Today I got a comment from RRRG mentioning a classic story about Laplace and Napoleon that I posted in an old version of this blog in 2006. Unfortunately that blog is no longer available—I need to do something about it—so I looked for the original text (which is in Wikipedia with numerous sources) and I’m reposting it now, for your reading pleasure:
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.”)
“But if you know about God, why don’t you tell them?” asked the Savage indignantly. “Why don’t you give them these books about God?”
“For the same reason as we don’t give them Othello: they’re old; they’re about God hundreds of years ago. Not about God now.”
“But God doesn’t change.”
“Men do, though.”
The following quote comes from The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, the book I try to read while I’m nicely elbowed in the metro (ummm… they hit me more with this book than with others):
The great French mathematician Blaise Pascal reckoned that, however long the odds against God’s existence might be, there is an even larger asymmetry in the penalty for guessing wrong. You’d better believe in God, because if you are right you stand to gain eternal bliss and if you are wrong it won’t make any difference anyway.
But why, in any case, do we so readily accept the idea that the one thing you must do if you want to please God is believe in him? What’s so special about believing? […] What if God is a scientist who regards honest seeking after truth as the supreme virtue? Indeed, wouldn’t the designer of the universe have to be a scientist? Bertrand Russell was asked what he would say if he died and found himself confronted by God, demanding to know why Russell had not believed in him. ‘Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence,‘ was Russell’s (I almost said immortal) reply.
“If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down“. Dawkins is provocative from the very beginning, and far from being pretentious, I think he’s probably right for saying it. Because if you read it, it’ll irreversibly damage every single religious belief you may have, but hey, in the most respectful –meaning carefully reasoned– way. Well, more when it’s finished.
(Many thanks Estebán!)
Update: Many thanks to the avid commentator for the image!