Monday, October 5, 2009

Science and faith in France

Next week I am off to Europe for a work trip, visiting universities in France and Germany. In my free time, a student group Groupes Bibliques Universitaires (GBU) has invited me to give talks on the relationship between science and the Bible on three different campuses. Several years ago I gave similar talks for the GBU in Strasbourg. I had a translator and here are the slides from one of the talks.

In preparing for the talks I will be thinking a bit about the views of leading French intellectuals concerning the relationship between science, theology, and philosophy.

So here is one, a famous interaction between Pierre Simon Laplace and Napoleon. In A Short Account of the History of Mathematics, Rouse Ball states:
Laplace went in state to Napoleon to accept a copy of his work, and the following account of the interview is well authenticated, and so characteristic of all the parties concerned that I quote it in full. Someone had told Napoleon that the book contained no mention of the name of God; Napoleon, who was fond of putting embarrassing questions, received it with the remark, 'M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.' Laplace, who, though the most supple of politicians, was as stiff as a martyr on every point of his philosophy, drew himself up and answered bluntly, 'Je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là.' ("I had no need of that hypothesis.") Napoleon, greatly amused, told this reply to Lagrange, who exclaimed, 'Ah! c'est une belle hypothèse; ça explique beaucoup de choses.' ("Ah, it is a fine hypothesis; it explains many things.")
I agree with Laplace!
I don't think Laplace was saying that God does not exist. And Stephen Hawking agrees!.
Laplace is making the important point that the scientific method involves a practical naturalism. The success of this method neither proves nor disproves the existence of God.

1 comment:

  1. I am a layman in science, so I dare not comment on what Laplace may have thought about God. As for the scientific method that involves a practical naturalism, that method leads us increasingly to answers for the beginning and evolution of the universe that a pure naturalism cannot provide. Something like a Godel incompleteness theorem. Here are two examples off the top of my head: 1)a big bang that preceded time and space, and, Hawking notwithstanding, leaves plenty of room for a non-natural creator. And 2), (which may be foolish because no one else seems to have thought of it)an Anselm line of reasoning that leads, by way of Newton's 2nd law of thermodynamics, to something of an Anselm god.
    The difficulty with the big bang is well known, but I have written an essay on it as it applies to Hawking's unbound theory. You can find it at under "Origins." It is also included on my (new) blog:
    The Anselm vs 2nd law goes something like this: order tends to entropy. This means that every state of material order was less orderly than the state that preceded it. If that holds, then obviously one must eventually arrive at a state than which no greater can be conceived. Such a state may very well have been the singularity at the big bang where all natural laws break down.