Sunday, February 14, 2016

Spinoza & Leibniz

Modernity reduces God's creation to a silent, colorless, odorless world of weights and measures—a pointless machine—or so it has seemed to many observers. Spinoza embraces this new world indeed, with his doctrine that God is Nature, he attempts to deify it. But Leibniz does not believe in Spinoza's new deity. And it is this rejection of Spinoza's God that represents the first principle of Leibniz's mature philosophy and the starting point of his own, unique response to modernity. Any God worthy of the name, says Leibniz, must be able to make choices. That is, God must have an intellect with which to contemplate his options, and a will with which to affirm his decisions. God must have a choice, according to Leibniz's way of thinking, because otherwise he would not have a chance to be good. That is, God must make his choices with the idea that he is doing something that deserves praise. But Spinoza's God makes no choices. It has no will or intellect, at least as we understand those terms. In Spinoza's world, furthermore, "good" is just a term relative to human needs and limitations, no more applicable to God than, say, "delicious," "orange," or, for that matter, "bad." The God of Spinoza, Leibniz concludes, is not a God at all. Spinoza was, as he puts it to the Count von Hessen-Rheinfels, "truly Atheist." The questions Leibniz raises here concerning Spinoza's doctrine of God are valid ones, and must be contemplated by all those who wish to penetrate to the core of either philosopher's thought. According to Spinoza, God or Nature causes the things of the world in the same way that the nature of a coffee, for example, causes it to be black. But we do not usually say that that the nature of coffee is divine, so why should we say that Nature is God? In the Ethics, as a matter of fact, one can substitute the word "Nature" (or "Substance," or even simply an X) for God throughout, and the logic of the argument changes  little, if at all. So, why use the term "God" at all? What does the name of God add—except, perhaps, some of the crusty and, for Spinoza, impermissible connotations about a divine decision maker who, say, chooses to make coffee black rather than pink? The intuition that motivates Leibniz's position here might be stated this way: what is divine must be in some way beyond or before what is natural, or else it is not divine at all. In arguing that God must be good, Leibniz puts his finger on a related paradox in Spinoza's thinking. To say that nature is divine is in some way to judge the world—usually, to imply that the world as a whole is good. Nietzsche—whose qualifications as a Spinozist have been insufficiently acknowledged, even by himself—suggests as much when he says that Spinoza "deified the All" in order to "affirm" the world. Spinoza himself says that the world is "perfect." But, according to Spinoza's own logic, the totality of things lies beyond all human judgment. It is neither good nor bad. Now, says Leibniz, if Spinoza cannot say that the world is good, he certainly cannot say that it is perfect, except in the most abstract sense meaning "complete" or "all that there is." He cannot judge or "affirm" the world in the way that one must if one says that it is divine. Therefore, he has no license to give Nature the name of God, as he claims to do. Even as he rejects Spinoza's concept of God, however, Leibniz retains his deep commitment to the guidance of reason. No less than Spinoza, he finds intolerable the idea of a God without reason, that is, a God who makes up reasons as he goes along, who has the arbitrary power to declare that two plus two is four on one day and then change his mind the next. Like Spinoza, Leibniz now faces one of the defining problems of modernity, namely, how to manage the potentially destructive conflict between God and Nature, or between belief in divinity and the ever expanding power circle of scientific knowledge. Unlike his more orthodox contemporaries, Leibniz is too honest to ignore the claims of reason. Unlike Spinoza, however, he cannot find it in himself to deify the object of the new sciences. His problem, then, is to discover a God of reason—that is, one who answers to philosophical proofs and whose existence is compatible with the findings of science—who nonetheless avoids the Spinozistic pitfall of losing his divinity altogether. In the Discourse, Leibniz first formulates his answer to this problem in a clear and perspicuous way. "God has chosen that world which is most perfect," he writes. That is to say, God is that being which chooses the "the best of all possible worlds." In his later writings, in which he allows himself the poetic license that accrues to well-ripened visions, Leibniz presents a more vivid representation of this idea of God. In the final pages of his Theodicy, a character named Theodorus (Leibniz's alter ego in this instance) falls asleep in a temple and begins to dream. In his reverie, he visits "a palace of unimaginable splendor and prodigious size"—an edifice that, as it happens, belongs to God. The halls in the palace represent possible worlds. As Theodorus wanders through this magnificent con-struction, he tours a variety of worlds in which things happened very differently than in our own: worlds in which Adam did not eat the apple, for instance, and worlds in which Judas kept his mouth shut.
The halls rose in a pyramid, becoming even more beautiful as one mounted toward the apex, and representing more beautiful worlds. Finally they reached the highest one which completed the pyramid, and which was the most beautiful of all: ... for the pyramid had an apex, but no base; it went on increasing to infinity. That is . . . because amongst an endless number of possible worlds there is the best of all, else God would not have deter-mined to create any.
The world at the apex, the best of all possible worlds, it turns out, is the actual world, the one in which we live. The vision is unmistakably baroque. It is possibly an apt represen-tation of what it feels like to get lost at Versailles, and perhaps it is best read with music of the period in the back of one's mind. (Handel, incidentally, was Leibniz's fellow courtier at Hanover in the year that the Theodicy was published.) The passage also oozes the optimism that would later induce Voltaire to satirize Leibniz in the figure of Dr. Pangloss. After all, many would have guessed that our world is one or two levels down from the top of the pyramid, at the very least. In any case, the crucial and novel feature in Leibniz's account is his characterization of God's choice in terms of possible worlds—as opposed to possible things. According to Leibniz, God chooses not between, say, allowing Adam to eat the apple or not, but between pos-sible worlds that do or do not include an Adam eating an apple. This marks what Leibniz believed was one of his decisive breakthroughs in the ten years after his journey to The Hague. In his earlier writings, Leibniz's unswerving commitment to the principle of sufficient rea-son made it difficult for him to conceive of possible things. For, inas-much as everything happens for a reason, there are no isolated accidents or random events in Leibniz's world—everything is part of a single, causal tapestry. "Because of the interconnection of things," he acknowledges at the time of his Discourse, "the universe with all its parts would be wholly different from the commencement if the least thing in it happened otherwise than it had." By raising God's choice to the level of possible worlds, however, Leibniz can have his princi-ple of sufficient reason and eat it, too, in a sense: that is, he can grant that all things within our world are linked together in a necessary way while still maintaining that the world as a whole does not necessar-ily have to be the way that it is. "The reasons for the world," he says, "lie in something extramundane." The concept of possible worlds, according to Leibniz's way of
thinking, also neatly solves the problem of God's goodness. Inasmuch as God does not choose particular things, he does not choose things that are evil; rather, he chooses a world that, for some reason, must have evil in it. The reason for this world is the principle of the best, which God applies with perfect precision; and if this world seems to us to have things that deserve the name of evil, we may nonetheless rest assured that God could not have made a better choice. In other to solidify the conclusion that God must make a choice, Leibniz labors hard to establish a distinction between "moral" neces-sity and "metaphysical" necessity. God's decision to create the best of all possible worlds, he grants, exhibits a kind of moral necessity. That is, if God wishes to be good, he must apply the principle of the best in his choice of possible worlds. But God's choice does not involve any metaphysical necessity. That is, God is theoretically capable of ordering up a less than ideal world, or no world at all, should he be so inclined. At this point, the contrast with Spinoza's concept of God could hardly be starker—and that is precisely the point behind the vision. The difference goes back to that simple-sounding question: Does God have a choice? Spinoza says no; Leibniz says yes. Spinoza says that God has only one world to choose from, namely, the one that follows ineluctably from its own Nature. Leibniz counters that God always has the option not to create the world; and, when God decides to go ahead with the project, he faces a choice among an infinite number of possible worlds. Spinoza's God has no need for anthropo-morphic encumbrances such as a will or intellect, for it has no choices to contemplate and no resolutions to affirm. Leibniz's God, on the other hand, looks much more like you or me: he must have a capacity for thought and action,in order to make his choices. Finally, whereas Spinoza's Substance is well beyond the merely human cate-gories of good and evil, Leibniz's God is the ultimate do-gooder, as he shuffles through all possible worlds hoping to locate "the best." In sum, Spinoza believes in an "immanent" God; Leibniz argues for a "transcendent" one. Spinoza's God is the immanent cause of things: it creates the world in the same way that an essence creates its prop-erties that is, in the same way that the nature of a circle makes it round. It is in the world (just as the world is in it) and therefore can-not conceivably be associated with any other world or with no world at all. A transcendent God, on the other hand, is the "transitive" cause of things. He creates the world in the same way that a watchmaker makes a watch. He stands outside the world, and he would still be God whether he opted to create this world, another world, or no world at all. He has a certain degree of personhood (which is why we tend to call him "he," in deference to the tradition). Leibniz some-times uses the phrase "supra-mundane intelligence" to describe his transcendent God. Dropping the polysyllables, we could also say sim-ply that Spinoza's divinity is one that inhabits the "here and now," while Leibniz's resides in the "before and beyond." The confrontation between Leibnizian and Spinozistic concep-tions of divinity, incidentally, continues to characterize discussions to the present, notably in the field of cosmology (never mind the rela-tively changeless field of theology). Among contemporary physicists, for example, there are those who maintain that the laws of nature are inherently arbitrary. According to their rather Leibnizian view, God (or perhaps a Great Designer) selects from among an infinite range of parameters for the laws of nature, and everything else in the world then unfolds within the chosen regime. Others physicists, however, maintain that the parameters that define the laws of physics may ulti-mately be determined by the laws themselves, such that nature may account for itself in an utterly self-sufficient way. Such theorists may be said to lean to the side of Spinoza. In the seventeenth century, of course, the difference between Leib-nizian and Spinozan concepts of divinity was hugely—and perhaps essentially—political. Spinoza argues that the deity of popular super-stition is a prop for theocratic tyranny. But what Spinoza calls theo-cratic oppression Leibniz identifies as the best of all possible systems of government. Thus, Leibniz turns the tables and calls Spinoza's con-cept of God "bad" and "dangerous," on the grounds that it will lead only to "out-and-out anarchy" His own concept of God, Leibniz assures us, will protect civilization—indeed, it will serve as the basis for a Christian republic united under a single church. Leibniz's insistence on political implications of the metaphysics of
divinity is so forceful that it raises the question as to whether his entire philosophy, like Spinoza's perhaps, was essentially a political project. For, inasmuch as it is the universal belief in the goodness of God that brings about the desired political ends of unity, stability, and charity, then the facts of the matter—whether God does indeed make choices and is good—don't matter at all. Philosophy, on this assump-tion, is not the disinterested search for the truth about God, but a highly sophisticated form of political rhetoric.

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