Is This the Best Possible World?

Prowling the net the other day I came across a review of a book by Steven Nadler on “The Best of All Possible Worlds” which is about the thoughts of German philosopher Leibniz, who thought that this world is the best possible world. Things could not be better than what it is now. 

What concerned Leibniz was the problem of “theodicy,” a word coined by him to denote an systematic attempt to justify and explain the problem of evil. What has plagued the monotheistic thought for a long time. Since God is supposed to be all-powerful and all-loving, how could it be that there are evils in the world? How is it that there are earthquakes, tsunamis, wars, famine, violations of human rights, all these nasty events that destroy a large number of lives, while God the all powerful could have prevented them through his power? He has all the motivation since he is all loving. Why did God let all these things happen? If he could not have prevented them, then he is not all powerful. But if he knew it all along, then he is not all loving. Either way this is a trouble for the theologian. 

For Leibniz, as is perhaps well known or at least as Nadler related the story, we need to take a larger perspective. Perhaps the tsunamis have their purposes, their place in the grand scheme of things. Here are the words by Michael Dirda, reviewing Nadler’s book:

The attempt to justify the ways of God to men — theodicy, a term coined by Leibniz — lies at the heart of the matter: “Why is there any evil at all in God’s creation?” Essentially, Leibniz’s answer is: Consider the whole. Explains Nadler, “It is not that everything will turn out for the best for me or for anyone else in particular. Nor is it necessarily the case that any other possible world would have been worse for me or for anyone else. Rather, Leibniz claims that any other possible world is worse overall than this one, regardless of any single person’s fortunes in it.” What is good for the whole isn’t necessarily good for every one of its individual parts or components. As Nadler emphasizes, summarizing Leibniz, “all things are connected and every single aspect of the world makes a contribution to its being the best world.”

So the world is as good as it can be. It cannot be any better; any other possible worlds are all worse. Leibniz has one nifty argument for this which is not mentioned in the review. Imagine that there are two things which are alike in all respects — not a thing that distinguishes one from the other. But Leibniz’s question is how is it possible that God could have created the world such that there are such a pair of things. What explanation is there for there to be these two exactly similar things? God could not have created a scene like this, argued Leibniz, because that would limit God’s infinite capability to create and to be creative. I mean, if he could have created two absolutely similar things, then all the diversity in the world would have been meaningless. That would certainly contradict God’s nature. Thus, there could be no absolutely similar pair of things. This world is really the best possible world.

So there are two topics here — the problem of evil and theodicy on the one hand, and the idea of identity of indiscernibles on the other. The two are closely related. Identity of indiscernibles support the view that this is the best possible world, and since this is the best possible world, the evils in the world are ultimately speaking only temporary and illusory. A very comforting picture. No doubt Voltaire satirized him a lot in Candide.

So what does the Buddhist make of all this? How does Buddhism deal with the problem of evil? Buddhists do not deny that evils do happen. After all, we can’t deny earthquakes, tsunamis or gross human right violations. But since there is no God the creator or the all powerful, there is no one who is responsible for this. Evils just happen. They are natural occurrences and take place according to causes and conditions. When two of earth’s continental plates push against each other, then sooner or later they snap, sometimes violently, killing thousands. But this can be fully explained through natural means. This is all there is for earthquakes. No God is there to prevent it or to let it happen.

And for the Buddhists, is this world the best possible one? Well, I don’t remember any place in the text where the Buddha mentioned the topic. There is a sutra, though, where the Buddha said that this “world” is nothing but our senses — what we see is the world; what we hear is the world; what we touch is the world, and so on. But what this means is only that the world is as good or as bad as we take it to be. If we succeed in eliminating all causes and conditions for suffering, then this world is indeed the best possible one.


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