Today is Leibniz's 372nd birthday

He's not really 372, he's dead. But I guess we ought to take a moment today to celebrate the guy. For those who don't know, Leibniz was a Christian polymath. He was a mathematician, physicist, philosopher, theologian, historian, political scientist, lawyer, ethicist, and more.

Leibniz gave us the first mechanical calculator, a wheel that he invented in 1673, which we used for 300 years, until the invention of the electronic calculator in the mid-1970s. He made contributions to the fields of  probability theory, biology, medicine, geology, psychology, linguistics, and computer science too.

So, needless to say, he was a smart guy.

Philosophically speaking, Leibniz was an optimist. Not merely a "glass half full" sort of optimist or happy-go-lucky person, no, his was a well-formed and well-reasoned optimism grounded in his faith in God and supported by logical syllogisms of his own formation.

Leibniz gave to philosophy the idea of possible world theory, closely related to science's multiple universe hypothesis. Possible world theory is a conceptual tool used by philosophers to solve logical problems.

If you've ever seen the film Interstellar, or watched the TV show Rick and Morty, or read Marvel comics, then you know all about possible world theory and the idea of the multiverse.

In Rick and Morty, there are many dimensions, each existing concurrently. And Rick and Morty theorizes that the dimensions are collinear as well—intersecting with one another at what we might call key plot points.

In the show, there is a different Rick and a different Morty for each dimension. One dimension might have a short Rick and short Morty, another might have a cowboy Rick and cowboy Morty, another might have an evil Rick and Morty.

And then the dimensions are scrambled, and several Ricks and Mortys must join forces with or battle against other Ricks and other Mortys. Such silly proposals wouldn't be possible without good ol' Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

Here's where Leibniz's possible world theory is so cool to me, though. In his Discourse on Metaphysics, which I got to read in sophomore Philosophy, Leibniz surmises that:

  1. God thinks of infinitely many universes. In other words, God knows all of the possibilities stemming from every choice he or anyone else could ever make
  2. Only one of these universes can actually exist
  3. God can choose one thing or another
  4. God is good
  5. Therefore, the universe that God chose or manifested to exist is the best of all possible universes

This is something I wholeheartedly believe, and I think it has powerful implications. Let me rephrase the argument, how I might repeat it in conversation.

I'd say, God knows everything about the future—all that is possible, all that is actual, and all that needs to happen. In other words, he knows what could happen (all that is possible), what would happen (given adherence to a set of logical laws), and what should happen (in order to bring about his big purpose). Could, would, should.

God has a master plan for the universe, all that simply must come to pass, and we don't know everything about that plan. We know that Jesus had to die and be raised again, that much is for sure—there was no other way to save mankind.

But outside of the things he wills to happen according to his plan, God knows variables and possibilities and the consequences of our endless amount of free choices, and so God divinely "sets the table" for events in the universe to transpire.

In that sense, that we're living his plan and living within his omniscient all-knowingness, and because he's a good good Father, we can trust that we're living in the reality he wanted to manifest. The best of all possible worlds.

Why does this matter? 

Well, it means that we have nothing to fear, nothing to worry about, and no need to get anxious. God is in control.

It means that we can theorize and use logic and consider as many possibilities as we could dream up within a set state of universal physical and logical law, to predict what might take place in the future. You can predict, for instance, that if you drop your cell phone, then gravity will drive it to the ground.

And it means that you can trust your perception of gravity, that your eyes haven't fooled you and all this isn't just in your head, that you are a rational being capable of reasonable thought.

It means that we aren't just dreaming the reality we're living. Common sense realism is best to describe our world—that things are exactly as they seem.

It means that we can trust the sciences. The scientific method is, in part, an exercise of possible world theory. A hypothesis says, "There is a world in which ________ [blank] occurs," or, "There is a likelihood of ________ [blank]," and then the scientist goes out and proves or disproves the hypothesis.

It means that we can trust that truly, "All things are working for the good" as Romans 8:28 says. God is working everything out.

It means that we have a sense of, or a measure of, free agency. That we, like God, can choose. Although, we know, we must live with our choices.

It means that God can relent, or (in a sense) change his mind about some things. Consider the prayer of Abraham, begging God to spare the righteous among Sodom and Gomorrah. God promised to destroy that land, yet God relented.

Consider the prayer of Moses in Exodus 32, where God threatens to destroy the Israelite people because of how they fashioned and worshiped a golden idol. Moses prays and asks for mercy, and it says that God relented, and "did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened." 

Or consider the repentance of the Assyrian people, in the book of Jonah. “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it” (Jonah 3:10).

It's not that God is wishy-washy or unknowing. No, as Numbers says, "God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?"

Instead, God knows what is possible, what is actual, and what simply must take place, and there is a point at which God directly manifests our reality, as well as a point at which he allows the manifestation of a particular aspect of our reality. It's in that sense that, from our vantage point, his mind has changed.

Now, we don't know exactly everything he wills to come to pass from what he allows to come to pass, and speculation there can get us in trouble. But a few things we do know: We know that he allowed sin to enter into the world. We know that he allowed Job to be persecuted. We know that he directly willed Israel to wander in the desert.

We know that each time Israel came under persecution, God was allowing that persecution to take place. We see that in Habakkuk. I think that in our own trials, God is allowing us to go through them for our edification. Sometimes they're brutal and bitter. God tests and refines us.

Then, again, we know that God willed that Christ would die for us. That act—the point at which the entire course of human history pivoted—simply had to take place. Period.

All of these little ideas came, in part, from Leibniz. Without his work, we would certainly know less today. In a way, as Dan Carlin put it in his Hardcore History podcast, western religion and western politics owe nearly everything to Leibniz and other German philosophers and theologians. America was essentially founded on German ideas.

So today, take a moment to consider Leibniz. Take a moment to consider all of the many great men that came before us, upon whose shoulders we now stand when we do the work of science, philosophy, mathematics, and politics. Think it over for a bit. Then clear your mind and get back to work—that's what Leibniz would do.