Re: [asa] Michael Dirda on 'The Best of All Possible Worlds'

From: John Walley <>
Date: Tue Dec 02 2008 - 19:06:59 EST

Yeah I saw this too. The problem of evil is indeed vexing but crucial to our battle of spiritual worldviews and for the soul of the church and humanity.

In the context of this world being the battleground for a cosmic warfare between good and evil like the ancient wisdom of the Bible teaches us, then I agree with Leibniz that this is the best of all possible worlds. The problem of reconciling pain and suffering with a loving God makes no sense any other way.

And this forces us to make a decision to either accept the world as it is ot to deny it and recreate a world in our own image. And further I think this fundamental decision is at the core of the polarized philospohical battle lines we see in our American culture today.

I contend it is the key differentiator between the dominant political philosphies. Some seem to accept this imperfection and attempt to make the best of it while others seem to deny it and embark on futile attempts of idealistic change based on a flawed perception of the spiritual reality that we live in.

It comes back down to more ancient wisdom from the Bible, Cain's grain offering that was rejected vs. Abel's sacrifice that was counted as righteousness.


--- On Tue, 12/2/08, Alexanian, Moorad <> wrote:

> From: Alexanian, Moorad <>
> Subject: [asa] Michael Dirda on 'The Best of All Possible Worlds'
> To: "AmericanScientificAffiliation" <>
> Date: Tuesday, December 2, 2008, 4:01 PM
> <>
> 2603521.html
> Michael Dirda on 'The Best of All Possible Worlds'
> Debating the origin of evil in a godly universe.
> By Michael Dirda
> Sunday, November 30, 2008; BW10
> A Story of Philosophers, God, and Evil
> By Steven Nadler
> Farrar Straus Giroux. 300 pp. $25
> Many are likely to know just two facts about the great
> polymath
> Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716): first, that he and
> Newton
> independently discovered calculus at roughly the same time,
> then argued
> over who should get the credit (Newton won); and, second,
> that he
> maintained that ours was "the best of all possible
> worlds," a phrase
> much mocked in Voltaire's sparkling philosophical
> satire Candide. If
> people know anything further about this German thinker,
> it's likely to
> be that he spent his life trying to effect a reconciliation
> between
> Protestantism and Catholicism and that he postulated the
> existence of
> invisible, atom-like "monads" as the metaphysical
> building blocks of the
> universe.
> Poor Leibniz! For all his genius, he seems destined to be
> overshadowed
> by others, whether Newton, Voltaire or Spinoza (whom he
> visited, admired
> and disputed with) or, as Steven Nadler shows in The Best
> of All
> Possible Worlds, even by half-forgotten French priests. Of
> course,
> Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715) and Antoine Arnauld
> (1612-1694) weren't
> simple provincial curates; they were, at least for the
> generation
> following the death of Descartes, France's strongest
> theological
> thinkers (excepting perhaps Pascal, who strangely enough
> barely figures
> in Nadler's book). Both Frenchmen knew the young
> Leibniz during his long
> stay in Paris, and all three corresponded with one another
> for decades
> afterward. Their lifelong, and sometimes heated, arguments
> about the
> nature of God form the basis of this engrossing book.
> Nadler makes clear
> the importance of their debate:
> "What was at stake was nothing less than the meaning
> of existence, the
> understanding of why things are as they are. The choice was
> clear:
> either the universe is ultimately an arbitrary product, the
> effect of an
> indifferent will guided by no objective values and subject
> to no
> independent canons of reason or goodness; or it is the
> result of wisdom,
> intelligible to its core and informed by a rationality and
> a sense of
> value that are, in essence, not very different from our
> own; or (to
> mention the most terrifying possibility of all) it simply
> is, necessary
> through its causes and transparent to the investigations of
> metaphysics
> and science but essentially devoid of any meaning or value
> whatsoever."
> The attempt to justify the ways of God to men -- theodicy,
> a term coined
> by Leibniz -- lies at the heart of the matter: "Why is
> there any evil at
> all in God's creation?" Essentially, Leibniz's
> answer is: Consider the
> whole. Explains Nadler, "It is not that everything
> will turn out for the
> best for me or for anyone else in particular. Nor is it
> necessarily the
> case that any other possible world would have been worse
> for me or for
> anyone else. Rather, Leibniz claims that any other possible
> world is
> worse overall than this one, regardless of any single
> person's fortunes
> in it." What is good for the whole isn't
> necessarily good for every one
> of its individual parts or components. As Nadler
> emphasizes, summarizing
> Leibniz, "all things are connected and every single
> aspect of the world
> makes a contribution to its being the best world."
> That includes what we call evil. However, Leibniz offers no
> explanation
> of just how evil assists the overall goodness of things.
> (Sometimes he
> even seems to suggest that it serves to bring the good into
> greater
> relief.) We cannot penetrate so far into the Creator's
> mind or plan.
> Still "it is inconceivable . . . that an infinitely
> good and perfect God
> could choose anything less than the best." This
> conclusion may satisfy a
> devout Christian philosopher, but it offers scant
> consolation when we
> are in pain, or see the wicked succeed and the worthy fail,
> or when we
> face death.
> Malebranche refined Leibniz's view by imagining that
> God needed to
> establish a world that wouldn't require constant
> adjustment or
> interference, one that ran on its own, following what He
> had determined
> were the simplest, most efficient general principles. Thus,
> "the actual
> world is not the most perfect world absolutely speaking;
> rather, it is
> only the most perfect world possible relative to those
> maximally simple
> laws." In other words, even God compromises. Our world
> could be better
> "but only at the cost of the simplicity of the
> means." Instead,
> Malebranche's Creator "wills to accomplish as much
> justice and goodness
> as He possibly can, not absolutely but consistent with the
> simplest
> laws." As Nadler emphasizes, to Malebranche "God
> . . . is more committed
> to acting in a general way and to a nature governed by the
> simplest laws
> than He is to the well-being of individuals." His
> "general volitions,"
> as Malebranche dubs these cosmic rules, take precedence
> over "particular
> volitions," which are essentially those infrequent
> violations of the
> natural order that we call miracles. So it is in the
> established nature
> of things for it to rain, and sometimes the parched land
> receives needed
> water and sometimes rivers overflow. God isn't going to
> spend all his
> time constantly adjusting the weather and a zillion other
> phenomena just
> because the results aren't what the locals want or
> like.
> What Arnauld objects to in Malebranche (and also in
> Leibniz) is the
> supposition that God's nature is like humankind's
> and that our human
> intellects can have access to the divine wisdom. God,
> Arnauld believes,
> is utterly alien to us -- "a hidden God," to use
> a Jansenist catchphrase
> -- and to imagine him making logical decisions, or weighing
> the pluses
> and minuses of contrasting worlds, is absurd, nothing but
> anthropomorphism. (As Spinoza once observed, "a
> triangle, if it could
> speak would . . . say that God is eminently triangular, and
> a circle
> that God's nature is eminently circular.") In
> fact, men and women are by
> their lesser natures incapable of making sense of God or
> his mysterious
> ways, and all these presumptuous attempts at theodicy are
> doomed to
> failure. God wanted to make the world and so He did, and
> there's an end
> to it. In essence, Leibniz believes in God's goodness
> and wisdom, and
> Malebranche further emphasizes His rationality, but to
> Arnauld God is
> simply pure, omnipotent will.
> Which God you believe in matters: "Do we inhabit a
> cosmos that is
> fundamentally intelligible because its creation is grounded
> in a
> rational decision informed by certain absolute values? Is
> the world's
> existence the result of a reasonable act of creation and
> the expression
> of an infinite wisdom? Or, on the other hand, is the
> universe ultimately
> a nonrational, even arbitrary piece of work? . . . Does the
> origin of
> things lie in an indifferent action -- an apparently
> capricious exercise
> of causal power -- by a Creator who cannot possibly be
> motivated by
> reasons because His will finds no reasons independent of
> itself? In
> short, does the universe exist by ratio or by voluntas, by
> wisdom or
> power?"
> There's much more detail, and much greater subtlety, in
> Nadler's account
> of these differing theological views of God and His
> universe. (For
> instance, Spinoza contributes the further twist that
> "this is not the
> best of all possible worlds; it is the only possible
> world.") Of course,
> Leibniz, Malebranche and Arnauld all posit a Christian God
> of some sort,
> and their arguments may seem quaint to rationalists of a
> largely secular
> age. But to those who believe in, or simply wonder about, a
> God-governed
> universe, these three 17th-century thinkers raise serious
> and
> perennially fascinating questions: Is God moral and
> rational or
> completely arbitrary, even capricious? Is it wrong to kill
> only because
> God says so, or are there absolute moral values (as Kant
> would argue in
> establishing the categorical imperative, his variant on the
> Golden
> Rule)? And, to be almost bathetic, if God gives us grace to
> withstand
> temptation, why does he sometimes fail to give us enough?
> Besides this new book, Steven Nadler is the author of a
> magisterial
> biography of Spinoza, which I have read and recommend, and
> of
> impressive-sounding academic books on Arnauld and
> Malebranche, which
> I've only heard of. I can't imagine a better guide
> to 17th-century
> philosophical thought. Aimed at the general public, The
> Best of All
> Possible Worlds is written simply and clearly, without
> condescension,
> flashiness or over-simplification. But it's a demanding
> book
> nonetheless, and you need to pay attention. You'll be
> amply rewarded if
> you do. *
> Michael Dirda's e-mail address is
> (c) 2008 The Washington Post Company
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Received on Tue Dec 2 19:07:41 2008

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