Article ID: CBB001320768

On the Origins and Foundations of Laplacian Determinism (2014)


Abstract In this paper I examine the foundations of Laplace's famous statement of determinism in 1814, and argue that rather than derived from his mechanics, this statement is based on general philosophical principles, namely the principle of sufficient reason and the law of continuity. It is usually supposed that Laplace's statement is based on the fact that each system in classical mechanics has an equation of motion which has a unique solution. But Laplace never proved this result, and in fact he could not have proven it, since it depends on a theorem about uniqueness of solutions to differential equations that was only developed later on. I show that the idea that is at the basis of Laplace's determinism was in fact widespread in enlightenment France, and is ultimately based on a re-interpretation of Leibnizian metaphysics, specifically the principle of sufficient reason and the law of continuity. Since the law of continuity also lies at the basis of the application of differential calculus in physics, one can say that Laplace's determinism and the idea that systems in physics can be described by differential equations with unique solutions have a common foundation.

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Authors & Contributors
Hahn, Roger
Cléro, Jean-Pierre
Bates, David William
Bensaude-Vincent, Bernadette
Blondel, Christine
Xu, Chuansheng
Archive for History of Exact Sciences
Archives Internationales d'Histoire des Sciences
Ziran Kexueshi Yanjiu (Studies in the History of Natural Sciences)
Notices of the American Mathematical Society
Isis: International Review Devoted to the History of Science and Its Cultural Influences
Cornell University Press
Éditions Gallimard
Philosophy of science
Laplace, Pierre Simon
Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm von
Priestley, Joseph
Fragonard, Honoré
Poincaré, Jules Henri
Boscovich, Ruggiero Giuseppe
Time Periods
18th century
19th century
17th century
20th century, early
Naples (Italy)

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