Leibniz’s main contribution to the problem of evil and theodicy is the notion that the world we live in is the best possible world. Leibniz doesn’t derive the notion that the world we live in is the best possible from observation and reflection on the nature of the world; for him such an endeavour would be impossible for mere mortals limited in space, time, intelligence and insight. Rather, Leibniz’s belief that this is the best possible world flows from his belief that the creator is omnipotent and perfectly good.
One common criticism of Leibniz is that his theodicy leaves us without hope. If this is the best possible world then there is, so the argument goes, no hope of improvement. Arthur Lovejoy puts it: “It was possible to hope that in the fullness of time the Devil might be put under foot, and believers in revealed religion were assured that he would be; but logical necessities are eternal, and the evils which arise from them must therefore be perpetual.” Since we live in the best possible world, and this world unavoidably contains evils, then there is no hope of those evils being defeated. If they are defeated then that would be a better world.
Critics such as Lovejoy assume that if this is the best possible world then it cannot be improved. This assumption certainly appears, at least prima facie, to be reasonable. However, on closer examination it’s false and represents an unduly wooden interpretation of Leibniz.
Let W1 stand for our world. Further, let W1a stand for our world in 2014 and W1b stand for our world at some later time, say, 2064. For the sake of argument let’s suppose that by 2064 we have solved world hunger, ended wars, and drastically reduced criminality. Now, undoubtedly W1b represents a better state of affairs, all other things being equal, than W1a. Does not this refute Leibniz? Hardly! All it shows is failure to understand Leibniz. According to Leibniz, when God entertained all possible worlds as ideas in His mind, with a view to bringing the best into existence, he knew each world completely: past, present and, crucially, future. So, whilst W1b represents an improvement on W1a it is still the same world we are thinking about: W1.
By way of illustration imagine going to the theatre to see the best possible play. Perhaps scene one is incredibly boring, even confusing; maybe it’s horrendously sad, maddening, and altogether unpleasant. Should I despair? Should I lose hope that because this is the best possible play that it cannot get any better? Of course not! These early scenes might be laying an important foundation which contributes to the play’s being the best possible. Later scenes may well cast these earlier ones in a drastically different light. When we judge a play we judge it as a whole – beginning to end.
Those who argue a’ la Lovejoy treat the world statically – like a picture rather than a drama. In contrast to a drama a picture exists all at once, such that there can never be any improvement. The picture is as good as it’s ever going to be. However, this view totally ignores the time dimension to existence. Lovejoy mistakenly equates “best possible world” with some state of affairs at some particular time within that world.
There is therefore no reason whatsoever why, on Leibniz’s view, the world today can’t be a better place than it was yesterday. When we say “best possible world” we are referring to the entire state of affairs: past, present and future. Moreover, some evils might be necessary in the early stages of this world but that does not mean, contra Lovejoy, that they will be perpetual. It’s perfectly plausible and consistent with Leibniz’s theodicy to suggest that perhaps part of the reason why this world is the BPW is precisely because evil is not going to last forever; and of course Christianity does indeed envisage a future in which this becomes a reality.
And thus the criticism of Lovejoy fails. Once we allow for this the dynamic view of the world there is no reason at all why the best possible world could not be such that the state of affairs at time t2could indeed be better than it was at t1.
Stephen J Graham
For further details on Leibniz’s theodicy see my much longer essay: