Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 18, 2007

The Hypothetical Atheist

One of Christopher Hitchens’s favorite evangelists of atheism is Pierre-Simon Laplace, the French mathematician. In God is Not Great, the Anglo-American polemicist takes special delight in retelling the story of how Laplace was asked by Napoleon why his great Treatise on Celestial Mechanics made no mention of God. “Sire, je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse,” Laplace is supposed to have replied. (“Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis.”) This incident is the occasion for one of Hitchens’s diatribes against the Judeo-Christian God—though I am bewildered as to why a mere superfluous hypothesis should arouse his odium theologicum.

However, there are a few problems with the way that Hitchens uses this anecdote to bolster his argument. In the first place, Laplace was dealing with a specific scientific problem—the instability of the solar system—rather than with the general question of God’s place in nature. A century earlier, Isaac Newton, who was a theist of a very esoteric kind, had believed in the necessity of regular “corrections” by God to preserve cosmic equilibrium. Using much more accurate observational data, Laplace showed that no such interventions by the divine clockmaker were necessary. In his paper Does God Play Dice? Stephen Hawking commented: “I don’t think that Laplace was claiming that God didn’t exist. It is just that He doesn’t intervene, to break the laws of science.”

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One of Christopher Hitchens’s favorite evangelists of atheism is Pierre-Simon Laplace, the French mathematician. In God is Not Great, the Anglo-American polemicist takes special delight in retelling the story of how Laplace was asked by Napoleon why his great Treatise on Celestial Mechanics made no mention of God. “Sire, je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse,” Laplace is supposed to have replied. (“Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis.”) This incident is the occasion for one of Hitchens’s diatribes against the Judeo-Christian God—though I am bewildered as to why a mere superfluous hypothesis should arouse his odium theologicum.

However, there are a few problems with the way that Hitchens uses this anecdote to bolster his argument. In the first place, Laplace was dealing with a specific scientific problem—the instability of the solar system—rather than with the general question of God’s place in nature. A century earlier, Isaac Newton, who was a theist of a very esoteric kind, had believed in the necessity of regular “corrections” by God to preserve cosmic equilibrium. Using much more accurate observational data, Laplace showed that no such interventions by the divine clockmaker were necessary. In his paper Does God Play Dice? Stephen Hawking commented: “I don’t think that Laplace was claiming that God didn’t exist. It is just that He doesn’t intervene, to break the laws of science.”

The second, far more serious problem, is that Laplace never used the words attributed to him by Hitchens. The encounter took place in 1802, before Napoleon had crowned himself emperor, when he was still First Consul of the French Republic, so Laplace would certainly not have addressed him as “Sire.” Laplace was in the company of Sir William Herschel, the English astronomer, who is our only eyewitness source for the meeting with Napoleon. According to Brandon Watson’s science website Houyhnhnm Land, the anecdote is found in Herschel’s diary of his visit to Paris, quoted in Constance Lubbock’s The Herschel Chronicle (Cambridge, 1933), p. 310:

The first Consul then asked a few questions relating to Astronomy and the construction of the heavens to which I made such answers as seemed to give him great satisfaction. He also addressed himself to Mr. Laplace on the same subject, and held a considerable argument with him in which he differed from that eminent mathematician. The difference was occasioned by an exclamation of the first Consul, who asked in a tone of exclamation or admiration (when we were speaking of the extent of the sidereal heavens): “And who is the author of all this!” Mons. De la Place wished to shew that a chain of natural causes would account for the construction and preservation of the wonderful system. This the first Consul rather opposed. Much may be said on the subject; by joining the arguments of both we shall be led to “Nature and nature’s God.”

Where, then, did the bon mot attributed to Laplace by Hitchens and countless others come from? Watson believes that it was invented by the popular historian E.T. Bell, whose well-known book Men of Mathematics appeared in 1937, just four years after Lubbock’s book. Bell gives no source for the Laplace quotation, and it appears to be one of many that he embellished or simply made up. Bell’s scholarship, incidentally, was unreliable in other ways, too: his book contains odious asides about the “aggressive clannishness” of Jewish academics.

Herschel’s account leaves no doubt that he, like Napoleon, believed in God. What, though, did Laplace believe? One of his two recent biographers, Charles Coulston Gillispie, does not even mention the discussion with Napoleon. Perhaps he regarded the question of Laplace’s views on God as a superfluous hypothesis. But Roger Hahn, another biographer of Laplace, found in his papers a 25-page manuscript detailing his objections to Catholicism, in particular to miracles and transubstantiation. (Clearly this manuscript was not intended for publication until after the author’s death.)

Laplace, who looks more and more like the Talleyrand of French science, enjoyed both Bonapartist and Bourbon patronage. Born in 1749, he was able to publish freely throughout the period from the ancien regime, the Republic, and the Empire through to the Restoration. Briefly Napoleon’s interior minister and president of his puppet senate, Laplace never hesitated to sign the warrant for the emperor’s deposition. He died a marquis, and was buried with great pomp, in 1827. If he was an atheist, he was certainly not prepared to risk his position in society by openly expressing his views. Laplace was a great man of science, but he was a great trimmer, as well. Hitchens and other militant atheists should look elsewhere for their heroes.

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China’s Arms Trail

China is secretly supplying large quantities of small arms to the Taliban in Afghanistan (and to insurgents in Iraq), according to a report in Friday’s Washington Times. Iran is paying for the shipments of these sniper rifles, bullets, rocket-propelled grenades, and components for roadside bombs. The article claims that China, at its own suggestion, even transported some of the materiel to avoid interdiction. The arms in question are of recent design and may have been delivered as recently as three months ago.

This is by no means the first report of links between China and the Taliban. On or soon after September 11, 2001, Beijing signed an economic and technical assistance agreement with the Taliban, and in the weeks following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, China built a communications system for Kabul. Allied forces found Chinese munitions in Afghanistan following the Taliban’s defeat, and there have been scattered reports of such dealings over the past decade. (The Chinese embassy declined comment on the Washington Times report.)

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China is secretly supplying large quantities of small arms to the Taliban in Afghanistan (and to insurgents in Iraq), according to a report in Friday’s Washington Times. Iran is paying for the shipments of these sniper rifles, bullets, rocket-propelled grenades, and components for roadside bombs. The article claims that China, at its own suggestion, even transported some of the materiel to avoid interdiction. The arms in question are of recent design and may have been delivered as recently as three months ago.

This is by no means the first report of links between China and the Taliban. On or soon after September 11, 2001, Beijing signed an economic and technical assistance agreement with the Taliban, and in the weeks following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, China built a communications system for Kabul. Allied forces found Chinese munitions in Afghanistan following the Taliban’s defeat, and there have been scattered reports of such dealings over the past decade. (The Chinese embassy declined comment on the Washington Times report.)

The article also states that Beijing has rebuffed American attempts to stop the recent arms shipments by denying any knowledge and then asking for intelligence on the transfers. This is China’s standard tactic when confronted with claims of its duplicitous conduct. If Beijing can track down three Falun Gong practitioners in a remote upland village in Gansu province, how can it not know about a decade of arms sales to the Taliban by its state-owned factories?

Chinese weapons are killing American soldiers. The Bush administration, incredibly, is letting Beijing get away with it. This year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has cited repeatedly Iran’s supplying arms to Iraqi insurgents and to the Taliban, but he has not said one public word about China’s involvement. If the Chinese believe they can commit hostile acts against the U.S. with impunity, it is largely because of Washington’s lack of response to their belligerent conduct.

Last Tuesday, President Bush dedicated a memorial in Washington to the victims of global Communism with a stirring speech. Yet it is wrong for him to deliver inspirational words about the casualties of that murderous ideology and not to say anything about China’s creating more of them—especially when the new ones are American men and women in uniform.

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Norman Podhoretz on “The Case for Bombing Iran”

Last week, contentions staff interviewed COMMENTARY’s editor-at-large Norman Podhoretz about his June 2007 article “The Case for Bombing Iran.” This critically important (and controversial) article has attracted notice from the New York Times and the London Times, as well as considerable attention in the blogosphere. Below is the full video:

Last week, contentions staff interviewed COMMENTARY’s editor-at-large Norman Podhoretz about his June 2007 article “The Case for Bombing Iran.” This critically important (and controversial) article has attracted notice from the New York Times and the London Times, as well as considerable attention in the blogosphere. Below is the full video:

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Rebirth of the Classics

The online classical music vendor ArkivMusic has been developing a sales program that solves one of the great problems besetting CD collectors. Superb classical CD’s are often abruptly withdrawn by record companies for reasons having little or nothing to do with intrinsic quality, and much more to do with marketing ploys and vagaries of taste. The Hungarian-born pianist András Schiff, for instance, is generally considered one of the supreme keyboard artists of our time. But since he stopped recording for Decca, the label has allowed many of Schiff’s CD’s to go out of print in the U.S. Happily, ArkivMusic is offering a solution.

Over 2,700 previously unavailable CD’s (originally released by Universal Classics, EMI, Sony BMG, and smaller labels) can once again be purchased on a production-on-demand basis. The sound quality, according to ArkivMusic, is comparable to that of the originals; the original liner notes are, however, absent. These CD’s include landmarks like Schiff’s delectable recording of Mozart’s Music for Four Hands (played with his mentor, the British pianist George Malcolm). Or Schiff’s exuberant CD’s of Mozart piano concertos with the Hungarian maestro Sandor Végh, formerly unavailable from Decca’s U. S. catalogue. Another newly available summit of Mozart performance (which Decca also allowed to go out of print in the U.S.) is a 1970’s recording of Mozart’s violin sonatas by the wizardly violinist Szymon Goldberg, with Radu Lupu* on piano.

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The online classical music vendor ArkivMusic has been developing a sales program that solves one of the great problems besetting CD collectors. Superb classical CD’s are often abruptly withdrawn by record companies for reasons having little or nothing to do with intrinsic quality, and much more to do with marketing ploys and vagaries of taste. The Hungarian-born pianist András Schiff, for instance, is generally considered one of the supreme keyboard artists of our time. But since he stopped recording for Decca, the label has allowed many of Schiff’s CD’s to go out of print in the U.S. Happily, ArkivMusic is offering a solution.

Over 2,700 previously unavailable CD’s (originally released by Universal Classics, EMI, Sony BMG, and smaller labels) can once again be purchased on a production-on-demand basis. The sound quality, according to ArkivMusic, is comparable to that of the originals; the original liner notes are, however, absent. These CD’s include landmarks like Schiff’s delectable recording of Mozart’s Music for Four Hands (played with his mentor, the British pianist George Malcolm). Or Schiff’s exuberant CD’s of Mozart piano concertos with the Hungarian maestro Sandor Végh, formerly unavailable from Decca’s U. S. catalogue. Another newly available summit of Mozart performance (which Decca also allowed to go out of print in the U.S.) is a 1970’s recording of Mozart’s violin sonatas by the wizardly violinist Szymon Goldberg, with Radu Lupu* on piano.

But ArkivMusic is not just rehabilitating recordings from decades ago. The Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes’s CD of works by Schumann was nominated for a Grammy in 1998. Yet it too went out of print (although it is well worth hearing today.) The acclaimed young German baritone Matthias Goerne recorded an aria recital in 2000, including youthfully pliant versions of opera excerpts by Wagner and Richard Strauss. Decca let this fine CD, one of Goerne’s best, languish. But both are newly available on ArkivMusic.

Sometimes musical trendiness seems to have determined which recordings labels drop from their catalogues. As the “authentic approach” in Baroque music passed in and out of fashion over the past 30 years, a number of top performances fell by the wayside. In 1977, the Dutch bass Max van Egmond recorded two Bach solo cantatas for Sony Classical, which are among the most elegantly sung Baroque performances ever. Now they can be heard again, as can a brilliant recital of François Couperin’s harpsichord music, originally recorded by Gustav Leonhardt for Philips and long unavailable.

There are dozens of such high points among ArkivMusic’s new offerings. But perhaps the most compelling of all are recordings by the composer Benjamin Britten (also a splendidly sensitive conductor) in a program of British music. Or the tenor Peter Pears, Britten’s companion and prescient musical partner, in a program of Elizabethan lute songs with the lutanist Julian Bream. These CD’s are truly authoritative, and we were poorer without them.

*Editing introduced an error, which has since been corrected.

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Crazed Kaletsky

London Times columnist Anatole Kaletsky is a guru to the kind of people who are gullible enough to be impressed by a smattering of economics. His columns typically skate over the arguments, while always hinting at a vast body of evidence to back up his wilder assertions.

Now Kaletsky has launched a pre-emptive strike against those in the United States who believe that Iran must be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons at all costs, and specifically Norman Podhoretz in COMMENTARY. (Kaletsky’s article can be read here.)

Kaletsky makes no attempt to answer Podhoretz’s arguments, which are detailed and cogent. True to form, he prefers to dismiss the Iranian nuclear threat in favor of ad hominem abuse. Echoing the U.N. nuclear inspector Mohamed ElBaradei, who slanders those who advocate a tough line with Iran as “crazies,” Kaletsky makes some crazy claims himself: “There is now strong evidence,” he writes, “that President Bush didn’t even know the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims when he decided to attack Iraq.” Kaletsky produces no such evidence, for the simple reason that the claim is demonstrably untrue.

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London Times columnist Anatole Kaletsky is a guru to the kind of people who are gullible enough to be impressed by a smattering of economics. His columns typically skate over the arguments, while always hinting at a vast body of evidence to back up his wilder assertions.

Now Kaletsky has launched a pre-emptive strike against those in the United States who believe that Iran must be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons at all costs, and specifically Norman Podhoretz in COMMENTARY. (Kaletsky’s article can be read here.)

Kaletsky makes no attempt to answer Podhoretz’s arguments, which are detailed and cogent. True to form, he prefers to dismiss the Iranian nuclear threat in favor of ad hominem abuse. Echoing the U.N. nuclear inspector Mohamed ElBaradei, who slanders those who advocate a tough line with Iran as “crazies,” Kaletsky makes some crazy claims himself: “There is now strong evidence,” he writes, “that President Bush didn’t even know the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims when he decided to attack Iraq.” Kaletsky produces no such evidence, for the simple reason that the claim is demonstrably untrue.

Kalestsky has been trying to persuade Gordon Brown to break with Tony Blair’s policies for some time. Now Kaletsky urges Brown to choose what he calls the “genuinely courageous option”:

This is to positively forestall further disasters by breaking publicly with the Bush Administration and trying to develop a genuine European alternative to the suicidal American-led policies, not only in Iraq, but also in Israel, Palestine and Iran.

We shall soon see if Brown is foolish enough to listen to such voices. On an unannounced visit to Iraq a few days ago, Brown sought to reassure Iraqi officials that he has no intention of ordering a precipitous withdrawal of British forces. It is unlikely that Brown would have done this if he were on the point of breaking with the Bush Administration—or even with his predecessor’s foreign policy.

It would be fatal for a new British prime minister to try to exploit anti-Americanism just as Nicolas Sarkozy in France and Angela Merkel in Germany are both mending fences with Washington, while central and eastern Europeans are falling back on NATO in the face of bullying by Putin’s Russia.

If Brown were to distance his government from the United States or Israel, he would quickly discover exactly why Blair values these alliances so much. For when the war on Islamist terror widens into a direct confrontation with Iran, as it is very likely to do during the remainder of Bush’s and Brown’s terms of office, those European states that have failed the Iraqis so badly will suddenly require American protection against missile attack. They will also need American intelligence. If the Iranians were to carry out their threat to activate terrorist cells, possibly armed with WMD, in Europe, then U.S. assistance—logistical, medical, and military—could be needed on a large scale.

The “crazies” are not those who are now urging Americans to start behaving as if they were at war. America is at war. So is Europe. Thanks to the likes of Kaletsky, Europeans just don’t know it yet.

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