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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index L > Pierre-Simon Laplace Quotes > Probability

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Pierre-Simon Laplace
(23 Mar 1749 - 5 Mar 1827)

French mathematician, physicist, statistician and astronomer , known for his exact approach to science, who developed mathematical probability theory and suggested the name 'meter' as the metric unit measurement.


Pierre-Simon Laplace Quotes on Probability (11 quotes)

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Here I shall present, without using Analysis [mathematics], the principles and general results of the Théorie, applying them to the most important questions of life, which are indeed, for the most part, only problems in probability. One may even say, strictly speaking, that almost all our knowledge is only probable; and in the small number of things that we are able to know with certainty, in the mathematical sciences themselves, the principal means of arriving at the truth—induction and analogy—are based on probabilities, so that the whole system of human knowledge is tied up with the theory set out in this essay.
— Pierre-Simon Laplace
Philosophical Essay on Probabilities (1814), 5th edition (1825), trans. Andrew I. Dale (1995), 1.
Science quotes on:  |  Analogy (46)  |  Analysis (123)  |  Certainty (97)  |  Importance (183)  |  Induction (45)  |  Knowledge (1128)  |  Life (917)  |  Mathematics (587)  |  Principle (228)  |  Probability (83)  |  Problem (362)  |  Question (315)  |  Result (250)  |  Theory (582)  |  Truth (750)

However, the small probability of a similar encounter [of the earth with a comet], can become very great in adding up over a huge sequence of centuries. It is easy to picture to oneself the effects of this impact upon the Earth. The axis and the motion of rotation changed; the seas abandoning their old position to throw themselves toward the new equator; a large part of men and animals drowned in this universal deluge, or destroyed by the violent tremor imparted to the terrestrial globe.
— Pierre-Simon Laplace
Exposition du Système du Monde, 2nd edition (1799), 208, trans. Ivor Grattan-Guinness.
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I am particularly concerned to determine the probability of causes and results, as exhibited in events that occur in large numbers, and to investigate the laws according to which that probability approaches a limit in proportion to the repetition of events. That investigation deserves the attention of mathematicians because of the analysis required. It is primarily there that the approximation of formulas that are functions of large numbers has its most important applications. The investigation will benefit observers in identifying the mean to be chosen among the results of their observations and the probability of the errors still to be apprehended. Lastly, the investigation is one that deserves the attention of philosophers in showing how in the final analysis there is a regularity underlying the very things that seem to us to pertain entirely to chance, and in unveiling the hidden but constant causes on which that regularity depends. It is on the regularity of the main outcomes of events taken in large numbers that various institutions depend, such as annuities, tontines, and insurance policies. Questions about those subjects, as well as about inoculation with vaccine and decisions of electoral assemblies, present no further difficulty in the light of my theory. I limit myself here to resolving the most general of them, but the importance of these concerns in civil life, the moral considerations that complicate them, and the voluminous data that they presuppose require a separate work.
— Pierre-Simon Laplace
Philosophical Essay on Probabilities (1825), trans. Andrew I. Dale (1995), Introduction.
Science quotes on:  |  Analysis (123)  |  Application (117)  |  Approximation (16)  |  Cause (231)  |  Chance (122)  |  Complication (20)  |  Concern (76)  |  Data (100)  |  Determine (45)  |  Difficulty (113)  |  Error (230)  |  Event (97)  |  Formula (51)  |  Function (90)  |  Government (85)  |  Inoculation (8)  |  Institution (32)  |  Insurance (9)  |  Investigation (123)  |  Law (418)  |  Limit (86)  |  Mathematician (177)  |  Mean (63)  |  Morality (33)  |  Outcome (10)  |  Philosopher (132)  |  Probability (83)  |  Proportion (47)  |  Regularity (24)  |  Result (250)  |  Theory (582)  |  Vaccine (8)

If an event can be produced by a number n of different causes, the probabilities of the existence of these causes, given the event (prises de l'événement), are to each other as the probabilities of the event, given the causes: and the probability of each cause is equal to the probability of the event, given that cause, divided by the sum of all the probabilities of the event, given each of the causes.
— Pierre-Simon Laplace
'Mémoire sur la Probabilité des Causes par les Événements' (1774). In Oeuvres complètes de Laplace, 14 Vols. (1843-1912), Vol. 8, 29, trans. Charles Coulston Gillispie, Pierre-Simon Laplace 1749-1827: A Life in Exact Science (1997), 16.
Science quotes on:  |  Cause (231)  |  Chance (122)  |  Event (97)  |  Probability (83)

It is remarkable that a science which began with the consideration of games of chance should have become the most important object of human knowledge.
— Pierre-Simon Laplace
Théorie Analytique des Probabilitiés. Quoted in Isaac Todhunter, History of the Mathematical Theory of Probability from the Time of Pascal to that of Laplace (1865),
Science quotes on:  |  Probability (83)

The present state of the system of nature is evidently a consequence of what it was in the preceding moment, and if we conceive of an intelligence that at a given instant comprehends all the relations of the entities of this universe, it could state the respective position, motions, and general affects of all these entities at any time in the past or future. Physical astronomy, the branch of knowledge that does the greatest honor to the human mind, gives us an idea, albeit imperfect, of what such an intelligence would be. The simplicity of the law by which the celestial bodies move, and the relations of their masses and distances, permit analysis to follow their motions up to a certain point; and in order to determine the state of the system of these great bodies in past or future centuries, it suffices for the mathematician that their position and their velocity be given by observation for any moment in time. Man owes that advantage to the power of the instrument he employs, and to the small number of relations that it embraces in its calculations. But ignorance of the different causes involved in the production of events, as well as their complexity, taken together with the imperfection of analysis, prevents our reaching the same certainty about the vast majority of phenomena. Thus there are things that are uncertain for us, things more or less probable, and we seek to compensate for the impossibility of knowing them by determining their different degrees of likelihood. So it was that we owe to the weakness of the human mind one of the most delicate and ingenious of mathematical theories, the science of chance or probability.
— Pierre-Simon Laplace
'Recherches, 1º, sur l'Intégration des Équations Différentielles aux Différences Finies, et sur leur Usage dans la Théorie des Hasards' (1773, published 1776). In Oeuvres complètes de Laplace, 14 Vols. (1843-1912), Vol. 8, 144-5, trans. Charles Coulston Gillispie, Pierre-Simon Laplace 1749-1827: A Life in Exact Science (1997), 26.
Science quotes on:  |  Analysis (123)  |  Astronomy (175)  |  Calculation (67)  |  Celestial (15)  |  Certainty (97)  |  Chance (122)  |  Complexity (80)  |  Difference (208)  |  Distance (54)  |  Event (97)  |  Honour (23)  |  Human Mind (51)  |  Ignorance (190)  |  Impossibility (50)  |  Instrument (73)  |  Intelligence (138)  |  Knowledge (1128)  |  Law (418)  |  Likelihood (8)  |  Mass (61)  |  Mathematician (177)  |  Motion (127)  |  Nature (1029)  |  Observation (418)  |  Phenomenon (218)  |  Position (54)  |  Prediction (67)  |  Probability (83)  |  Relation (96)  |  Simplicity (126)  |  Theory (582)  |  Time (439)  |  Uncertainty (37)  |  Universe (563)  |  Velocity (14)  |  Weakness (31)

The theory of probabilities is at bottom nothing but common sense reduced to calculus; it enables us to appreciate with exactness that which accurate minds feel with a sort of instinct for which of times they are unable to account.
— Pierre-Simon Laplace
Introduction to Théorie Analytique des Probabilitiés
Science quotes on:  |  Common Sense (69)  |  Probability (83)

The theory of probabilities is at bottom only common sense reduced to calculation; it makes us appreciate with exactitude what reasonable minds feel by a sort of instinct, often without being able to account for it. … It is remarkable that [this] science, which originated in the consideration of games of chance, should have become the most important object of human knowledge.
— Pierre-Simon Laplace
From A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities. As given in epigraph, E.T. Bell, Men of Mathematics (2014), 71.
Science quotes on:  |  Account (45)  |  Appreciate (17)  |  Become (100)  |  Calculation (67)  |  Chance (122)  |  Common Sense (69)  |  Consideration (65)  |  Exactitude (6)  |  Feel (93)  |  Game (45)  |  Human (445)  |  Important (124)  |  Instinct (50)  |  Knowledge (1128)  |  Mind (544)  |  Object (110)  |  Originate (14)  |  Probability (83)  |  Reasonable (18)  |  Reduce (32)  |  Remarkable (34)  |  Science (1699)  |  Sort (32)  |  Theory (582)

The theory of probabilities is basically only common sense reduced to a calculus. It makes one estimate accurately what right-minded people feel by a sort of instinct, often without being able to give a reason for it.
— Pierre-Simon Laplace
Philosophical Essay on Probabilities (1814), 5th edition (1825), trans. Andrew I. Dale (1995), 124.
Science quotes on:  |  Calculus (23)  |  Common Sense (69)  |  Estimate (19)  |  Instinct (50)  |  Probability (83)  |  Reason (330)  |  Theory (582)

The word 'chance' then expresses only our ignorance of the causes of the phenomena that we observe to occur and to succeed one another in no apparent order. Probability is relative in part to this ignorance, and in part to our knowledge.
— Pierre-Simon Laplace
'Mémoire sur les Approximations des Formules qui sont Fonctions de Très Grands Nombres' (1783, published 1786). In Oeuvres complète de Laplace, 14 Vols. (1843-1912), Vol. 10, 296, trans. Charles Coulston Gillispie, Pierre-Simon Laplace 1749-1827: A Life in Exact Science (1997), 91.
Science quotes on:  |  Chance (122)  |  Ignorance (190)  |  Knowledge (1128)  |  Observation (418)  |  Order (167)  |  Probability (83)

Without any doubt, the regularity which astronomy shows us in the movements of the comets takes place in all phenomena. The trajectory of a simple molecule of air or vapour is regulated in a manner as certain as that of the planetary orbits; the only difference between them is that which is contributed by our ignorance. Probability is relative in part to this ignorance, and in part to our knowledge.
— Pierre-Simon Laplace
Philosophical Essay on Probabilities (1814), 5th edition (1825), trans. Andrew I. Dale (1995), 3.
Science quotes on:  |  Air (151)  |  Astronomy (175)  |  Comet (43)  |  Difference (208)  |  Doubt (121)  |  Ignorance (190)  |  Knowledge (1128)  |  Molecule (125)  |  Movement (65)  |  Orbit (58)  |  Phenomenon (218)  |  Plant (173)  |  Probability (83)  |  Regularity (24)  |  Regulation (18)  |  Trajectory (4)  |  Vapour (9)


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Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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