Reflections

A Best of All Possible Worlds

First, a Happy Thanksgiving to all celebrating!

Since finishing Ken Miller’s upcoming book The Human InstinctI’ve thought a lot about humanity. The history of the Earth is unique. If we could rewind time, the history of life would not repeat itself. Even with the same early conditions, evolutionary history would be very different. We probably wouldn’t exist. There is a lot of uncertainty inherent in evolution.

Humanity is far from perfect. People suffer from incurable diseases and every kind of poverty. Nations war with other nations without any peace in sight. Still, it’s a biological miracle that we even exist. We are a young species, and possibly the only intelligent life form in the entire universe. And have you seen the size of the universe?

In the 18th century, Voltaire ridiculed Leibniz’s philosophy of optimism in a satire titled Candide. Pangloss, the quack doctor and pseudo-Leibnizian in the novel, suffers every kind of atrocity imaginable, but he somehow survives them all because this is the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire employed vivid descriptions of rape, murder, and natural disasters to ridicule Leibniz’s optimistic view of humanity.

But in a way, isn’t this the best of all possible worlds for humans?

My understanding is that Leibniz’s theory developed in an attempt to reconcile divine freedom and divine goodness. In his model, God created this particular universe out of an infinite number of possible universes (God was free to choose a different universe), and it was the best universe because God can’t create anything less than perfect. All sin is a product of human free will, a faculty God gave to his intelligent creatures. It’s complicated.

But possibility could also refer to the many Earths evolution could have but did not create. We don’t know what could have happened, but if conditions had been even slightly different at any point in evolutionary history, we would not be here. There is a lot of suffering in this world, but this is the only possible world in which we could exist. On a biological (not ethical) level, this is the best of all possible worlds for humans.

I believe that societies can improve. This is not a call for inaction or indifference. But I am thankful that I exist. I am concerned about the future of the planet because I know how miraculous our existence is. We are dust – like bacteria, ants, and giraffes. But we are self-aware dust.

Today, I am thankful for my existence as an individual and our existence as a species.

 

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