Best of All Possible Worlds

Problem of evil

The phrase ‘the best of all possible worlds‘ was coined by the German polymath Gottfried Leibniz in his 1710 work ‘Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil.’

The claim that the actual world is the best of all possible worlds is the central argument in Leibniz’s attempt to solve the problem of evil (i.e. why would a God that is all-loving, all-seeing, and all-powerful allow evil to exist). Historically, attempts to answer the question have been made using various arguments, for example, by explaining away evil or reconciling evil with good.

As a Christian, Leibniz outlined his perfect world theory in his work ‘The Monadology,’ stating the argument in five parts: God has the idea of infinitely many universes; Only one of these universes can actually exist; God’s choices are subject to the principle of sufficient reason, that is, God has reason to choose one thing or another; God is good. Therefore, the universe that God chose to exist is the best of all possible worlds.

To further understand his argument, these five statements can be grouped in three main premises. The first and second statements state that God can only choose one universe from the infinite amount of possible universes. The third and fourth statements state that God is a perfect existence, and he makes decisions based on reason. The final statement, which is the conclusion, says the existed world that is chosen by God is the best.

To set his argument, Leibniz wrestled with the problem of sin and evil in the world that obviously exists and is considered as the imperfection of the world. Leibniz, in this letter said, ‘I do not believe that a world without evil, preferable in order to ours, is possible; otherwise it would have been preferred. It is necessary to believe that the mixture of evil has produced the greatest possible good: otherwise the evil would not have been permitted.’ In other words, if a world without evil is more perfect in any way, then evil would have not happened, and the world without evil would be our world instead. God put evilness in the world for us to understand goodness which is achieved through contrasting it with evil. Once we understood evil and good, it gives us the ability to produce the ‘greatest possible good’ out of all the goodness. Evil fuels goodness, which leads to a perfect system.

For Leibniz, an additional central concern is the matter of reconciling human freedom (indeed, God’s own freedom) with the determinism inherent in his own theory of the universe. Leibniz’ solution casts God as a kind of ‘optimizer’ of the collection of all original possibilities: Since he is good and omnipotent, and since he chose this world out of all possibilities, this world must be good—in fact, this world is the best of all possible worlds.

On the one hand, this view might help us rationalize some of what we experience: Imagine that all the world is made of good and evil. The best possible world would have the most good and the least evil. Courage is better than no courage. It might be observed, then, that without evil to challenge us, there can be no courage. Since evil brings out the best aspects of humanity, evil is regarded as necessary. So in creating this world God made some evil to make the best of all possible worlds. On the other hand, the theory explains evil not by denying it or even rationalizing it—but simply by declaring it to be part of the optimum combination of elements that comprise the best possible godly choice. Leibniz thus does not claim that the world is overall very good, but that because of the necessary interconnections of goods and evils, God, though omnipotent, could not improve it in one way without making it worse in some other way.

Critics of Leibniz, such as Voltaire, argue that the world contains an amount of suffering too great to justify optimism. Leibniz addresses this concern by considering what God desires to occur (his antecedent will) and what God allows to occur (his consequent will). Others, such as the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, criticized Leibniz’s theory by arguing that there probably is not such a thing as the best of all possible worlds, since one can always conceive a better world, such as a world with one more morally righteous person.

Bertrand Russell argued that moral and physical evil must result from metaphysical evil (imperfection). But imperfection is merely finitude or limitation; if existence is good, as Leibniz maintains, then the mere existence of evil requires that evil also be good. In addition, libertarian Christian theology defines sin as not necessary but contingent, the result of free will. Russell maintains that Leibniz failed to logically show that metaphysical necessity (divine will) and human free will are not incompatible or contradictory.

One Comment to “Best of All Possible Worlds”

  1. Gotta love mathematicians trying to solve the god equation with logic :)

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