Victor Nuovo: The fundamental questions of the meaning of life

2nd in a series

“Why is there anything at all? Why not Nothing?” The German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) took this to be the fundamental question of philosophy, and prescribed that the primary task of philosophers is to search for reasons — reasons why things are; for he was certain that there is a reason for everything.

Leibniz was an optimist. Voltaire (1694–1778) mocked his optimism in his comic novel “Candide,” in the character of Dr. Pangloss, a fictional Leibnizian philosopher, who supposed he could explain every misfortune by confidently asserting that “everything is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds.” But this is a caricature, not a fair account of Leibniz the philosopher.

In any case, we mustn’t ignore Leibniz’s question, for if life has meaning, then it must have a reason, for without a reason, human life, collectively or individually, has no purpose, and life without purpose is meaningless.

Leibniz did not suppose that every thing has its own special reason (he was not a narcissist), rather he affirmed that there is one reason for everything: God is the ultimate reason for all things, and because God is supremely good and infinitely wise, all of God’s actions are perfect. From which it follows that, since God is the creator and omnipotent cause of everything, “everything happens for the best, in the best of all possible worlds.”

However ridiculous, horrendous, irrational this may seem on the face of it, we must plumb its depths to see if there is any wisdom in it.

Besides, Leibniz was neither fool nor dabbler. He was a polymath, learned in many fields, a universal genius. Among his achievements was the invention of the Calculus, a distinction he shared with Isaac Newton (1643–1727), his contemporary. It was an instance of simultaneous discovery at the beginning of the Scientific Revolution.

The traditional approach to this question has been theological; Leibniz followed suit. He argued that there was never nothing. There was God, who exists from eternity, who always was and always will be. Moreover, in eternity there is no passage of time, God is always the same, and that whatever else exists is a product of divine creation. So, the answer to the fundamental question begins with a narrative or myth of creation.

Imagine God creating the world. Before the world began, there was nothing but God. However, it is God’s nature to create and so he or she or they decided to create a world, an all-encompassing domain, a universe. She or he or they considered how best to proceed, and adopted as a principle, a maxi/min rule, that is a rule that prescribed the greatest outcome from the least effort or cost. And so God considered every possible world, and fixed upon the one that produced the greatest good for the least cost.

Now it seems inconsistent with the divine nature to suppose that creating the world would cost God anything, certainly not materially or physically, for God is an infinite spirit, and, indeed, according to tradition, it is said that God created the world from nothing. Rather the cost of creating the world must be considered in terms of value. The product of divine creation is something less good or wise than God, something capable of cruelty, wickedness, folly and accident.

To finish the narrative: God surveyed all possible worlds, and considered the ratio of good and evil in each, and chose to create the best of all possible worlds, the one that would produce the greatest good for the least cost of evil; the divine idea of best of all possible worlds became the model of creation; and having accomplished this work of the world, God surveyed what they had made declared it good.

The narrative of creation that Leibniz espoused led him to this question: Why couldn’t God have created a world without any evil, physical or moral? His answer was that it isn’t possible; if it were, then this world, which God created, would not be the best of all possible worlds.

And so, the fundamental problem of philosophy gave rise to a second fundamental problem, the problem of evil.

Leibniz’s contemporary, John Locke (1632–1704) added a third problem, the problem of knowledge: What is knowledge and how do we attain it? He addressed this in his classic work, “An Essay concerning Human Understanding.” Leibniz read it and wrote a lengthy critique of it, which he entitled “New Essays concerning Human Understanding.” Locke paid no attention to it, which is a pity. Leibniz would have liked to visit him or at least correspond with him; but Locke spurned his approaches. Nevertheless, it should be noted that these three — Leibniz, Locke and Newton — established the modern intellectual tradition; they were giants, and any serious thinker must stand on their shoulders.

But to return to the theme of this series, the meaning of life, I’m certain that these three questions or problems — the ultimate origin of things, the problem of evil, and the problem of knowledge — relates each in its special way to life’s meaning. No one who has a concern about their life’s meaning can ignore them.

Leibniz worried over the problem throughout his life, and wrote much about it. This brief and superficial account is not enough; so I shall return to it in future essays. To be continued.

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