Friday, August 28, 2009

I Have No Use Of That Hypothesis

One of my favorite stories about the Creator as an explanation of Nature is of the brilliant French scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace — math, physics, probability, celestial mechanics, planetary motions, statistics, astronomy, etc. As a frame of reference, consider that he's been described as the French Newton.

From the Wikipedia article on Laplace:

An account of a famous interaction between Laplace and Napoleon is provided by Rouse Ball:
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 don't know much about Lagrange except that his name comes up quite a bit in some more advanced fields of mathematics. It sounds like he was a Deist (at least) but my interest is more in Laplace's explanation.

I had no need of that hypothesis.

He could do his work, even on the system of the universe — a somewhat large topic — and never need to invoke the crutch of God to help prop up his work. The mathematics, the science, the hypotheses, the theories, the observations, and probably so much more, were sufficient to synthesize a coherent theory of how the universe worked. I don't know enough to know how detailed his system was nor how well it has held up against the ravages of scientific scrutiny since then. But his reputation gives me a pretty good idea.

I noticed in my own life that I've had no need of that hypothesis either. Since acknowledging my atheism, I haven't had any reason to reconsider. In fact, I don't remember have any reason before then either. Being a Christian (ALC Lutheran) was just the way I was raised. The reasons I would have been a Hindu in India were the reasons I was a Christian in Oregon. I sang in the choirs, went to Sunday School, read The Screwtape Letters in early high school, went through the confirmation process, celebrated Christmas, watched the sun come up at Easter Morning services, and so on.

By late grade school, or very early high school at the latest, I was skipping Sunday School classes and could be found reading in the back pews of the empty church. I remember that one of the books I read in such a manner was Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian.

The history isn't the important part, though. It's the content: I have had no need of that hypothesis. I've never needed it to be good and kind — or even explain how to be good and kind. I've never needed it to understand what I can of science and mathematics, astronomy and biology, music and art, literature and dance, work places and sport fields. I'm not an expert in any of those (although I am pretty good in a couple) but as the years go by and my knowledge continues to increase, I find fewer and fewer areas where God (whether one or many) could be of help or is even relevant.

I grant that many other folks do have a need for the hypothesis. I think it is usually because they don't have anything else to help explain the world. They don't have science and sociology at their finger tips. They aren't used to critically examining anything serious or seriously. They don't know what other explanations or theories exist for their questions or dilemmas of the moment. But I don't try to "convert" them. If I can help, I will try to ask questions or provide another viewpoint or point them to a useful reference. If God or religion comes up, it's not from me.

Having "no need of the hypothesis" is not the same as denying the hypothesis. Denying the hypotheses of others usually ends up in a battle. I've been happier and more effective, I think, by using and sharing the theories and hypotheses that work for me. And there are becoming more of us that are comfortable with sharing the fact that we've had "no need of the hypothesis." And we aren't all staying silent all the time now. Forty-five years after those mornings reading on the oak pews, I'm comfortable talking about it.

1 comment:

  1. Thanx for the link, me and some friends were discussing Quantum physics from the Higgs Bosson to It's misnamed God-Particle label, ended mentioning God as hypothesis, needed this to as a verification of the conversation where the expression first came Into use.


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