Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm (1646–1716)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA052-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 23, 2019, from

3. God: creation and theodicy

Like many of his contemporaries, Leibniz thought that the existence of God could be proved, and he was particularly attracted by the so-called Ontological Argument, invented by Anselm and revised by Descartes (see God, arguments for the existence of §§2–3). According to the Ontological Argument, as given by Descartes and paraphrased by Leibniz in Meditations on knowledge, truth and ideas (([1684a] 1989: 25), ‘whatever follows from the idea or definition of anything can be predicated of that thing. Since the most perfect being includes all perfections, among which is existence, existence follows from the idea of God…Therefore existence can be predicated of God’. Leibniz’s contribution to the argument is the observation that, as it stands, the argument is not valid: ‘from this argument we can conclude only that, if God is possible, then it follows that he exists’. For the argument to work, we must establish the self-consistency of the definition of God. But the consistency of the definition of God follows directly from the fact that God ‘is without limits, without negation, and consequently without contradiction’ (Monadology §45). In addition to this version of the ontological argument, Leibniz also used a cosmological argument for the existence of God, arguing from the existence of contingent things in the world, things whose reason lies outside of themselves, to the existence of a necessary being (De rerum originatione radicali (On the ultimate origination of things) (1697); Monadology §45). Finally, Leibniz argued from the existence of eternal truths: ‘Without [God] there would be nothing real in possibles, and not only would nothing exist, but also nothing would be possible’ (Monadology §43).

In the opening sections of the Discourse on Metaphysics (1686b: §6), Leibniz argued that ‘God has chosen the most perfect world, that is, the one which is at the same time the simplest in hypotheses and the richest in phenomena’, a formula that recurs often in his writings. While this is the main account of creation, in other texts, particularly the essay On the ultimate origination of things, he argued that ‘there is a certain urge for existence or (so to speak) a straining toward existence in possible things or in possibility or essence itself; in a word, essence in and of itself strives for existence’ Leibniz [1697] 1989: 150). Leibniz continued: ‘From this it is obvious that of the infinite combinations of possibilities and possible series, the one that exists is the one through which the most essence or possibility is brought into existence’. Such an account of creation has the apparent implication that God is not necessary for it, and that creation results from a quasi-mechanistic weighing of possibilities with respect to one another. But Leibniz emphasized that God is the ground of all possibles, and that it is God who ultimately actualizes the possibles that ‘win’ the ‘contest’. The ‘striving possibles’ account of creation would seem to be a metaphorical way of expressing Leibniz’s usual account in terms of God’s choice of the best of all possible worlds.

Leibniz’s account of creation had a number of important implications. First, against Descartes and Spinoza, it entailed that there is a standard of goodness and perfection that exists independently of God; God creates the world because it is good, a world which is good not just because it is the creation of God (Discourse §2). Furthermore, unlike Malebranche, Leibniz held that the world could not have been created better than it is (Discourse §§3–4). Leibniz’s doctrine of creation can also be read as a direct attack against a conception of God argued by Spinoza. Central to Spinoza’s enterprise in the Ethics is an attack on the view that God is like us, that he has aims and goals, that he chooses things for a reason, and that he is bound by standards of goodness that exist independently of his will. This anthropomorphic view of God, Spinoza argued, is an illusion, a projection of our own nature onto nature at large (see Spinoza, B. de §4). Against Spinoza, Leibniz presented his own God, who deliberately chooses to create this world for a particular reason, because it is the best of all possible worlds, a reason intelligible to us. It is on this basis that Leibniz argued against both Descartes and Spinoza for the importance of final causes in nature.

Leibniz’s account of creation also addressed the problem of understanding divine justice, in particular, how sin, evil and suffering are possible in a world created by God – the ‘theodicy’ problem, to use the word coined by Leibniz. His answer was complex, filling many pages in Theodicy, the only philosophical book he published in his lifetime. Briefly, his argument was that evil is a necessary and unavoidable consequence of God’s having chosen to create the best of all possible worlds. However bad we might think things are in our world, they would be worse in any other.

Leibniz’s account of creation was closely connected with a number of his key principles, most prominently the Principle of Sufficient Reason. As he wrote later in the Monadology (§53), ‘since there is an infinity of possible universes in God’s ideas, and since only one of them can exist, there must be a sufficient reason for God’s choice, a reason which determines Him towards one thing rather than another’. The Principle of Sufficient Reason entails that the universe is in principle rational and intelligible: God must always act for a reason, and as a consequence, there must be a reason for everything. But the account of creation was also connected with a number of other principles in Leibniz’s philosophy (discussed below). In this way one can say that the doctrine of creation underlies all of Leibniz’s philosophy. Had we God’s intellect, we would be able to derive all of the features of this world directly from its being the best of all possible worlds. As it is, our understanding of God’s creation will enable us to fix certain general truths about this world, and set certain bounds on our hypotheses about the way things are.

Leibniz’s interest in philosophical theology was not just the interest of a philosopher. He believed that his understanding of truths about God and nature would greatly assist the undertaking of uniting the Catholic and Protestant Churches under the umbrella of the true philosophy.

Citing this article:
Garber, Daniel. God: creation and theodicy. Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm (1646–1716), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA052-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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