One of the greatest anti-theistic verbal slaps in the history of the French language was delivered by Pierre-Simon Laplace to Emperor Napoleon I, on the question of whether God plays a role in keeping the stars and planets in order:
Napoleon – “Mais où est Dieu dans tout cela?”
Laplace – “Sire, je n’ai pas eu besoin de cette hypothèse.”
Christopher Hitchens describes the occasion thusly, “[L]ike many men of his time [Laplace] was also intrigued by the orrery, a working model of the solar system as seen, for the first time, from the outside. These are now commonplace but were then revolutionary, and the emperor asked to meet Laplace in order to be given either a set of [Celestial Mechanics] or (accounts differ) a version of the orrery.”
I’m going to break from Hitchens’ account here for a moment just to note that we are talking about Napoleon here, a man who was not exactly known for a lack of ambition. I’m guessing he was demanding both the books and the model.
Continuing with the story, “[I]n his childish and demanding and imperious fashion, [Napoleon] wanted to know why the figure of god did not appear in Laplace’s mind-expanding calculations. And there came the cool, lofty, and considered response…” – God is not Great, pp. 66-67.
Which, translated, comes out to something like “I have no need of that hypothesis.” I’ve no doubt that Hitchens loved this line for the same reason I do: So much meaning implied in so few words. In that one line, Laplace implies the virtues of skepticism (scientific methods and hypothesis testing) and hints at the possibility of atheism and metaphysical naturalism.
Laplace had no need of the God hypothesis in order to construct a working model of the solar system, though it must be noted that he did have need of an invisible, inexplicable, and incredibly powerful force of attraction between all objects, which seems to me quite enough mystery to be going on with. That said, it is not particularly obvious to me why the modern Copernican model of the solar system should be considered significantly more godless than the Ptolemaic model. Either way, the forces underlying the system were taken as brute facts at the time, and may be assumed to be either natural or supernatural in origin.
While it is relatively easy to find a real life representation of the modern model, and somewhat less easy to find antique mechanical orreries, it is significantly harder to find models of Ptolemy’s system. Presumably this is because we don’t want our kids learning the wrong system. The only time I have ever seen the Ptolemaic model physically embodied was during a scene from Alejandro Amenábar’s historical drama Agora (2009), wherein Hypatia’s slave boy demonstrates to his mistress that he has been paying close attention during her lectures, and not just her baths.
In the movie, Hypatia is depicted as a freethinking scientist who holds herself aloof from questions of faith in favor of a more scientific approach. Of course, this is historical fiction, rather than documentary, clearly intended as a parable to help us get at truths about our modern world rather than the world of the late Roman Empire. There is nothing wrong with such an approach, even if it happens to be the means of generating holy writ in times past, because there is negligible risk that modern skeptics will canonize Agora as literal, immutable truth.
Actual Hitchens and fictional Hypatia both faced a common problem, they had each come upon a profound truth about the nature of the world, and the horde of common folk were not ready to receive it. To put it bluntly: No Gods, No Epicycles. The movie dares you to imagine just how much progress humanity would have made if only scientific inquiry hadn’t been put down by the rising tide of faith. I dare you to do the same.