Leibniz, Epicurus and Theodicy: Questioning God.

Theodicy is a big word, coined by a man with a big brain. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’ hair was barely large enough to contain his vast mind, as should be obvious from the portrait below:

Gottfried_Wilhelm_Leibniz,_Bernhard_Christoph_Francke
Portrait of Leibniz, showing his large head.

What, dare you ask, did Leibniz do? Well, he discovered Calculus – yes, everyone remembers Sir Isaac Newton (click here or here) and his Principia, but on the other side of the pond, Leibniz was arriving at the same conclusions – and over 350 years later, mathematicians still use many of Leibniz’ symbols over Sir Newton’s. He also had a knack for binary mathematics, and was quite fond of designing mechanical calculators.

Also, like Newton, he also had another obsession…

Leibniz wanted to understand God.

After all, if you’re goal is to mathematically deconstruct the universe, you might want to know a thing or two about the Prime Mathematician.

(an appropriate aside: my favorite acronym for G.O.D. is Giver Of Data (for more on that, find a copy of Mondo 2000)).

And so, Leibniz, with his big brain, and even bigger hair, took up the quest.

Newton’s own explorations led him to Alchemy, which is a metaphysical rabbit hole with no end in sight. Leibniz had a more direct issue, one that the Greeks thought they had already put to rest (well, at least Epicurus did. Then again, he was the “eat, drink and be merry” fellow, for tomorrow we die. Leave it to the Epicureans to solve the problem of God/Evil and then pass out drunk).

  1. If an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent god exists, then evil does not.
  2. There is evil in the world.
  3. Therefore, an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent god does not exist.

There, problem solved.

Show’s over, you can all go home to your kids now.

Unfortunately, this line of reasoning doesn’t fit well with the major monotheistic religions.

Not that the polytheistic religions get off the hook. Hindus came up with Karma. Buddhists came up with Nothing – literally (that’s not a swipe at Buddhism, but actually a recognition of a core tenant, that of Voidness, known as Shunyata).

The Egyptians constructed an afterlife where one’s heart is measured against the feather of the Goddess of Justice, Ma’at. The Tibetans came up with their own Book of the Dead, one which explains suffering through the agency of Free Will…if you don’t like your life, honey, you shouldn’t have chose it in the waiting room of the Bardo Thodol (oops, too late now, sucker!)

Alas, Leibniz was not Tibetan, Egyptian, Buddhist or Hindu.

So, there was no easy way out: how do you argue with Epicurus (hell, you don’t. He’s passed out * (actually, Epicurus was severely moderate in his excesses, but that doesn’t make for a good read)).

And so Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz came up with a Big Word. Bigger than Calculus.

Theodicy.

That’s a big Latin Neologism that  precisely translates to:

  • If God’s so frakin’ great, why is the World so Shitty?

(For those who enjoy a greater degree of precision, that actual translation reads thusly:

  • Since God-eth is such-eth a Wonderful-eth Being-eth, it is a Pity-eth that His Work-eth is such Shat).

*

But seriously, there is an epistemological problem here. An all knowing, all powerful, all loving deity does not jive with a world painted in sorrow, and it didn’t jive with Leibniz sensibilities either.

Voltaire delighted in taking Leibniz to task: Whyforth are there Earthquakes, ye all loving, all powerful, all knowing God person?

There is a moral quandary here, and for once it’s not humanity on trial.

Are there ways out of this moral quandary? Yes, with explanations ranging from the nature of free will, to the importance of suffering for spiritual growth, to the you-don’t-know-just-how-screwed-up-things-would-be if God didn’t really care (the Best of All Worlds scenario).

There are other, even more clever explanations.

All in the name of Theodicy.

My suggestion: if your religion demands an Uber kind, Uber powerful and Uber knowledgeable deity, buy Epicurus a drink. He’ll set you straight.

And being Greek, he might just tell you a story…

Buy him a drink first.

Epicurus-sculpture-crop
Epicurus (Really, buy this man a drink)


Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man, and the Origin of Evil

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