The Best of All Possible Worlds: A Story of Philosophers, God, and Evil

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For example, he believed that the ideas that we apprehend in perception and knowledge, are in fact not ideas in our minds, but they're ideas in God's mind, and that we have illuminated access to these divine ideas. But he was as good and prominent a representative of Cartesianism as there was in the period.

Do we have any idea of what they might have said to each other? Steven Nadler: We do know that they talked a bit about Cartesian physics and some mathematical problems. But I think for the most part, they seemed to compare notes on the problem of evil. At this point, Leibniz had written a dialogue in which he addresses questions of evil and divine rationality, and I have no doubt that he showed it to Malebranche and they discussed it as well.


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Unfortunately we don't have any direct transcription notes from any of these meetings between Leibniz and Arnauld or Malebranche. So we can only guess based upon what was of interest to them at the time, what they would have talked about. But we know that from their writings in this period, that they had similar interests that it's hard to imagine that they did not talk about theodicy and about evil and about the proper way of conceiving of God.

Alan Saunders: Well, let me come now to the third figure in the story whom you've already mentioned, Antoine Arnauld, who was quite an old man by this time, having been born in He was a Jansenist, which meant that he held some pretty extreme views on the subject of God' grace. Who were the Jansenists and what did they believe? Steven Nadler: The Jansenists were an extremely austere Catholic sect who thought that the Jesuits had hijacked Catholicism and taken it in entirely the wrong direction on crucial issues of grace and faith.

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The Jansenists wanted to introduce a more Augustinian bent to faith. For example, they believed that God's grace is distributed among believers, not because of any good works they may have done or any desert they had, but as a random, gratuitous act. You cannot earn grace for the Jansenists. Moreover, having achieved grace by God's gift, you will necessarily do good things. But without God's grace you cannot possibly do good. And the distribution of grace has been predetermined.

So many Catholic critics of Jansenists accuse them of being secret Protestants. They believed in predestination, they believed in the absolute efficacy of Divine grace, and they also believed that whether a person was among the elect or not, had nothing to do with their deserts. And the Jesuits, by contrast, believed that there was a lot of good that one could do to earn grace, and this was a very divisive issue in the 17th century. Alan Saunders: Arnauld too was a Cartesian, and he despite the fact that Descartes was educated by Jesuits, he and Leibniz seem to have got on, don't they?

Steven Nadler: For a time. But eventually, nobody really got on well with Arnauld. The man was an irascible hothead, and at one point, about 15 years after their initial meeting, they had begun a correspondence on philosophical matters, when Leibniz was back in Germany he sent to Arnauld some metaphysical writings of his and asked Arnauld to comment, and Arnauld reacted with absolute fury, tearing into Leibniz that he simply could not believe that any rational person would be saying the kinds of things that Leibniz was saying about God and about individual human beings and about nature and causality.

It was a furious response, and Leibniz naturally was taken aback by this reaction, and basically wrote to his friend, the intermediary who mediated the correspondence. He wrote to him saying it's no wonder Arnauld doesn't have any friends left, he's such a hothead I'm paraphrasing here but his temper is way out of bounds. So nobody really remained friends with Arnauld for long.

He was a very touchy man and even though Malebranche and Arnauld at one point were very good friends, they very quickly had a falling-out as well.

Leibniz: This is the Best of All Possible Worlds, Despite the Appearance of Pointless Suffering

Alan Saunders: Steven, let's fast-forward now by about 20 years to the publication of Leibniz's New System of the Nature and Communication of Substances as well as the Union between the Soul and the Body. That's a weighty title; what's he doing here?

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Steven Nadler: He's trying to give us an alternative philosophy to the Cartesian account of what a human being is. For Descartes a human-being was a mind in a body, and the interaction that we experience between our minds and our bodies; for example, when I will to raise my arm, or when I sit on a needle and feel pain, for Descartes this is a real causal interaction between two substances that had somehow become united in a human being.

Leibniz thought that was the wrong way to think about what a human being was. He believed that there is no real causal interaction between mental advance and physical advance, that the universe really exhibits a kind of pre-established harmony, and that as things unfold, each individual following its own laws.

And so the body has its laws, the mind has its laws, and if there's any sort of correspondence and correlation between them, as there obviously is, it's because God has instituted a kind of divine harmony. And this is this is the perhaps most important and distinguishing feature of this world that we live in, for Leibniz, and part of the reason why he calls it 'The best of all possible worlds', just because of its harmony among its constituents.

Alan Saunders: The notion of pre-established harmony might seem to be a solution to what's called the problem of evil. Now this is still with us. It vexes religious believers and I suppose it pleases atheists because it seems to indicate that God cannot be omnipotent and good. It's a problem with a long history, isn't it? Steven Nadler: It is. Atheists don't have a problem of evil because the guiding premise behind the problem is that there is a God, not just a God who created the cosmos but a God who is capable of acting in providential ways, a God who is omniscient, omnipotent and basically wise, just and good.

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The Best of All Possible Worlds: The Story of Philosophers, God, and Evil – By Steven Nadler

And so once you accepted those assumptions, you start to wonder then why is there sin and suffering and imperfection in the world? The pre-established harmony was a very important element in Leibniz's solution to this problem. In fact Leibniz was the first one to use the phrase 'theodicy' to describe a solution to the problem of evil.

It comes from two Greek words: 'theos', meaning God, and 'dike' meaning 'justice'. And so theodicy is a defence of God's justice in the face of this overwhelming challenge, represented by evil. Leibniz believed that the harmony of the world testifies to the fact that this is the best of all possible worlds. It's the best of all possible worlds because God chose it and God can not have chosen anything but the best of all possible worlds. Therefore, if there are evils or imperfections in this world, we can be confident that they contribute to this being the best of all possible worlds.

Now that phrase, 'the best of all possible worlds' has been subject to a great deal of parody over the centuries, most famously by Voltaire - Voltaire in Candide. After Candide experiences through his travels the most horrendous things you can imagine, murder and mayhem, and rape and incest and cannibalism, somehow Candide's tutor, Pangloss, has persuaded him that it's all for the best. And this is really a satirical swipe.


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  • Unfortunately, Voltaire misses his target. What Leibniz means by this being the best of all possible worlds, is not that everything will turn out to be the best for everybody, and it may be the case that in the best of all possible worlds, there will be some individuals who experience nothing but evils, true evils. And they may never have happiness; they may live lives of unending misery. So Voltaire really misrepresents what Leibniz is talking about. Leibniz is saying that we can be confident on philosophical grounds that there are no worlds better than this, because God would not have chosen this world if there was a better world.

    Therefore, if there are evils, they must make some contribution to the overall goodness of things. We may end up to be perfectly miserable, we may not experience happiness, and sad to say, Leibniz's solution is going to be very cold comfort to those people. It's not really going to help me to learn that my misery nonetheless makes for the best overall world. Steven Nadler: Malebranche though that Leibniz basically agreed with him. In fact Malebranche had come upon a similar solution some years before.

    Malebranche though, didn't think that this was necessarily the best of all possible worlds. He argued that the reason why evil things happen to good people and good things to bad people, and why there are earthquakes swallowing up cities and why there's drought and why the rain falls uselessly in the ocean when people are suffering elsewhere, it's because of the laws of nature.

    For Malebranche God has created a world which best represents God's own nature. And a world that best represents God's own nature for Malebranche, is a world that's governed by the most simple laws. But because the laws are so simple, they cannot cover every possible contingency. Very general laws are not geared towards the happiness of particular individuals. And so the laws of nature don't care whether I planned a picnic for today, if the laws of nature say it's going to rain, it's going to rain.

    Alan Saunders: At this point there arises another question. Why should a perfect eternal and self-sufficient God create anything at all in the first place? Steven Nadler: That is the great question of theodicy. I mean all the philosophers we've been talking about so far are concerned with much more particular questions of theodicy. Why did these evil events happen in this world to this person when God's watching over, presumably? But I think the most basic theodicy question is why is there anything at all other than God?

    And here too we see very interesting differences between these philosophers, and it depends upon how they think of God acting. Descartes for example, thought that God is not bound by any objective values, any standards of truth or goodness.

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    There are no truths, there are no values, until God creates them. God makes justice what it is. Therefore the Cartesian God is not a rational agent. It doesn't act according to certain beliefs and preferences. Leibniz's god, on the other hand, is a god who only acts when there's sufficient and good reason to act. Leibniz's god is very much a rational agent like us, who only does what it believes to be good and will only choose those means that seem to be efficient towards achieving that good end. So to go back to your question: why does Descartes' god create all?

    We have no idea. It's a capricious, unmotivated act. Why does Leibniz's god create it all? Because there is a compelling reason to do so. And Leibniz explicitly says 'Were there no compelling reason to act to create, God would not have created. Malebranche says that - and here Malebranche is trying to straddle these two conceptions of God.

    Malebranche says that the initial decision to create by God is unmotivated and capricious and irrational. There's no reason for it. However, once God does choose to create, then God will create in a rational manner. So there's a sort of Leibnizian element there. Alan Saunders: Ultimately, what it all seems to come down to is for Leibniz and Malebranche in their different ways, God's defining characteristics were his wisdom and his goodness.