Friday, April 5, 2013

Revisiting Laplace meets Napoleon

I like to retell the famous story where Napoleon asks Laplace why he does not mention God in his book about the mechanics of the solar system. Laplace declares, "I have no need of that hypothesis." It nicely illustrates the practical or methodological naturalism of  science and so I sometimes use this story in talks. On the other hand, the story is triumphantly used by some atheists to denounce the death of God. For example, Christopher Hitchens invoked Laplace in his book, God is not Great.

One small problem is that the Laplace-Napoleon story may be apocryphal. I recently learnt, via Wikipedia, that there is some doubt about whether this meeting and the associated dialogue ever took place.

But, it even if the actual event did not take place the story still illustrates the essential issues.

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