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Leibniz’s God and Metaphysics: A Foundation for Free Will and Morality

In his Discourse on Metaphysics (1686), Leibniz sets out a ground on which knowledge, certainty, final ends, substance, and morality can be grounded; God becomes a crucial component to Leibniz’s metaphysics as it will serve as a foundation for these concepts. In Leibniz’s account, God is a being on which all substances depend, which are manipulated and produced continually by God through “a kind of emanation, just as we produce our thoughts”1. However, this does not necessarily imply that substances can appear out of God’s volition and free will, since the number of substances for Leibniz, must remain constant in quantity throughout the universe. Even if Leibniz’s conception of God has its influences and similarities to Spinoza’s God: where all substances and acts of the will are embodied in God and therefore are contingent on God—which translates into a form of naturalism and secularism; Leibniz gives an account that has less materialist and necessitarialist implications. Instead of giving an account that posits all substances as being entirely contingent on God and nature, Leibniz gives an account that somewhat resolves this contingency by leaving room for acts of volition and free will as an a priori grounds for action. Even if God foresees everything that happens, what is happening, and what had happened; that does not imply that all things must occur necessarily.2 This account, would serve as a foundation for his Leibniz’s metaphysics which in a way, also responds to the Cartesian mind (‘soul’) and body dualism. The way Leibniz establishes a kind of metaphysics that is contingent on God’s good will, but nevertheless embodies a potential for free volition and free will, is the subject that will be attempted to be expounded in this essay.

Before proceeding to the exposition of his metaphysics, it is necessary to start out with perhaps the most important foundation for Leibniz’s Discourse—the notion of substance. For Leibniz, every substance cannot be constructed by two, and neither can it be divisible into two; which follows that the number of substances remains constant throughout the universe and cannot increase nor decrease in quantity3. Since each substance is indivisible “each singular substance expresses the whole universe in its own way”4, it follows that every substance is like a mirror that reflects the world in a manner that is particular and cannot be contained nor assimilated to any other substance. Thus, it follows that the universe encompasses as many reflections as there are the number of substances contained within it; where each substances entails a unique view of the universe from its own particular perspective. (In the paragraphs below, it will be mentioned how this might pose as a epistemological problem where all substances become particulars that cannot have a common ground of relating to one another.) Here however, Leibniz does make a distinction between substances that possess intelligence, and ones that don’t; the former is just a mirror that merely projects reflections of the world, while the latter, is “someone who sees”5. Regardless of how intelligent a substance is, each one of them embodies a view through which “the glory of God is…multiplied…by as many entirely different representations [and perspectives] of his work (the universe) ”6. In this sense, the perspective that every substance encounters, is therefore a perspective that is seen and experienced by God himself.

Since God is a being that possesses “all perfections in nature”7 and has “infinite perception of knowledge”8, the perspective from every substance is available to him, and therefore every view, circumstance, sequence of events that any substance may experience or have—whether it is in the past, present, and future—is embodied in the notion of substance available only to God himself. “Each substance is like a world apart, independent of all other things, except for God”9. Since God possesses infinite knowledge about every substance, God’s perceptions are always true, it is only our judgments that come from ourselves which cause deception. In this sense, Leibniz has in mind a conception of the universe in which all possible attributes and substances are embodied in God, almost like Spinoza’s view, where all attributes in the universe belong to God himself. However, this does not necessarily mean that our actions are subordinated by God’s ‘good will’; rather, we must be satisfied with the way God has arranged things around us, otherwise God would be a less perfect being than he already is 10. Leibniz’s response to the claim that questions the benevolence of God based on evidence that there is plenty of evil and suffering in the world; to which he answers with a claim that all good in the world is subject to good only “to the extent that general harmony permits it”11 since everything occurs “in the most perfect manner”12 through God’s ‘good will’.

The universe for Leibniz is a perfect creation by God which follows a form of simplicity and harmony that escapes our comprehension. As Descrates states in his Fourth Meditation that “we should not look at any one single creature in isolation, but at the whole universe of things, whenever we are inquiring whether God’s works are perfect.”13 What Descrates seems to be proposing, is the creation of a certain metaphysical ground on which all things can looked at while not appearing as something that they are not. For Leibniz, God serves a crucial role in constructing a foundation for his metaphysics, on which phenomena of knowledge, thought and perception can be grounded with some certainty. God for Leibniz is infinite, the notion of which cannot be something more perfect than one already conceives it to be. In that regards, this view assimilates with Descartes’s view that God “is that than which nothing greater can be conceived”14.

For Leibniz, it appears that God is a necessity for grounding our perceptions and their ability to share some form of agreement and communicability. For, how can several spectators agree among themselves about a particular thing, when “each sees and speaks in accordance to his view”, and every substance entails its own way of viewing and perceiving the world?15 In Leibniz’s view, the fact that several people can come to some agreement about a given phenomena, demonstrates that there is some “sufficiency of proportion” that supports such an agreement, but which also does not follow that their interpretations are perfectly similar. What provides the condition for this agreement, is a certain mediation that occurs through God, since only through him can there be a common correspondence of perceived phenomena that would allow particulars to share some form of communicability and relation with one another; otherwise there would be no interconnection between these particulars. In this case, God serves quite a similar function for Leibniz, as it does in Descartes’s Meditations, for whom God serves as a mediator that assures one’s senses don’t deceive the mind. In this sense, the agreement that people share when regarding an object is based on common conceptions shared through metaphysics as such. This potential for agreement, will serve as an important metaphysical foundation for morality discussed in paragraphs below; for, if agreement among substances where impossible, how would moral principles shared by many people have any grounding? It is precisely this possibility for agreement that is mediated by God; and which provides the metaphysical ground on which agreements and moral principles can be grounded.

If things cannot be fully known, then to what extents can a foundation of knowledge and metaphysics be possible? This serves as the epistemological problem concerning the possibility of knowing things in the world. For Leibniz, knowledge is not entirely necessary in his metaphysics because “one cannot properly know the first principles or elevate our minds sufficiently well to the knowledge of incorporeal natures and the wonders of God.”5 However, this does not necessarily leave us with a world as work of God that remains unknowable and unreachable to us; for Leibniz, a certain kind of knowing can be achieved through mathematics and geometry. As Leibniz demonstrates in the case of a little boy in Plato’s Meno, even certain difficult truths in geometry can be demonstrated through reason while the possession of previous knowledge in geometry is not required. What allows for the truth of a geometrical problem to be discovered, is not the potential for knowledge that we possess, but that we can come to know these proofs while requiring solely our attention16. When we attempt to know things in the world, we most frequently strive for simplicity, because perfections consist in their virtues, and this for Leibniz, is a form of knowledge that we strive towards through our faculty of attention.

When Leibniz talks about attempts of determining the extension of bodies through empirical notions of size, shape, and motion; he warns that such categorization of extended bodies can only be relative to our perception of the body, and might not fall in line with the point of view of the substance itself17. In other words, what Leibniz seems to be suggesting, is that each substance has its own temporality, spatiality, and extension which is not universalizable and reducible to an assimilation with any other substance—whether it is through attributes, properties, and forms. Regarding the later, Leibniz does not entirely dismiss the Platonic notion of forms since they have some basis, but they should not be used to explain particular phenomena and must therefore have no purpose in dealing with the subject of metaphysics18. However, the common insufficiency that all these notions possess, is their incapability to constitute the notion of substance. Aside from the notions of size, shape, and motion; Leibniz mentions another notion called force, which is unlike the former notions that can quantitatively determine the properties of a body through mechanics and geometry. This notion of force, embodies a certain metaphysical quality that does not just consist of physical “corporeal mass of extension”, but also “indivisible forms or natures”19. For Leibniz, the attempt to know the forces of substances is precisely what allows to conceive their final causes, which serves as ground for metaphysical knowledge.

Although it may not fully serve the integrity of this essay to compare Leibniz to his late contemporary; the utterance that Leibniz makes in regards to that “we must join morals to metaphysics”20, serves almost as an allusion to Kant’s most renown work in moral philosophy titled Metaphysics of Morals (1797), published more than a century after the Leibniz’s Discourse on Metaphysics, published in 1686. However, by expounding a form a metaphysics that is not entirely contingent on God and nature, Leibniz also leaves room for the possibility of a free will and morality which strives to imitate God’s perfection. For Leibniz, God still serves as the basis on which moral principles can be grounded; while Kant dispenses God and relies solely on the faculties of finite reason and transcendental categories. As Leibniz states:

God, possessing supreme and infinite wisdom, acts in the most perfect manner, not only metaphysically, but also morally speaking, and that, with respect to ourselves, we can say that the more enlightened and informed we are about God’s works, the more we will be disposed to find them excellent and in complete conformity with what we might have desired.”21

Even if Leibniz conceives of God as someone who moves all substances in the universe through his will, he gives two possibilities that one can choose: either be in a state of indifference and necessity, or have agency over one’s will by suspending one’s own actions22. One may either strive to love God’s good will and establish moral principles based on it, or be contingent on external causality. In terms of his morality, substances that are not capable of “utter[ing] the world ‘I’”, are not ones that are capable of having moral standards13. This however does not necessarily imply a morality that only concerns substances with a mind or a soul, but also other substances that do not utter the word ‘I’. Since Leibniz seeks to bridge the gap between the Cartesian mind and body dualism, his metaphysics accounts both, the final causes and the efficient causes in order to satisfy those who have a incorporeal and a mechanistic understanding about the universe23. By bridging the gap between these two views, Leibniz established a ground on which metaphysical knowledge and moral principles can be made possible. Although this account very much relies on God as a support for the possibility of metaphysics, it is profoundly modern in the sense that it shares many aspects with the theories of his late contemporaries, who decided to abandon or secularize God altogether, i.e Kant and Spinoza accordingly.

  1. Leibniz, Discourse, p.46 

  2. Leibniz, Discourse, pp.44-45 

  3. Leibniz, Discourse, p.42 

  4. Leibniz, Discourse, p.41 

  5. Leibniz, Discourse, p.66  2

  6. Leibniz, Discourse, p.42 

  7. Leibniz, Discourse, p.35 

  8. Leibniz, Discourse, p.42 

  9. Leibniz, Discourse, p.47 

  10. Leibniz, Discourse, p.37 

  11. Leibniz, Discourse, p.38 

  12. Leibniz, Discourse, p.35 

  13. Descartes, *Meditations, p.40  2

  14. Descrates, Meditations 

  15. Leibniz, Discourse, p.47 

  16. Leibniz, Discourse, p.58 

  17. Leibniz, Discourse, p.44 

  18. Leibniz, Discourse, p.42 

  19. Leibniz, Discourse, p.52 

  20. Leibniz, Discourse, p.60 

  21. Leibniz, Discourse, p.35 

  22. Leibniz, Discourse, p.61 

  23. Leibniz, Discourse, p.55 

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