99. Leibniz on the Springtime of the Soul

The beautiful colors of Spring have emerged yet again from the seemingly endless days of white, gray, brown, and black. The once frozen ground and mutilated remnants were concealing hidden folds of life waiting to unfold.

According to the enlightenment philosopher G. W. Leibniz our souls enfold and unfold as well. We can see how by taking a look at his analysis of perception. In section 14 of his work Monadology, Leibniz claims that “The passing state that involves and represents a multitude in the unity, or in the simple substance, is nothing but what is called perception.” Look around right now: don’t you experience a multitude of diverse sensations unified into one perceptual experience of your environment? Isn’t it the case that your experience, rather than being perceived as some diverse aggregate, is experienced as unified? It certainly seems so. But if this is the case then, according to Leibniz, perception cannot be mechanically explained by any system of interacting parts. Consider the thought experiment he presents in section 17:

“Furthermore, one is obliged to admit that perception and what depends upon it is inexplicable on mechanical principles, that is, by figures and motions. In imagining that there is a machine whose construction would enable it to think, to sense, and have perception, one could conceive it enlarged while retaining the same proportions, so that one could enter into it, just like into a windmill. Supposing this, one should, when visiting within it, find only parts pushing one another, and never anything by which to explain a perception. Thus it is in the simple substance, and not in the composite or the machine, that one must look for perception. Moreover, there is nothing besides this—besides perceptions and their changes—that one could possibly find in a simple substance. It is also in this alone that all the internal actions of simple substances can consist.”

This wonderful thought experiment, often referred to as Leibniz’s Mill, helps us see why, according to Leibniz, unified perceptions can never be fully explained by brain analysis however complex. Even if we enlarged the brain and examined every part and mechanism of it we would never find the means to fully account for perceptions. This is because the brain is an object made of parts and perceptions are unities not made of parts. Thus it is to the “internal actions” of a “simple substance” that we should look to find perceptions. This simple substance is an immaterial soul with no physical parts or, as Leibniz refers to it, a “monad.” Monads are required for perception since only a true unity can unify. Moreover, mechanical action, the kind of action widely embraced by contemporary science, is only a matter of cause and effect or efficient causality without regard to purpose. But perception is about final causality or the type of action that is goal-oriented or teleological such as pursuing good and avoiding evil: “The perceptions in the monad arise from each other according to the laws of the appetites or of the final causes of good and evil…” (see “Principles of Nature and Grace, Based on Reason”, section 3).

Thus Leibniz argues perception is not taking place in the brain since, on the one hand, we need simple unities to unify in accordance with goals and, on the other hand, the brain is complex and should be understood with non-purposeful mechanical principles alone. Rather, perception would be an action “internal” to monads. So we see that it is really through an analysis of perception that Leibniz defends his claim that we are souls.

Now assuming that the soul exists, what can we hope for regarding its immortality? Well, Leibniz believes that nothing ever naturally dies: all living things are monads and monads, being simple, cannot be dissolved. In Monadology section 4 he writes: “There is no dissolution to fear<in the monads>, and there is no way conceivable in which a simple substance can perish naturally.” He goes on to deny the natural genesis of monads as well: “For the same reason, there is no way in which a simple substance could begin naturally, since it cannot be formed by composition.” In section 73 this leads to the conclusion that births and deaths are really unfoldings and enfoldings: “This also brings it about that there is never either complete birth or complete death, in the strict sense of separation of the soul<from the body>. What we call births are unfoldings and growths; even as what we call deaths are enfoldings and diminutions.” He elaborates:

“But, you will say, an organic body can be destroyed. I answer that even if a body is destroyed according to our perception, nevertheless the soul would not for that reason be destroyed, for there would still remain an animated mass and the soul would continue to act on the inside and outside, though less perfectly, i.e., without sensation. And we retain such a perception in deep sleep, apoplexy and other cases, although the senses may cease. For sensation is perception that involves something distinct and is joined with attention and memory. But a confused aggregate of many little perceptions, containing nothing eminent that excites attention, induces a stupor. Nevertheless the soul, or the power of sensing in it, would not for that reason be useless, although it would now be prevented from being exercised, because with time the mass could again develop and be adapted for sensation, so that the stupor ceases, just as more distinct perceptions arise when the body also becomes more perfect and ordered.” (see Leibniz: The Shorter Texts, Continuum, p. 65)

So perhaps upon death we enfold our perceptual activities and then, in some future springtime of the soul, we will, despite grim and wintry appearances to the contrary, emerge again and unfold our powers of perception in unimaginable ways.

For my post that explores Leibniz’s Mill thought experiment in more detail, go here.

For my post that explores Leibniz’s views on God and truth, go here.

For my post that explores Leibniz’s arguments against the existence of atoms, go here.

Read the Monadology here.

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