Episode 63 – “The Mind and the Matter”

Leibniz (1646-1716) asked two fundamental questions: (1) Why is there something rather than nothing? and (2) Why is it this way and not some other way? Leibniz argues that if the actual world is the product of an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent being, a being who selected this world for actualization from among all the possible worlds, then the answer to the two questions is that this is the best of all possible worlds. God chose it because it was the best, and God would only choose the best.

Mr. Archibald Beechcroft, like many of us, has had moments when  this world appears to be far from the best:  in crowded elevators, subways, and streets, and when someone spills coffee . Of course, there are many other weightier things Beechcroft could cite as evidence that this world leaves a lot to be desired, such as famine, natural disasters, and a wide variety of human-inflicted ills on individuals and groups. But Beechcroft is nothing if not supremely annoyed by the little things that affect him directly, and by other people generally.

One way to make sense of why things are the way they are and not some other way, is to imagine that one had the power to change things. If it were up to Beechcroft, there wouldn’t be crowded elevators or subway cars, or assistants who spill coffee. So let’s give Beechcroft the power that might otherwise belong to the benevolent omnipotent creator, and see how it goes. So Beechcroft gets to occupy God’s position, at least insofar as he has the power to craft a world that is the best of  all possible worlds for Beechcroft, and we can sit back and observe the consequences.

Every Twilight Zone episode, indeed every work of fiction, presents a possible world. And many works of fiction present a possible world in which there are other possible worlds, that is possible worlds within the possible world. In most stories, as in most human events in the real world, the selection of a possible world results in an action  – taking a fork in the road. What makes Beechcroft’s case special and thus God-like is that possible worlds are actualized by mere thought. Just as God wouldn’t need any matter to bring about the existence of matter in any conceivable configuration, so Beechcroft finds himself able to actualize any changes in matter by his mere thought.

Once he is given the power to change anything, Beechcroft attempts to improve on the actual world. If Leibniz is right, then if the world is already the product of an omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good god, then Beechcroft will fail. But that’s unintuitive for Beechcroft and also for the rest of us. Beechcroft’s first act is to eliminate all of humanity save himself. But as we saw in “The Man in a Bottle,”  our choices have consequences. Beechcroft learns that pretty quickly, and tries again. Beechcroft’s dilemma confronts any engineer. Leibniz describes God’s task as balancing the simplicity of the means with the richness of the effects.  The worlds Beechcroft actualizes turn out to be worse than the world about which he complained so bitterly.

Beechcroft’s failure to engineer a better world may have something to do with his basic principles and his fundamental values. Early on in the episode he provides his analysis of perfection. A perfect world is a world in which Beechcroft is the only person. All ills come from the imposition of evil by other persons. While the case for this analysis can be made, it ignores a fact that Beechcroft himself woefully ignores, namely the positive effect other people have on his life, even when they are responsible for some of Beechcroft’s discomfort.

Further Reading: 

Gottfried Leibniz, Discourse on Metaphysics (1650)

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