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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on December 18, 2011
The three philosophers who are the focus of this book are Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715), and Antoine Arnauld (1612-1694). The discussion and disagreements among these men took place within a philosophical world impacted by the views of Rene Descartes (1596-1650), who had come to controversial disagreement with the Church-sanctioned views of Aristotle (384-322 BCE). Matter, mind, soul, motion, space, causality, will, reason, and the involvement of God in their connections and interaction, were fundamental concepts these philosophers sought to understand.

Nadler sketches the biographies of Leibniz, Malebranche, and Arnauld and summarizes the theological controversies of the eucharist and transsubstantiation in relation to matter and substance, and divine grace in relation to human will and action in our salvation.

"Leibniz, Arnauld, and Malebranche constitute the Great Triumvirate of Continental intellectual life in the second half of the seventeenth century, matched perhaps only by Hobbes, Locke, and Newton in England. And what they have to say to and about each other on the problem of God and evil - something on which all three have very much to say, first in person and later in writing - touches on some of the most important and disputed questions of philosophy and religion in the period, and indeed, in all time." (77)

Leibniz believed this was the best of all possible worlds. His reasoning follows the syllogism: God would not create any world unless it were the best of all possible worlds. This world is a world God created. Therefore this world is the best of all possible worlds. (Nadler doesn't present this syllogism but it is implicit in his discussion.) Because of the meaning of 'best', there can be only one best of all possible worlds. So this is the only world God created and it is the best world there could be. Aquinas, in contrast (95), argued that there was an infinity of possible worlds and so there was no world that is the best (supremum - my term) of these worlds.

We may, I suppose, presume that God could through His omnipotence create a world that is possible but not the best, but through his moral perfection does not do this. Whether this would be a choice (which would imply contingency within God's acts) or an immutable character trait is another question. Does God's perfect nature, then, limit the expression and manifestation of his inherent omnipotence? Are there possible worlds that are not creatable worlds? Are there imaginable worlds that are not possible? (See below on metaphysical evil.) The assumption, in any case, is that being the best world is being the world most in accord with God's moral perfection and purpose. (See below on metaphysical perfection.)

For Leibniz, in this best of all possible worlds, every object and relation within it is necessary to its constitution, organization, and structure. A single difference would entail a different world. So every good act and every evil act, and every moment of pleasure and every moment of suffering is essential to this world and thus to our experience of this world. To be the best of all possible worlds is not to be the most comfortable and satisfying of all possible worlds for any particular individual, but to be the best world overall (according to God's understanding) compared to any other world. God knows it to be the best of all possible worlds, even though we may not experience it as the best for us.

"Leibniz divides evil into three categories. Metaphysical evil consists in the limitation and imperfection that neccessarily characterize any finite, created being; this species of evil is an unavoidable part of the nature of things because anything God creates will, simply be virtue of being created, be less perfect than the absolutely perfect, uncreated being. Physical evil, by contrast, is suffering, and moral evil is sin. Physical and moral evil are not, by themselves, necessary elements of creation, although they are essential parts of many possbile worlds. They exist in the actual world because God, by choosing to create this world while being fully aware of everything it involves, permits them. The question is, why?" (98)

Nadler has assumed (he isn't clear if this is Leibniz' view) that metaphysical evil does not entail moral evil, nor does it entail physical evil. Note, also, that a full ontological distinction between moral and physical evil implies that sin could conceivably exist without any suffering whatsoever. What would that look like?

The concept of metaphysical evil is related to the concept of metaphysical perfection. "What makes this world the best of all is that it is metaphysically superior to all other possible worlds. The actual world contains the highest degree of perfected being or reality. ... No other world contains as much positive reality, measured in terms of both quantity and variety of essence, as this world. The best possible world is, in its own essential nature, populated by the greatest number of beings that can possibly co-occupy a world over time without contradiction, and exhibits the greatest possible variety of kinds of beings." (103)

Malebranche believed there to be an infinite number of possible worlds and that God created that world most in accord primarily with a simplicity of causal laws and secondarily with a reconciliation between the physical and the moral. (118) This is the best world possbile under these constraints of creation. The physical and moral are not in a perfectly just relation, but only in the best relation that accords with the best simplicity of causal laws. "God wills to accomplish as much justice and goodness as He possibly can, not absolutely but consistent with the simplist laws." (119)

This had consequences for Malebranche's views on God's will, and thus on how God dispenses and bestows grace. Nadler says of grace: "Through grace, God uses pleasure to counteract base desires and turn postlapsarian human beings back toward Himself." (124) It is an expression of God's wish for our salvation. Malebranche saw grace as constrained by God's laws; and just as rain falls upon both fertile and barren ground without discrimination in accordance with law, so is grace conferred by God's law upon both those who respond to it and those who do not. Likewise, just as rain might not be given to fertile ground, so might grace not be given to someone who would accept and use it. Grace is a help against the seduction of sinful pleasure (concupiscence), and Malebranche's view implies that God, because of the constraints of His laws, does not specifically help those need and want it, and who would most benefit from it. To use an analogy not in the book, it's like having a fire, wishing it to be put out, yet tossing water without regard to where the fire burns. God's foreknowledge of the consquences of His manner of dispensing His grace is not discussed here.

Arnauld vehemently disagreed with Malebranche's position on grace. Malebranche believed that God's will is subordinate to his wisdom, and thus He created a world in which simplicity of law has priority over His will to bestow grace. Arnauld believed that will and wisdom are not distinguishable within God. "Arnauld sees God as a being in whom will and wisdom are one and the same, and thus in whom the will is a law unto itself. This God indifferently creates reasons through its [sic] volitions. He does not, like Malebranche's God, have a will that takes its lead from wisdom's antecedent reasons." (163)

God, we must say according to Arnauld, did not create the world for a reason, because that gives priority to wisdom over will, but rather that God's act of creation occurred intrinsically warranted in itself, without reason. God's acts are not reasonable or purposeful in the human sense of acting in accordance with reason, but they are also not unreasonable or contrary to purpose, in the human sense of acting in discord with reason. (This is my language, not Arnauld's or Nadler's.)

God's grace, then, in Arnauld's view, is bestowed without the contraint of law and without the counsel of wisdom. "Why, then, does God give grace to a person? There is no response to this question by Arnauld's logic other than that God acts with infinite and unmotivated mercy." Arnauld was a Jansenist, a controversial sect within Catholicism. "To Arnauld's many Catholic opponents, it seemed as if he had [with his view of grace] broken completely with the Church and crossed the line into Calvinism." (162)

This is a theological controversy that has implications for theodicy: the problem of reconciling God's perfection and the imperfection of evil in the world God created. Nadler doesn't connect the dots on this, however, but instead discusses Descartes' views on God's relation to eternal truths: God created them, this includes mathematical truths and moral truths, and He could have made them other than they are. "The Cartesian God is bound by no objective canons of rationality or morality. At the basis of creation lies a completely indifferent will." (195) God "does not do what He does for objective reasons, because all such reasons - moral, metaphysical, and logical - are the effect of His will." (196)

Leibniz believed that this separation of eternal truths from metaphysical necessity, making them arbitrary and contingent upon the morally indifferent impulse of God's will, diminishes God's moral standing. In fact, it makes God no better than a tyrant. (199) Quoting Leibniz: "If justice was established arbitrarily and without any cause, if God came upon it by a kind of hazard, as when one draws lots, His goodness and His wisdom are not manifested in it, and there is nothing at all to attach Him to it." (200)

Malebranche agreed with Leibniz against Descartes. Quoting Malabranche: "Everything is inverted if we claim that God is above Reason and has no rule in His plans other than His mere will. This false principle spreads such blanket darkness that it confounds the good with the evil, the true with the false, and creates out of everything a chaos in which the mind no longer knows anything." (201)

"The eternal truths" writes Nadler in discussing Malebranche, "depend upon the divine understanding in that they are just the necessary relations found within and among the ideas in God's wisdom. They are coeternal with God; ... God does not invent the truths of logic, mathematics, metaphysics, morality, or theology; He discovers them in His wisdom. And what He finds there is an objective body of knowledge that is resistant to, even binding upon, His volitions." (203)

Arnauld does not give priority to reason in God's acts (see above) and so "what Arnauld is saying - contrary to Malebranche and Leibniz - is that our formal concepts of justice and goodness and reasonableness have no application whatsoever when it comes to God's actions." (212) For Malabranche, "God acts through sheer will alone, and thus transcends all rational and moral canons." (213)
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on October 28, 2014
A bit long winded but still a good introduction to mostly Leibniz and rather little on Voltaire or others.
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2 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on July 14, 2013
Since theologians have had no original arguments in decades, I will post my review of CS Lewis' The Problem of Pain here.

CS Lewis is held by many to be the premier Christian apologist of the 20th century. Unless one is morbidly naive, or has yet to encounter the counterarguments to Christianity in particular and theism in general, I honestly cannot see where his appeal lies.

The Problem of Evil is an insurmountable one for Christians (and all other theists who believe in a perfectly loving, all-powerful and all-knowing god). There have been intense and motivated efforts over the past two millennia to defend such a position rationally, and they have all failed. Miserably. Utterly. And in many cases, dishonestly.

Some approached involve invoking an unknown "greater good" defense (which throws god's omnipotence under the bus. An omnipotent deity could simply actualise a desired goal without needing to use suffering as a "middle man"). Attempts to shift the problem by asserting that human happiness is not the goal of life (but knowing god is) removes the omnibenevolence and omnipotence of god (if you love someone, you don't want them to suffer. It really is that simple). On page 104, Lewis concedes that not everyone suffers equally. He does not give a reason for this, and indeed, admits that our puny human minds cannot understand why god would allow some to live decades in comfort and luxury while others suffer for months or years on end. To quote Lewis himself: "The causes of this distribution I do not know; but from our present point of view it ought to be clear that the real problem is not why some humble, pious, believing people suffer, but why some do NOT (emphasis Lewis', in italics). Our Lord Himself, it will be remembered, explained the salvation of those who are fortunate in this world only by referring to the unsearchable omnipotence of God."

That's not an explanation. Lewis is falling back on the ancient and ubiquitous appeal to ignorance. God's mysterious ways are beyond us. Well, by that "logic," he could send all Christians to hell and everyone else to heaven, and Lewis, by his own admission, would just have to suck up an eternity of torture.

The old canard of free will is often invoked. Unfortunately, free will is meaningless unless everyone has an equal amount of it. This is undeniably NOT the case. Not everyone is given the same lifespan, physical strength, mental acuity, political clout, financial resources, and so on. Lewis is pontificating from the luxurious confines of his residence, funded by conveniently gullible sheep. This has certainly damaged his ability to empathise with the billions who live on less than a dollar each day. And the thousands who starve to death every time the Earth completes a full rotation.

Lewis also, perhaps unwittingly, advocates a social Darwinism in which the rich and physically powerful are able to murder, rape and steal from weaker individuals (and are therefore less able to exercise their own free will to prevent their own suffering). Lewis worships a cosmic pedophile who revels in granting freedom to abhorrent individuals while getting his jollies from seeing the most vulnerable suffer and die in agony (only to get thrown into even more torture in the Christian vision of hell).

Lastly, a loving god would take away free will from those who would willingly surrender it in return for a life without suffering. Funnily enough, Lewis seems to believe in a heaven without suffering but with all the bells and whistles of freedom. So why not create that universe from the get-go and stick with it? Why create a universe with even the possibility of corruption? It certainly is not something a perfect god would do. Then again, a perfect god would not blackmail beings he supposedly loves for eternal worship.

While Lewis is usually a good writer, capable of spinning yarns to attract the attention of children and young teenagers, he also assumes that there is a deep, overriding purpose behind suffering. This purpose is so important that it is more critical to his god to NOT end suffering now, but to let things run their "natural" course until his plan is complete. In service of this goal, he creates a short story that is akin to an essay on theistic evolution, and how man is ultimately responsible for the Fall and his own corruption. If god knows everything, including the future, then he orchestrated the fall (and everything else) before setting his plan into motion. Arguing that god exists outside of time is a lazy copout, nothing more.

As a 'loudspeaker' for the Christian god, pain has done more to drive people away from him than anything else. An all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good god would not allow any suffering, even in the service of a so-called "greater good." And if such a god desires suffering for a greater good, then it would follow logically that his followers should cause suffering to convert more people. After all, that is god's best tool for getting our attention, is it not? Fortunately, CS Lewis and most Christians today do not follow this logic to its end point. Those who do open hospitals and hospices and waste money on bibles rather than food (explaining why only 25% of tithes go to benefit indigent people around the world). CS Lewis realised this, which is why he asserted, in chapter 7, that while evil acts can lead to "greater" goods such as pity and compassion, the individual who commits evil is not justified simply because positive benefits will flow.

The hypocrisy here is glaringly apparent when Lewis moves on to depict his god as using good men as "sons" and evil men as "tools" to achieve his goals. Such an obvious double standard is patently hypocritical and serves to do little except expose Lewis' advocacy of divine fiat for what it is - blind obedience (which is the antithesis of sound moral reasoning).

His childishly puerile attempts to justify hell are perhaps the only thing worse. According to Lewis' theology, pain is used by god as a teacher, a "flag of truth in a rebel fortress" (p. 122). This obviously misses the point - an omnipotent god would not need to use pain. If a tri-omni deity knows good from evil without needing to suffer, why couldn't he have simply created humans who were likewise omniscient? This is yet another obvious point that is glossed over by a highly overrated apologist.

Eliminating suffering comes before respecting free will. This is even more true for all-loving beings. Who in their right mind would sit and watch while child rape occurred right before their eyes?
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