Was physics ever deterministic? The historical basis of determinism and the image of classical physics
IZWT, Bergische Universität Wuppertal, Gaußstraße 20, 42119, Wuppertal, Germany
Accepted: 9 March 2021
Published online: 1 April 2021
Determinism is generally regarded as one of the main characteristics of classical physics, that is, the physics of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. However, an inquiry into eighteenth and nineteenth century physics shows that the aim of accounting for all phenomena on the basis of deterministic equations of motion remained far out of reach. Famous statements of universal determinism, such as those of Laplace and Du Bois-Reymond, were made within a specific context and research program and did not represent a majority view. I argue that in this period, determinism was often an expectation rather than an established result, and that especially toward the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, it was often thought of as a presupposition of physics: physicists such as Mach, Poincaré and Boltzmann regarded determinism as a feature of scientific research, rather than as a claim about the world. It is only retrospectively that an image was created according to which classical physics was uniformly deterministic.
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