Originally published in Creation 3, no 3 (August 1980): 29-32.
Pièrre Simon Laplace is famous for his concept that the solar system formed from a spinning cloud of gas.
His theory is the combined result of a man’s philosophy, religion, and skills as an observer of the skies. It is important in looking at the Nebular Hypothesis that we understand something of the background of Laplace.
In 1749 Pièrre was born to a middle class family in Beaumont-en-Auge, France. During his schooling he first made his mark by the pious views expressed in his theological essays. His immense intellect can be seen by a brief look at some of his achievements.
His academic career commenced at age 18, in 1767, with his appointment as Professor of Mathematics at the Ecole Militaire in Paris. His early scientific work was done in cooperation with Lavoisier. Together they demonstrated that the amount of heat required to decompose a compound into its elements, is equal to the heat given off when the compound is formed from its elements. Their work formed a basis for the future science of Thermochemistry.
In France during the 1770’s and 80’s, the complex and varied systems of measurements were notorious for both hampering trade and for endless fights in court. To end this confusion, the French Academy of Science appointed a committee to “standardize all weights and measures.” Laplace was chosen as a member.
It was decided that the new system should be “decimal.” Distance units, such as the meter, were chosen and represented fractions of the earth’s circumference. In the words of the committee this standard “was not arbitrary nor peculiar to any people in the world,” a thought that was intended to express the progressiveness of France after the revolution.
On September 10, 1799 the kilogram and the meter were adopted as standard. Laplace and Delambre ordered a medal struck which was inscribed “for all time and for all people,” an inscription portraying the type of humanism that had begun to dominate Laplace’s thinking, i.e. our work will last forever! The first volume of his influential Traite de la Mecanique Celeste, was published in 1799. Four more volumes appeared in the next 26 years.
Laplace spent much time working in astronomy. He was impressed by the remarkable order that existed in the solar system, especially the shape of the paths the planets traveled in space (near circular), and the existence of the planets in nearly one plane.
He studied in great detail the motions of the planets and attempted to explain why the solar system was stable. He proposed that as long as the solar system was isolated and the sun did not change radically, then the solar system was so stable that it should exist indefinitely. This stability was used to refute Newton’s belief that a Divine Force kept the solar system intact.
His involvement in astronomy led Laplace to speculate on the origin of the solar system, with the Nebular Hypothesis first appearing in his book Exposition of a World System published in 1796. Despite the pious attitudes expressed in his early days, Laplace had by this time, reached the conclusion that the stability so obvious in the solar system, would best be accounted for by a process of evolutionary chaos. Laplace had now become one of France’s foremost Monday to Saturday atheists, in spite of his believing attendance at mass every Sunday.
His theory is based largely on the observation that all then known planets revolved around the sun in the one direction. Laplace suggested that:
It is interesting to note that, apart from the Biblical account of creation this theory on the origin of the solar system has been adhered to longer than any other. It still has a wide acceptance, and it is currently being promoted in modified form by theorists such as Prentice (Australian National University).
Laplace’s work has had many criticisms, the more serious of which are listed below.
Emperor Boneparte (the man who commissioned the invention of margarine) inquired of Laplace after reading his theory—“Where does God fit into your system?” Laplace replied: “Sire, I have no need for that hypothesis.”
The Nebular hypothesis represents the outworking of a man of great intellect who carefully studied and observed the evidence through eyes that were tied to a form of practical atheism. To Laplace, theology and science were independent forms of knowledge, and science was the better way of knowing.
Laplace’s comments to Napoleon were not a conclusion that God was not necessary, nor do they represent a belief that God did not exist. They represented the starting point around which he built his theories: God was simply irrelevant to the everyday world of matter and energy.