How should nations interact in best of all possible worlds? If this is best of all possible worlds, why is there Obama? Tune in Wednesday evening at 6 pm eastern for the fifth in a series by LPAC Science Team member Jason Ross as he discusses the great humanist genius Gottfried Leibniz.
JASON ROSS: Hello, today is April 27th, and you’re joining us here at LaRouchePAC for the fifth in a series of six presentations on the life and work of the wonderful, optimistic, political genius, Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716). The theme for the show this week is “Leibniz: His Philosophy and Outlook in Regards to the World Today.” So we’re going to be further delving into the content from the last discussion, by getting more into the Belt and Road Initiative of China, looking at its parallels with what Leibniz had proposed during his lifetime. And we’re going to consider the kinds of ideas that we need today to create a renaissance: ideas which are very desperately needed in the United States, which is currently playing a role counter to the proposals that are being made by China and the other BRICS nations right now.
I’d like to start off by reading a quote that I had used a couple of times in the last show, and it’s a quote from Leibniz on his views about what was then occurring with an exchange of discussions with China, the commerce of light and learning, as he called it. So here’s Leibniz, in something that he wrote in 1697 or 1699, the Preface to his News from China. He said:
I consider it a singular plan of the fates that human cultivation and refinement should today be concentrated, as it were, in the two extremes of our continent, in Europe and in China, which adorns the Orient as Europe does the opposite edge of the Earth. Perhaps Supreme Providence has ordained such an arrangement, so that as the most cultivated and distant peoples stretch out their arms to each other, those in between may gradually be brought to a better way of life. I do not think it an accident that the Russians, whose vast realm connects Europe with China and who hold sway over the deep barbarian lands of the North by the shore of the frozen ocean, should be led to the emulation of our ways through the strenuous efforts of their present ruler…
(That ruler was Peter I, who Leibniz would meet with a dozen years later.)
That gives Leibniz’s view of the potential that lay in the cultural exchange then taking place with China, about which you can see the last class for much more detail. I’d like to compare that with a description of the belt and road initiative, taken from a book that has just recently been published by Wang Yiwei, who’s a top Chinese scholar. The book is titled: The Belt and Road Initiative: What will China Offer the World in Its Rise? This is basically official Chinese government policy. And here’s what the author writes. He says, in considering these projects:
In addition, the Belt and Road Initiative helps the Eurasian Continent to resume its central position in human civilization.
The two great civilizations of the Easy and the West had been connected through the Silk Road historically, until the Ottoman Empire cut off the Silk Road as it rose to power (known as the “wall of the Ottoman”), after which the Europeans were forced to set sail onto the high seas. However, Europe’s venture seaward also benefited from China’s four great inventions, including the compass and gunpowder, which were spread to Europe through the Arabs. The Europeans’ seaward endeavor initiated globalization in the form of colonization. Following the Arabs’ exploration of maritime transport, this move further accelerated the decline of the Silk Road [the ancient overland transport route connecting China through today’s Middle East and then to Europe]. The Oriental civilization was shut down and took on a conservative nature, and humanity entered the so-called modern West-centered world. After the rise of the United States, the center of the West transferred from Europe to the United States. Europe declined and has not been able to reverse the declining trend despite its integration efforts.
Nowadays, however, Europe is embracing a historic opportunity to return to the central position of the world: the revival of the Eurasian Continent. The Eurasian Continent is called the “World Island” by the British geopolitics scholar Halford Mackinder. Its integration will result in the strategic effect, as written in Brzezinski’s book The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, of the United States becoming an “isolated island” again, and geographically the Eurasian Continent resuming its central position in human civilization, which indicates the reshaping of global geopolitics and the globalization map. (pp. 13–14)
So there you have a statement of China’s policy in this regards. I’d like to read another couple of quotes from this book, in terms of the risks, the potential for sabotage and the risks that the Belt and Road Initiative faces.
“Externally the Belt and Road Initiative is prone to be misunderstood unconsciously, by its participators and supporters, and be distorted intentionally by opponents and saboteurs, as well.” The “top problem,” he writes, “is political risks.” What are the kinds of risks? “Well, for instance, the US is likely to contain China in the Middle East, and this belongs to the political risks.” (pp. 80–81)
In describing the different advantages of the United States and of China, this is one of the ways he puts it. He writes: “The United States’ comparative advantage is its military alliance system, while China’s are personnel, skills, experience, and geography.” (p. 85) After discussing why the United States, or forces committed to United States’ military supremacy, would oppose the initiatives of the Belt and Road project proposed by China, he also discusses extremist elements, such as Islamic State. He points out that The Belt and Road Project, by promoting common prosperity, by developing infrastructure, and cooperation among nations:
It is highly detrimental for the formation of extremist groups. The gradual improvement of relations among countries has reduced conflicts that can be taken advantage of by extremist groups… When the Belt and Road Initiative drives the economy towards prosperity, and the people’s wellbeing improves continuously, the extremist groups will find it difficult to recruit people, which will threaten the foundation of their existence, and corrode their social influence. (p. 92)
I read those quotes, because I think it’s very important that in describing the Belt and Road Initiative—a project that involves two-thirds of the world’s population and 65 countries, a project that has the potential for a dramatic improvement, economically, of inland parts of the Eurasian Continent, as well as Africa—that among the threats against this proposal are, one thing, the United States, and another one, Islamic State. So the Chinese are under no delusions about the approach being taken by the trans-Atlantic world towards their initiatives. And I think that this brings up two things I’d like to take up. One of them: how is it that the United States became a nation, that is acting in a way that’s opposed to this sort of policy, a policy which is very American, in its tradition, a policy which is as a matter of fact, in its specific origin, has a great deal to thank the LaRouches for, in terms of the ideas that brought it about?
I’d also like to take up as a second question: what would a renaissance look like today? What is it going to mean to repudiate what we have tolerated as a nation, and other nations, and become something much better, that’s able to participate in a meaningful way in projects like the Belt and Road Initiative, that seek to improve mankind, and uplift living standards, and cooperation?
So, I’m not going to give a whole US history presentation, at present. I’d just like to focus on one or two aspects of this, in particular. One that Mr. LaRouche has been very adamant on stressing the importance of. And that is a shift that occurred around 1900, both culturally, with the death of Brahms, and the non-replacement of Brahms by another musician of his caliber. The fact that that kind of creativity in music, as had been seen by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, for example, was no longer exceeded after that time period. That’s one aspect.
Another aspect, was the deliberate promotion, by Bertrand Russell, operating on behalf of the British Empire, of an outlook that was designed to kill the humanity of anybody who agreed with him. Specifically, he took aim, in his official work, at science, attempting to turn science, the basis of knowledge, which separates us from the animals, which allows economic growth, by turning science into a branch of logic, and saying that fundamentally, nothing really new will ever be discovered. That new knowledge has to be justified by deriving it from what was already known in the past. It’s a ridiculous outlook. He, in his specific endeavors on this, was proven to have failed by Kurt Gödel. But the impact that he had, not only through his official writings, but by the promotion of this outlook more generally, along with the change in culture, created a sense of pessimism, that was certainly bolstered by World War I, but was also based on an idea of what the human being is, on a denial of that creative aspect of every human mind, that sets us apart from the animals, and allows us, as individuals, to play an immortal role in contributing something to the human species as a whole. That’s what was under attack.
So, another specific point, of course, is the untimely death of Franklin Roosevelt, and his post-WWII anti-colonial plans not coming to fruition.
So, let me discuss this by bringing in Leibniz now, and let’s consider some of his concepts, which were historically crucial in the founding of the United States. You might say that Leibniz is the unknown founding father, or one of the unknown founding fathers. And that will be the topic itself of the last in this discussion series in the next presentation. But also, consider what significance Leibniz’s ideas hold for us today. To get at that, I would like to present several of his most important and powerful concepts that I think we’ll find very helpful for our use, now.
Again, the problem is posed: how can the United States, how can the trans-Atlantic world, become a political system that’s worthy of respect and friendship? How do we create a renaissance out of the Dark Age that we are currently in, as a nation? Leibniz’s view on human nature, and on history, and on the Universe, is very similar to this pithy quotation that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used, where he quoted that “the arc of the moral Universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Now what is the basis for making a statement like that? Is it looking at history for examples, and seeing justice increased? You might do that. That’s not its basis, its ultimate basis, for the thinking of Leibniz, or for King. The basis for Leibniz’s optimism, his view of mankind, lay in the future, and it lay in how the Universe was composed as a whole, in human nature, and in creation.
So, let me begin with one of Leibniz’s most commonly quoted, and most commonly derided ideas, namely, that this is the best of all possible worlds. Mocking Leibniz on this was the subject of Voltaire’s Candide, which features a character, who, no matter what happens to him, he says, oh, this is actually a wonderful thing. That’s really great that I stubbed my toe. I’m so glad that my car broke down. (Obviously, there wasn’t a car in Voltaire’s play.)
This mockery by Voltaire does not represent Leibniz’s view. To say that this is the best of all possible worlds, is not to say that every single event that occurs, is wonderful, and that people are happy all the time, and that there are no challenges to overcome. Think about the fact that being the best of all possible worlds would require, for one thing, free will. Virtue doesn’t exist as a concept—goodness would not exist as a concept, if it’s not a choice. We don’t speak of a virtuous animal in the same way as a good human being, who, with the potential to make other decisions, chooses one, perhaps one that had never been chosen before, makes a discovery, to do what is good. That’s part of being the best possible world.
The other aspect of this is that sometimes individually bad or evil things are required in order to create more beautiful composition. For example, if it were not the case that making bad policy decisions would result in bad outcomes, or that violating natural law by adopting an ugly and wrong view of mankind wouldn’t have results of economic collapse, if there was no bad consequence for adopting an ugly view, then how is beauty promoted?
On this concept of the best of all possible worlds, some might ask: how many worlds are there? Today, there are ideas of multiverses, of there being a lot of Universes. We happen to be living in one, where the constants of nature were such that it was possible for life, and intelligent life to develop, goes such a theory.
Here’s how Leibniz looked at it. And this gets into theology. Now, Leibniz, he was a Christian. He was born a Protestant, in Leipzig. He believed in God. And his treatment of theology, I think, is almost completely unlike pretty much anything you’re going to get today, from a church, or typical theologians. Leibniz saw no contradiction between reason and religion. And he said that anything that reason demands is something that you absolutely have to accept. He compared, however, different categories of principles, of truths.
He distinguished between those that were necessary truths, truths whose opposite would imply a contradiction. He contrasted those from other principles of nature, which, in his view, God had the freedom to choose among, in creating the world. That is, in the act of composing the Universe, there’s a certain amount of freedom, in terms of what are the physical laws that govern the way things operate.
Why do electrons operate this way, instead of another? Why are there electrons? Why does magnetism do this? Why does gravity work this way? Why does life behave the way it does? Why are humans the way that they are? Leibniz maintained that in the freedom of choosing and composing these sorts of principles, among them, the best possible Universe had been created. That was his view. And in it, comes up a very important concept of natural law.
Leibniz distinguished between power, both God’s power and the power of human rulers, and the natural law concept of wisdom, of justice, of goodness. Unlike, for example, Thomas Hobbes, who said that the ruler is the ruler because he has the most power—basically Plato’s Thrasymachus,—Leibniz said that the right for a ruler to have that position lies in doing good. And this is something that he considered with regard to God, as well. He said many people praise God’s power. Leibniz says, well that’s really not that praiseworthy in itself. If God could just do anything he felt like, and you’re supposed to say that’s good… well, why? Why didn’t God do something else? Would that also have been good? And the goodness doesn’t come from God having felt like it. He says that God is not only powerful, but also wise and good, and just! For Leibniz, when we look at the actions of God, we shouldn’t only marvel at his power, we should also be in awe of his goodness: in the beauty of the composition that he created.
This freaked some people out, who said that, by having a concept of goodness that was, in a sense, higher than God, God was limited. God was constrained. Unlike Nietzsche’s vision of a superman who was able to rewrite all rules, it’s just not the case, that the way things are can have a certain beauty to it, a goodness to it, and that God would never make a decision, where a decision were possible, that wasn’t the best one. I’ll give a specific example of his application of this to a field that people might not expect, namely physics.
In a debate that he had with a devoted follower of Isaac Newton, Samuel Clarke, this whole concept comes up. In a demonstration of God’s great power, Clarke, following Newton, says that God created the Universe at a certain time because he felt like it, and in a certain place in empty space because he felt like it. And that’s proof that God sometimes does things just because he feels like it, showing how powerful he is. Leibniz turns it around and says that, for this to have occurred, for that space to have existed before anything in space, or for time to have been rolling along on a timeline before anything occurred, this would involve a contradiction. Here’s how he says it. He says, if God created the Universe at one time, rather than another, without a good reason, he would have done something that, while powerful, wasn’t wise, wasn’t praiseworthy, wasn’t good, had no purpose, no reason, and we could hardly consider that God would do something without a good reason for it. Therefore, concluded Leibniz, that concept of the time, that preexisted things occurring in time, or of space, existing independently of, and prior to, things in space, that these are fantastic notions. By “fantastic”, I mean a fantasy. They’re not real. There is no time on its own. There is no space on its own. This is demonstration of Leibniz’s use of a contradiction to show that that assumption was untrue.
As one more example that Leibniz points to, he quotes Genesis, and he says that in creating the Universe, that God looks at what he has done, and finds that it is good. Leibniz says (and he doesn’t take it that literally), but he says, why would it be written that God had to look back at what he had done to say that it’s good, if all the goodness came from the fact that he chose it, he felt like it? Right? There’s something in the composition that can be said to be good.
Types of Cause
Now, that can take us to another concept that I think has already come up. And this is a distinction that Leibniz draws between efficient causes and final causes. So remember what I had brought up just a little bit earlier about how when we’re talking about all the Universes God could have created, that what distinguishes ours from other possible ones, is that where there was freedom, the best choice was made. Let’s look at two kinds of cause that come up from this consideration. Efficient cause is the type of cause that occurs from moment to moment. One domino falls. Why did that domino fall? Well, because the previous one fell into it. The previous moment causes the next moment. That’s one kind of “why”.
Another “why” would be, why are the principles of nature what they are, instead of another way? Did a domino push the laws of magnetism in a certain direction when it bumped into them? Did a spark light a fuse on embryo-formation itself? So there’s more than the efficient cause. There is a different kind of “why” when you ask, “why is it organized in this way?” And that’s a distinct consideration from the specific effects that occur in the world from moment to moment. In Leibniz’s view, these two kingdoms of power, as he considered them, were overlapping, and had a different kind of concept behind them: the efficient cause, and then the final cause. Final causes themselves, can’t be stated in the terms of what you call physics, or mathematics. They have to have something of goodness in them. Consider the way that Kepler, in his full treatment of gravitation, considered the orbits of the planets in the Harmony of the World, for example, as an idea of this.
So I think that takes us to a certain direction. Let’s take it another step to what this says about human beings now, to Leibniz’s concept of the human mind. Leibniz was a follower of Plato. He was an opponent of Aristotle on this. He was an opponent of Russell, even though Russell wasn’t born yet, on this. Leibniz believed that when the mind makes a discovery, the concept that is created in the mind bears a direct coherence with the actual principle of nature, due to an underlying unity between the human mind and the Universe itself. This had been expressed historically, say by Plato, which is Socrates’ idea of remembrance, that ideas already all exist within us, ever since our soul has existed, and that proddings from outside, questions, considerations, paradoxes, cause us to remember, as it were, an idea that was already inside: for Plato, new ideas aren’t put into the mind from outside. They’re drawn from within the mind itself.
Leibniz took a slightly different view than Plato did, as did Cusa. Nicholas of Cusa, was explicit on this, that the mind creates, as in musical compositions. So, the ability of the mind to do that, means that there’s something different between the mechanism of some mechanical system, of some large system of gears, of some system of electrons, of a system of electrons operating in microprocessors in a Google self-driving car, for example, or any other aspect of artificial intelligence—that there’s something unique about the mind, that cannot be created, understood, or explained, through those mechanical means. And it’s that creation of a concept. So, before Russell was born, Leibniz opposed him, in that the mind is able to create concepts that don’t derive from the past, that are new discoveries. And that there’s something about the mind of each of us, that has a coherence with the Universe as a whole, such that our ideas have physical power in the Universe.
Think of where Vladimir Vernadsky took that, in the physical power of the human mind, as a geological force, that our thoughts, although not having any appreciable mass or energy of that sort, are able to create unbelievable physical transformations in the world, shocking transformations in their scope, and in their quality. The very simple example of metallurgy in the Bronze Age, where a new metal, bronze, came to exist on the Earth, in its crust, and the only process that could have made that was the human mind, that a concept has the power to bring about a physical effect, that could not be made by any other means.
In describing this character of the mind, one of the images Leibniz uses is to consider that the mind worked by some kind of mechanism. He was, as he often, well, not often, but this is one of his cases where he’s making fun of Descartes again, who, Descartes had thought the mind worked this way, that, imagine that the mind was mechanical, you should be able to shrink yourself down so small, that you’ll be able to walk around in it, and you’ll see all the gears, and pulleys, and weights, and springs, and water flowing through hoses, and everything else you might imagine in there. And Leibniz asks: but where would the mind be? If you looked at all of those parts, where is that characteristic, that I just discussed? Where is that going to be among all those parts?
He definitely understood that there was a uniqueness to the mind, and he definitely understood the power that it had. In these discussions, we’ve discussed Leibniz’s approach, himself, to physical economy, his writings on physical economic societies. He took a hand at it himself, working on new kinds of windmills for water pumping, for mining. But if you look at the scope of what Leibniz wanted to do, in terms of setting up of scientific academies, excuse me, scientific societies (he like that word better than academies, because he wanted them to be put into practice) of scientific societies, where new concepts would be developed by teams of researchers, working through the history of discovery in the past, approaching the problems of the present, making new breakthroughs, and then that society being able to implement those breakthroughs, with things like government financing for capital investment in new technologies – that sort of view.
Leibniz, in his proposals for these scientific societies, was really laying out an image of what human society, as a whole, should be like, of what the driver should be, and of the relationship between discovery and living standards, the very real relationship between the power of our mind to understand how nature works, and the ability to translate that into improving people’s lives. Leibniz was adamant that the pursuit of science should have an effect on improving the common good, on benefiting the common people, well, benefiting all people, common or not, and that, in his view, there was not a major distinction between worshiping God, and improving people’s lives. And he meant that in a very specific way.
To Leibniz, the greatest goal of society was—and this may sound funny to our ears, perhaps—Leibniz’s view of the greatest goal of society was to best glorify God, by having more people able to understand the beauty of how the Universe was composed by a scientific knowledge and by sharing that among people, and by people going through the act of discovery, of having that God-like sense of beautiful creativity and implementing that, to effectively love other people, to improve people’s lives. That was his view of what society ought to do. And he personally was engaged in all aspects of this. He was working on eliminating the dangerous religious schisms in Europe, for example, that could be used to provoke wars. He, personally, made a number of specific discoveries in physics, in mechanics, in mathematics, in science. He had success—and the potential for much more success, if there was a society ready to take him up on it—in organizing for the promotion of science, for the cooperation of nations, as far flung as Europe and China, for the development of the regions in between them, for an exchange of thoughts between very different cultures, and for the opportunity to benefit from the knowledge of others, and to work together to solve the difficult problems confronting the present.
So, this outlook that Leibniz had, which, as I said, we’ll get into more in the next class, in terms of its relevance to the American Revolution, which was significant. This is a real view, this is a renaissance view, of mankind. I can only wish that Leibniz was also a great musician, then he really would have had it all. [laughs] But we’ll let that slide.
So, just to put a concluding point on this. The political side of Leibniz, a little bit more on that next time, but as a scientist, looking at Leibniz as a necessary connection and improvement beyond the science that had been done by Filippo Brunelleschi, Nicholas of Cusa, and Johannes Kepler, the work of Leibniz, in making it possible to move science forward, defending science against the empiricist attack against it, made possible then, in fact in a very direct way, the work of Gauss, of Riemann, which also made possible, Planck, who was a big fan of Leibniz, Einstein, same thing, and Vernadsky. So Leibniz is a crucial figure in the history of science. He’s a crucial figure in the development of economy. And he had a concept of Eurasian cooperation that is only finally being implemented in a serious and explicit way today 300 years after his death. This year is the 300th anniversary of Leibniz’s passing in 1716.
So just as Leibniz said that the potential for cooperation with China was quote, “greater than we can imagine” The same is true for our future today. And if we adopt that kind of outlook, if we adopt the Leibnizian outlook in the United States, we’ll be able to join this process, not just as another participant, but as having, we really do have some very serious benefits, that we’ll be able to offer to this. Take for example, NASA, which although it’s been under attack, although programs are being closed, although Obama’s got a silly plan for going and catching an asteroid with a net, as the big mission for NASA, the potential that exists there, where it’s almost half a century, since Americans walked on the Moon, but the potential represented by NASA, for example, a commitment to developing new breakthroughs—that’s the kind of America that has something to offer to the world, and Mr. LaRouche has been pretty emphatic on the importance of a revival of NASA, as something that can bring about a, maybe I shouldn’t say “rejuvenation”, but a rebirth of the soul of the United States, and our potential to really contribute something to the world.
And we have a massive opportunity and responsibility here, that we turn the United States, this is almost a 180-degree turn, away from the policy of confrontation, currently being expressed towards China, through the Pivot to Asia policy under the Obama Administration, of the opposition against Russia, the potential for creating warfare to prevent a new paradigm from taking hold in the world. That’s what we’re seeing right now. And we, as Americans, are living in a country that presently is on the wrong side of history on this, completely wrong side of this, and we’ve got a responsibility to turn this into something very beautiful, instead. So that’s what I wanted to open with. I want to see if there’s any thoughts, or questions, or discussion.
Q: Hey, Jason?
ROSS: Hi there.
Q: Hi. Can you talk more about how Leibniz is connected to the founding of America?
ROSS: Yes, that’s the topic in two weeks, so I will just say a very little bit right now, I guess as a bit of a teaser. One aspect was Leibniz’s role with England. Remember that Leibniz lived from 1646 to 1716. Towards the end of his life, in 1701, and Leibniz was a part of this—the 1701 Act of Settlement passed in England, that determined how the throne of England would be inherited, and it was Leibniz’s boss, the family that he was working for in Hanover, was to become the heir to the throne of England. In a way, because of the fear in England about having a Leibnizian as the monarch, the preceding Queen of England, Queen Anne, really had a life insurance policy. She had a safety to pursue policies without fear of being bumped off, which happens in politics, because if she was taken out, you would have a Leibnizian monarch of England.
During this time period, there was a really big shift in the development of the American Colonies. So in the late, let’s say 1680s, and early 1690s, the kind of growth that had been happening in the Colonies, had really been basically turned totally backwards. There were judgments passed by England to prevent development beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains, and to prevent the development of industry. And during this period of the reign of Queen Anne, where also, colleagues of Leibniz were in the government in England, there was a dramatic amount of development which was made. One example of it, was that, in that year of Leibniz’s death, 1716, Virginia’s Governor Spotswood finally went through the Blue Ridge, out to the Shenandoah River, opening up the potential for making the Colonies, not just coastal colonies, but the potential for inland development, and developing from that the strength to eventually declare independence.
The other aspect I’m planning to touch on, is Leibniz’s influence on Franklin, and on the very concept of “the Pursuit of Happiness”, which, in the Declaration of Independence, it’s not “Life, Liberty, and Property.” It’s “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” And the concept of Happiness intended there, as via Franklin, is a very Leibnizian conception. But more on that in two weeks.
Q: Here’s another question here.
Q: OK. I wanted to ask if, just going back to what you said about the Universe having any thoughts. I wonder if you know of any thoughts that Leibniz had, in relation to sacred, or like sacred geometry, that line of thinking? And I wonder if that maybe figures into your larger question around renaissance today? Does that make sense as a question?
ROSS: I think so. You’re saying, what are some examples of thoughts that seem to be human, that have a bigger correspondence to the Universe, than you might expect at first?
Q: Yeah, and does he claim that through, like what is the discipline that he undertakes? Is it trying to understand, like the topology of the mind, and for instance, like the geometry of thought, and how that can be dynamic? Or is it something else? I’m just trying to understand what Leibniz’s notion of the mind is, and how it might relate to your question about renaissance.
ROSS: OK. I’ll take a stab at it. Let me know if this is hitting it, or not. But, the book, where Leibniz really goes through this in great detail, is his book, The New Essays on Human Understanding, which he wrote as a response to John Locke’s book, Essays on Human Understanding. And I’ll give one example from that, which I think helps clarify the different views. Locke had said that the human mind was a blank slate, a tabula rasa is the term in Latin, that there’s really nothing to the soul. We’re empty. We come out as blank slates, and experience writes on it. So, maybe there’s some irregularities in that slate, maybe we have to have certain dispositions, to have certain desires, but really, pretty much everything comes from our experience. And this isn’t about nature versus nurture here. His view is also that discovery occurs this way, which is the view of Aristotle, that it’s by repeated observations of things that are similar, that we take a series of bits of data, and we use the process of induction to create one concept that would include all of those observations that we made.
Leibniz, he doesn’t believe this. He says, induction isn’t, that’s not the creation of knowledge. Yes, you should make observations, of course. The idea of making observations and looking at nature, instead of just pulling ideas out of nowhere, yeah, of course, that’s definitely true. But what Leibniz says is that the mind adds something to what the senses perceive.
Here’s one specific, physics example of this. And it’s a very controversial concept. It’s the idea of least action, or least time, as it first came about. So we’ll take this one example. When light goes from air into water, for example, it bends. It doesn’t go in a straight line. Or if you put something in a cup of water, like a pencil, it looks like it’s bent, because light does something different when it goes in water, than when it goes in air. It seems to change its angle at the boundary. Now, light moves by a principle of least time: for a light beam, if it starts in one place, it hits the water, it bends, and it ends up somewhere else. If you traced back that path, you’d see that the quickest way for light to get from where it began to where it ended was that path.
The path taken by light was the one that took the least amount of time. And that’s a general concept that goes back to the Greeks, in their study of light. They hadn’t discovered the principle of refraction, but they had a similar discovery about reflections, where the general concept was that nature does everything for a reason, in the most efficient way. Now that’s a very human concept. People do things for a reason. That’s why you do things in life, because you have a reason. The idea that nature does something for a reason, that it has a purpose, so to speak, that really freaked a lot of people out, in Leibniz’s day – and still today.
I forgot to mention that this discovery of the least-time character of light was made by a French scientist named Pierre Fermat. Least action, as a more general conception based on least time, is one of the most fundamental principles of physics today: that physical processes occur by least action pathways. It’s one of the few principles that survived Einstein’s relativity theory, without really having to change. So, I think, that’s one example I could give, of something that has a very human sense of least time, least action: do it the best way, don’t waste anything, be efficient, be productive, so to speak. That the Universe physically, that physics, acts that way.
Q: Yeah, thank you for sharing that. That was really enlightening. The one last part that I wanted to clarify, and here’s a little bit more [inaud] I’m wondering if, do you know if Leibniz drew upon the discourse on sacred geometry in any of his work? That’s my question.
ROSS: Is there a specific discourse on sacred geometry that you are referring to? I’m not sure if you’re thinking about that as a field, or is there a specific book you’ve got in mind?
Q: The Kabbalah, for instance.
ROSS: No, I just don’t really. I mean, geometry in general is certainly something that Leibniz studied quite a bit, but I just don’t know if he looked into that. I mean, that was very similar to something that some of his, based on my understanding of it, that is similar to some of the work that he looked at early in his life. Maybe we could just exchange emails after this, and I can send you one of his essays, that I think that might help you answer that, or help you figure that out.
ROSS: Any other locations? Anybody? Yes.
Q: Hi, can you hear me?
ROSS: Yes, I can hear you.
Q: OK, this question was on the optimism, and I just wanted to clarify if maybe they’re tied together, but did Leibniz’s outlook on optimism have to do with the scientific method, or more with the cultural aspect of what he thought human nature was supposed to be, [inaud] different, according to Leibniz?
ROSS: I think his optimism came from both directions. I mean, he had reason to be optimistic about specific discoveries that people made, and the fact that could improve people’s lives. I think that the most fundamental basis for his optimism came in that view that this was the best of all possible worlds. Let me say one thing about that, that I hadn’t mentioned earlier. In his Theodicy, which is a whole book, in fact, it’s the only book that Leibniz, the only philosophical scientific book that Leibniz published during his lifetime. He wrote historical books, and journal articles, but this is the only actual book that came out, and it was to resolve some of these issues, or lay out his view about religion, about why is there evil in the world—if God is good, why is evil allowed. Is free will an illusion? Do we actually have free will? If God knows everything, does he know the choices that we would have made? Are we really able to make our own decisions? But one of the things in there is, he discusses different ways that people might approach setbacks.
So, he contrasts the idea of being fated of, as he attributes it, the, I think he called it the Turkish idea of fate, or the Ottoman idea of fate. He compares that with the Stoic idea of fate, and the Christian view of it. So, Leibniz says, some people might say, well, the world is pretty much random, and unknowable, anyway. So if bad things happen, what are you going to do? You probably couldn’t have done anything about it. Things don’t really make sense, anyhow. The Stoic view of fate was that, well, sometimes bad things happen, and I guess it happened because of there was a reason for it, and maybe you couldn’t control everything about that, and you’re going to have to deal with it.
Leibniz then contrasts his view of what he calls a Christian view of fate, which is that, yes, bad events happen, but that we should look even at them, from the standpoint that they have the potential to be part of a composition that is more beautiful for those bad things having happened. So, actually, this came up in, I remember some discussion about a video I’d made about Leibniz, where I’d said that Descartes’s stupidity about the laws of motion, helped prompt Leibniz to figure out right ones. And someone said, well, see, doesn’t that show you that Descartes was necessary, that his stupid ideas were a necessary step, in that they had a good effect, in terms of what Leibniz did?
Maybe it did end up having a good effect indirectly, but you had to have that good intention to bring something good out of what was bad. So, I mean Leibniz really had this view. He felt that—in one of his writings, he composed a short guide to living a productive and happy life. And one of the things he says, is that if you do the absolute best you possibly can, and you don’t succeed, well, maybe that wasn’t meant to succeed right now, but that was still the right thing to have done. I feel like this might be getting a little bit diffuse… But really, his optimism came from his view that God wants us to be happy, that God has created has created a Universe, that we’re able to understand, and that when we go about understanding it, we will both, A, be very happy at realizing how wonderfully made it was, and B, we’ll be able to live better, and pull people out of poverty, and destitution, and that’s a good thing, and that’s the goal of society. Though his optimism definitely came from how the whole Universe is, and yes, we can look to the past for inspiration, but the greatest inspiration comes from our sense of what the future potentially can be, based on how creation was created. That was his view. [pause] Yes.
Q: OK. In the last class you talked about how there had been the beginning of this European-Chinese collaboration, which Leibniz was all for, and the oligarchy ultimately crushed it. Like what you went through with the Catholic Church, and stuff like that, but, I guess I was wondering if any of the heads of states of those that he worked with, did anyone actually respond positively to Leibniz’s idea of Europe should collaborate with China? For example, like a Sophie or Peter the Great, how did any of them react at all to Leibniz’s view of working with China?
ROSS: I don’t know if that was audible over the internet. Leibniz had views of collaborating with China, and were there contemporary leaders who took up Leibniz on that? I don’t know. I mean, I think Peter the Great might be kind of the best bet to look to on that, although, that still didn’t, one of the things that Leibniz was trying to get Peter the Great to do, was to, you remember that quote from this guy who wrote this book, this Chinese book about the Silk Road, and he’s talked about how a lot of what shut the Silk Road was the Ottoman Empire closing down the land route, and then it became a maritime route. Leibniz really wanted to have a land route again to China, and they were having a lot of trouble doing that, partly because the Russian Orthodox Church didn’t take kindly to Jesuit or Protestant missionaries going off to do their missionarying, when the Russian Orthodox Church ought to be the one who’s doing that over there. I just don’t know. That’s a really good question, though. Also, it’s tough, like who’s going to take on something that big? I don’t know much about Marco Polo’s trip, but I’m not sure, I mean, I’ve heard it. There’s some articles that I’ve read that suggest that Venice had an idea of creating an alliance with the Mongol Empire at the time, etc. Anyway, I guess that’s a long “I don’t know”.
Guess I should have asked too, Rey, whether that got at what you were asking, or not.
Q: Yeah, I mean, I was just trying to find out whether Leibniz understood culture and science, as being one thing, versus it being two separate things, and yeah, that’s, but you answered most of it.
ROSS: OK. And to just say one more thing about that. As I was talking about in that last class, these Jesuit colleagues of Leibniz’s, his acquaintances, the Jesuit missionaries, who were doing what they were doing in China, there was a certain strain of them that really had a very deep scientific background, where they brought in astronomical equipment, also musical instruments, geometry books, so that, to these missionaries, they didn’t see a distinction. They didn’t see a contradiction, or a conflict inherent between science and religion. The idea that there’s a conflict between the two would have been a very strange thing for those missionaries, or for Leibniz, to even conceive of. Alright, anything else?
Well, I can give a quick summing-up, I guess I already gave a preview for what the next class will be about, the sixth and final set of this discussion. It’s going to be a sort of afterword: what was Leibniz’s legacy? So, the New World during his life, and then after with the American Revolution, will be an aspect of this. But then, more broadly, what occurred from this man’s life, and what, in a certain way, we’re going to be writing that, because what are we going to do with these kinds of very powerful concepts today?
We do have a lot to do. We have a dramatic transformation to make in the direction that the US is operating, a dramatic transformation. So, thanks for joining, and see you next time.