Monday, 25 April 2011 17:37

After Lisbon is just as it was before Lisbon – Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716)

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"After Fukushima nobody can simply carry on as usual" and claim that our nuclear plants are safe, said German chancellor Angela Merkel on 14th of March 2011, to explain the adventurous shift of her nuclear policy as a consequence of the Japan earthquake. 

This sentence also matches in a way the assessment of a catastrophe 256 years older. "After Lisbon nobody can simply carry on as before and claim that we live in the 'best of all possible worlds' " – that was, in other words, what many European intellectuals felt after the Portuguese capital had been devastated by a fatal earthquake and tsunami on 1st of November 1755.

The "best of all possible worlds" theory had been formulated by Gottfried Willhelm Leibniz in his Essai de Théodicée (1710). It was paradigmatic for the unbroken optimism the early enlightenment had embraced. Yet 39 years after Leibniz's death it was the 1755 earthquake of Lisbon that undermined a central idea of his philosophy. 

But Merkel's adversaries would now object: whoever said nuclear technology was safe (before Fukushima) must have been either ignorant or a lobbyist! Just as Leibniz' posthumous opponents sneered in 1755: whoever said that we lived in the best of all possible words (before Lisbon) must have been either an idiot or a cynic! 

However, this view is too simple. Leibniz was not a fool. He was in fact far ahead of the game in many respects. The computer screen on which the esteemed E&M reader is scrolling through this post owes its existence to the binary number system that he invented. And if Leibniz had his way this text would not be displayed in a foreign language that most non UK-born E&M addicts need to have laboriously learned before; instead E&M and mankind's reasoning could operate on a numerical system of indivisible terms, from which all sub-terms such as translations could be made precisely (De Arte Combinatoria, 1666). You may have hated Leibniz (without knowing) when racking your brain to solve a tricky formula and you may have (subconsciously) loved him when an insurance company replaced the water damage in your flat – as he is both a father of mathematic algebra and the modern insurance system.

 "The Art of the Enlightenment" is the title of an exhibition sent by the German Foreign Office to China; Leibniz was not only one of the greatest enlightenment thinkers, but also an early advocate of Euro-Chinese cultural diplomacy. The EU's current campaign against the gender pay gap could bear him as mental patron, while his suggestion of a collège of sovereign German princes to ensure peace within the federal Holy Roman Empire seems prophetic with regard to the European Union. In writing a common prayer for Christians, Jews and Muslims, Leibniz was ahead of even the best pro-integration politicians nowadays. 

So this guy – who had lived his young years in the Thirty Years War (until 1648) – was definitely bright enough to see that there was trouble in the world, even before Lisbon seemingly ruined his "best of all worlds" theorem. So what did he mean with this "complacent nonsense" (The Cambridge Companion to Leibniz, 1995) of the "best of all possible worlds"? 

First of all, Leibniz never argued that there was no evil in the world. But according to him, God – almighty, omniscient and kind – would have discarded his creation if it had not been the best available option. Had another been possible he would have made it instead. Maybe he could have made a quick fix and removed some evil here or there and he might have achieved local optima, but made things worse on the whole. Maybe he could have designed a world empty of sin, pain, death and evil, but it wouldn't have been better than what we have. 

Leibniz made his argument more subtle by differentiating the evil into smaller parts. As God has created the world (that didn't exist before), it is necessarily an imperfect world. A great amount of evil is in that creation's structural deficit. The painful experience we suffer from is only a logical consequence of this. And finally God has equipped us with freedom, which is a good thing in the big picture but also enables a man-made evil to emerge. God is not to be blamed for that: he may be omnipotent, but logically he cannot give us one without accepting the other.  

"After Fukushima nobody can simply carry on as before". In the eyes of Leibniz, Lisbon or Fukushima would not be a reason to revise his philosophical optimism. For his "yes we can" is not a naïve "yes we can say that there is no evil in the world",  but a razor-sharp "yes we can logically reconcile the existence of evil with the existence of good". 

And that is where the Merkel parallelisation peters out. If Merkel claimed before Fukushima that nuclear plants are safe and after Fukushima that they are not, her optimism is of a different kind to Leibniz's, as he never said that the world is out-and-out good, but that it being not good can be explained through a logical necessity, which he chose to do. Assuming he lived in our times, Leibniz would reiterate (before and after Fukushima) that nuclear power plants are unavoidably not safe but can be logically assessed and ranked, and eventually, despite their risks, that they are the "best of all possible" nuclear power plants. 

From a contemporary perspective it is not Leibniz's belief in the good or in God, but his belief in logic that may have survived most purely until our times. After Lisbon this is just as it was before Lisbon. Logic is logic remains logic. We can simply carry on as usual. 

Last modified on Sunday, 01 May 2011 16:17
Christian Diemer

Christian Diemer, 28, is from Rottweil in South Germany. Having studied musicology, arts management, and composition in Weimar, he is now writing from Berlin and obscure spots in East Europe, where he is currently working on his PhD thesis about traditional music in Ukraine. 

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