Mathematising certainty in the 18th century. Jacob Bernoulli’s and Thomas Bayes’ redefinition of “absolute” and “moral” certainty through probability calculus

In the 17th century, certainty was still largely organized around heterogeneous categories such as “absolute certainty” and “moral certainty”. “Absolute certainty” was the highest kind of certainty rather than degree and it was limited to metaphysical and mathematical demonstrations. On the other hand, “moral certainty” was a high degree of assent which, even though it was subjective and always fallible, was regarded as sufficient for practical decisions based on empirical evidence. Although this duality between “moral” and “absolute” certainty remained in use well into the 18th century, its meaning shifted with the emergence of the calculus of probabilities. Probability calculus provided tools for attempts to mathematise “moral certainty” which would have been a contradiction in terms in their classical 17th-century sense.

Jacob Bernoulli’s Ars Conjectandi (1713) followed by Thomas Bayes and Richard Price’s An Essay towards solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances (1763) reshuffled what was before mutually exclusive characteristics of those categories of certainty. Moral certainty became mathematizable and measurable, while absolute certainty would sit in continuity in degree with moral certainty rather than be different in kind. The concept of certainty as a whole is thus redefined as a quantitative continuum.

This transformation lays the conceptual foundations for a new approach to knowledge. Knowledge and even scientific knowledge are no longer defined by a binary model of an absolute exclusion of uncertainty, but rather by the accuracy of measurement of the irreducible uncertainty in all empirical-based knowledge. Such measurement becomes possible thanks to the new tools provided by the emergence of probability calculus.