Determinism according to Poincaré

Determinism according to Poincaré

We have become absolute determinists, and even those who want to reserve the rights of human free will let determinism reign undividedly in the inorganic world at least. Every phenomenon, however minute, has a cause; and a mind infinitely powerful, infinitely well-informed about the laws of nature, could have foreseen it from the beginning of the centuries. If such a mind existed, we could not play with it at any game of chance; we should lose.

In fact for it the word chance would not have any meaning, or rather there would be no chance. It is because of our weakness and our ignorance that the word has a meaning for us. And, even without going beyond our feeble humanity, what is chance for the ignorant is not chance for the scientist. Chance is only the measure of our ignorance. Fortuitous phenomena are, by definition, those whose laws we do not know.

But is this definition altogether satisfactory ? When the first Chaldean shepherds followed with their eyes the movements of the stars, they knew not as yet the laws of astronomy; would they have dreamed of saying that the stars move at random ? If a modern physicist studies a new phenomenon, and if he discovers its law Tuesday, would he have said Monday that this phenomenon was fortuitous ? Moreover, do we not often invoke what Bertrand calls the laws of chance, to predict a phenomenon ? For example, in the kinetic theory of gases we obtain the known laws of Mariotte and of Gay-Lussac by means of the hypothesis that the velocities of the molecules of gas vary irregularly, that is to say at random. All physicists will agree that the observable laws would be much less simple if the velocities were rules by any simple elementary law whatsoever, if the molecules were, as we say, organized, if they were subject to some discipline. It is due to chance, that is to say, to our ignorance, that we can draw our conclusions; and then if the word chance is simply synonymous with ignorance what does it mean ? Must we therefore translate as follows ?

“You ask me to predict for you the phenomena about to happen. If, unluckily, I knew the laws of these phenomena I could make the prediction only by inextricable calculations and would have to renounce attempting to answer you; but as I have the good fortune not to know them, I will answer you at once. And what is most surprising, my answer will be right.”

Henri Poincaré


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