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Philosophers

Mortimer Adler
Rogers Albritton
Alexander of Aphrodisias
Samuel Alexander
G.E.M.Anscombe
Anselm
Louise Antony
Thomas Aquinas
Aristotle
David Armstrong
Harald Atmanspacher
Augustine
J.L.Austin
A.J.Ayer
Alexander Bain
Mark Balaguer
Jeffrey Barrett
William Belsham
Henri Bergson
Isaiah Berlin
Bernard Berofsky
Robert Bishop
Susanne Bobzien
Emil du Bois-Reymond
Hilary Bok
George Boole
Émile Boutroux
F.H.Bradley
C.D.Broad
C.A.Campbell
Joseph Keim Campbell
Carneades
Ernst Cassirer
David Chalmers
Roderick Chisholm
Chrysippus
Cicero
Randolph Clarke
Samuel Clarke
Anthony Collins
Antonella Corradini
Diodorus Cronus
Jonathan Dancy
Donald Davidson
Mario De Caro
Democritus
Daniel Dennett
Jacques Derrida
René Descartes
Richard Double
Fred Dretske
John Dupré
John Earman
Laura Waddell Ekstrom
Epictetus
Epicurus
Herbert Feigl
John Martin Fischer
Owen Flanagan
Luciano Floridi
Philippa Foot
Alfred Fouilleé
Harry Frankfurt
Richard L. Franklin
Michael Frede
Carl Ginet
Nicholas St. John Green
H.Paul Grice
Ian Hacking
Ishtiyaque Haji
Stuart Hampshire
W.F.R.Hardie
William Hasker
R.M.Hare
Georg W.F. Hegel
Martin Heidegger
R.E.Hobart
Thomas Hobbes
David Hodgson
Shadsworth Hodgson
Ted Honderich
Pamela Huby
David Hume
Ferenc Huoranszki
William James
Lord Kames
Robert Kane
Immanuel Kant
Tomis Kapitan
Jaegwon Kim
William King
Christine Korsgaard
Andrea Lavazza
Keith Lehrer
Gottfried Leibniz
Leucippus
Michael Levin
George Henry Lewes
C.I.Lewis
David Lewis
Peter Lipton
John Locke
Michael Lockwood
E. Jonathan Lowe
John R. Lucas
Lucretius
James Martineau
Storrs McCall
Hugh McCann
Colin McGinn
Michael McKenna
Brian McLaughlin
Paul E. Meehl
Uwe Meixner
Alfred Mele
John Stuart Mill
Dickinson Miller
G.E.Moore
C. Lloyd Morgan
Thomas Nagel
Friedrich Nietzsche
John Norton
P.H.Nowell-Smith
Robert Nozick
William of Ockham
Timothy O'Connor
David F. Pears
Charles Sanders Peirce
Derk Pereboom
Steven Pinker
Plato
Karl Popper
Huw Price
H.A.Prichard
Hilary Putnam
Willard van Orman Quine
Frank Ramsey
Ayn Rand
Thomas Reid
Charles Renouvier
Nicholas Rescher
C.W.Rietdijk
Richard Rorty
Josiah Royce
Bertrand Russell
Paul Russell
Gilbert Ryle
Kenneth Sayre
T.M.Scanlon
Moritz Schlick
Arthur Schopenhauer
John Searle
Wilfrid Sellars
Henry Sidgwick
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong
J.J.C.Smart
Saul Smilansky
Michael Smith
L. Susan Stebbing
George F. Stout
Galen Strawson
Peter Strawson
Eleonore Stump
Richard Taylor
Kevin Timpe
Mark Twain
Peter van Inwagen
Manuel Vargas
John Venn
Kadri Vihvelin
Voltaire
G.H. von Wright
David Foster Wallace
R. Jay Wallace
W.G.Ward
Ted Warfield
Roy Weatherford
William Whewell
Alfred North Whitehead
David Widerker
David Wiggins
Bernard Williams
Ludwig Wittgenstein
Susan Wolf

Scientists

Michael Arbib
Bernard Baars
John S. Bell
Charles Bennett
Ludwig von Bertalanffy
Susan Blackmore
Margaret Boden
David Bohm
Niels Bohr
Ludwig Boltzmann
Emile Borel
Max Born
Walther Bothe
Hans Briegel
Leon Brillouin
Stephen Brush
Henry Thomas Buckle
Donald Campbell
Anthony Cashmore
Eric Chaisson
Jean-Pierre Changeux
Arthur Holly Compton
John Conway
E. H. Culverwell
Charles Darwin
Terrence Deacon
Max Delbrück
Abraham de Moivre
Paul Dirac
Hans Driesch
John Eccles
Arthur Stanley Eddington
Paul Ehrenfest
Albert Einstein
Hugh Everett, III
Franz Exner
Richard Feynman
Joseph Fourier
Michael Gazzaniga
GianCarlo Ghirardi
Nicolas Gisin
Paul Glimcher
Thomas Gold
A.O.Gomes
Brian Goodwin
Joshua Greene
Jacques Hadamard
Stuart Hameroff
Patrick Haggard
Augustin Hamon
Sam Harris
Martin Heisenberg
Werner Heisenberg
William Stanley Jevons
Pascual Jordan
Simon Kochen
Stephen Kosslyn
Ladislav Kovàč
Rolf Landauer
Alfred Landé
Pierre-Simon Laplace
David Layzer
Benjamin Libet
Hendrik Lorentz
Josef Loschmidt
Ernst Mach
Henry Margenau
James Clerk Maxwell
Ernst Mayr
Ulrich Mohrhoff
Jacques Monod
Wolfgang Pauli
Massimo Pauri
Roger Penrose
Steven Pinker
Max Planck
Susan Pockett
Henri Poincaré
Daniel Pollen
Ilya Prigogine
Hans Primas
Adolphe Quételet
Jerome Rothstein
David Ruelle
Erwin Schrödinger
Aaron Schurger
Claude Shannon
Herbert Simon
Dean Keith Simonton
B. F. Skinner
Roger Sperry
Henry Stapp
Tom Stonier
Antoine Suarez
Leo Szilard
William Thomson (Kelvin)
Peter Tse
John von Neumann
Daniel Wegner
Steven Weinberg
Paul A. Weiss
Norbert Wiener
Eugene Wigner
E. O. Wilson
H. Dieter Zeh
Ernst Zermelo
Wojciech Zurek
 
Henri Poincaré
Henri Poincaré was called the "last universalist" because he was a great contributor to so many fields in mathematics, but his work was also broad in physics, philosophy, and psychology.

Poincaré speculated on how his mind works when he is solving mathematical problems. He had the critical insight that random combinations and possibilities are generated, some in an unconscious way, then they are selected among, perhaps initially also by an unconscious process, but then by a definite conscious process of validation.

Poincaré was thus the second thinker, after William James to propose the two-stage process of random alternatives followed by selection and determination of one choice which is the core idea of our Cogito model for free will.

In Science and Method, chapter 3, Mathematical Discovery, 1914, pp.58 he says

It is certain that the combinations which present themselves to the mind in a kind of sudden illumination after a somewhat prolonged period of unconscious work are generally useful and fruitful combinations, which appear to be the result of a preliminary sifting. Does it follow from this that the subliminal ego, having divined by a delicate intuition that these combinations could be useful, has formed none but these, or has it formed a great many others which were devoid of interest, and remained unconscious?

Under this second aspect, all the combinations are formed as a result of the automatic action of the subliminal ego, but those only which are interesting find their way into the field of consciousness. This, too, is most mysterious.

How can we explain the fact that, of the thousand products of our unconscious activity, some are invited to cross the threshold, while others remain outside? Is it mere chance that gives them this privilege? Evidently not...

What follows, then? Of the very large number of combinations which the subliminal ego blindly forms almost all are without interest and without utility. But, for that very reason, they are without action on the aesthetic sensibility; the consciousness will never know them.

the attention can make an adequately determined selection from conscious alternative possibilities
A few only are harmonious, and consequently at once useful and beautiful, and they will be capable of affecting the geometrician's special sensibility I have been speaking of; which, once aroused, will direct our attention upon them, and will thus give them the opportunity of becoming conscious...

In the subliminal ego, on the contrary, there reigns what I would call liberty, if one could give this name to the mere absence of discipline and to disorder born of chance. Only, this very disorder permits of unexpected couplings.

Although Poincaré speaks speculatively and positively of chance here, he shares the general nineteenth century abhorrence of absolute chance. In Science and Method, chapter 4, Chance, 1914, p.64 he says

"How can we venture to speak of the laws of chance? Is not chance the antithesis of all law?" It is thus that Bertrand expresses himself at the beginning of his "Calculus of Probabilities." Probability is the opposite of certainty; it is thus what we are ignorant of, and consequently it would seem to be what we cannot calculate. There is here at least an apparent contradiction, and one on which much has already been written.

To begin with, what is chance? The ancients distinguished between the phenomena which seemed to obey harmonious laws, established once for all, and those that they attributed to chance, which were those that could not be predicted because they were not subject to any law. In each domain the precise laws did not decide everything, they only marked the limits within which chance was allowed to move. In this conception, the word chance had a precise, objective meaning ; what was chance for one was also chance for the other and even for the gods.

But this conception is not ours. We have become complete determinists, and even those who wish to reserve the right of human free will at least allow determinism to reign undisputed in the inorganic world. Every phenomenon, however trifling it be, has a cause, and a mind infinitely powerful and infinitely well-informed concerning the laws of nature could have foreseen it from the beginning of the ages. If a being with such a mind existed, we could play no game of chance with him, we should always lose.

For him, in fact, the word chance would have no meaning, or rather there would be no such thing as chance. That there is for us is only on account of our frailty and our ignorance. And even without going beyond our frail humanity, what is chance for the ignorant is no longer chance for the learned. Chance is only the measure of our ignorance. Fortuitous phenomena are, by definition, those whose laws we are ignorant of...

Chance, then, must be something more than the name we give to our ignorance. Among the phenomena whose causes we are ignorant of, we must distinguish between fortuitous phenomena, about which the calculation of probabilities will give us provisional information, and those that are not fortuitous, about which we can say nothing, so long as we have not determined the laws that govern them. And as regards the fortuitous phenomena themselves, it is clear that the information that the calculation of probabilities supplies will not cease to be true when the phenomena are better known.

The manager of a life insurance company does not know when each of the assured will die, but he relies upon the calculation of probabilities and on the law of large numbers, and he does not make a mistake, since he is able to pay dividends to his shareholders. These dividends would not vanish if a very far-sighted and very indiscreet doctor came, when once the policies were signed, and gave the manager information on the chances of life of the assured. The doctor would dissipate the ignorance of the manager, but he would have no effect upon the dividends, which are evidently not a result of that ignorance.

Poincaré knew that physical laws are only approximate since they depend on experiment.
(The Value of Science,, 1913, p.129)
If we look at any particular law, we may be certain in advance that it can only be approximative. It is, in fact, deduced from experimental verifications, and these verifications were and could be only approximate. We should always expect that more precise measurements will oblige us to add new terms to our formulas; this is what has happened, for instance, in the case of Mariotte's law [Boyle's Law].
Poincaré anticipated modern chaos theory, discovered in computer programs predicting the weather by the meteorologist Edward Lorenz, in 1961. Poincaré knew that many predictions are extremely sensitive to the initial conditions (Science and Method, 1914, p.68)
...even if it were the case that the natural laws had no longer any secret for us, we could still only know the initial situation approximately. If that enabled us to predict the succeeding situation with the same approximation, that is all we require, and we should say that the phenomenon had been predicted, that it is governed by laws. But it is not always so - it may happen that small differences in the initial conditions produce very great ones in the final phenomena. A small error in the former will produce an enormous error in the latter...The meteorologists see very well that the equilibrium is unstable, that a cyclone will be formed somewhere, but exactly where they are not in a position to say; a tenth of a degree more or less at any given point, and the cyclone will burst here and not there, and extend its ravages over districts it would otherwise have spared...

On Mechanism
Poincaré opposed the mechanistic atomic theories of Maxwell and Boltzmann. He said "one finds in effect reversibility in the premises and irreversibility in the conclusion." No one could explain how reversible microscopic physics could lead to irreversible macroscopic physics (the second law of thermodynamics).

See Mechanism and Experience

For Teachers
For Scholars
From Mathematical Discovery, chapter 3 of Science and Method, 1914, pp.55-63
The part played by unconscious work in mathematics discovery seems to me indisputable, and we shall find traces of it in other cases where it is less evident. Often when a man is working at a difficult question, he accomplishes nothing the first time he sets to work. Then he takes more or less of a rest, and sits down again at his table. During the first half-hour he still finds nothing, and then all at once the decisive idea presents itself to his mind. We might say that the conscious work proved more fruitful because it was interrupted and the rest restored force and freshness to the mind. But it is more probable that the rest was occupied with unconscious work, and that the result of this work was afterwards revealed to the geometrician exactly as in the cases I have quoted, except that the revelation, instead of coming to light during a walk or a journey, came during a period of conscious work, but independently of that work, which at most only performs the unlocking process, as if it were the spur that excited into conscious form the results already acquired during the rest, which till then remained unconscious.

There is another remark to be made regarding the conditions of this unconscious work, which is, that it is not possible, or in any case not fruitful, unless it is first preceded and then followed by a period of conscious work. These sudden inspirations are never produced (and this is sufficiently proved already by the examples I have quoted) except after some days of voluntary efforts which appeared absolutely fruitless, in which one thought one had accomplished nothing, and seemed to be on a totally wrong track. These efforts, however, were not as barren as one thought; they set the unconscious machine in motion, and without them it would not have worked, at all, and would not have produced anything.

The necessity for the second period of conscious work can be even more readily understood. It is necessary to work out the results of the inspiration, to deduce the immediate consequences and put them in order and to set out the demonstrations; but, above all, it is necessary to verify them. I have spoken of absolute certainty which accompanies the inspiration; in the cases quoted this feeling was not deceptive, and more often than not this will be the case. But we must beware of thinking that this is a rule without exceptions. Often the feeling deceives us without being any less distinct on that account, and we only detect it when we attempt to establish the demonstration. I have observed this fact most notably with regard to ideas that have come to me in the morning or at night when I have been in bed in a semi-somnolent condition.

Such are the facts of the case, and they suggest the following reflections. The result of all that precedes is to show that the unconscious ego, or, as it is called, the subliminal ego, plays a most important part in mathematical discovery. But the subliminal ego is generally thought of as purely automatic. Now we have seen that mathematical work is not a simple mechanical work, and that it could not be entrusted to any machine, whatever the degree of perfection we suppose it to have been brought to. It is not merely a question of applying certain rules, of manufacturing as many combinations as possible according to certain fixed laws. The combinations so obtained would be extremely numerous, useless, and encumbering. The real work of the discoverer consists in choosing between these combinations with a view to eliminating those that are useless, or rather not giving himself the trouble of making them at all. The rules which must guide this choice are extremely subtle and delicate, and it is practically impossible to state them in precise language; they must be felt rather than formulated. Under these conditions, how can we imagine a sieve capable of applying them mechanically?

The following, then, presents itself as a first hypothesis. The, subliminal ego is in no way inferior to the conscious ego; it is not purely automatic; it is capable of discernment; it has tact and lightness of touch; it can select, and it can divine. More than that, it can divine better than the conscious ego, since it succeeds where the latter fails. In a word, is not the subliminal ego superior to the conscious ego? The importance of this question will be readily understood. In a recent lecture, M. Boutroux showed how it had arisen on entirely different occasions, and what consequences would be involved by an answer in the affirmative. (See also the same author's Science et Religion, pp. 313 et seq.)

Are we forced to give this affirmative answer by the facts I have just stated? I confess that, for my part, I should be loth to accept it. Let us, then, return to the facts, and see if they do not admit of some other explanation.

It is certain that the combinations which present themselves to the mind in a kind of sudden illumination after a somewhat prolonged period of unconscious work are generally useful and fruitful combinations, which appear to be the result of a preliminary sifting. Does it follow from this that the subliminal ego, having divined by a delicate intuition that these combinations could be useful, has formed none but these, or has it formed a great many others which were devoid of interest, and remained unconscious?

Under this second aspect, all the combinations are formed as a result of the automatic action of the subliminal ego, but those only which are interesting find their way into the field of consciousness. This, too, is most mysterious. How can we explain the fact that, of the thousand products of our unconscious activity, some are invited to cross the threshold, while others remain outside? Is it mere chance that gives them this privilege ? Evidently not. For instance, of all the excitements of our senses, it is only the most intense that retain our attention, unless it has been directed upon them by other causes. More commonly the privileged unconscious phenomena, those that are capable of becoming conscious, are those which, directly or indirectly, most deeply affect our sensibility.

It may appear surprising that sensibility should be introduced in connexion with mathematical demonstrations, which, it would seem, can only interest the intellect. But not if we bear in mind the feeling of mathematical beauty, of the harmony of numbers and forms and of geometric elegance. It is a real aesthetic feeling that all true mathematicians recognize, and this is truly sensibility.

Now, what are the mathematical entities to which we attribute this character of beauty and elegance, which are capable of developing in us a kind of aesthetic emotion? Those whose elements are harmoniously arranged so that the mind can, without effort, take in the whole without neglecting the details. This harmony is at once a satisfaction to our aesthetic requirements, and an assistance to the mind which it supports and guides. At the same time, by setting before our eyes a well-ordered whole, it gives us a presentiment of a mathematical law. Now, as I have said above, the only mathematical facts worthy of retaining our attention and capable of being useful are those which can make us acquainted with a mathematical law. Accordingly we arrive at the following conclusion. The useful combinations are precisely the beautiful, I mean those that can most charm that special sensibility that all mathematicians know, but of which laymen are so ignorant that they are often tempted to smile at it.

What follows, then? Of the very large number of combinations which the subliminal ego blindly forms almost all are without interest and without utility. But, for that very reason, they are without action on the aesthetic sensibility; the consciousness will never know them. A few only are harmonious, and consequently at once useful and beautiful, and they will be capable of affecting the geometrician's special sensibility I have been speaking of; which, once aroused, will direct our attention upon them, and will thus give them the opportunity of becoming conscious.

This is only a hypothesis, and yet there is an observation which tends to confirm it. When a sudden illumination invades the mathematician's mind, it most frequently happens that it does not mislead him. But it also happens sometimes, as I have said, that it will not stand the test of verification. Well, it is to be observed almost always that this false idea, if it had been correct, would have flattered our natural instinct for mathematical elegance.

Thus it is this special aesthetic sensibility that plays the part of the delicate sieve of which I spoke above, and this makes it sufficiently clear why the man who has it not will never be a real discoverer.

All the difficulties, however, have not disappeared. The conscious ego is strictly limited, but as regards the subliminal ego, we do not know its limitations, and that is why we are not too loth to suppose that in a brief space of time it can form more different combinations than could be comprised in the whole life of a conscient being. These limitations do exist, however. Is it conceivable that it can form all the possible combinations, whose number staggers the imagination Nevertheless this would seem to be necessary, for if it produces only a small portion of the combinations, and that by chance, there will be very small likelihood of the right one, the one that must be selected, being found among them.

Perhaps we must look for the explanation in that period of preliminary conscious work which always precedes all fruitful unconscious work. If I may be permitted a crude comparison, let us represent the future elements of our combinations as something resembling Epicurus's hooked atoms. When the mind is in complete repose these atoms are immovable; they are, so to speak, attached to the wall. This complete repose may continue indefinitely without the atoms meeting, and, consequently, without the possibility of the formation of any combination.

On the other hand, during a period of apparent repose, but of unconscious work, some of them are detached from the wall and set in motion. The plough through space in all directions, like a swarm of gnats, for instance, or, if we prefer a more learned comparison, like the gaseous molecules in the kinetic theory of gases. Their mutual collisions may then produce new combinations.

What is the part to be played by the preliminary conscious work? Clearly it is to liberate some of these atoms, to detach them from the wall and set them in motion. We think we have accomplished nothing, when we have stirred up the elements in a thousand different ways to try to arrange them, and have not succeeded in finding a satisfactory arrangement. But after this agitation imparted to them by our will, they do not return to their original repose, but continue to circulate freely. Now our will did not select them at random, but in pursuit of a perfectly definite aim. Those it has liberated are not, therefore, chance atoms; they are those from which we may reasonably expect the desired solution. The liberated atoms will then experience collisions, either with each other, or with the atoms that have remained stationary, which they will run against in their course. I apologize once more. My comparison is very crude, but I cannot well see how I could explain my thought in any other way.

However it be, the only combinations that have any chance of being formed are those in which one at least of the elements is one of the atoms deliberately selected by our will. Now it is evidently among these that what I called just now the right combination is to be found. Perhaps there is here a means of modifying what was paradoxical in the original hypothesis.

Yet another observation. It never happens that unconscious work supplies ready-made the result of a lengthy calculation in which we have only to apply fixed rules. It might be supposed that the subliminal ego, purely automatic as it is, was peculiarly fitted for this kind of work, which is, in a sense, exclusively mechanical. It would seem that, by thinking overnight of the factors of a multiplication sum, we might hope to find the product ready-made for us on waking; or, again, that an algebraical calculation for instance, or a verification could be made unconsciously. Observation proves that such is by no means the case. All that we can hope from these inspirations, which are the fruits of unconscious work, is to obtain points of departure for such calculations. As for the calculations themselves, they must be made in the second period of conscious work which follows the inspiration, and in which results of the inspiration are verified and the consequences deduced. The rules of these calculations are strict and complicated; they demand discipline, attention, will and consequently consciousness. In the subliminal ego, on the contrary, there reigns what I would call liberty, if one could give this name to the mere absence of discipline and to disorder born of chance. Only, this very disorder permits of unexpected couplings.

I will make one last remark. When I related above some personal observations, I spoke of a night of excitement, on which I worked as though in spite of myself. The cases of this are frequent, and it is not necessary that the abnormal cerebral activity should be caused by a physical stimulant, as in the case quoted. Well, it appears that, in these cases, we are ourselves assisting at our own unconscious work, which becomes partly perceptible to the over-excited consciousness, but does not on that account change its nature. We then become vaguely aware of what distinguishes the two mechanisms, or, if you will, of the methods of working of the two egos. The psychological observations I have thus succeeded in making appear to me, in their general characteristics, to confirm the views I have been enunciating.

Truly there is great need of this, for in spite of everything they are and remain largely hypothetical. The interest of the question is so great that I do not regret having submitted them to the reader.

From Chance, chapter 4 of Science and Method, 1914, pp.55-63
I.

"How can we venture to speak of the laws of chance? Is not chance the antithesis of all law?" It is thus that Bertrand expresses himself at the beginning of his "Calculus of Probabilities." Probability is the opposite of certainty; it is thus what we are ignorant of, and consequently it would seem to be what we cannot calculate. There is here at least an apparent contradiction, and one on which much has already been written.

To begin with, what is chance? The ancients distinguished between the phenomena which seemed to obey harmonious laws, established once for all, and those that they attributed to chance, which were those that could not be predicted because they were not subject to any law. In each domain the precise laws did not decide everything, they only marked the limits within which chance was allowed to move. In this conception, the word chance had a precise, objective meaning ; what was chance for one was also chance for the other and even for the gods.

But this conception is not ours. We have become complete determinists, and even those who wish to reserve the right of human free will at least allow determinism to reign undisputed in the inorganic world. Every phenomenon, however trifling it be, has a cause, and a mind infinitely powerful and infinitely well-informed concerning the laws of nature could have foreseen it from the beginning of the ages. If a being with such a mind existed, we could play no game of chance with him we should always lose.

For him, in fact, the word chance would have no meaning, or rather there would be no such thing as chance. That there is for us is only on account of our frailty and our ignorance. And even without going beyond our frail humanity, what is chance for the ignorant is no longer chance for the learned. Chance is only the measure of our ignorance. Fortuitous phenomena are, by definition, those whose laws we are ignorant of.

But is this definition very satisfactory ? When the first Chaldean shepherds followed with their eyes the movements of the stars, they did not yet know the laws of astronomy, but would they have dreamed of saying that the stars move by chance? If a modern physicist is studying a new phenomenon, and if he discovers its law on Tuesday, would he have said on Monday that the phenomenon was fortuitous ? But more than this, do we not often invoke what Bertrand calls the laws of chance in order to predict a phenomenon? For instance, in the kinetic theory of gases, we find the well-known laws of Mariotte and of Gay-Lussac, thanks to the hypothesis that the velocities of the gaseous molecules vary irregularly, that is to say, by chance.

The observable laws would be much less simple, say all the physicists, if the velocities were regulated by some simple elementary law, if the molecules were, as they say, organized, if they were subject to some discipline. It is thanks to chance — that is to say, thanks to our ignorance, that we can arrive at conclusions. Then if the word chance is merely synonymous with ignorance, what does this mean? Must we translate as follows?

You ask me to predict the phenomena that will be produced. If I had the misfortune to know the laws of these phenomena, I could not succeed except by inextricable calculations, and I should have to give up the attempt to answer you; but since I am fortunate enough to be ignorant of them, I will give you an answer at once. And, what is more extraordinary still, my answer will be right."

Chance, then, must be something more than the name we give to our ignorance. Among the phenomena whose causes we are ignorant of, we must distinguish between fortuitous phenomena, about which the calculation of probabilities will give us provisional information, and those that are not fortuitous, about which we can say nothing, so long as we have not determined the laws that govern them. And as regards the fortuitous phenomena themselves, it is clear that the information that the calculation of probabilities supplies will not cease to be true when the phenomena are better known.

The manager of a life insurance company does not know when each of the assured will die, but he relies upon the calculation of probabilities and on the law of large numbers, and he does not make a mistake, since he is able to pay dividends to his shareholders. These dividends would not vanish if a very far-sighted and very indiscreet doctor came, when once the policies were signed, and gave the manager information on the chances of life of the assured. The doctor would dissipate the ignorance of the manager, but he would have no effect upon the dividends, which are evidently not a result of that ignorance.

II.

In order to find the best definition of chance, we must examine some of the facts which it is agreed to regard as fortuitous, to which the calculation of probabilities seems to apply. We will then try to find their common characteristics.

We will select unstable equilibrium as our first example. If a cone is balanced on its point, we know very well that it will fall, but we do not know to which side; it seems that chance alone will decide. If the cone were perfectly symmetrical, if its axis were perfectly vertical, if it were subject to no other force but gravity, it would not fall at all. But the slightest defect of symmetry will make it lean slightly to one side or other, and as soon as it leans, be it ever so little, it will fall altogether to that side. Even if the symmetry is perfect, a very slight trepidation, or a breath of air, may make it incline a few seconds of arc, and that will be enough to determine its fall and even the. direction of its fall, which will be that of the original inclination. A very small cause which escapes our notice determines a considerable effect that we cannot fail to see, and then we say that that effect is due to chance. If we knew exactly the laws of nature and the situation of the universe at the initial moment, we could predict exactly the situation of that same universe at a succeeding moment. But, even if it were the case that the natural laws had no longer any secret for us, we could still only know the initial situation approximately. If that enabled us to predict the succeeding situation with the same approximation, that is all we require, and we should say that the phenomenon had been predicted, that it is governed by laws. But it is not always so it may happen that small differences in the initial conditions produce very great ones in the final phenomena. A small error in the former will produce an enormous error in, the latter. Prediction becomes impossible, and we have the fortuitous phenomenon.

Our second example will be very much like our first, and we will borrow it from meteorology. Why have meteorologists such difficulty in predicting the weather with any certainty? Why is it that showers and even storms seem to come by chance, so that many any people think it quite natural to pray for rain or fine weather, though they would consider it ridiculous to ask for an eclipse by prayer? We see that great disturbances are generally produced in regions where the atmosphere is in unstable equilibrium. The meteorologists see very well that the equilibrium is unstable, that a cyclone will be formed somewhere, but exactly where they are not in a position to say; a tenth of a degree more or less at any given point, and the cyclone will burst here and not there, and extend its ravages over districts it would otherwise have spared. If they had been aware of this tenth of a degree, they could have known it beforehand, but the observations were neither sufficiently comprehensive nor sufficiently precise, and that is the reason why it all seems due to the intervention of chance. Here, again, we the same contrast between a very trifling cause that is inappreciable to the observer, and considerable effects, that are sometimes terrible disasters.

Let us pass to another example, the distribution of the minor planets on the Zodiac. Their initial longitudes may have had some definite order, but their mean motions were different and they have been revolving for so long that we may say that practically they are distributed by chance throughout the Zodiac. Very small initial differences in their distances from the sun, or, what amounts to the same thing, in their mean motions, have resulted in enormous differences in their actual longitudes. A difference of a thousandth part of a second in the mean daily motion will have the effect of a second in three years, a degree in ten thousand years, a whole circumference in three or four millions of years, and what is that beside the time that has elapsed since the minor planets became detached from Laplace's nebula? Here, again, we have a small cause and a great effect, or better, small differences in the cause and great differences in the effect.

The game of roulette does not take us so far as it might appear from the preceding example. Imagine a needle that can be turned about a pivot on a dial divided into a hundred alternate red and black sections. If the needle stops at a red section we win; if not, we lose. Clearly, all depends on the initial impulse we give to the needle. I assume that the needle will make ten or twenty revolutions, but it will stop earlier or later according to the strength of the spin I have given it. Only a variation of a thousandth or a two-thousandth in the impulse is sufficient to determine whether my needle will stop at a black section or at the following section, which is red. These are differences that the muscular sense cannot appreciate, which would escape even more delicate instruments. It is, accordingly, impossible for me to predict what the needle I have just spun will do, and that is why my heart beats and I hope for everything from chance. The difference in the cause is imperceptible, and the difference in the effect is for me of the highest importance, since it affects my whole stake.

III.

In this connexion I wish to make a reflection that is somewhat foreign to my subject. Some years ago a certain philosophe said that the future was determined by the past, but not the past by the future; or, in other words, that from the knowledge of the present we could deduce that of the future but not that of the past; because, he said, one cause can produce only one effect, while the same effect can be produced by several different causes. It is obvious that no scientist can accept this conclusion. The laws or nature link the antecedent to the consequent in such a way that the antecedent is determined by the consequent just as much as the consequent is by the antecedent. But what can have been the origin of the philosopher's error? We know that, in virtue of Carnot's principle, physical phenomena are irreversible and that the world is tending towards uniformity. When two bodies of different temperatures are in conjunction, the warmer gives up heat to the colder, and accordingly we can predict that the temperatures will become equal. But once the temperatures have become equal, if we are asked about the previous state, what can we answer? We can certainly say that one of the bodies was hot and the other cold, but we cannot guess which of the two was formerly the warmer.

And yet in reality the temperatures never arrive at perfect equality. The difference between the temperatures only tends towards zero asymptotically. Accordingly there comes a moment when our thermometers are powerless to disclose it. But if we had thermometers a thousand or a hundred thousand times more sensitive, we should recognize that there is still a small difference, and that one of the bodies has remained a little warmer than the other, and then we should be able to state that this is the one which was formerly very much hotter than the other.

So we have, then, the reverse of what we found in the preceding_examples, great differences in the cause and small differences in the effect. Flammarion once imagined an observer moving away from the earth at a velocity greater than that of light. For him time would have its sign changed, history would be reversed, and Waterloo would come before Austerlitz. Well, for this observer effects and causes would be inverted, unstable equilibrium would no longer be the exception; on account of the universal irreversibility, everything would seem to him to come out of a kind of chaos in unstable equilibrium, and the whole of nature would appear to him to be given up to chance.

IV.

We come now to other arguments, in which we shall see somewhat different characteristics appearing, and first let us take the kinetic theory of gases. How are we to picture a receptacle full of gas? Innumerable molecules, animated with great velocities, course through the receptacle in all directions; every moment they collide with the sides or else with one another, and these collisions take place under the most varied conditions. What strikes us most in this case is not the smallness of the causes, but their complexity. And yet the former element is still found here, and plays an important part. If a molecule deviated from its trajectory to left or right in a very small degree as compared with the radius of action of the gaseous molecules, it would avoid a collision, or would suffer it under different conditions, and that would alter the direction of its velocity after the collision perhaps by 90 or 180 degrees.

That is not all. It is enough, as we have just seen, that the molecule should deviate before the collision in an infinitely small degree, to make it deviate after the collision in a finite degree. Then, if the molecule suffers two successive collisions, it is enough that it should deviate before the first collision in a degree of infinite smallness of the second order, to make it deviate after the first collision in a degree of infinite smallness of the first order, and after the second collision in a finite degree. And the molecule will not suffer two collisions only, but a great number each second.

So that if the first collision multiplied the deviation by a very large number, A, after n collisions it will be multiplied by An. It will, therefore, have become very great, not only because A is large - that is to say, because small causes produce great effects — but because the exponent n is large, that is to say, because the collisions are very numerous and the causes very complex.

Let us pass to a second example. Why is it that in a shower the drops of rain appear to us to be distributed by chance? It is again because of the complexity of the causes which determine their formation. Ions have been distributed through the atmosphere; for a long time they have been subjected to constantly changing air currents; they have been involved in whirlwinds of very small dimensions, so that their final distribution has no longer any relation to their original distribution. Suddenly the temperature falls, the vapour condenses, and each of these ions becomes the centre of a raindrop. In order to know how these drops will be distributed and how many will fall on each stone of the pavement, it is not enough to know the original position of the ions, but we must calculate the effect of a thousand minute and capricious air currents.

It is the same thing again if we take grains of dust in suspension in water. The vessel is permeated by currents whose law we know nothing of except that it is very complicated. After a certain length of time the grains will be distributed by chance, that is to say uniformly, throughout the vessel, and this is entirely due to the complication of the currents If they obeyed some simple law — if, for instance the vessel were revolving and the currents revolved in circles about its axis — the case would be altered, for each grain would retain its original height and its original distance from the axis.

We should arrive at the same result by picturing the mixing of two liquids or of two fine powders. To take a rougher example, it is also what happens when a pack of cards is shuffled. At each shuffle the cards undergo a permutation similar to that studied in the theory of substitutions. What will be the resulting permutation? The probability that it will be any particular permutation (for instance, that which brings the card occupying the position φ(n) before the permutation into the position n), this probability, I say, depends on the habits of the player. But if the player shuffles the cards long enough, there will be a great number of successive permutations, and the final order which results will no longer be governed by anything but chance; I mean that all the possible orders will be equally probable. This result is due to the great number of successive permutations, that is to say, to the complexity of the phenomenon.

A final word on the theory of errors. It is a case in which the causes have complexity and multiplicity. How. numerous are the traps to which the observer is exposed, even with the best instrument. He must take pains to look out for and avoid the most flagrant, those which give birth to systematic errors. But when he has eliminated these, admitting that he succeeds in so doing, there still remain many which, though small, may become dangerous by the accumulation of their effects. It is from these that accidental errors arise, and we attribute them to chance, because their causes are too complicated and too numerous. Here again we have only small causes, bυτ each of them would only produce a small effect; it is by their union and their number thaτ their effects become formidable.

From Contingence and Determinism, chapter XI of The Value of Science, 1913, pp.129-130
I do not intend to treat here the question of the contingence of the laws of nature, which is evidently insoluble, and on which so much has already been written. I only wish to call attention to what different meanings have been given to this word, contingence, and how advantageous it would be to distinguish them.

If we look at any particular law, we may be certain in advance that it can only be approximative. It is, in fact, deduced from experimental verifications, and these verifications were and could be only approximate. We should always expect that more precise measurements will oblige us to add new terms to our formulas; this is what has happened, for instance, in the case of Mariotte's law.

Moreover the statement of any law is necessarily incomplete. This enunciation should comprise the enumeration of all the antecedents in virtue of which a given consequent can happen. I should first describe all the conditions of the experiment to be made and the law would then be stated: If all the conditions are fulfilled, the phenomenon will happen.

But we shall be sure of not having forgotten any of these conditions only when we shall have described the state of the entire universe at the instant t; all the parts of this universe may, in fact, exercise an influence more or less great on the phenomenon which must happen at the instant t + dt.

Now it is clear that such a description could not be found in the enunciation of the law; besides, if it were made, the law would become incapable of application; if one required so many conditions, there would be very little chance of their ever being all realized at any moment.

Then as one can never be certain of not having forgotten some essential condition, it can not be said: If such and such conditions are realized, such a phenomenon will occur; it can only be said: If such and such conditions are realized, it is probable that such a phenomenon will occur, very nearly.

Take the law of gravitation, which is the least imperfect of known laws. It enables us to foresee the motions of the planets. When I use it, for instance, to calculate the orbit of Saturn, I neglect the action of the stars, and in doing so, I am certain of not deceiving all myself, because I know that these stars are too far away for their action to be sensible.

I announce, then, with a quasi-certitude that the coordinates of Saturn at such an hour will be comprised between such and such limits. Yet is that certitude absolute? Could there not exist in the universe some gigantic mass, much greater than that of all the known stars and whose action could make itself felt at great distances? That mass might be animated by a colossal velocity, and after having circulated from all time at such distances that its influence had remained hitherto insensible to us, it might come all at once to pass near us. Surely it would produce in our solar system enormous perturbations that we could not have foreseen. All that can be said is that such an event is wholly improbable, and then, instead of saying: Saturn will be near such a point of the heavens, we must limit ourselves to saying: Saturn will probably be near such a point of the heavens. Although this probability may be practically equivalent to certainty, it is only a probability.

For all these reasons, no particular law will ever be more than approximate and probable. Scientists have never failed to recognize this truth; only they believe, right or wrong, that every law may be replaced by another closer and more probable, that this new law will itself be only provisional, but that the same movement can continue indefinitely, so that science in progressing will possess laws more and more probable, that the approximation will end by differing as little as you choose from exactitude and the probability from certitude.

If thee scientists who think thus were right, must it still be said that the laws of nature are contingent, even though each law, taken in particular, may be qualified as contingent? Or must one require, before concluding the contingence of the natural laws, that this progress have an end, that the scientist finish some day by being arrested in his search for a closer and closer approximation and that, beyond a certain limit, he thereafter meet in nature only caprice?

In the conception of which I have just spoken (and which I shall call the scientific conception), every law is only a statement, imperfect and provisional, but it must one day be replaced by another, a superior law, of which it is only a crude image. No place therefore remains for the intervention of a free will.


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