—Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (1945) p. 644.
Take a look at that picture and see if you can't guess where the flaw was in Gottfried Leibniz's vast edifice of deduction... Last week I profiled Isaac Newton, one of the most gifted scientists in history who secretly wrote more about theology and and alchemy than he did about gravity, optics, and calculus combined. Sadly we're in for a repeat of a similar story here. Leibniz had a beautifully ordered mind that is credited with independently inventing calculus at the same time as Newton. He also made important discoveries in physics and technology. And while those contributions remain intact and ensure Leibniz a prominent place in history, his vast writings are littered with a philosophy that is as consistent as one would expect from a formidable mathematician and logician, but is undermined by his stubborn insistence on building it around an unproven entity.
In psychology, the term cognitive dissonance is used to describe "the excessive mental stress and discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time. This stress and discomfort may also arise within an individual who holds a belief and performs a contradictory action or reaction. For example, an individual is likely to experience dissonance if they are addicted to smoking cigarettes and continue to smoke despite knowing how seriously it jeopardizes health. Stress and discomfort increase in proportion to the importance of the beliefs, ideas or values that are contradicted." And while Aristotle said that "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it," it's important to note that educated person is merely entertaining the thought, not clutching it tightly. Many people live their lives holding on to unexamined thoughts, and this causes great stress in their minds. Are you one of them? Try this Philosophical Health Check to see what kinds of contradictions might underlie some of your own beliefs. It's just a 5 minute test comprising 30 agree/disagree questions. Go on. Give yourself a checkup.
Finished? How'd you do? The test designers told me I had one contradiction in my beliefs, but that this contradiction could be cleared up if I had a good argument for it. Well, I do. So I consider myself to be tension free. Hooray! Whether or not this test is perfectly designed, I did like its explanation of what cognitive dissonance might feel like. Did you catch that description at the end of the test?
It may help to think of the idea of 'tension' in terms of an intellectual balancing act. Where there is little or no tension between two beliefs, no particular intellectual effort is required to balance them. But where there is a lot of tension, either one has to "jump off the highwire" by abandoning one belief; keep one's balance by intellectual effort and dexterity; or else "fall off the highwire" by failing to deal with the tension.
So I suppose I'm avoiding cognitive dissonance through a little "intellectual effort and dexterity," but that is nothing compared to the work that Leibniz went through to avoid jumping off the highwire and abandoning his belief in one of the central tenets of Christianity—that God is all good, all wise, and all powerful. In the opening passages of Leibniz's Discourse on Metaphysics, he presented the following tenets as his theological stake in the ground:
“God is an absolutely perfect being”; “power and knowledge are perfections, and, insofar as they belong to God, they do not have limits”; “Whence it follows that God, possessing supreme and infinite wisdom, acts in the most perfect manner, not only metaphysically, but also morally speaking…”
This is not a departure from anything the Christian church has taught for two thousand years, but Leibniz tried desperately to square this belief with the world as it is and somehow account for the evil we find in it. Leibniz asserted that "the truths of theology and philosophy cannot contradict each other, since reason and faith are both 'gifts of God' so that their conflict would imply God contending against himself." He therefore reasoned:
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.
Yuck. Talk to any number of victims of evil in history and see if they thought their suffering was necessary to produce all the good we have in this world. Talk to anyone with a utopian vision and see if they can't easily conceive of a world with far greater good in it. Leibniz was either fantastically unimaginative, unspeakably callous, or just irrationally determined to somehow do more than simply entertain his conflicting ideas. Despite being known as "the last universal genius," a man who perhaps "read as much, studied as much, meditated more, and wrote more" than any other man, someone who was tutored by Huygens, given access to unpublished manuscripts of Descartes and Pascal, spoke with Spinoza about the masterpiece Ethics that he was working on, and exchanged letters with over 1100 different people across Europe over the course of his life, Leibniz—despite all of this—shoehorned every bit of it into his religious worldview. He stands as a monument to the importance of questioning all of your beliefs as you build up the philosophy by which you live. Let's look quickly at the rest of what Leibniz constructed as I evaluated him in my survival of the fittest philosophers.
Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716 CE) was a German philosopher, polymath, and mathematician. He invented infinitesimal calculus independently of Newton, and his notation has been in general use since then. He also invented the binary system, the foundation of virtually all modern computer architectures. Leibniz invoked seven fundamental philosophical principles.
1) Identity/contradiction. If a proposition is true, then its negation is false and vice versa. Basic logic.
3) Sufficient reason. "There must be a sufficient reason for anything to exist, for any event to occur, for any truth to obtain.” Yes. Nothing happens spontaneously or supernaturally.
Needs to Adapt
2) Identity of indiscernibles. Two things are identical if and only if they share the same and only the same properties. This is frequently invoked in modern logic and philosophy. The "identity of indiscernibles" is often referred to as Leibniz's Law. It has attracted the most controversy and criticism, especially from corpuscular philosophy and quantum mechanics. This is either a circular tautology or incorrect depending on how it is interpreted.
4) Pre-established harmony. "The appropriate nature of each substance brings it about that what happens to one corresponds to what happens to all the others, without, however, their acting upon one another directly.” A dropped glass shatters because it "knows" it has hit the ground, and not because the impact with the ground "compels" the glass to split. Every "substance" only affects itself, but all the substances (both bodies and minds) in the world nevertheless seem to causally interact with each other because they have been programmed by God in advance to "harmonize" with each other. Complete bunk. Where would this harmony reside in an object? The standard worldview of cause and effect is much more compelling and useful.
5) Law of Continuity. Natura non saltum facit - nature makes no leap. The principle expresses the idea that natural things and properties change gradually, rather than suddenly. This is merely a matter of definition of what is gradual and what is sudden. Mutations and chemical reactions cause changes that occur in nanoseconds.
6) Optimism. "God assuredly always chooses the best.” Our universe is, in a restricted sense, the best possible one God could have made. Note that the word optimism here is used in the classic sense of optimal, not in the mood-related sense, as being positively hopeful. If that is true, then given the inefficiencies, pain, and suffering we see in nature, god surely is not the most supreme being there could be, so therefore he must not be god. Reverse ontological argument!
7) Plenitude. Leibniz believed that the best of all possible worlds would actualize every genuine possibility, and argued that this best of all possible worlds will contain all possibilities, with our finite experience of eternity giving no reason to dispute nature's perfection. There are plenty of reasons to dispute nature’s perfection. What an excellent mathematician. What a silly philosopher.
One of my readers let me know that he objected to the use of the word "silly" to describe Leibniz. Certainly he was an earnest man who possessed powerful skills of reason and contributed much to the progress of human knowledge, so I conceded I'd been a bit harsh in applying that term to Leibniz. But rereading some of the lesser definitions of the word now, I came across this one:
silly - (adjective) used to convey that an activity or process has been engaged in to such a degree that someone is no longer capable of thinking or acting sensibly, e.g. "he often drank himself silly"
While he may not have been a silly philosopher, I think I can stand by the judgment that Leibniz philosophised himself silly. I hope I ain't doin' the same...