Pierre Simon Laplace (1749-1827)


Perhaps the most extreme and secular view of mechanical materialism was espoused by LaPlace in the century late 18th century. By that time, the modern understanding of Boyle’s view of the body had spread to many physicians, but not the general public, much as quantum physics is understood by physicists, but not by many laymen today. The outdated physics and mathematics of that time continues to influence our current thinking in much the way Galen’s humoral theory remained deeply embedded in medicine. A good example of such an outdated idea that remains influential today is LaPlace’s Demon. Pierre Simon LaPlace wrote in 1814:

We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes. Aphilosophical Essay on the Probabolities (note :  Laplace, Pierre Simon, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities, translated into English from the original French 6th ed. by Truscott,F.W. and Emory,F.L., Dover Publications (New York, 1951) p.4)

This is the clearest and most deeply accepted account of mechanistic determinism that we have. Of course there can be no such being as Laplace describes. We do not expect to ever have such a formula because physics has passed that point. The new quantum mechanics concluded that there are many phenomena that are complex and by their very nature unpredictable. Yet many of us still believe foolishly, that the world is deterministic and hence that there can be no free will.

Although we now recognize that LaPlace’s notion of a completely deterministic universe is not possible, it is still deeply embedded in our thinking. Much as we continue to take hot chicken soup to combat the common cold we continue to consider that a deterministic and mechanistic account of all our actions remains feasible. This is to take away from us any immediate responsibility for our own actions including our health.

If our chemical mechanical body is controlled entirely by forces beyond our individual control then we must wait for their interventions to set us straight. This view gives our bodies over to the medical scientists who are the only ones who truly understand the laws that govern them and hence how to repair them.  The development of this view accompanied the rise of modern scientific medicine, It had its height in the first part of the 20th Century and although it remains a strong tendency today, the patient`s partnership in all aspects of healthcare is growing.



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