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Leibniz and Freedom

Final Take-home Exam for 32.209, noon Dec. 19/1997

Written by: Shawn Monaghan (critical on

Leibniz’s account of freedom in Discourse on Metaphysics and Other

Essays is convoluted and complex. This seems to be a natural corollary of

any theologically based philosophy. Attempts to explain how the most

perfect being could possibly be free and still maintain the height of

perfection are chancy at best, yet the most powerful critique of a given

philosophy may come from within its own limits -- otherwise the philosopher’s

task would be too brief and many an insight overlooked.

Both God and ‘his creatures’ possess free will. God as the most

perfect being possesses the greatest perfection of freedom, we as humans

possess freedom of a complex and limited nature. As individual substance

our notion, which only God can know, includes everything about us including

our future and our essential characteristics and “. . . everything that can

truly be said of it . . .” ( p12). And yet Leibniz wants to argue against

absolute fatalism with an attempt at a fine tuning which his brisk phrasing

does not appear to allow, namely the distinction between the certain and the

. . . even though it is certain that God always chooses the best, this does not
prevent something less perfect from being and remaining possible in itself,
even though it will not happen, since it is not its impossibility but its
imperfection which causes it to be rejected. And nothing is necessary whose
contrary is possible (p14).

It is difficult to discern precisely what remains to us that we could call free

but evidently Leibniz is opposed to absolute fatalism, perhaps he is

therefore committed to a fatalism of a lesser degree. Our soul is apparently

quite independent. God in Leibniz’s eyes does not appear to be constantly

working at ordering the universe instead she has such a degree of perfection

that all the universe was created at once including the contingencies which

Leibniz calls certain but not necessary. Of course this does not exclude the

possibility of God’s continual action in a way which it may be necessary, that

is, since the various substances of the universe cannot affect one another

they have to be both predisposed to allow for the effects of other objects

(including God) and at the same time (according to section 28) God must

perform continual actions upon us because he is the only immediate object of

our perceptions which exists outside of us. To this degree then we are God
in some vague sense of the word because not only do we become somewhat

independent upon creation but we also express both God and the universe.

According to Leibniz those who misunderstand our relation to God do not

fully realize;

. . . the full extent and independence of our soul, which makes it contain
everything that happens to it, and makes it express God and, with him, all
possible and actual beings, just as an effect expresses its cause (p31).

A further complexity unfolds in light of an earlier section (to the above

quoted) where it becomes questionable just how independent we are from

God and just what precisely is meant by “independence of our soul”.

God alone is the immediate object of our perceptions, which exist outside of
us, and he alone is our light (p30).

It is through God’s continual action upon us that we have ideas but this does

not mean that we do not think through our own ideas. It would appear that

these two sections viewed in isolation contain that which would seem

contradictory but given that they are placed so closely together we must

attempt to iron out a continuity. The soul contains passive and active powers

which are necessary for it to both be affected and to anticipate future

affects. We do not think through God’s ideas yet we do need her continual
action upon us to have ideas of anything. Perhaps this only appears to be a

problem if we consider God as if she were human but perfect. Perhaps God

could create us with a permanent connection, a conduit, for ideas which both

are our own and God’s at once, thus we remain independently dependent

normally a difficult contradiction but when viewed in this way it somehow

oddly strikes me as a ‘natural’ idea. The best way, in fact, to view our

relation to the world it appears was summed up by a nun (Theresa?), only

oneself and God are in existence all else is unreal or imaginary.

. . . the influence of one monad over another can only be ideal, and can only
produce its effect through God’s intervention, when in the ideas of God a
monad rightly demands that God take it into account in regulating the others
from the beginning of things (p75).

Clearly interactions between individuals in the world are illusion, only God

interacts with any individual substance and it is her task to allow the

universe to move smoothly by planning things out, such that each substance

has the freedom to move and affect other substances by her mediation and

her mediation alone. Perhaps it could be said then that we are indeed free

to the extent that we are not determined our only trouble is to decide just

how free this is and what sort of freedom it is -- not absolute fatalism, yet
obviously not absolute freedom either.

Thus a substance, which is of infinite extension insofar as it expresses

everything, becomes limited in proportion to its more or less perfect manner
of expression. This, then, is how one can conceive that substances impede or
limit each other, and consequently one can say that, in this sense, they act
upon one another and are required, so to speak, to accommodate themselves
to one another (16).

It would seem that our own freedom in comparison to that of God is quite

minuscule and is in fact limited by his overwhelmingly divine freedom. The

problem with dualistic constructs like freedom and determinism is that

there is no middle ground not settling upon one or the other just does not

seem a reasonable option. Leibniz wants to contend that we certainly have

no reason to believe in absolute fatalism and yet he is careful to avoid

defining in any absolute terms just how free we are -- such it would appear is

indeed an impossible task. Just how free can any one thing be when all is

interrelated with such intricacy not to mention our very intimate relation to

God who is the most free by definition.

Having explored the constructs of freedom and determinism as much

as appears possible from within Leibniz’s system it seems we must now enter

more deeply into his own specific justifications for rejecting absolute
fatalism. Thus, we return to a deeper investigation of the difference

between the necessary and the certain. This appears to be the test, that

which is necessary cannot be contradicted that which is merely certain can

indeed be contradicted. Because that which is necessary is based on the

principle of contradiction whereas that which is certain is based upon the

principle of contingency. The reason that the certain will end up the way

that it is determined is not because it would be a contradiction but because

it would allow for a degree of imperfection that God would not permit.

It is reasonable and certain in almost the same way that God will always do
the best, even though what is less perfect does not imply a contradiction. . .
Based on God’s first free decree always to do what is most perfect and on
God’s decree with respect to human nature, following out of the first
decree, that man will always do (although freely) that which appears to be
best. But every truth based on these kinds of decrees is contingent, even
though it is certain; for these decrees do not change the possibility of
things, and, as I have already said, even though it is certain that God always
chooses the best, this does not prevent something less perfect from being
and remaining possible in itself, even though it will not happen, since it is not
its impossiblility but its imperfection which causes it to be rejected. And
nothing is necessary whose contrary is possible (p14).

Evil is permitted but not designed, God concurs with evil without actually

willing it yet she must have created the possibility for it to exist for it

hardly seems possible that the most perfect being could willfully overlook
that which creates evil. Leibniz says that our judgments can be in error and

that it is our duty to do our best to deliberate for as long as necessary to

allow for the best possible judgments. Yet it is inevitable that individuals

will indeed make judgements in error. Thus it appears that in error we are

independent in some sense of the word -- free to make a mistake.

. . . since God’s view is always true, our perceptions are always true; it is our
judgements, which come from ourselves, that deceive us (p15).

The fact that God can know in advance that we will err makes it no less true

that God himself did not cause us to make the error so much as perhaps

simply know in advance that we would make such and such an error at such a

time. The fact that we cannot ourselves know if a given error in advance is

that which God causes us to enact becomes a strict requirement upon us to

follow that which we can know -- our duty.

. . . absolutely speaking, the will is in a state of indifference, as opposed to

one of necessity, and it has the power to do otherwise or even to suspend its
action completely; these two alternatives are possible and remain so.
Therefore the soul must guard itself against deceptive appearances [les
surprises des apparences] through a firm will to reflect and neither to act
nor to judge in certain circumstances except after having deliberated fully.
But it is true, and it is even assured from all eternity, that a certain soul will
not make use of this power in such a situation . . . Since God’s determinations
in these matters cannot be foreseen, how does the soul know that it is
determined to sin, unless it is actually sinning already? (p 32).
Here we have traversed full circle, whether or not we are truly free is

perhaps one of these things which judgement cannot render for us thus we

must assume freedom. Otherwise this would interfere greatly with our duty.

This is incredibly reminiscent of Kant and his famous mulling over of the idea

of freedom, theoretically of course we are not free yet practically how could

we live our lives and act in the world if we accept this to be true. Living in

the world demands that we deny the validity of the antinomies and relegate

them to the realm of the unknowable for it would be a travesty, it would be

unthinkable to accept that freedom is impossible.

. . . perhaps it is certain from all eternity that I shall sin? Answer this
question for yourself: perhaps not; and without considering what you cannot
know and what can give you no light, act according to your duty, which you do
know (p32).

It seems clear that the parallel drawn above to Kant’s treatment of freedom

is indeed pertinent. As to whether or not this account of freedom is

satisfactory something is left to be said. It does not appear possible that a

less complex account of freedom could truly exist even the materialists

must admit of an intricate concatenation of influences between the

environment and genetics. Perhaps we can say that Leibniz could have done a
more thorough job of clarifying and delimiting the topic and I am

constrained to say that yes I feel Kant’s own similar work has much better

foundations and its turns are more slight and less prone to startle the mind

with what appear to be glaring inconsistencies. On the other hand it seems

that terms such as freedom are not appropriate to such a discourse, in the

same discussion as monads for example. In section 10 Leibniz argues that

substance should not be used to explain particular effects in physics. There

is a definite cord of disharmony between different ways of understanding

what we might call different realms, a certain degree of irreconcilability

which is within Leibniz’s work relatively unjustified.

. . . just as a geometer does not need to burden his mind with the famous
labyrinth of the composition of the continuum, there is no need for any
moral philosopher and even less need for a jurist or statesman to trouble
himself with the great difficulties involved in reconciling free will and God’s
providence, since the geometer can achieve all his demonstrations and the
statesman can complete all his deliberations without entering into these
discussions, discussions that remain necessary and important in philosophy
and theology.

Unfortunately Leibniz does not appear to have provided us with a single clue

as to how we can apply our philosophy to the world nor as I said how it is

that these discussions can be justifiably irrelevant to a moral philosopher.