The Last "Universal Genius"

13 August 2015

Leibniz was a very practical philosopher.  One could argue that he has as much or more practical impact on Silicon Valley as any philosopher.  He invented binary arithmetic; without that, no computer science!  Plus a lot of other ideas along the same lines.  He was arguably the inventor of computer science.  He made great advances in logic.  He anticipated Turing machines. He invented a device for mechanically doing arithmetic operations that was the basis of most calculating devices until digital calculators came along.  He also invented or discovered the calculus, about the same time as Newton --- it is Leibniz’s notation that we still use.  Well I don’t very often, but maybe you do.  What’s more, while he was at it, he invented library science.  All this while pursuing career in law and diplomacy very successfully.  So, as I said, he was the most practical of philosophers.

But this is the same philosopher who thought we live in the best of all possible worlds --- that God couldn’t possibly have created a better world than this sorry one in which we find ourselves.  Voltaire poked fun at Leibniz’s views with Dr. Pangloss, the air-head philosopher in his novel Candide.    

How did such a practical guy, enmeshed in practical, empirical affairs, come to the conclusion that this is the best of all possible worlds?  Didn’t he notice the disease, pestilence, earthquakes, and human evil that was all around him?

 I’m sure he did, but the logical Leibniz dominated the practical, empirical Leibniz when it came to philosophy.  He deduced the conclusion that this is the best of all possible worlds from a view that virtually all European philosophers of the time accepted.  That view is Christianity as it emerged from Medieval Philosophy, with the conception of God as All-powerful, All-knowing, and Perfect with a capital ‘P’ in every way.

If the world is the intentional creation of a perfect God, that God must have had good reasons --- Leibniz would say “sufficient reasons”, for everything that happens in it.  His motives were pure and beneficent, his powers unlimited, and he knew exactly what He was doing.  Ergo, the world he created must have been the best of all the possibilities.

But, couldn’t Leibniz see that there are many avoidable evils in the world?  And so his premise, the perfect God, must be rejected.  Didn’t he use modus ponens, when he should have used modus tollens?  He reasoned that since God is perfect, this is the best of all possible worlds.  Shouldn’t he have reasoned that since what follows from the hypothesis of God’s perfection isn’t true, that hypothesis must be rejected?

But  Leibniz and his Christian contemporaries thought that the part of the world humans observe while on earth is only a small part of a much larger world --- including Heaven, among other things.  Given this, the evils must be merely apparent, due to our inability, as finite and imperfect beings, to grasp God’s whole plan.   And even God is limited by necessary constraints, I guess, for example, giving humans freedom, a great good entails that they will sometimes screw up, accounting for at least some apparent evils,  which can nevertheless be part of a just and perfect world, since there is plenty of opportunity for reward and punishment in the afterlife.

 Well, I’m with Voltaire.  It’s not a very plausible view.  Still, Leibniz’s strategy is basically Augustine’s, combining what we might call the Big Picture Strategy and the Free-Will defense.  Didn’t Descartes believe the same thing?  How come Voltaire picked on Leibniz?  Maybe he didn’t like Germans.  Or was put off by Leibniz’s silly looking wig.

At any rate,  Leibniz certainly seems to have been a brilliant fellow

 

Comments (15)


Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Friday, August 14, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

The subjunctive takes its

The subjunctive takes its toll too, if we posit it as determinate as the mere restatement of antecedence. There is no difference between dogmatic modus ponens and tolens. One says that the derived term must be true if the antecedent is true, the other that the antecedent is true if the derived term is. Both are invalid logical assumptions. This, because attributes are not some third thing that gets attached somehow, arbitrarily or intrinsically. The attribute is a perceivable sense in which we are not the monad, and so intercede with each other as that sense in which each sufficiently withdraws from the "attribute" so the other can be seen as the model of it. But this is why there can be no god, as Leibniz so cleverly hid from us. Individuality is the participation that withdraws so that the "attribute" can be witnessed. Monadology, so necessary to the mechanical calculator, is the most destructive concept ever to be introduced into philosophy. It puts a hermetic seal between us that only, it is hoped, the god can resolve. Get rid of god and the problem of the hermetic individual dissipates like a morning mist. Newton has a much better claim to the calculus. It was him, after all, or before anyone else, and in an explosion of genius, who said A=dV/dT, when he could have found a more conventional means of calculating acceleration. There is just no comparison. So, I guess I'm with Voltaire.
Michael,
If you liked (the movie) Gulliver, you might like Candide, though I find the style a bit crabbed.

MJA's picture

MJA

Friday, August 14, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Thanks, I'll check it out! 

Thanks, I'll check it out! 
As for a perfect world, who are we to judge, God?
And as for me, I find the Universe as is myself, immeasurable.
Infinite is One, 
=
 
And thanks John as well, this is a good place to think. = is

Or's picture

Or

Friday, August 14, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

It may have been that this

It may have been that this philosophical view of a perfect God that has everything under control was rather convenient for Leibniz. Maybe he saw opportunity in the imperfection and even in the evil. Not needing to worry about the status of his world because that is God?s responsibility/call freed Leibniz to focus on what he liked and did better ?the practical. If everything was perfect in the world, then probably an intellect like his - curious, original, advanced, practical - would not have had the same amount of opportunities to flourish. He saw opportunity in the chaos and thanked his perfect God for it.
I think that what Leibniz did was a smart, if selfish, move: he put all the problematic happening under one almighty, all-perfect, always-justified being so that he could be covered on that end, so that it would not be his responsibility to fix issues of global scale and so that instead he could focus on learning and advancing practical ideas.  
Leibniz surely was very astute; being such a practical intellect, maybe his thoughts were something like ?There?s so little I can do to fix this big mess (a.k.a. the world). It is probably better that I leave it to the almighty to take care of the impossible; he must have a reason for it.? So if God is taking care of the mess, then Leibniz can focus on what he knows to do best and feel content. 

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Friday, August 14, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

But there is such a stark

But there is such a stark contrast between a guy like Leibniz who is busily grinding axes throughout his work, and a guy like Newton, who was so clearly intent upon understanding and explaining, and in a way showing great respect for the reader or student of his work. He too had prejudicial attitudes, a bit of magic and alchemy, but his methods saw him through these blind alleys. He needed proof, and supplied it. In fact, he may have invented the modern notion of proof. "QED" ended his demonstrations. And it wasn't pretense.

momookim's picture

momookim

Saturday, August 15, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I find it interesting to

I find it interesting to think about why it Leibniz felt like he must defend belief in God so ardently. Why was he so unwilling to give up such an "implausible view" (I don't disagree with this assessment)?
There are two explanations for this that I'm hesitant to assent to, for the sake of giving Leibniz the benefit of the doubt. The first is the mere historical phenomenon that most intelligent people of his day believed in God. He was raised with such a belief, came to truly identify it with himself, and?finding himself unable to give up the belief?defaulted to defending it from criticism. I seek an alternative explanation than this, because I wish to give Leibniz more credit than being too stubborn to call out an unsupported position when he say one.
The other explanation involves what Or discussed above. That he sought this belief in God for more selfish reasons?they were not rationally justified, but selfishly convenient. Again, while this may be a possible, I encourage you to think about whether there's a more rational reason to explain why the universe makes more sense with God than without it.
I don't purport to have an answer to such a question, but perhaps it involves the origins of both the universe (prime mover argument) and morals?maybe Leibniz thought one or the other was only possible in a universe with God. Or maybe his reasoning had more to do with how a certain amount of faith in a belief system is necessary?maybe in addition to "faith" in logic and reasoning, he believed we must also have faith in God. While I'm not particularly moved by these arguments, I think they may be the most charitable depiction of the great philosopher in question.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Saturday, August 15, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

We cannot unilaterally be the

We cannot unilaterally be the cause of belief. If you are not free to misunderstand me we cannot come to terms at all. But if I need you free to construe me as you will, subject to my response, confirming or objecting to your take on what I say, I cannot be the basis of that freedom. And yet neither can you be unilateral in that need of freedom of understanding between us. We cannot obligate each other's reasoning, and yet have in interest in freeing it in each other. There is a fundamental anxiety in reasoning and discourse. Some insist that a transcendental third is required. This misunderstanding simply reflects a lack of imagination or rational dexterity. But if you are burdened with a unilateral view of human reasoning and motive, a view that grew from applying the feudal notion of a personal covenant to religious doctrine, you naturally insist upon a transcendental anchor. In such a view it is insisted that without a god to reference we cannot be virtuous or undertake discourse, or even think.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Saturday, August 15, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

By the way, the form of the

By the way, the form of the feudal covenant as a personal relation to the god is the essential impetus to the Reformation. Leibniz was more the continuity of that era than he was the last of the Renaissance.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, August 16, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Leibniz practical approach

Leibniz practical approach towards things makes him one of the great philosophers in history. The creator of computer science and his contributions towards arithmetic is really commendable.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Monday, August 17, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

The issue is raised as if the

The issue is raised as if the only appropriate comment is lavish praise. Anyone who uses the god as an axiom of reasoning is not a "polymath". He's a bully. At the time he lived (the late 17'th century) competence in all fields of scholarship was not as impressive an achievement as it would be today. The core notion of his philosophy is the monad. But oneness does not describe or account for being human. I wonder how Han Solo would sound saying, instead of "It's not my fault!", "It's not one's fault!"? Rather silly, I think, though in some languages (like Spanish) this is precisely what he would say. Well, one is not impressed. Person is not a quantifier, it is a qualifier. It is the differing, and ultimately the loss, of what counts. And this is why there is no god, because the god cannot become itself by erasing itself from the count. But only such sefl-effacement is becoming the qualifier. I understand the desperation many have to avoid this effacement, it is the essence of the dreadful. But do it you will, and doing it you are. But god can't pull this off without denaturing itself altogether, because the god is the quantifier, not a qualifier or quality of anything at all. And if this proves god does not exist, it also explains why Leibniz does not impress one. Not this one, anyway.

gemel's picture

gemel

Tuesday, August 18, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Am new to this program -I

Am new to this program -I have just listened to my first of this series.
The discussion of Leibniz, especially re the topics of Perfection and of Monad(s) etc, seemed to me to be narrow, lacking any familiarity with Chinese or Buddhist philosophical explorations of these areas. Two useful examples (among many) of those who clarified relevant topics are Fazang in circa 7th century China whose various works include extensive exploration of interdependent existence of myriad phenomena, and Eihei Dogen in 13th century Japan.
I hope that future Philosophy talks include Philosophy broaden the traditions and comparisons included.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Tuesday, August 18, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

With good reason. Asian

With good reason. Asian "philosophy" puts an end to discussion, Western philosophy finds a recurrently new beginning. Now, tell me, which is "narrow"?

gemel's picture

gemel

Thursday, August 20, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Actually, if you look at

Actually, if you look at Asian texts, you will see that they have discussions both contemporaneously and across centuries, i.e. comments, commentaries and agreement/disagreement/alternatives, sometimes even included as side-bars on the "earlier" texts. So, am not sure on what basis you say "Asian "philosophy" puts an end to discussion."
If you wish, I can cite texts; certainly the texts of the 2 figures (Fazang and Dogen) I mentioned, have spawned many volumes and centuries of commentaries such as I mentioned above.
It is often the lack of familiarity with this vast opus of work that leads to comments such as yours. Even "Western" philosophy reflects the often unnoted influence of the Asian. For instance, a recent book on the Greek philosopher Pyrrho discusses at length the Buddhist influence on his work and on the subsequent Greek school of scepticism (Greek Buddha by C.I. Beckwith, Princeton University Press).

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Thursday, August 20, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I am well aware of the vast

I am well aware of the vast bodies of "commentaries" that propagate themselves throughout Asian cultures, from the Talmud to the Upanishads to the endless stream of Zen texts. But you are greatly mistaken if you suppose this discussion. It is not, it is exegesis. It is the reinterpretation of existing texts, the ramifying analysis of oracle or prohesy or some supposed "wisdom", that is enslaved to antecedence. Discussion is the grappling of two or more living people willing to change their minds because hungry to find, amongst them, the unprecedented. This is why Asia has such a musty feel to it, in spite of its enthusiasm for the energy it derives from Western influences.

gemel's picture

gemel

Saturday, August 29, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Using pejorative or

Using pejorative or judgmental words  as in "that is enslaved to antecedence." and priviliging something as " find(ing), amongst them, the unprecedented" does not make it so.
Saying that Asia "has such a musty feel" does not make it so.
You have not dealt with the specific topics that I raised in the first comment nor with either of the philosophers I mentioned, nor the many others such as Nagarjuna who are relevant to this matter.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, August 30, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Gemel,

Gemel,
You clearly have not attained "no ox".
I am not privileging anything, I am effacing privilege. We are not privileged, for instance, to be understood. We must earn this by learning from what does not agree. I do not mean to insult, but I do mean to gore any ox you, or I, hold too dear. And I do resent the West being measured by its vices. We all have vices, East and West, but the West has a virtue that has its best effect under the radar, as it were, which it seems to me the East perennial starves of nourishment. We all grow by having our oxen gored in ways that only becomes recognizable as we grow wiser, wise enough to realize the benefit received. But in a discussion like this it is necessary to get to the point, and the goring needs to be explicit. I'm sorry if this offends, but it also makes the point, I think. I understand the West has done a great deal of violence in Asia, though not so much as to rival its violence against itself. But that is no reason to fail to look beyond the vice of colonialism. As for Nagarjuna, I suppose you do not mean Akkineni? Well, no. But I prefer questions to statements. In these discussions I also prefer what I call "table stakes", that is, your own opinion, not some source that can so easily distract us. But since you insist, I suggest, expecting nothing, that you take a look at the discussion between Thrasymachus and Socrates in the Republic (337A to the end of book one). What penalty, asks Thrasymachus, for being proven wrong? Until we see the benefit, the penalty is painful, as having one's ox gored always is until we attain "no ox".
If you wait so long again to reply this thread too will fall below the radar.

 
 
 

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