus on the modalities of logic, namely, possibility, necessity, and contingency, the problem of evil and how Leibniz solves it, free-will, and objections to Leibniz’s claims.

Much of Leibniz’s philosophy is focused on the concept of God and modalities. The modalities are possibility, necessity, and contingency. What it means for something to be possible is that it exists in some possible world. President McCain possibly could have been elected president of the United States in 2008 but he did not in respect to the actual world. The modal concept of possible deals with things that could be. It is possible that America could have had different founding fathers. It is possible that the pilgrims and Indians could have not fought and all got along together. Now what are possible worlds? Possible worlds are possible realities. They are not worlds in the respect to planets but in respect to everything in existence. The actual world is the world which actually exists. The possible worlds do not all exist but they are used to explain and understand possibilities in a logical sense. For something to be necessary means that it exists in all possible worlds. It is necessary that two and two make four. It is necessarily false that a married bachelor can exist. Leibniz says that God is a necessary Being. He is necessary because He exists in all possible worlds. There is even a possible world in which only God exists according to Leibniz. A contingent truth is something that is not necessarily false nor necessarily true. Leibniz calls these truths of fact. Things which are contingent are things true in one or more possible worlds and false in one or more possible worlds. Leibniz said that all propositions can be reduced down to a subject-predicate format. He says in his work Necessary and Contingent Truths that “an affirmative truth is one whose predicate is in the subject; and so in every true affirmative proposition, necessary or contingent, universal or particular, the notion of the predicate is in some way contained in the notion of the subject” (Kolak 153). All the predicates are literally contained within the subject. The statement “the bird is flying” means that flying is contained within the bird (which is the subject). This theory of proposition will help Leibniz as he defends God’s choosing of possible worlds.

God is a necessary Being and therefore God knows all the possible worlds to create. He knows this because the knowledge of possible worlds is innate in His mind because He is omniscient. He has foreknowledge of all future contingents. This view is known as conceptualism. Before creation, God had to know all possible worlds, that is, all worlds which are logically capable of creating. God had to know the blueprint of everything within each possible world. The predicates, or possible worlds, are contained within the subject, God. This knowledge allows God to choose the possible world He wanted to create. His choosing of anyone of these worlds is a completely free action on God’s part because He could exist by Himself. Leibniz says that we live in the best of all the possible worlds because since God is all-good and all-knowing, He would have to choose the best of all of these. This seems to be a misled thought though. Maybe a best possible world does not exist. And even if that it were true that the actual world is the best world, why is their so much pain, suffering, and moral evil in the world? The fact that evil exists in the world would contradict this best possible world theory. Would God need to even actualize the best possible world if it were to exist? This seems to be quite a problem indeed. Now, the actual world, while still having evil in it, is an extremely good world. It is good because of free-will. The fact that we have free-will is better than if humans were morally all-good. For if we were all-good we would have no freedom of the will to make choices and choose good or evil. These choices are better than not having choices. This is known as the free-will defense in response to the problem of evil. Leibniz seems to have trouble with the concept of free-will. His metaphysics with the theory of propositions and the possible world idea seems to contradict free-will. If God chose any world, the people in that world would have to do whatever God chose. Although their actions might be contingent, God still causally determined it to occur. Leibniz seems to think that free-will has to exist in the world because it would make all responsibility meaningless. He says in Primary Truths,

“it is manifest that God chooses, from an infinity of possible individuals, those which he thinks most consistent with the highest hidden ends of his wisdom. Nor is it exact to say that he decrees that Peter shall sin, or that Judas shall be damned; he decrees only that a Peter who will sin — certainly, indeed, though not necessarily but freely — and a Judas who will suffer damnation shall come into existence in preference to other possibilities. In other words, God decrees that a possible notion shall become actual. And although the future salvation of Peter is also contained in his eternal possible notion, yet that is without the concourse of grace; for in the that same perfect notion of this possible Peter, the assistance of divine grace which has been given to him is also contained under the aspect of possibility” (Kolak 151).

There seems to  be a dilemma here for Leibniz. God’s choosing of a possible world is a completely free act and cannot err if God is all-powerful. Therefore everything we do in the actual world was known and chosen by God. Everything we do must occur but this does not mean it is necessary but rather foreordained by God. The Calvinist theologian would agree with this and say that free-will does not really exist. It is unknown whether or not Leibniz was influenced by Calvinist thinkers during this time. Whether Leibniz accepts this divine determinism or not, he still wants to have free-will intact. The free-will theodicy must work for Leibniz in order for the problem of evil to be solved.

Free-will is best understood if one accepts Molinism as a way to explain God’s choosing of the worlds and the problem of evil. Molinism was created by Luis Molina during the Counter-Reformation. Molina was a Jesuit priest who was responding to the Protestant Reformation and in particular, Calvinism. Molina believed that humans have libertarian free-will. Libertarian free-will is best explained as the ability to do otherwise. If a person is at a crossroads he has the ability to either select route A or route B. If that person selects route A they could have chosen B and they had that ability. Molina also believed God had middle knowledge. He broke down God’s knowledge into three types: natural knowledge, middle knowledge, and free knowledge. God’s natural knowledge is knowledge of necessary truths and all possible worlds. This falls right in-line with Leibniz’s view of possible worlds. God looks over all the possible worlds which He can create. This natural knowledge is knowledge of what could be. God’s middle-knowledge (which is still prior to actualization of the world) is counterfactual knowledge. Counterfactuals are if-then statements in the subjunctive mood. Examples of these are: If Meg Whitman became Governor of California, she would create much prosperity and help the budget crisis. This could be true, it could be false, but God knows these counterfactuals perfectly. He also knows them for every set of circumstances. This knowledge reduces the possible worlds into feasible worlds. Since God cannot infringe on human freedom He is limited in His choice of worlds. God’s middle knowledge is knowledge of what would be. God is not stopped from accomplishing anything He wants in the actual world though. With middle knowledge, God can only decree circumstances or events for humans and knows what would happen in each and every circumstance perfectly. With these two types of knowledge (which are not temporally prior to one another, but logically prior) God can choose which world He wants to actualize. After creation God has free knowledge of the world. This free knowledge is knowledge of contingents and the actual world. Molina defended this middle knowledge view with Scripture. 1 Samuel 23:6-13 affirms God having counterfactual knowledge. In this text David asks God what would happen if Saul came down to the city of Keilah. David first asks if Saul will come to the city and find him and God tells him that Saul will. Then David asks if the men of Keilah will deliver him into the hand of Saul and God says that they will. David then flees the city because of God’s counterfactual knowledge (Beilby 119-143). This verse affirms God having counterfactual knowledge. If Molinism succeeds and libertarian free will is indeed real then it would seem that Leibniz could solve this problem with the free-will defense.

Many philosophers have criticized the best possible world theory and God’s perfection. Voltaire, who wrote a most damning book against Leibniz called Candide, thought the whole idea of the actual world being the best possible world or even a really good world was a complete joke. In his book, he parodies this notion of this world being really good. It is a fiction in which the main character goes through life meeting all these evils and challenges yet continually says that this is the best of all possible worlds. David Hume wrote a more intellectual critique of Leibniz’s philosophy by attacking the design argument for God’s existence. In his work entitled Natural Religion, he writes a dialogue between two men, Cleanthes and Philo. Cleanthes argues that this world is proof of God’s existence based on the design and wonder of the world. He says that “Since, therefore, the effects resemble each other, we are led to infer, by all the rules of analogy, that the causes also resemble; and that the Author of Nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man, though possessed of much larger faculties, proportioned to the grandeur of the work which he has executed” (Hume). Philo then refutes Cleanthes by saying that we cannot know that God is perfect. He argues that God is imperfect because of the mistakes in the world and thus turns the argument from design on its head in relation to God’s perfection at the very least. But if the free-will defense works, then moral evil’s existence is understandable. Hume seems to attack natural evil and the fact that there are natural imperfections in the universe. Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, et cetera, are described as natural evils. The free-will theodicy does not really work in respect to Hume’s arguments. Whether these objections are good or not, Voltaire’s argument seems sophomoric at best, and Hume’s argument seems at least somewhat thoughtful.

Leibniz’s philosophy has helped solve the problem of evil but never fully solved it. His views on how God chooses to create the world create more problems for what Leibniz was trying to solve. And Hume’s objections seem to cast doubt on how natural evil can exist in the universe. The problem of evil might be a problem for Christian theists that will never fully be solved. Maybe the answer is so far beyond human understanding or reason. Maybe belief in God is justified regardless of this problem that is presented by atheists and skeptics alike. Christians have done a lot of work in solving this problem and hopefully have at least solved some objections.

Works Cited

Beilby, James K., Paul R. Eddy, and Gregory A. Boyd. Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2001. Print.

Hume, David. “The Reading Selection from Natural Religion.” Philosophy Home Page. Web. 12 May 2010. <http://philosophy.lander.edu/intro/introbook2.1/x4211.html&gt;.

Kolak, Daniel, and Garrett Thomson. The Longman Standard History of Modern Philosophy. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2006. Print.

“Voltaire.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 31 Aug. 2009. Web. 12 May 2010. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/voltaire/&gt;.

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10 responses to “Leibniz and the Problem of Evil

  1. Pingback: Philosophers Religion

  2. [...] gamester (1914-2010 … Philosophical arguments – school world Religion test | wisdom realm Leibniz and the problem of evil « veritas vincit tenebram Philosophical zombies, consciousness, and vegetarianism … Interview: comic relief – a [...]
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  3. Jesse,

    Thank you for your very helpful summary of this man’s work.

    I just had one push back to a statement you made:

    “There seems to be a dilemma here for Leibniz. God’s choosing of a possible world is a completely free act and cannot err if God is all-powerful. Therefore everything we do in the actual world was known and chosen by God. Everything we do must occur but this does not mean it is necessary but rather foreordained by God. The Calvinist theologian would agree with this and say that free-will does not really exist.”

    I don’t see the problem for free will here. God’s choice of one of the possible worlds is a free act. But that does not mean that God CAUSED all the events in the world He chose. Being all-powerful, He certainly ALLOWS whatever happens in the world. But that does not mean that He causes whatever happens. He created persons in His image who have some degree of freedom to choose. When we disobey Him (for example), the fact that He gives us that power and chooses not to over-ride our decision does not make him the cause of the decision, nor does it hinder our freedom of choice. I like the word “allow” because it preserves God’s sovereignty (He has full knowledge of it, has power to stop it, makes a decision to allow it, but is not the cause of it).

    Also, the fact that everything is foreknown and foreordained (in the sense of not always caused but always allowed) by God does not make the future any more certain than it already is by definition. If we define the future as what “will be” then no one can change the future, not even God. For if the future were to change, then the original event that changed never actually was the future. So, the future is set by definition. However, should a creature choose other than he does, the future would have been different than it will be. It’s really no different from the past. We all know that had we chosen differently, some aspects of the past would have been different than they are. No one can change the past, but we know that our decisions affected what the past became. So it is with the future. It cannot be changed, but what we choose partly determines what it will become. So God’s foreknowledge and fore-ordination (acceptance) of the future don’t make it any more certain than it already is by definition. Similarly to the future, I would argue that God choosing a particular possible world does not at all argue against the concept of free will.

    • Dave thanks for the comment! I would have to agree with everything you say. The future determines God’s foreknowledge. I myself am not a Calvinist in respect to foreknowledge (I do hold to perseverance of the saints, though). I believe the Molinist perspective gives the most accurate description of how God can act in the world without limiting human freedom. Molinism is neither Calvinist nor Arminian. If you haven’t studied it yet I recommend you do. The doctrine of middle knowledge is very enlightening.

      Also, your blog looks very interesting. I will definitely have to read it when I have the time. I am going to add you to my blogroll.

  4. (I reposted this reply on my site as well)

    Thanks for sending me a link to your article. While I appreciate your and Dr. Plantinga’s work on this subject, I believe you are defending an indefensible position. The weakest link in Leibniz’ argument is the actual existence of God. Nothing I have read about Leibniz gives me any legitimate proof that God exists. Imagine, for a moment, you are a person like me who doubts the existence of God or, at least, the possibility truly knowing of his existence. What in Leibniz’ argument would change your mind? The argument is fine for people who already accept God, but for those who don’t, it comes across as an intellectual rationalization of a belief that he already had. He never effectively answers the question of why God is “a necessary being”. Couldn’t a universe be functional without God (particularly in a world with free will)? This leads to the epistemological issue that, to me, is at the heart of his problem. What tools do we have that would allow us to perceive this all perfect being? How could we ever truly know whether this necessary God is really all that necessary?

    I strongly disagree with your portrayal of Voltaire’s work as being “sophomoric”. I think he saw the deeper problem with Leibniz’ argument and attacked it using satire. Voltaire’s question in its essence is how could Leibniz explain away human suffering as being part of a perfect world while humans suffered terribly. Leibniz argument is particularly grotesque and dangerous because it accepts evil as the way things should be. After all, this is the best that God can do and since there is no other way we must live with this terrible thing. Imagine someone suffering a dreadful, life ending disease being told that they live in the “best of all possible worlds”. To them, Leibniz words must sound like “suck it up, kid”. My column, as well as Voltaire’s Candide, which does the argument much better than I, reflect a genuine anger at any philosophy that could explain a world with the cruelty that exists in ours as being “the best of all possible worlds”. My attack on Leibniz was highly derisive and mean-spirited, but I don’t think the ad hominem label is correct. The personal attacks come from a deep sense of frustration in a world that often echoes Leibniz’ defense of the perfection of this world. I don’t think my argument is wrong and I felt this was the best method of conveying the sheer moral bankruptcy of this argument. I believe that by accepting this as the best of all possible worlds we are participating in the greater injustice of thinking that much of the horror that exists cannot be changed. After all, if God couldn’t make this world any better, why should we try?

  5. the summary of leibniz’s problem of evil is realli detailed. And would appreciate and love to receive more info on his theory.

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