Monday, 19 March 2012 07:34

Gottfried Leibniz : Men of Ideas

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Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) was a German Mathematician and Philosopher. He independently discovered Calculus (Isaac Newton also did, over in England; there was debate as to who did it first). Leibniz’s notational version is the one generally used today. He also discovered the binary system, a system that underlies computer language.

However, we are interested in Leibniz the philosopher, not the mathematician. He wrote few books on philosophy and the most notable ones are his Discourse on Metaphysics and Theodicee.

Leibniz was a fervent Christian and was motivated to find a rational basis for his belief in Christianity and its god. He concluded that despite the seeming contradictions of this world that this is the only possible world that God could have made and gave thanks for the world. He took issue with Spinoza’s seeming denial of the existence of the Christian God.

Looking at our world it is difficult to believe that a benevolent God created it and is responsible for its day to day operation. However, if as Spinoza seemed to say there is an impersonal force (Substance) in nature that operates regardless of human interests that could make some sense. Such a god is, of course, not to be worshipped. Worshipped for what, for creating people who live in pain, suffer and die, for having children live in pain and die?

In response to Spinoza’s seeming Pantheism, Leibniz posited his monads. As he sees it, the world has two realms, the physical (that is made of atoms) and the spiritual (that is made of monads aka souls). Monads are the irreducible forms of being, substances that cannot be destroyed and are eternal and obey their own laws different from physical laws and interact in a harmonious manner with each other. As Leibniz sees it, God himself is a monad and his creation is composed of monads and these monads interact harmoniously.

Leibniz however did not prove how his monads interacted with atoms, physical nature, to produce human beings. Nor did he show how those monads of his has made the world different from what it is, different from the world described by Spinoza, a world that appears to obey impersonal physical laws, laws that have no regard for how they affect human beings: a tsunami wipes human beings out as it wipes animals and trees out.

Clearly, Leibniz’s argument is not persuasive. His conclusion in Theodicee that this world is the only possible world that God could have created and that it is perfect hence justifying giving glory to god is laughable.

Voltaire wrote a whole book, Candide, lampooning that Leibniz’s conception of a perfect God creating a perfect world. Candide’s character, Dr Pangloss is a parody of Leibniz.

Voltaire documented incidents of injustice in the world, and incidents where nature seemed not to care for human suffering and death. If God existed and is benevolent and protects human beings, how come such terrible natural, not to talk about man made disasters, afflict human beings? The optimistic Leibniz tells us that god is a good god and ought to be worshipped and Voltaire wonders why those swept to death in a collapsed mine in South America or those suffering from the plagues that ravaged Europe would in honesty praise God.

In effect Voltaire is telling us that Leibniz is naïve about the workings of this world. He is not naïve; he was trying his best to justify belief in god (may be to retain hope that there is life after death…until folk accept finitude they cannot let go of the idea of God).

As noted, Leibniz made useful contributions to mathematics and science but his metaphysics and philosophy is laughable. We mention his philosophy, such as it is, not so much because he is useful but because in the history of Western ideas he is invariably listed as one of the contributors to philosophical discourse. It is difficult to see what his contribution to philosophy is. But then again it is difficult to see what Western philosophers contributed to philosophy. Despite the thousands of pages written on philosophy by Western thinkers it is difficult see how any of them contributed to our understanding the world we live in and helped us live well in it.

Perhaps, the problem is not Leibniz but the West; the West has not grasped that looking at this world with clarity of vision no one can juxtapose a benevolent God in it. In my judgment the oriental mind did the best work in justifying the possible existence of God.

Hinduism, especially as represented by its foremost philosopher, Shankara, posits a philosophy where God is outside the workings of this world. In his view, God does not even know that this world exists! As it were, this world is a dream in a corner of God’s mind, say in one percent of his mind, a dream that ninety-nine percent of his mind is not even conscious of.

By not been conscious of the dream, this world, he is not responsible for what happens in this world; he is neither to be praised nor blamed for the events of this world. If God knows about the horrible events taking place in this world and does not intervene to correct them he is not a benevolent world. Even if we do what Western theologians do and posit man’s freedom of will, that God created people and gave them freedom of will and, as such, should not intervene in their affairs, we have not explained why god does not intervene to prevent physical disasters like tsunamis.

Does man have freedom of will? When did the individual choose his genes, the information that codes much of his biological and psychological behaviors?

You might ask why it is necessary to posit a god at all. Shankara saw it fit to do so because those who claimed to have had mystical experience, himself included, and transcended this world’s categories claim to have entered another realm, the realm of God. In that realm they claim not to be aware of the existence of our physical world.

As Hinduism sees it, the realm of God is different from the earthly realm. The realm of God is the opposite of the earth. In God there’re infinite souls (which Hinduism calls Atman) and all of them are one with the over soul, called Brahman. Atman is Brahman and Brahman is Atman. Atman and Brahman are joined and are one; there is no space or gap between them; they are in each other, there is no separation between them, no you and I, no subject and object, just one self that seems in two places but is actually in one place. It is said that this reality cannot be understood with our separation based mental processes and human language.

It seems to me that if one has a need to believe in God that the Hindu system is a better candidate than anything the West has come up with.

Leibniz’s perfect god is not compatible with the reality of this world and to ask any one to accept such a god in a world of suffering is to make mockery of the human condition.

Leibniz wrote on many subjects including mathematics and physics and made lasting contributions in them. His philosophy, if that is what it is, is not impressive.


Gottfried Leibniz: Theodicee. (1710)

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176