Leibniz: The Best of All Possible Worlds
March 01, 2012
According to Leibniz, the actual world is the best of all possible worlds. He outlines a simple argument for this conclusion in The Monadology, §§53-55. The argument proceeds as follows:
- 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.
The argument can be broken down into three parts. Premises (1) and (2) say that God has a choice to make, for there are infinitely many possible worlds, and only one can be chosen. Premises (3) and (4) state that God chooses things with reason (this is the principle of sufficient reason, that is that all things that occur occur for sufficient reasons which fully explain them), and is good – hence, when God makes choices, God chooses that which is most good, or most perfect. Finally, the conclusion puts these two ideas, concluding that in this choice, as with all other choices, God chose that which is best, the best of all possible worlds which could have existed.
The argument is valid, for if there is are infinitely-many choices, and a good, reasonable God has made a choice of one, then that universe is the best. For, if God chose another less-good universe, then God would not be good, God would lack the idea of some universe, or God would not be reasonable, and some premises would be false. (Arguably, one could claim that the argument is invalid on the grounds that its premises may yield a false conclusion if the goodness of universes were identical, and that God did not choose to make any world actual. Clearly, since we know of an existing universe, the claim that none exists would be false, but it is not logically false and hence the argument could have weakness here. However, we will grant Leibniz the tacit assumption that “a universe exists” is a premise.)
Leibniz explains that the reason for the choice of a world is in its “fitness, or in the degree of perfection that these worlds contain” (76). Hence, the suitability for a world for selection is a function of its level of perfection, and God, being perfect, would choose that world which is most perfect.
Premise (1) follows from the notion of God. God is, by definition all-knowing – a view defended in §48 – and, hence, has the knowledge of what any configuration of the universe would be. So, if God exists, premise (1) is true. Leibniz argues that God must exist in §§44-45 with the argument that “he must exist if he is possible. And since nothing can prevent the possibility of what is without limits, without negation and consequently without contradiction” (74) then God exists. The argument can be symbolized by modal logic as (◊G → □G), ¬□¬G ∴ G, where G means “God exists”, and is valid.
One may hope to attack premise (2) with the claim that there could be multiple worlds. For if God is a transcendent being, beyond this world, it would seem that he could create all of his possible worlds independently from one another. It may be argued that God would never create anything imperfect, as the other worlds are said to be, but imperfections exist within the actual world even if they are in order with universal harmony. It may be the case that the entire collection of worlds, including the most perfect one, is itself perfect. It is not clear why Leibniz would deny this possibility, though it should also be noted that in this case, we may extend “world” to mean the set of all universes which God is again supreme over, and say that this set is the best of all possible worlds, which would have to be the case since it is the only set in existence.
Premises (3) and (4) seem less controversial. God is defined as being the “ultimate reason” (73) in §38, and hence God is the sufficient reason for things existing. God’s goodness is explained by his perfection in §41.
Hence, it follows from these premises that the actual world is the best of all possible worlds.
Leibniz, G. W. Discourse on Metaphysics and Other Essays. Trans. Daniel Garber and Roger Ariew. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991.