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The Man in the High Castle, Leibniz, and The Best of All Possible Realities

How a dystopian alternate reality imagined by a bitter acid casualty makes a profoundly optimistic statement.

November 21, 2015Philip K Dick, philosophy, Leibniz

Philip K. Dick adaptations are dog whistles for me. I believe that Rutger Hauer’s improvisation at the end of Blade Runner is a top five cinema moment, I like Minority Report more than I should, and I endured Paycheck in the theater.

Thus, binge-watching Amazon’s series based on The Man in the High Castle was no problem. Revisiting the story in this way made me appreciate one of the mind-blowing concepts illustrated by the 1962 book.

The Man in the High Castle Style Folder Icon

For those unfamiliar, the story tells of an alternate post-WWII America that is split between Japanese and German occupation.

Several characters deal with living under a totalitarian regime, one of which (non-traditionally) is a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. This book-within-a-book describes a world where the Allies won. The book is essentally banned in the story, yet the characters read it anyway, searching for hope.

A common refrain is that Philip K Dick is all concept and no substance, and if that’s true then fuck yeah, concepts! This one is killer and the best way to demonstrate it is to refer to a statement made by a late 1600s German philosopher, Gottfried Leibniz.

Gottfried Leibniz Portrait

In his 1686 work Discours de métaphysique, Leibniz offered a possible explanation to The Problem of Evil, which is “if God is good why do bad things happen?”

Essentially: God is doing His best, and we live in the “best of all possible worlds” because that is the only version of the world that can be sustained indefinitely.

Our reality is clearly fraught with problems, but even then, could it the best? Voltaire didn’t think so, essentially saying that the world is so bad that it couldn’t possibly be the best. However, the concept introduced by the book-within-the-book serves to unearth some of Leibniz’ claims for further discussion.

In the story of The Man in the High Castle, the fact that The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is controversial in the alternate reality of the story serves to support Leibniz’ point — we live in a real world where a book like that can exist, does exist, and is not in the slightest way censored or banned.

This doesn’t prove Leibniz right, as it is very difficult to prove that this reality is the best, but it does illustrate that we certainly don’t live in the worst. By letting darkness descend upon an unimaginanably awful alternative, it serves to cast light on our own reality, showing how much worse things could have been.

Now that you know this, you probably don’t need to read the book and you definitely don’t watch the series, but you should anyway, because, well… it’s a Phlip K Dick adaptation.

Mark Robert Henderson

This is the website of Mark Robert Henderson. He lives in Cape Ann, works in Cambridge, and plays with distributed apps and tech philosophy online.

Mark's social media presence is slowly and deliberately withering away, so the best way to reach him is via e-mail.

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