Laplace: Essay on probabilities

Laplace wrote A philosophical essay on probabilities which was translated by F W Truscott and F L Emory and was published by Dover in 1953. We present below a version of the beginning of the article.

1. Introduction

This philosophical essay is the development of a lecture on probabilities which I delivered in 1795 to the École Normale where I had been called, by a decree of the National Convention, as a professor of mathematics with Lagrange. I have recently published a work on the same topic entitled 'The analytical theory of probabilities'. I present here, without the aid of analysis, the principles and general results of this theory, applying them to the most important questions of life which are indeed, for the most part, only problems of probability. Strictly speaking it may be said that almost all our knowledge is problematic; and in the small number of things which we are able to know with certainty, even in the mathematical sciences themselves, the principal means of ascertaining truth - induction and analogy - are based on probabilities; so that the entire system og human knowledge is connected with the theory set out in this essay. Doubtless it will be seen here with interest that in considering even the eternal problems of reason, justice and humanity, only the favourable chances which are always attached to them, there is great advantage in following these principles and serious inconvenience in departing from them; their chances, like those favourable to lotteries, always end by prevailing in the midst of the vacillations of hazard. I hope that the reflections given in this essay may merit attention of philosophers and direct them to a subject so worthy of engaging their minds.

2. Concerning probabilities

All events, even those which on account of their insignificance do not seem to follow the great laws of nature, are a result of it just as necessarily as the revolutions of the sun. In ignorance of the ties which unite such events to the entire system of the universe, they have been made to depend on final causes or on hazard, according as they occur and are repeated with regularity, or appear without regard to order, but these imaginary causes have gradually receded with the widening bounds of knowledge and disappear entirely before sound philosophy, which sees in them only the expression of our ignorance of the true causes.

Present events are connected with preceding ones by a tie based on the evident principle that a thing cannot occur without a cause which produces it. This axiom, known by the name of the principle of sufficient reason, extends even to actions which are considered indifferent; the freest will is unable without determining motive to give them birth; if we assume two positions with exactly similar circumstances and find that the will is active in one and inactive in the other, we say that its choice is an effect without a cause. It is then, says Leibniz, the blind chance of the Epicureans. The contrary opinion is an illusion of the mind, which losing sight of the evasive reasons of the choice is determined of itself and without motives.

We ought then to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its anterior state and the cause of the one which is to follow. Given for one instant an intelligence which could comprehend all the forces by which nature is animated and the respective situation of the beings who compose it - an intelligence sufficiently vast to submit this data to analysis - it would embrace in the same formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the lightest atom; for it, nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present in its eyes. The human mind offers, in the perfection which it has been able to give to astronomy, a feeble idea of this intelligence. Its discoveries in mechanics and geometry, added to that of universal gravity, have enabled it to comprehend in the same analytic expressions the past and future states of the system of the world. Applying the same method to some other objects of its knowledge, it has succeeded in referring to general laws observed phenomena and in foreseeing those which given circumstances ought to produce. All these efforts in the search for truth tend to lead it back continually to the vast intelligence which we have just mentioned, but from which it will always remain infinitely removed. This tendency, peculiar to the human race, is that which renders it superior to animals; and their progress in this respect distinguishes nations and ages and constitutes their true glory.

Let us recall that formerly, and at no great epoch, an unusual rain or an extreme drought, a comet having in train a very long tail, the eclipses, the aurora borealis, and in general all the unusual phenomena, were regarded as so many signs of celestial wrath. Heaven was invoked in order to avert their baneful influence. No one prayed to have the planets and the sun arrested in their courses; observations had soon made apparent the futility of such prayers. But as these phenomena, occurring and disappearing at long intervals, seemed to oppose the order of nature, it was supposed that Heaven, irritated by the crimes of the earth, had created them to announce its vengeance. Thus the long tail of the comet of 1456 spread terror through Europe, already thrown into consternation by the rapid successes of the Turks, who had just overthrown the Lower Empire. This star after four revolutions has excited among us a very different interest. The knowledge of the laws of the system of the world acquired in the interval had dissipated the fears begotten by the ignorance of the true relationship of man to the universe; and Halley, having recognised the identity of this comet with those of the years 1531, 1607, and 1682, announced its next return for the end of the year 1758 or the beginning of the year 1759. The learned world awaited with impatience this return which was to confirm one of the greatest discoveries that have been made in the sciences, and fulfil the prediction of Seneca when he said, when speaking of the revolutions of those stars which fall from an enormous height: "The day will come when, by study pursued through several ages, the things now concealed will appear with evidence; and posterity will be astonished that truths so clear had escaped us". Clairaut then undertook to submit to analysis the perturbations which the comet had experienced by the action of the two great planets, Jupiter and Saturn; after immense calculations he fixed its next passage at the perihelion towards the beginning of April 1759, which was actually verified by observation. The regularity which astronomy shows us in the movements of the comets doubtless exists also in all phenomena.

The curve described by a single molecule in air or vapour is regulated in a manner just as certain as te planetary orbits; the only difference between them is that which comes from our ignorance. Probability is relative, in part to this ignorance, in part to our knowledge. We know that of three or greater number of events a single one ought to occur; but nothing induces us to believe that one of them will occur rather than the others. In this state of indecision it is impossible for us to announce their occurrence with certainty. It is, however, probable that one of these events, chosen at will, will not occur because we see several cases equally possible which exclude its occurrence, while only a single one favours it.

The theory of chance consists in reducing all events of the same kind to a certain number of cases equally possible, that is to say, to such as we may be equally undecided about in regard to their existence, and in determining the number of cases favourable to the event whose probability is sought. The ratio of this number to that of all the cases possible is the measure of this probability, which is thus simply a fraction whose numerator is the number of favourable cases and whose denominator is the number of all cases possible.


JOC/EFR August 2007

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