Sunday, June 20, 2010

Napoleon and the God hypothesis

Pierre Simon Laplace (1749 - 1827) was a very famous French mathematician.
One of his great works was ``Mechanique celeste''. This book took many of Isaac Newton's ideas and reworked them into a mathematical form that made it possible to quantify the motion of the planets.

There is a famous story about Laplace meeting Napoleon Bonaparte. [The following account is based on Rouse Ball's, A Short account of the History of Mathematics].
Laplace went to beg Napoleon to accept a copy of his work. But, someone had told Napoleon that the book contained no mention of the name of God. Napoleon, who was fond of putting embarrassing questions, took the book and commented, ``Monsieur Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator."

Laplace, answered bluntly, ``Je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothese-le.'' [I have no need of that hypothesis].

Napoleon, greatly amused, told this reply to Lagrange, (another famous mathematician) who exclaimed, ``Ah! c'est une belle hypothese; a explique beaucoup de choses.' ["Ah, but it is such a beautiful hypothesis; it explains a great many things!"]

This story represents a common misunderstanding about the respective roles of science and theology and the relationship between them. Just because we can explain something scientifically does NOT mean that God is not involved in it.

It is true that before the development of science many natural phenomena people saw and experienced seemed to be random and hard to understand. Examples include hurricanes, floods, disease, the motion of the sun, and the ocean tides.

Many religions said these things happened because a god made them happen. If people made sacrifices to this god maybe bad things would not happen.

However, the development of science let to explanations of many natural phenomena in terms of cause and effect. For example, because of gravity the earth orbits the sun
and the moon orbits the earth. This allows us to explain the ocean tides and their regularity.

So now we don't need religious explanations to explain natural phenomena, whether it is the weather or the structure and properties of atoms. But, these explanations never explain who or what is behind these laws of nature.

1 comment:

  1. "Just because we can explain something scientifically does NOT mean that God is not involved in it."