We explain this philosophical concept that tries to determine reality based on predictions.
The search for certainty and the illusion of knowing what will happen tomorrow is something that has accompanied philosophical reflections and scientific practices over time.
If we could be certain that tomorrow it will rain, or war will break out, the decisions we would make today would surely be very different from those we would make without knowing the future. The Demon of Laplace is a character that represents all this very well, where does it come from?
Laplace’s Demon and the problem of prediction
The illusion of predicting and controlling what surrounds us is a theme that we can find in much of scientific development. For example, classical mechanics was based on the idea that everything that exists in the universe and in nature can be known through mathematical logical reasoning, as well as through a geometric system to measure and predict what will happen.
In other words, class mechanics starts from considering that the universe and nature are governed by a series of initial laws that can be revealed by human beings for their modification.
For example, modern astronomy in the West, inaugurated by Newton, has this position as a precedent.
Who was Pierre Laplace?
Pierre Laplace was a French astronomer, physicist, and mathematician who lived from 1749 to 1826. He is credited with the development of celestial mechanics, he worked hand in hand with Isaac Newton and Galileo in the prediction of eclipses and in the discovery of new planets. He also participated in the study of some gas molecules and atomic particles.
What Laplace suggested from his knowledge is that, through science, we can predict and divine the activity of all systems of behavior that exist. And if not, the unpredictability would be just an error of knowledge that as such, can be corrected.
In Laplace’s deterministic conception, everything can be predicted, and if not, it is because the knowledge produced by the human being has erred or is not enough.
What this means is that everything that exists in the universe is structured in a prior and independent way to the activity of human beings, with which our own actions and everything that we are would be predetermined by the laws of the universe.
The deterministic demon (de Laplace)
Laplace’s Demon is an imaginary character who has the ability to know the initial properties of all the particles of nature and the universe, with such precision that he can apply natural laws to guess what will happen instantly or in a long time weather; from a precise movement to a work of art (Calabrese, 1999).
It is in other words, the Demon of Laplace is a deterministic and all-powerful demon, a being that is outside the universe and that has predicted and decided everything that will occur in nature, including, of course, the activity of human beings.
The logic of prediction was not only transcendental in astronomy, the physical sciences, mathematics, and the natural sciences, but it has also extended to the study of human behavior as well as its intervention.
For example, it has been present in the development of modern medicine, and we could even see how it impacted the traditional way of doing human sciences, as well as economic and financial activity. However, from the development of new scientific paradigms, Laplace’s Demon has encountered some limits.
From determinism to indeterminism: the end of certainty
The logic of prediction was particularly successful as the universe was understood in terms of linear systems, settled in a stable cause-effect relationship. But, when chaos theory and quantum mechanics came to challenge the linearity of all systems, the scientific field also questioned the insistence on applying the logic of prediction in everything we know.
In very broad strokes and among other things, there was a paradigm shift from considering that in non-linear systems (which are complex systems, with chaotic and non-cyclical behaviors, as in human beings), the initial state is not equal to the final state nor does it determine it, with which, they are systems that cannot be predicted.
In the field of science, the universe and nature in general are no longer conceived as a set of laws of general coverage, pre-established by an external being. This is how, from the beginning of the 20th century, there is an important turn where it is considered that, although it is possible to calculate probabilities, there can always be prediction failures. Based on this, some authors consider that an era marked by the end of certainty is inaugurated, especially in the human and social sciences.
- Trainini, J. (2003). Towards the need for a new medical paradigm. Revista Argentina de Cardiología, 71 (6): 439-445.
- Calabrese, JL (1999). Expanding the boundaries of reductionism. Deduction and non-linear systems. Psychoanalysis APdeBA, XXI (3): 431-453.
- Wallerstein, IM (1999). The social sciences and humanities on the threshold of the XXI century. The end of certainty in the social sciences. UNAM: Mexico.