Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Dispensing with "That" Hypothesis

It is fashionable to declare that one shouldn't have regrets. Bollocks. I have many of them. One of these is that I didn't date in my teens and for much of my twenties. Granted, I'm not the handsomest of the lot and so it's not as if I would have had opportunities bursting at the seam, but there were a handful of times when I could have pursued a few females and likely have been successful that I ultimately passed on. Why? Well, during that phase of my life I was quite religious holding fast to such notions that God, because he was so sovereign, would bring me a wife and I wouldn't have to lift a finger. As a result I gobbled up ridiculous literature like I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

Now I did sincerely believe this tripe, but looking back I can also see that this view aligned quite well with my general approach to girls well before my religious period. When it comes to females I have always been a passive male. Thus, in a meaningful way a high view of God's sovereignty functioned as a suitable excuse to cover this (faulty?) nature of mine. I'm sure that many use their god(s) in such a manner: invoking the deity to excuse and/or explain. This is problematic as it hinders us from probing and investigating our own faults which is necessary if we truly wish to correct them.

Our personal lives aren't the only things at risk of stagnation by summoning God as the answer to our problems but the advancement of knowledge itself. Okay, so I'm being bombastic here and the connection I'm about to make is quite dubious. Nevertheless, indulge me. (Note: some of the following I learned from the great astrophysicist and science communicator Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson.)

Everyone knows of Isaac Newton and his revolutionary impact on science. The man gave us the laws of motion and gravitation, invented calculus, engaged in the first serious examination of the properties of light, and more (including dabbling in alchemy!). But Newton was also a deeply religious individual and wrote more on theology than he did on natural philosophy, as "science" was dubbed back then (Much cooler sounding in my opinion. Let's move to bring it back).

And unfortunately this personal theology slipped into his great tome Principia Mathematica. Among other things one of the chief aims of that book was to work out the calculations for the force of gravity between celestial objects. Now the calculations worked just fine when only two bodies were concerned like the earth and moon for example. But when Newton tried to calculate the forces of all of the then known planets of the solar system, the equations kept failing meaning they predicted that all the orbits would be unstable. But a quick observation of course showed that the solar system was not flying apart so Newton suggested that every now and then God stepped in to keep the solar system in balance. In short, Newton's recourse to a "God of the gaps" as an explanation resulted in him giving up on the problem.

It would be a century later before this problem would be solved. The Frenchman Pierre-Simon Laplace would be the one to do it. He did so by developing something called perturbation theory that enabled one to mathematically show that in fact the solar system was quite stable. Laplace argued and laid out this theory in his mammoth five volume Mechanique Celeste. Eventually, another famous Frenchman, one Napoleon Bonaparte, who was a voracious reader of works on natural philosophy, read through the entire work and being quite impressed summoned Laplace for a discussion. But something troubled Napoleon about the work, namely, that there was no mention of God or a designer and when queried about this Laplace simply replied, "Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis."

Perhaps we too would be better off by dispensing with that hypothesis. Our continued understanding of the universe certainly has benefited from such. So the moral of the story? Be a Laplace and not a Newton. Oh, and I guess: date.


  1. You're right that the "God of the gaps" solution will never suffice. However, I tend to think that the classic Christian tradition was never putting forward such a God, so it's truth claims aren't touched by the early modern rejection of the "God hypothesis" as unnecessary. David Bentley Hart lays out this position clearly and with characteristic verve in his recent book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. In short, the early-modern mistake (which followed on from late medieval developments in metaphysics) was to think of God as just another creature in the world, rather than as the source of being itself. Before you dispense with "that hypothesis" too quickly, I'd encourage you at least to read Hart or some of the other related literature (e.g., Brad Gregory's Unintended Reformation or Charles Taylor's A Secular Age). In a completely different vein, though not an incompatible one, Francis Spufford's Unapologetic is also worth checking out.

  2. Matt,

    First, it's good to hear from you. And second don't worry too much. This post was partly tongue in cheek. I'm about to leave for a month to do some Army training, but I'd love to talk to you about some of this stuff when I'm back. When I'm able I'll check out those works you suggested.