Voltaire & Leibniz

Brains, John Campbell was saying in his Berkeley interview, are a big asset. “It’s very important that we have brains. Their function is to reveal the world to us, not to generate a lot of random junk.”

Voltaire, dubbed by Russell “the chief transmitter of English influence to France,” was an enemy of philosophical junk, too. One of the great Enlightenment salon wits, a Deist and foe of social injustice who railed against religious intolerance (“Ecrasez l’infame!”) and mercilessly parodied rationalist philosophers (especially Leibniz, aka Dr. Pangloss).

Pangloss was professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause, and that, in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of castles, and his lady the best of all possible Baronesses… Candide

“There is a lot of pain in the world, and it does not seem well distributed.” [slides here]

William James called Leibniz’s theodicy “superficiality incarnate“:

Leibniz’s feeble grasp of reality is too obvious to need comment from me. It is evident that no realistic image of the experience of a damned soul had ever approached the portals of his mind…

And James’s comments continue, in a similarly scathing vein. He was particularly incensed by the disconnect between Leibniz’s philosophy and the suffering of a distraught Clevelander whose plight and ultimate suicide stands for the despair of so many through the ages. But if you like Leibniz’s defense of the ways of god, maybe you’d love his monadology. Maybe not. But if one substance is good, how good is a practical infinity of them?

Russell raises the basic objection to Leibniz’s “fantastical” scheme of windowless monads: if they (we) never really interact, how do they (we) know about each other? It might just be a bizarre collective dream, after all. And the “best possible world” claim is just not persuasive, though many will want to believe it.

People wish to think the universe good, and will be lenient to bad arguments  proving that it is so, while bad arguments proving that it is bad are closely  scanned. In fact, of course, the world is partly good and partly bad, and no ‘ problem of evil’ 

Voltaire’s countryman Diderot offered a sharp rejoinder to those who said nonbelievers couldn’t be trusted. “An honest person is honest without threats…” [Voltaire @dawnLeibniz@dawn… Spinoza Leibniz slides… Voltaire_Leibniz_ James]

“Whatever is, is right.” I don’t care which Pope* said that, it’s crazy. No way to think and live.

Submit.—In this, or any other sphere,
Secure to be as blest as thou canst bear:
Safe in the hand of one disposing pow’r,
Or in the natal, or the mortal hour.
All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony, not understood;
All partial evil, universal good:
And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.
Everything happens from a cause, sure, but not “for a reason” if that’s code for “for the best.” 
Irremediably, irredeemably bad things happen. Regret is an appropriate first response. Of course we should try to prevent recurrences of the worst (by our lights) that happens.

Voltaire’s Candide may be the most devastating parody ever penned. A “logical explanation for everything” leaves the world much as it found it, less than perfect and easy to improve. Feeding the hungry, curing the sick, educating the ignorant, saving the earth, etc., are obvious improvements to begin with. “All is well,” Miss Blue? (An obscure reference to a sweet-hearted cleaning lady I used to hear on the radio when I was young, who ruined that phrase for me.) I don’t think so.

But the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 did nothing to block Voltaire’s “Pangloss” from continuing to insist that everything is the result of a pre-established harmony. What must it be like, to live in a bubble of denial so insulated from reality as to permit a learned person to believe that?

After tornadoes, earthquakes, and other fatal natural disasters, people interviewed on television frequently thank god for sparing them. Hardly a reasonable response, even if a lifetime of indoctrination and insulation makes it “understandable.” But to say it in the hearing of survivors whose loved ones weren’t spared? Unspeakably insensitive.  If “acts of god” (as the insurance companies put it) take life randomly, and you happened to be one of the random survivors, is gratitude really the humane response?

Candide’s statement that “we must cultivate our garden” is a metaphor for not just talking about abstract philosophical questions but instead doing something for our species while we have the opportunity. It’s a plea for applied philosophy. I’m fresh from a philosophy conference where, I’m sorry to report, the old bias in favor of Grand Theory still has its champions. Spectators, not ameliorators, more concerned to polish their conceptual palaces than rebuild the crumbling human abode. (Thinking in particular of an environmental ethics session, where activists were slighted for being less than rigorous.)

Voltaire, as noted, was a deist, a freethinker, and a pre-Darwinian. He was not an atheist. But is that just an accident of history? If he’d come along a century later, might he have embraced godlessness?

Hard to know. He marveled at nature’s universe, wondered at (didn’t shrink from) the stars, and burned with a passion to make a better world. The highest powers are those aligned with that quest, not the complacent and wildly premature contention that this is the best of all possible worlds. His god, in any age, would not have been an excuse for passivity or indifference to the fate of the earth and its riders.

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