When one for the first time hears Leibnizian principle of sufficient reason, it seems quite obvious and self-evident: of course, everything happens for a reason. But as Samuel Clarke was quick to notice, the innocent appearing principle could be used for smuggling substantial presuppositions behind our backs. For instance, Leibniz himself used the principle to justify the more uncertain principle of the identity of indiscernibles: God could not have created two exactly similar things, because God would have no ground for choosing the situations of the two things.
Wolff begins the chapter on natural theology by a similar abuse of the principle of sufficient reason. Theology itself is probably a familiar term to everyone, but what makes it natural? The answer is that natural theology is supposedly based on mere human reason, while the other type of theology – that is, revealed – is based on supposed divine revelation.
Wolff thus supposes that a sufficient reason is only such that requires no reason beyond itself. In effect, Wolff has not been demanding just an explanation, but a full explanation of everything, ending with a final term that is self-explanatory. And as we might remember from previous texts, Wolffian ground/reason is not just any explanation, but a causal agent actualising things. The principle of the sufficient reason is hence suddenly turned into a commitment for the existence of a final instigator of causal things. That is, to a commitment that while normal possible things require some external force to overcome the opposite possibility of their non-existence, there is a thing that has enough force in itself for self-actualisation.
It takes no theologian to guess that this self-actualising thing, which cannot fail to exist, is meant to be the traditional God: a transcendent being beyond both the physical world and the realm of human souls. One might still wonder why Wolff accepts only a single self-actualising thing. After all, the causal chains in the world might have more than one beginning, that is, there might well be more than one God.
Although Wolff does not directly answer this problem, he does try to argue against the identification of humans and God on the basis of the possible multiplicity of human souls. Wolff notes that when one accepts the existence of the world, it is easy to see that the human soul as dependent on the world cannot be God. Idealists, who deny the existence of the world, and even what Wolff calls egoists and what we would call solipsists, that is, philosophers admitting only their own existence, admit at least that there are many possible human souls. Yet, just this plurality of souls makes it impossible that the humans would be Gods. Plurality of possible Gods is apparently against the necessity of the supposed God: if a thing might be otherwise and still a God, it would require a further ground why the thing then is like it actually is, thus, it surely couldn't be self-actualising and self-explaining.
When it comes to God's characteristics, Wolff follows tradition: God is, for instance, capable of intuiting all things immediately, thus, requires no symbolic knowledge; he is wise, that is, capable of planning the relationships between the things in the most perfect manner possible; he also lives in the highest possible bliss, because he sees the perfection of the world. But what interests us most is the relationship between the God and the world.
Until now, the status of the possibilities or essences in Wolffian philosophy has been rather unclear: on the one hand, essences are said to be eternal and thus existing, on the other hand, they are not actualised. Wolff suggests that it is the understanding of God that sustains all the various possibilities: they exist in a sense, because God is continuously thinking all of them.
Although God thinks all the possibilities and especially all possible worlds, this does not still make them actual. Instead, actuality is received through a force, which is external, if the actualised thing is not God, and ultimately, through God’s will.
Interestingly, this characterisation is connected to Wolff’s notion of philosophy as a science of possibilities. Although the understanding of humans is not as pure as God’s – that is, it is confused or sensous – we can at least partially follow what is going on in God’s understanding, because the content of his understanding is necessary: that is, there can be no other possibilities. Then again, what is actual depends on God’s choice and the motives behind it. Thus, we can know generally that God has chosen the best possible world, but we cannot with certainty say that a particular chain of events would belong to the best possible world – in other words, there cannot be any true science of actualities.
Because I have finally reached the end of Wolff’s German Magnum Opus, this is a great opportunity to evaluate the whole book. The historical worth of Wolff’s German metaphysics is unquestionable. Although there had been philosophical books written in German, Wolff’s book was still the most systematic treatment of all the major topics of traditional metaphysics, and as we shall most likely see in the distant future, its influence can still be felt in Kant’s writings. That said, we might still question the originality of his work in a wider perspective of the Europian philosophy in 18th century: I shall say a little bit about this topic in the next post.
Does German metaphysics then hold any interest for a modern philosopher? As we have witnessed, the book is full of gaps in argumentation, unwarranted presuppositions and plain sophisms. Still, one must appreciate at least the architectural design of the book, where in the ontology the classification into three main types of things – complex or material things and especially the world, simle, but finite things and especially souls, and the infinite thing or God – is introduced and where the final chapter ties all the knots by showing how both the material world and the souls are dependent on the God.
Wolff's German metaphysics has finally ended. I have been rather longwinded on the topic, but I have felt this has been necessary, because of the historical importance of the book. Next time, I shall make a short detour on an earlier philosopher: we shall meet the supposed predecessor of Wolff.