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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

View Blog | Read Bio

There is No Need for God as a Hypothesis

– By Byron Jennings, Theorist and Project Coordinator

Pierre-Simon, marquis de Laplace (1749 – 1827) was one of the great French mathematical physicists. In math, his fame is shown by the number of mathematical objects named after him: Laplace’s equation, Laplace transforms, the Laplacian, etc.  In physics, he was the first to show that planetary orbits are stable and he developed a model—the nebular model—to account for how the solar system formed.  In modified form, the nebular model is still accepted. In spite of these important contributions, he was also very much a lackey, being very careful to keep on the right side of all the right people. During the French revolution, that might have been just good survival strategy. After all, he served successive French governments and, unlike Lavoisier, kept his head.

Laplace presented his definitive work on the properties of the solar system to Napoleon.  Napoleon, liking to embarrass people, asked Laplace if it was true that there was no mention of the solar system’s Creator (ie God) in his opus magus. Laplace, on this occasion at least, was not obsequious and replied, “I had no need of that hypothesis.” This is essentially the simplicity argument discussed in a previous blog, but stated very crisply and succinctly.

Laplace was not just a whistlin’ Dixie. Newton had needed that hypothesis, ie God, to make the solar system work. Newton believed that the planetary orbits were unstable and unless God intervened periodically, the planets would wander off into space. Newton had not done the mathematical analysis sufficiently completely. Laplace rectified the problem. Newton also had no model for the origin of the solar system. Laplace eliminated these two gaps that Newton had God fill.

Back to Napoleon—he told Joseph Lagrange (1736 – 1813), another of the great French mathematicians/physicists, Laplace’s comment about no need for the God hypothesis. Lagrange’s reply was, “Ah, it is a fine hypothesis; it explains many things.” Laplace’s apocryphal reply was, “This hypothesis, Sir, explains in fact everything, but does not permit to predict anything. As a scholar, I must provide you with works permitting predictions.” This is the ultimate insult in science: it explains everything but predicts nothing. Explanations are a dime a dozen; if you want explanations, read Kipling’s Just so Stories. Now, there are some fine explanations. I particularly like The Cat That Walked by Himself.

Lapalce’s argument, I had no need of that hypothesis, is still being used today. Hawking and Mlodinow in their book, The Grand Design, created a stir by claiming God did not exist. But their argument was just Laplace’s pushed back from the beginning of the solar system to the beginning of universe:  they had no need of that hypothesis.  Whether their physics is correct or not is still an open question. It is not clear that string theory has gotten past the “it explains everything but predicts nothing” stage.

An alternate approach to understanding God’s absence in scientific models is methodological naturalism. The term seems to have been coined by the philosopher Paul de Vries, then at Wheaton College, who introduced it at a conference in 1983 and published it in the Christian Scholar’s Review.  It has since then become a standard definition of science, even playing a significant role in court cases, most notably the case [1 in Dover Pennsylvania on teaching creationism in public schools. The judge mentioned methodological naturalism prominently in his ruling.

Methodological naturalism, as a definition of the scientific method, is rather ill defined except for its main idea, namely that science, explicitly, by fiat, and with malice a-fore-thought, rejects God, gods, and the supernatural from all its considerations. There is frequently an implicit secondary idea that science is about finding explanations but only natural ones, of course. Both ideas are inconsistent with what science actually is: building models constrained only by observation and parsimony. (See above and the previous blog for my opinion of the role of explanations in science.)

However, methodological naturalism is a very convenient hypothesis. It avoids awkward questions about the relation between science and religion. By inserting naturalism into the very definition of science, methodological naturalism, if valid, would create a firewall between science and religion. This would both protect religion from science and scientists from the religious. Considering the violence done in the name of religion, the latter may be more important, but the former was probably part of the original intent.  However, I suspect the main motivation was to explain why God and the supernatural are absent from science.  But Laplace gave the real reason for God’s absence: parsimony—there is no need of that hypothesis. There are probably also very good theological reasons for that absence but that is outside the scope of science and this blog.

Methodological naturalism confuses the input with the output. To the extent science is naturalistic, it is an output of the scientific method, not part of the definition. Excluding anything by fiat is poor methodology. But once one realizes that historically God and the supernatural have been eliminated from science, not by fiat, but by Laplace’s criteria, methodological naturalism becomes redundant; an ad hoc solution to an already solved problem.

 

[1] United States District Court for the Middle District Of Pennsylvania, TAMMY KITZMILLER, et al. v. Dover Area School District; et al,
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20 Responses to “There is No Need for God as a Hypothesis”

  1. Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    I couldn’t agree more! “Methodological naturalism”, as inductionism (or at least its continued mentioning), seems to originate in theology.

    And it is the success of science, not its content, that shores up its use and the decreased uncertainty that follows. Conversely, it is the failure of alternative methods to compete that makes it the only way to get to facts. To use yet another popular theological term, we end up with “scientism”.

    But on the specific question of the importance of parsimony I will have to disagree. That parsimony works is another observation of course, and it is somewhat theoretically supported by the (as of yet untested hypotheses) that it minimizes mistakes and reversals of theory. But it doesn’t seem to be crucial to the success of science.

    Nor to what Carroll calls (dysteleological) physicalism. My own theory on this is that from the use of (unqualified!) naturalism, we observe success. But moreover:

    One main reason why this success is so pervasive is that we observe uniformity. Science would be a lot less compelling, but still feasible, if physics laws would be different between my dining room and my work room.

    But if we think about it, another main reason for success is that we observe physicalist monism. Science would be a lot less compelling, but still feasible, if physics laws would be different between my fork and my pen, or between lunch time and work time.

    That is why physicalist monism is very much as observed, and important, as uniformity. My toy model is to use a measurable physical characteristic, say conservation of energy, and test for the prediction of monism. Say, a binomial test yes/no over tested observations or hypotheses published. We need ~ 260 000 such publications for a 3 sigma test of a physics theory (outside of accelerators and astronomy). At the current exponentially increasing rate of 600 000 papers a year (IIRC) and estimating 1/10 contains actual tests that would mean a mere ~ 5 years papers.

    So we, as society, likely passed the stage of being able to reject magic dualism of theology for good somewhere in the 70′s – 80′s. (For good, give or take remaining uncertainty of testing.) Coincidentally, parsimony supports such conclusions too. =D

  2. Herwig Schopper says:

    Natural science cannot make any statement about God. Physics results are only true if they can be reproduced, any time in any place. Religion is based on revelations which are unique for different religions. These different kinds of truth (based on reproducibility and revelation)are complementary, describing different parts of reality (different projections of reality). Hence physics cannot prove nor disprove the existence of God. In a discussion with Pope John Paul II and with the Dalai Lama we agreed on this. Also many islamic people will accept such a statement.

    • nomi says:

      Being a muslim (by birth) and agnostic (by choice), I agree with Herwig. Religion and science both can be two faces of same reality. Science in still progressing. Maybe one day science will take us to something what religious story teller call God. Like chemical reactions happen in bodies, maybe we will find some energy pathways which are actually making these reactions happen, or some pnew particles which are giving instructions to brain so that thoughts take place. I very much believe that science is marching towards truth and the end truth may or may not be the God.

    • J C Sleeman says:

      To paraphrase Ford Prefect (in the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy) “this must be some usage of the word ‘Truth’ that I am not familiar with”. I think of truth as correspondence with the facts of the world. Religious ‘truth’ based on revelation relies on faith and is more akin to fantasy, and the word ‘truth’ is ascribed to this out of politeness (by unbelievers) or out of a need to hijack the intellectual respectability of science (by believers.)

    • Byron@TRIUMF says:

      My understanding is that this argument goes back at least to Aquinas with the separation of internal (revelation) and external (sensory) information. But science is about what can be observed so as soon as religion makes any statement about what is observed there can be no firewall between religion and science.

  3. Bill McLean says:

    Why do scientists from Laplace to Hawking to the author of this blog feel so compelled to defend thier science against religeon?

    It seems rather like the strong man who feels compelled to prove his strength in response to ninety-five pound weaklings who claim to be able to accomplish the same feats. In his compusion to prove his strength, he reveals a weakness of a different sort: he shares the insecurities one would expect from the weaklings.

    In similar manner, these scientists’ compulsion to show that they “have no need of this hypothesis” reveal that thier science has become (to them) a religeon of sorts. If the science stands on its own, let it do so.

    “Me thinks the lady (these scientists) doth protest too much.”

    • J C Sleeman says:

      Come, Sir, be fair! Christians are exhorted to “witness for the truth”, that is what they believe as the truth. Should not agnostics and atheists also witness for their beliefs (or lack thereof.)

    • Byron@TRIUMF says:

      The purpose of the blog was not to defend science from religion but to clarify the relate between them. Methodological naturalism was proposed, not by scientists, but from within the religious community. Since it is flawed but gaining traction it is important that its flaws be discussed. It main flaw is precisely that it tries to define science in terms of religion.

      Laplace did ignore the issue until directly challenged, Should he have remained silent when asked?

      For Hawking, it was a very small part of one of his books but gained undue notice from the press.

      Science should not be defined in terms of its relation to religion but its relation to religion is a valid and interesting topic of discussion.

  4. alberto says:

    We should Not be discussing superstitions in ALL religions, in the context of TRUE science.It only leads to confusion in the minds of young and or uneducated persons.
    Let every one beleive what they want from Santa Claus to black cats to gods,and let science advace foward without confusing comparisons.

  5. Marcello says:

    Byron

    Ruprecht Machleidt gave a wonderful talk on the history of physics at an APS NW meeting years ago in Idaho. In that talk he related the tale of Thales and his followers (in what is now coastal Turkey) who were the first to think about explaining the world WITHOUT the need for the supernatural. i.e. saying something like this: ASSUMING that gods do not exist, how much can we understand of the world using just, essentially, what we can see, touch, etc around us. It was the start of ‘science’ per se, and like Lavoisier and others since, got many of Thales’ disciples killed when the Athenian priests got a hold of them. Which is why many gave the Athenians a wide berth and set up shop in Syracuse, etc

    So from the outset science has operated under the shadow of religion, at least until very recently. As it seems to me, science began and developed under “methodological naturalism” for centuries, and only after it achieved a certain maturity, could the pronouncements of ‘not needing that hypothesis’ be uttered with any credibility. So I don’t see MN as being flawed : it is a straightforward definition of science as practised for a couple of millennia. I don’t know what the coiners of the term MN meant, but to me it seems reasonable description of science til about, oh, Laplace. Things have changed a bit since then though, but I think much of that kind of thinking still persists, even if not so formulated in official philosophical doctrine

    • Byron@TRIUMF says:

      Ah yes, the conflict hypothesis that the relation between science and religion has been marked only by conflict (see History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom by Andrew Dickson White for the full flawed presentation). However, the three people, Galileo, Kepler and Newton, most responsible for making science mainstream were all Christians. Newton could even be considered a religious fanatic and needed God to make his model of the solar system work. Galileo throughout all his life was a supporter of the Catholic Church even when the two were in conflict. (See the book Galileo: A Very Short Introduction by Stillman Drake).

      Methodological naturalism has many flaws. The most important is that it, as noted in the article, mistakes input for output. Second it is poorly defined. It is at most part of a definition of science, not saying anything about how science progresses but only what it rejects. Naturalism itself is also poorly defined. If God showed up at the Empress Hotel for tea on a regular basis she would be considered natural (and probably also a snob). It is also poor methodology to reject anything by fiat be they Gods, infinite stacks of turtles or drifting continents. As another commenter noted science should not be defined by its relation to religion.

      For proper methodology, we must allow science to go where observation leads, if that includes what is currently considered supernatural so be it. The methodology of science: model building tested against observation and simplicity prevents us from going too far astray.

  6. ZXC says:

    The “problem of God” has nothing to do with religion , it is a philosophical problem related with the origin of matter, energy and vacuum that which constitute the universe ( the one that we know or the others that could exist).

    There are a few but important questions that the science avoid to reply, but that concern to it´s own specific field “the nature”.

    None of this questions are related neither with myths, dogmas, moral nor faith.

    1) Why does something exist instead of nothing?
    2) What happened before the begining of the Big Bang?
    3) Where did come from all the matter and energy that conforms the universe?
    4) What is really the vacuum?
    5) Which was the cause of the beginning of the universe?
    6) Why the science rejects to think about things prior the begining of the universe (and the begining of the time)?

    • Byron@TRIUMF says:

      Most of these questions are discussed by scientists. I have heard seminars on pre big bang cosmology which address you questions: 2, 3 (the net energy in the universe is probably zero), 5 and 6.

      ! is the only one of your questions that science does not address.

  7. Physical Philosophy evolved into Physics and the Sciences that can be
    measured, monitored and evaluated. My problem with Hawking’s view about
    God not existing before this universe’s creation is because space and time did not exist in his view. This scientific theory incudes no experiment and is not repeated by any other scientist. The Physical Philosophy is not Spiritual Philosophy. Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness (Note: Likeness) and John 4:24
    King James Version (KJV)God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. (Note: Spirit) Man has a spiritual nature and a physical one. Methods to investigate each of them differ.

    It must be interesting that the Alpha and Omega was is and always will be transcends time and if spacetime is linked then he must be omnipresent and so it is written. That it is written so long ago in
    such archaic language ought to be interesting to modern Scientists.

  8. ZXC says:

    Byron:

    The problem is that in the points that I mentioned in my post, the scientists discuss with a level of uncertainty and imprecision near a fantastic story or to the religions dogmas.

    There are no evidences about the Pre-BigBang era(?) and there will not be in the future, only are speculations, just as no one can ever go inside a black hole and return to tell us what´s inside.

    We can´t say now certainly if God exist or not, and never it would be possible to be assertive about this theme.

    But let me say that there are not to much alternatives: One is that God exist and has created the Universe, the other is that God does not exist and the Universe has created to itself, so the Universe is God with us included.

  9. Judith Moken says:

    “There is No Need for God as a Hypothesis”
    It has come to my attention you are limiting your ideas and the principles to the knowledge of physics eliminating the necessity of looking towards why the universe was created. Throughout the history of the world and all the legends, folk lore, and historical writings they all point to God.The concept of having the thought of creating such a magnificent feat is mind boggling. God is real. The problem of choosing light or darkness has been around for eternity.It is for this reason that the universe was created – for man and God’s angels to choose.
    I am surprised that you have not learned about the lines in Peru, etc. They represent the “demons” on the earth or weaknesses in mankind. If you look in any civilization light and dark are portrayed in a battle for dominance.Light (God’s domain) being dominate.I am sorry to cause the incident at Cern. The problem was to cause attention to the destructive dark energy and actually what happens with the dark energy which is usually released into the atmosphere or the magnetic fields of the earth and how they are affecting the earth and thus the magnetic fields between the planets.
    I thought that the scientists would pick up on how to handle the situation with the use of the light schematics that were left at the military base on the Atlantic Coast. They have not been used for the peaceful usage except for medicine. The light schematics had four printouts. The three schematics produce light, they will correspond to the three printouts. The fourth printout is the lithograph of the light or the absence of light. The absence of light is what I call the dark energy or negative force at the south pole when the Russian Scientist disappeared in 1989. It is dangerous to all life. Gravity affects it but you have to be careful as it mutates and destroys the cells causing electrical, magnetic, problems to cells. Which usually means cancer, heart problems, etc.Since the dark energy can go through objects,it can cause the magnum under the mantle to be active.Alice could be modified. Take the readings for the empty machine

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