Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Alan Lightman sounds the alarm

Sound the alarm! Science’s priestly reign over the public square may soon be overthrown! The fortress of doubt could be breached. Already, the foundations of theoretical physics are straining and cracking. The barbarians are at the gates. They will torch the manicured gardens of reason. Who then will keep order? What of the state? How will the West survive?

To understand how we have reached this precipice, one need only look at developments in theoretical physics over the last few decades. Theoretical physics is the purest expression of science. Exploring the universe with sophisticated and occult mathematics, it searches for the deepest and most explanatory properties of nature. In the name of Isaac Newton, its faithful hunt natural laws as unapologetic Platonists. Their holy grail is a master principle that will explain everything.

According to cosmologist Alan Gurth, “Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the feeling was that we were so smart; we had everything figured out.” It was true, theoretical physicists had come an amazing distance. They had accurately modeled three of the fundamental forces of nature: the strong and weak forces and electromagnetism. No one doubted that the remaining fourth force, gravity, would soon be wedded to quantum physics, with the result that a final theory--a theory of everything--would emerge. In the light of the theory of everything, the universe would no longer be a mystery, but a necessity. Enter the multiverse.

So much has been made of the multiverse on television and in the movies that it seems silly to explain it. Nevertheless, the multiverse is a cosmos fecund with an infinitude of universes, each with an unpredictable and unique set of physical properties. Most would be stillborn wastes of dead rock or awash in the violent spray of hyper radiation. But the tiniest fraction of a fraction of these might contain complex organisms or, rarest of all, intelligent life.

What makes the multiverse idea so necessary to cosmologists is a characteristic of the one universe we do know about--our own. As it turns out, our universe is stunningly, amazingly, fantastically, and completely fine tuned to support life. This characteristic has only grown more miraculous as physicists have better understood how delicate and complex it all is. I imagine that somewhere in the first quarter of the twentieth century this fine tuning was ignored in public and rarely discussed in private. Back then, Einstein’s general relativity was upsetting the comfortable givenness of the solid-state model of the universe. But as our models have become more complex, the evidence of fine tuning has grown to an acuity that no one can ignore.

Such fine tuning forced working physicists into a conundrum. They could roll away the stone and resurrect the argument from design, much to the smug satisfaction of the Intelligent Design community. Indeed, many theists and polytheists argue that the fine-tuning of the universe suggests a transcendent designer. Francis Collins, for example, at the 2011 Christian Scholars’ Conference said, “To get our universe, with all of its potential for complexities or any kind of potential for any kind of life-form, everything has to be precisely defined on this knife edge of improbability. . . . [Y]ou have to see the hands of a creator.” But religion is not an option for science, even though many scientists hold religious beliefs. Science as science cannot embrace unqualified and unrepeatable hypotheses. If it should do this, it instantly becomes another propagandist in a thoroughly political universe, opening the way to the naked power of fascism, the hive mind of socialism, or the cultic and bloody mysteries of theocracy. Here be barbarians.

As it stands, physicists have two options: string theory and the multiverse. String theory has been around for decades. It suggests that the smallest bits of stuff that exist are vibrating, tiny, one-dimensional loops or strings of energy. The differences in their vibrations give rise to the fundamental forces and particles familiar to physics. Many hoped string theory would be able to unify gravity with quantum physics. And if string theorists could pull off this correlation, they would realize the Platonic ideal of a fully explicable cosmos. But, there remains a problem.

At its inception, string theory required a number of extra dimensions: seven at the beginning, with each dimensional fold corresponding to a different universe. Now, however, that number has grown to 10 to the 500th possible universes. It may as well be an infinity, explaining everything and so explaining nothing. Never mind that, as of this writing, string theory has not been supported by a single experimental result, nor has it suggested demonstrable areas of further investigation. It's failure leaves only the multiverse.

Lightman tries his best to assert that a multiverse is at least suggested by modern physics. He points out that eternal inflation suggests it, and cites Alan Guth’s original inflation theory, which was developed by Andrei Linde, Paul Steinhardt, and Alex Vilenkin some twenty years ago. But eternal inflation says that the universe is expanding upon a field of dark energy that has different properties at different points in space--the same energy of which he admits “no one knows what it is.” He goes on to admit that physicists “give a fantastically large range for the theoretically possible amounts of dark energy” (emphasis his). He then abandons eternal inflation and resorts to a pathetic argument from authority, writing, “Some of the world’s leading physicists have devoted their careers to the study of these two theories.” Eventually, however, he has to admit that “neither eternal inflation nor string theory has anywhere near the experimental support of many previous theories in physics, such as special relativity or quantum electrodynamics.” By this he means that the latter two have been independently verified by a number of experiments over the last half of the previous century and have suggested further avenues of research whereas the former are nifty math gymnastics for the initiated. In other words, the multiverse is not the elegant explanation physicists expected. They went looking for a universe of light and form, but wound up with something dark and formless.

Keep in mind that the multiverse idea is no friend to theoretical physics. Lightman admits that “if the multiverse idea is correct, then the historic mission of physics to explain all the properties of our universe in terms of fundamental principles--to explain why the properties of our universe must necessarily be what they are--is futile, a beautiful philosophical dream that simply isn’t true.” If the multiverse idea is true, he continues, then "there is no hope of ever explaining our universe's features in terms of fundamental causes and principles."

Therefore because of our universe’s demonstrable fine tuning for life, theoretical physicists have oh so quietly abandoned empirical science for faith. “Some [physicists] feel relieved,” Lightman says. “Some feel like their lifelong ruminations have been pointless. And some remain deeply concerned, because there is no way they can prove [the multiverse]."

Appealing evangelistically to his scientific peers, Lightman says, "Not only must we accept that basic properties of our universe are accidental and uncalculable. In addition, we must believe in the existence of many other universes. But we have no conceivable way of observing these other universes and cannot prove their existence. . . . We must believe in what we cannot prove.” And so the multiverse, though a perennial boon to science fiction, is as whimsical a figure as the flying spaghetti monster.

What a horrible state of affairs! For without the despotic threat of militant empiricism, the barbarians will most surely come. They will burn libraries in an inferno of anti-intellectualism. They will invoke and totemize the fine tuning of the universe to summon legions of theosophic spiritualisms. Eros will seduce reason, and governments will descend into a night of long knives. Heaven help us! The priesthood is forfeit. The public square lies open. Oh, Alan Lightman, how will they let you live?


Who would have expected it, but the so-called war between religion and science has been but a cordial tete-a-tete all this time. Kept under the watchful eye of white-cloaked science, the churches could relax. All those threats about secularism did but thin the ranks of the Elmer Gantry, allowing ecclesial powers to pay more attention to the faithful. Who needs the hard and divisive labor of doctrine, discipline, and exegetical homiletics when one can employ the far more friendly and quantitative techniques of psychology and business management? Church discipline, private rebuke, and public apologetics are not necessary when only the faithful attend. Science too has benefited. In public, religion has been a noteworthy and engaging sparring partner: good for putting scientists on best-seller lists and magazine covers; good for TED talks, speaker's fees, innumerable conference sessions, and humorous anecdotes (and the benefits flow both ways). In private, scientists haunted by the specter of Oppenheimer have been glad to have an ethical stopgap to keep the whole thing human.

Read part one of this article, Science's Crisis of Faith, or read the whole thing as a document.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

David Hume. An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding

An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding is the distilled presentation of a thinker who was together a scientist, psychologist, metaphysician, and skeptic in a manner that continues to fascinate contemporary minds. The product of both youthful fire and mature consideration, the Enquiry, “contain[s] everything of Consequence relating to the understanding.” In the face of skepticism, the Enquiry offered progress based on experience. In a time of dogmatism, the Enquiry dissected the bases of religious faith and delivered a still-powerful critique. Its attempt was nothing less than the construction of an anatomy of human nature.

Its author, David Hume, was born on April 26, 1711. He grew up in Ninewells and Edinburgh, Scotland. His widowed Mother educated her “uncommonly wake-minded” son until his enrollment at University of Edinburgh at age eleven where he initially considered a career in law. Yet, in a decision that must have weighed heavily against limited means, the fifteen-year-old left the university to answer inner questions of theology and metaphysics. “I could think of no other way of pushing my Fortune in the World, but that of a Scholar & Philosopher.” Residing either in France or England, Hume served as tutor to the Marquis of Annnandale, as a librarian of the Advocates Library in Edinburgh and as secretary to the Earl of Hartford. He was best known to contemporaries as a historian due to the pro-Torey History of England, even though time judged his philosophy more influential. Hume befriended many notaries, including Jean Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, and James Boswell. After his death, others admitted admiration, including Auguste Comte, Charles Darwin, and Thomas Henry Huxley.

The Hume family were Calvinists and faithful members of the Church of Scotland. One of Hume’s Uncles was a bishop in the same. The young David took religion very seriously during an era characterized by religious indifference. He confessed, for example, to vanity for thinking himself smarter than his peers. He also applied himself to a moral code modeled upon the pedantic, The Whole Duty of Man. Yet, after leaving the University, he began questioning religious dogmas, and especially proofs for God’s existence. He wrote, “It began with an anxious Search after Arguments, to confirm the common Opinion: Doubts stole in, dissipated, return’d, were again dissipated, return’d again.”

David Hume’s ascent to prominence in Europe’s literati had steep beginnings. At sixteen Hume had begun the labor that would, by twenty-seven, become the Treatise of Human Nature (1739). It was a failure. “Never literary attempt was more unfortunate than my Treatise of Human Nature,” he wrote. “It fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction, as even to excite a murmur among the zealots.” Still, Hume continued writing. His Essays Moral and Political (1741-2) were very successful. Hume began courting the essay form popular in the Eighteenth Century, and considering himself a man of letters. He also began rewriting sections of the Treatise.

I had always entertained a notion, that my want of success in publishing the Treatise of Human Nature, had proceeded more from the manner than the matter, and that I had been guilty of a very unusual indiscretion, in going to the press too early. I, therefore, cast the first part of that work anew in the Enquiry concerning Human Understanding.

The Enquiry, first published anonymously as Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding (1748), would prove to be the perfect vehicle for introducing Hume’s science of human nature. Its success when compared against its progenitor is unsurprising. Hume learned the benefits of rhetoric from English essayist Joseph Addison. It is to Addison that the Enquiry owes its informality and narrative style. Furthermore, the Treatise is three or four times the length of the Enquiry. Lastly, the former rambles in soporific repetition, while the latter’s essays continue only as long as a bourgeois attention-span might allow.

There were some difficulties along the way to the Enquiry’s success. Some felt it should never be published. Hume initially circulated the Enquiry for private comment. Henry Home, one of Hume’s close friends, advised against its publication. Home feared the consequences that might follow exposure of Hume’s skeptical treatment of religion. Hume had omitted a section in the Treatise on miracles for that very reason. This time, however, Hume was indifferent to scandal. Further, it looked initially like the Enquiry would emulate the failure of the Treatise. Hume, returning to England in 1748, wrote, “I had the mortification to find all England in a ferment, on account of Dr. Middleton’s Free Enquiry, while my performance was entirely overlooked and neglected.” Within a few years, however, one of the essays, “Of Miracles,” evoked responses which gained notoriety for the whole. The Enquiry, bundled with other works, was reissued in ten editions during his lifetime.

David Hume’s life spans one hundred years of time called the Enlightenment. The religious conflicts and scientific advancements of the previous decades bequeathed new confidence in human abilities to understand and manipulate the world. It was a confidence to doubt and to see anew. Men like Francis Bacon and Galileo Galilei no longer trusted the received Aristotelianism of the Schools. Rather, beginning with doubt, they made up the difference with discoveries obtained by induction from personal observations. Supreme among them was Isaac Newton. Newton’s physical and mathematical insights overturned centuries of Ptolemaic astronomy and revealed the limitless universe in ways wholly new and unexpected. His success was a powerful recommendation for doubt and observation as the best method for obtaining knowledge. It attracted many admirers, none the least of which were René Descartes, John Locke, and David Hume.

Descartes and Locke sought to do for the inner world of human nature what Newton had done for the outer world of human knowledge. Knowledge, to be certain, must be placed upon a proper foundation. In his Discourse on the Method (1637), Descartes applied radical doubting to discover the nature of even his own existence in order to define some point of absolute certainty. He wrote, “I had to raze everything to the ground and begin again from the original foundations, if I wanted to establish anything firm and lasting in the sciences.” Like Newton before him, Descartes’ method was much imitated, none the least by John Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). In the prologue to the Essay, Locke explained that he and several friends had been unsuccessfully discussing “principles of morality and revealed religion” in the winter of 1670. He continued, “it came into my thoughts that we took a wrong course; and that before we set ourselves upon inquiries of that nature, it was necessary to examine our own abilities, and see what objects our understandings were, or were not, fitted to deal with.” Both men, using the doubt and observation of the new science, sought to discover the basis of human knowledge by an examination of the self. Yet there were differences in their assumptions wide enough to split those who came after them into two rival movements. These were Continental Rationalism, which followed Descartes, and British Empiricism, which followed Locke.

The differences between these two movements, as outlined by Thomas Reid in his An Inquiry into the Human Mind (1764), were twofold. First, Rationalists believed that there were a certain cluster of permanent and innate ideas or concepts: ideas of the self, causation and infinite perfection. These innate ideas were forever intuitively known to reason. Empiricists disagreed, saying that every idea may be traced back to sensory experience or emotion. Second, Rationalists believed that truth may be properly and mathematically deduced from innate ideas along the same lines as a geometric proof. Induction from observation was the favored method of the Empiricists. The principle philosophers associated with Continental Rationalism were René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, and G. W. Leibniz. British Empiricism claimed John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume.

Hume loved empiricism and hated rationalism. He, like Locke, followed the methodology of doubt espoused by Newton and Descartes. Yet, by the time he began his philosophical studies, doubt had begun to answer the question of certainty with ever-deepening skepticism. Locke taught that all ideas arise from experience, but left open the nature of the underlying substance that causes sensation. Thus, “sensitive knowledge” has no underlying definition. George Berkley, seeing the weakness in Locke’s epistemology, or theory of knowledge, posited a solipsistic idealism in which the sensate world is but a field of mental impressions existing only in the individual mind. Philosophers Nicholas Malebranche and Pierre Bayle agreed; truth about the world is not as obvious as commonly supposed. Reason proved uncertain whereas skepticism proved reasonable.

Until recently, Hume was included in the ranks of the skeptics. Philosophy so demanded an answer to the “skeptical challenge” that portions of the Treatise were over-emphasized, destructive passages highlighted. Hume’s was then a negative voice, if not the negative voice. Twentieth-century scholarship has begun to redeem this image.

Hume is now understood as the first post-skeptical philosopher of the early modern period. He took for granted the doctrine of the skeptics rather than promulgating skepticism of his own. His is an attempt to find a way forward for philosophy given the skeptical situation. Certainly he forever retained, if not purified, the hallmarks of Locke’s empiricism. Yet, reform was needed. The fixed point of human nature, the mind, should be studied scientifically, just as Newton had done with natural phenomenon. The result would be a “science of man,” a “solid foundation laid on experience and observation” which could then be extended to all other sciences.

Hume’s skeptical challenge may be understood as a change from ontology to psychology, or from a worldview based on hierarchies of being to one centered around pure anthropology. Descartes’s cogito, “I doubt therefore I am,” beginning with the pronoun “I,” had already begun a turn to the subject. Yet, Descartes still relied on theistic arguments in order to complete his system. Hume did not assume religious categories, nor did he want to. They had already been addressed by the skeptics. His task, rather, was to understand how the mind works. Not what the mind is, but, instead, how it does what it does, always with an ear to the bar of common sense. It is this project which occupies the Enquiry.

Two main themes develop from the Enquiry as it pursues this goal. The first of these is positive, and the second negative. The first exalts imagination and the passions, and the second condemns religious reasoning whether natural or revealed. The first is an examination of causation and the next a condemnation of religious excess.

Hume’s importance in the history of philosophy derives in some respect from his exegesis of causation. With it, Hume scored a victory for British Empiricism over the Continental Rationalists like Malebranche. The Rationalist, rightly equating both self-knowledge and a knowledge of the surrounding world with the necessity of causality, deemed it an innate idea on par with mathematical absoluteness. Hume, however, using empirical induction, saw only one sensation following upon another and called the relationship between them a psychological habit born of instinctive imagination.

When one particular species of event has always, in all instances, been conjoined with another, we make no longer any scruple of foretelling one upon the appearance of the other...We then call that one object, Cause; the other, Effect. We suppose that there is some connection between them; some power in the one, by which it infallibly produces the other, and operates with the greatest certainty and strongest necessity.

What is left between isolated events is but probability and of human nature, not a self but merely bundles of impressions. “[There is] nothing but a species of instinct or mechanical power that acts in us unknown to ourselves.”

Hume’s views on causation met a critical reception. Even close associates such as Henry Home and John Stewart disagreed with his diagnosis of the original quality of human nature. The most famous of his critics, however, is Immanuel Kant who, troubled into life by Hume, carefully corrected the Empiricist in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) and Prolegomena (1783) which writing also had the effect of raising German interest in Hume’s theories.

The second theme of the Enquiry concerns Hume’s attack on both natural and revealed religion specifically in the essays “On Miracles” (contra revelation) and “Of Particular Providence and a Future State” (contra design (neither Hume nor his contemporaries were aware of the ontological argument)). Hume disliked any form of reasoning that went beyond the limits of perception. His charge against religious dogma was that it was unreasonable. “Religious belief,” he wrote, “is a form of make-believe which … leads by degrees to dissimulation, fraud and falsehood.” It was therefore a subject which he could not ignore. By hobbling design with causation and revelation with an appeal to evidential common sense, Hume sought to show that “the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to the human mind.”

Hume’s hostility (often hidden by rhetorical device) garnered some of the earliest responses to his philosophy in close criticisms penned by clergymen both Anglican and otherwise. Significant among these were William Adams (1752), John Leland (1755) and George Campbell (1762). Hume was branded an atheist. The label cost him appointment to a chair of moral philosophy at the University of Edinburgh in 1745. Nevertheless, his religious critique earned him many accolades. His influence is discerned in the theologies of Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Karl W. Feuerbach. They also earned him a permanent place in the philosophy of religion.

David Hume died on August 25, 1776, a few months after finishing the autobiographical “My Own Life” (a nod to friend Benjamin Franklin’s own autobiography which Hume had read in manuscript.) He was buried at Calton Burial Ground. In the last decade of his life, many philosophers engaged Hume’s ideas, including Thomas Reid and James Beattie (Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth (1770)). Despite the fact that he once wrote, “I cou’d cover the Floor of a large Room with Books and Pamphlets wrote against me,” his work is respected today both for its commitment to the tenants of empiricism and for its religious critiques. There is a growing dialogue, too, with Hume’s insights in the cognitive sciences, specifically in the work of W. V. O. Quine (Word and Object, 1960) and Richard Rorty.


Aiken, Henry D. Introduction. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. By David Hume. New York: Hafner Publishing Co., 1969.
Fieser, James. “David Hume (1711-1776): Writings on Religion.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 1 Aug. 2003.
---. “David Hume (1711-1776): Metaphysical and Epistemological Theories.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 1 Aug. 2003.
Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Ed. Tom L. Beauchamp. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Humer, James M. “Hume.” A Companion to the Philosophers. Ed. Robert L. Arrington. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd., 1999. 309-318.
Kenny, Anthony. “British Philosophy in the Eighteenth Century.” A Brief History of Western Philosophy. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd., 1998. 230-243.
Morris, William Edward. “David Hume.” 2003. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 15 July 2003. Stanford University.
Mossner, E. The Life of David Hume. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Norton, David Fate, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Hume. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Noxon, J. Hume’s Philosophical Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973.
Smith, T.V. and Marjorie Grene. Philosophers Speak For Themselves: From Descartes to Locke. Phoenix Books P17. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.

(c) 2004 Thom Chittom
Barnes and Noble Classics

Friday, February 17, 2012

G. W. Leibniz. Discourse on Metaphysics

G W. Leibniz's Discourse on Metaphysics is the olive branch of a mind at once seizing and being seized by the churning intellectualism of the seventeenth century. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1617), forty at the time he penned his first mature outline of a universal metaphysic, was a man standing in between the ideological armies of Cartesian modernism and Aristotelian conservatism. His Discourse sounds above the crush of these two ideologies. It paves another way. And, in doing so, it has long outgrown its place as a piece of private correspondence to inform thinkers across the disciplines of the present day.

The roots of Leibniz’s intellectual modernism are traced to his youth. G. W. Leibniz was born July 1, 1646, at Leipzig, the son of a professor of moral philosophy. His mother also had university ties; her father was a Professor of Law. Culturally, the violence of the Thirty-Years war would subside in another two years time. Yet, Leibniz’s own intellectual violence grew with age. Upon his father’s death, the six-year old was allowed access to an expansive library. He taught himself enough Greek and Latin to, “immerse myself in the historians and poets.” He absorbed the ideas of Plato, Herodotus, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, and many others, all without intellectual prejudice. Leibniz’s gift to all was the unity of a curious mind. Authors were valued each for their own contribution. It was a habit of synthesis he would carry with him throughout life.

As a young man, Leibniz’s democratic intelligence had great effect upon his career. He studied law and philosophy at the universities of Leibzig and Altdorf, yet declined a university post in lieu of the broader opportunities of public service. (No doubt, the cultural stagnations attending a protracted war made a professorship repellent to the autodidact.) His employer was the Elector of Mainz. Leibniz’s flair for law, mining diplomatically from both scholastic canon and scientific analysis, brought him success and opportunities for travel. One diplomatic mission took him to Paris in the spring of 1672.

Paris in the seventeenth century was the intellectual center of the world. Aristotelian scholasticism, traditionally dominant in the schools, was failing in influence before the demonstrable results of the modern philosophers: Galileo, Torricelli, Cavaliere, Descartes, Pascal, and Hobbes. The substantial forms of the schoolmen were being poured into new wineskins of geometry, mechanics, and motion. New solutions reopened new problems to scrutiny: In a world of atomic flux, how can there be any continuity of matter? What is the relationship between contingency and necessity? Can we obtain a clear and distinct idea of things as they are (en res) by observing things as they appear to be?

In order to participate in the Parisian milieu, Leibniz needed to learn many new ideas. His education was Aristotelian. He was a humanist in the renaissance tradition. Therefore, the modernism of Paris was entirely new. He worked hard to understand and embrace the truths of its observational methodology. He negotiated meetings with the philosophers Antoine Arnauld and Nicolas Malebranche (he would also visit Baruch Spinoza in Holland). He read unpublished manuscripts by Pascal and Descartes. Yet, it was the teaching of Christiaan Huygens that equipped him to practice modern philosophy.

Huygens’s mathematical instruction found fertile soil; Leibniz’s progress was quick. He was elected to the Royal Society of London in 1673. His famous calculating machine was built that same year. He suggested ideas for improvements in barometry, time keeping and the calculation of distance, as well as for mechanical devices such as pumps, carriages, gears, and lenses. By the time Leibniz returned to Hanover in 1676, his mastery of mathematics was so thorough that, in 1675, at twenty-eight years of age, he had discovered the infinitesimal, or differential, calculus. Its dynamism formed the basis of all of Leibniz’s subsequent philosophical reasoning to his death on November 14, 1716.

Until 1675, a type of curve existed, called a mechanical or transcendent curve, which defied geometrical analysis. The mechanical curve resembles the shape made by a sail in the wind. Cartesians judged the curve to be forever inexplicable to mathematics because its explanation would require the knowledge of all possible numbers, a knowledge in extenso. Leibniz disagreed. The entire shape of the curve does not need to be explained, he reasoned, but only its geometrical movement. If the difference between each of its infinitesimally small points could be expressed geometrically, then all that would be needed to complete the analysis would be the movement of the equation. Expressing the generation of the curve geometrically–its “construction principle”–is tantamount to expressing the curve itself, and without the requirement of in extenso understanding. All that is needed to plot an infinitely complex shape is a foundational measurement and dynamic principle of continuity based on that measurement.

Leibniz’s mathematical insight was, in reality, an application of his rationalist understanding of knowledge. Throughout his educational life, he envisioned a universal characteristic language, an algebraic mathematics of logic (ars characteristica) by which all knowledge could not only be explained and compared, but ultimately constructed. Descartes had considered such a thing, but dismissed it since such a language would depend upon a true and absolute, if not omniscient, understanding. Leibniz, again, disagreed. Mathematics, he said, works by the dynamic manipulation of a handful of algebraic symbols. The sum of all equations is not needed to make mathematical advances. It was the same solution he proposed for the problem of the transcendental curve.

Yet, this application of thought traced far larger horizons. This was a worldview, a cosmology. The universal characteristic was a logos, a ratio of the universe. It was a logic so large that it could only be called a metaphysic. Leibniz’s universal characteristic required a metaphysical basis which would explain not only the change and extension of substances (if not a re-definition of substance itself), but also the contingency and necessity of God and of humanity. It would be a unique synthesis of truths from both Aristotelian scholasticism and Cartesian modernism. He appended descriptive abstracts of his metaphysic in his correspondence with Arnauld in 1686 (these are today incorporated as sectional summaries.) The whole was also prepared for publication, though its was not printed in his lifetime. It is known today as the Discourse on Metaphysics.

There are three principle aspects to the Discourse, all of which serve to make it a metaphysic in the style of his universal characteristic: first, there is existence; then, substance; and, lastly, there is proportion, or how these substances work together.

“God is an absolutely perfect being,” he writes, “whence it follows that God . . . acts in the most perfect manner.” Leibniz was not known for his religiosity, but was following his age by grounding his universal metaphysic in the nature of God. Descartes had done the same in the Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), as had the medieval scholastics. Substances must have reason for existing in the infinite variety he conceived. Therefore, God must exist and have a reason for making the world as it is. Leibniz found the answer in the perfection of God, which results in a world made as perfectly as possible. He expressed perfection through a variety/simplicity criterion in which the best solution finds geometric expression in the balance between the complexity of a figure and the simplicity of its informing equation: “God . . . has chosen the most perfect [method of creation], that is to say the one which is at the same time the simplest in hypothesis and the richest in phenomena.” Voltaire later ridiculed Leibniz through the character of Dr. Pangloss in Candide (1759) for his belief that this was the best of all possible worlds, yet Leibniz’s variety/simplicity criterion is understandable given the cosmological philosophy of the time.

The perfection of God makes simple substances a metaphysical, and not just philosophical, assertion. God, from an innumerable number of possible worlds, actualizes the substances that together express the most perfect world. There are no atoms, no vacuum, only an infinity of simple substances. Substances, also called “ideas” and “souls”, had not yet achieved the true idealism that would characterize their expression in Leibniz’s more mature Monadology (1714). Yet, the conceptual foundation was already there in the concept of expression and the identity of indiscernables.

To define these terms, it is helpful to reconsider the mechanical curve which Leibniz explained using the differential calculus. Each of the curve’s infinite number of points contains virtually the entire curve, though the curve itself stretches infinitely into space. This point-by-point containment corresponds to the concept of expression. Each substance in Leibniz’s metaphysic is entirely complete in itself. It contains in itself all that defines it, both past, present and future. Its relationships to other substances are also contained in its concept. Every substance uniquely reflects the universe from its own position in relation to the whole as a windowless world unto itself.

Such uniqueness is what is meant by the identity of indiscernibles. Leibniz’s epistemology defined a true expression as that which contains in its subject all which may be predicated of it. Therefore, a subject is absolutely complete in itself; it contains all of its possible predications. This means that no two substances are completely identical. The identity of indiscernibles was informed both by the pre-formationist biology of the day and the recent discovery of the microscope.

Having laid the foundation of his metaphysics, Leibniz now had only to put the machine in motion, a process he understood as a function of God’s harmonious interaction with the universe. Leibniz called the interaction of substances a pre-established harmony. The system that results is, as he had hoped, one of immense difference and organic dependency.

That is not to say there are no internal problems created by the system. His effort to defend his metaphysic against Arnauld’s charge of determinism attests to that. Indeed, Leibniz’s effort to make peace between necessity and contingency within the same metaphysic makes the Discourse a classic text on the subject. Scholars still debate whether freedom is possible in his system, constrained as it is by the completeness and resulting necessity of each substance.

On the other hand, scholars are finding much that is to be learned from Leibniz’s philosophy. Many of his ideas, never properly assembled and scattered through thousands of pages of correspondence (luckily, Leibniz, who served as chief librarian in the court of Hanover and who was offered a position at the Vatican, collected his correspondence), are today being published for the first time. Three volumes of the Prussian Academy’s forty-volume critical edition are available. Thus, Leibniz’s contribution to the history of ideas is being reassessed. The organic and dynamic relationship he saw in all things influences many disciplines, including modern metaphysics of modality, phenomenology, symbolic logic, the desire of physics for its own universal characteristic and even Chinese Studies (Leibniz made careful analysis of the I Ching and of Chinese political science). He has also been called the father of supercomputers, relay switches, and virtual reality. It is no wonder that Alfred North Whitehead included Leibniz in his century of ideas.

So then, G. W. Leibniz’s Discourse on Metaphysics is an olive branch arguing for the related dependency of all ideas upon each other, regardless of their source. To dismiss him as a system is to dismiss the consistency of the human mind and the possibility of intellectual progress. Therefore, reading the Discourse is both a tour and a possibility. It is a tour because the Discourse introduces its reader to the basic problems and ideas that informed the early Enlightenment. It is a possibility because those same ideas ultimately create and critique the philosophical story of today.



Leibniz, G. W. Samtliche Schriften und Briefe, ed. German Academy of Sciences. 40 vols. Darmstadt and Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1923- .
---. Die Philosophischen Schriften von G. W. Leibniz. 7 vols. Ed. C. I. Gerhardt. Berlin: Weidmann, 1875-90.
---. Philosophical Papers and Letters, 2nd ed. Ed. and trans. L. E. Loemker. Dordrecht: Reidel, 1969.
---. Leibniz: Philosophical Writings. Ed. and trans. G. H. R. Parkinson. London: Dent, 1973.
---. New Essays on Human Understanding. Ed. and trans. P. Remnant and J. Bennett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
---. Theodicy, trans. E. M. Huggard (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1985).
---. G. W. Leibniz: Philosophical Essays, ed. and trans. R. Ariew and D. Garber (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989).
---. Leibniz: Monadology and other Philosophical Essays. Trans. Paul Schrecker and Anne Martin Schrecker. Bobbs-Merrill. Library of Liberal Arts. Indianapolis, 1965.
---. Leibniz: Selections. Ed. Philip P. Wiener. New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1951.

Further Reading

Bobro, Marc and Kenneth Clatterbaugh “Unpacking the Monad: Leibniz’s Theory of Causality” Monist 7.3 (1996): 408.
Broad, C. D. Leibniz: an Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.
Brown, Stuart. “Leibniz and the Classical Tradition” International Journal of the Classical Tradition 2.1 (1995): 68.
Hooker, M., ed. Leibniz: Critical and Interpretive Essays. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982.
Jolley, Nicholas, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Leibniz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Jolley, Nicholas. “Leibniz.” A Companion to the Philosophers. Ed. Robert L. Arrington. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999. 360-366.
Mates, B. The Philosophy of Leibniz: Metaphysics and Language. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Riley, Patrick. Leibniz’ Universal Jurisprudence: Justice as the Charity of the Wise. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.
Sesonske, Alexander. “Pre-Established Harmony and Other Comic Strategies” Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism 55.3 (1997): 253.
Steinhart, Eric. “Leibniz’s Palace of the Fates: A Seventeenth-Century Virtual Reality System” Presence: Teleoperators & Virtual Environments 6.1 (1997): 133.
The Monist 81.4 (1998) is entirely devoted to various aspects of Leibniz’s metaphysics.

Web Sites Gregory Brown’s Leibniz homepage. Brown’s website is an expansive portal to all things Leibniz. It includes links to the Leibniz Listserv, various societies and journals as well as information in the form of journal and encyclopedia articles. An article on Leibniz mathematical ideas which forms part of a collection of mathematical biographies made available online. This Stanford University website is Leibniz-at-a-glance, including dates of authorship for his principles works, events in his life, and a short bibliography for further reading which focuses specifically on his conceptual philosophy. An online publication of the article, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” by Charles S. Pierce reprinted from Popular Science Monthly 12. Jan. 1878, 286-302. The article is concerned with logic in general and the contributions made by Descartes and Leibniz in particular. An online publication of George MacDonald Ross’s book, Leibniz (Oxford University Press (Past Masters) 1984) made available through the University of Leeds Electronic Text Centre. A comprehensive and understandable study of Leibniz’s thought, with special attention given to the mathematical basis of his insights in philosophy and logic. Leibniz Links: A selection of web pages devoted to the philosophy of G. W. Leibniz compiled by Paul Lodge. Philosophy Since the Enlightenment by Roger Jones. This website is very helpful for seeing Leibniz’s philosophy against the philosophical spectrum of present and past.
(c) 2002 Thom Chittom
Printed by permission, Barnes & Noble World Digital Library

Putting first things first

Dear Theophilus,

Thank you for writing, and for sharing your struggles and doubts so openly. Let’s be honest: being a Christian is an ongoing negotiation. To confess is to wrestle, to discover as we live life, questions, crosses, and thanks be to God, worship. To confess is to wrestle and not turn away.

As you've talked here with me and with others, I see that you are wrestling, and that you are not turning away from your questions--and yours are good questions. You say you feel foolish. You say, “my ignorance must shine out to those who are better educated.” Actually what shines out is courage and tenacity, and to that I respond that "no temptation has come upon you that is not common to all" whether formally educated or not. Remember that some come at a question early in our Christian life which may only confront others later, or not at all. A PhD in theology may, because of their own story, find themselves wrestling in an area that a teenage parishioner has already come to terms with. And daily life may cause that faithful teen to revisit her question in greater depth later--questions moving up and over and around each other in a giant ascending corkscrew the steps of which go from one glory to the next.

Now before we address some of the questions you mention below, there is something you should well consider. This formation or corkscrew or ladder or path we find ourselves on, this is a theological path, not a philosophical one. The difference is important.

Philosophy is the effort human beings make to inquire about the world using all available skills--mental and physical. It is a discipline that in our era is a pursuit of reason and the mind. Theology, on the other hand, has an element of life and death to it, in that we are personally, ethically, socially, morally, physically involved in its questions and its answers because theology is done coram Deo, in the presence of God.

The theologian can do philosophy, but the philosopher cannot do theology. A philosopher can ask so-called theological questions, but it is a scholastic exercise. Theology bleeds. Said in another way, a philosopher can play with theology but doesn't fear for his life. A theologian (and all Christians are theologians because they all wrestle) cannot afford such a luxury. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom," says the proverb. And as Martin Luther said in his Heidelberg Disputations, "Arrogance cannot be avoided or true hope be present unless the judgment of condemnation is feared in every work."

The philosopher cannot ascend to heaven. Human reason cannot of itself and upon its own presuppositions arrive at worship of the triune God. "Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world" (1 Cor 1.20)? And Luther again: "Man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ." Luther had a wonderful phrase for philosophers who attempted through their dialectic to grasp at theological knowledge. He called them theologians of glory and said they were trying to climb up and get a peek at the naked God.

Over against them, Luther taught a theology of the cross. "He deserves to be called a theologian," he wrote, "who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross." Jesus crucified is who God is, he maintained. Jesus is the beginning of theology and the very true proclamation of God's truth. But it is a truth whose truthfulness is confessed rather than arrived at.

Yet how can someone confess what he or she is unsure of? One may as well ask, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb?" And the answer is the same: "That which is born of Spirit is spirit." Our minds, our selves, were at one point chaotic, dark, and demonic. But then the Spirit came, hovering upon us, overshadowing us, and we came alive and confessed. Now we see by resurrection light, and no longer with the sputtering candle of philosophy. Light is now ours, the true light that gives light to everyone. "For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (1 Cor 4:6).

Now the point I'm getting at is this. Our friend is correct who said that the historicity of Scripture is an important part of the confession of the Christian, giving him confidence and an answer to cultured despisers. But historicity is not the foundation. The foundation is that by the will of the Father and the quickening illumination of the Spirit one has beheld Jesus, and having beheld him, nothing else will ever truly matter ever again. "The [way, the truth, and the] life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us" (1 Jn 1.2). And now "the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God" (Rm 8.16).

This “bearing witness with our spirits that we are children of God” means that, beholding the cross, we are called beyond the doubt and skepticism of the philosophers to embrace a holy inquiry. This holy inquiry is called by St. Anselm fides quaerens intellectum, or faith seeking understanding. Augustine put it this way: "Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe so that you may understand." He then quotes John 6:29: "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

So, Theophilus my friend, if you long to know without doubt that there is an incredibly loving, interactive God who created you, cares for you, understands you, and encourages you to know him, then examine your heart. And if the Spirit does not testify within you so that you cry "Abba, Father!" then call upon the name of the Lord. He will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you. He removes the heart of stone and gives back again a heart of flesh. It is the good pleasure of the Father in heaven to give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. This is the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead, the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation. As you seek, remember that God is light; in him is no darkness at all. His presence will go with you, his wisdom instruct you, and he will give you rest.

There is no confession apart from his rest, and what theology exists is only a theology of glory which calls evil good and good evil, adding sin to sin so that one becomes doubly guilty. Therefore the struggle with which we began is not the struggle of a slave, but of an heir. And it is not a struggle of the solitary, but the awestruck, happy liturgy of the redeemed people of God ascending as incense from every tribe, tongue, time, and nation to the throne of God.

This, then, is the proper foundation to begin asking about the Scriptures and their interpretation. Without it, we fall under the condemnation of the Pharisees to whom Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (Jn 5.39-40).

I hope you do not feel I am dismissing your questions by asking you first this most important of all questions. That is not the case. Instead, by asking I face you open-handed as seriously and as soberly as I can.

Warmest regards,