Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 65.djvu/523

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

very attractive. But, as an instrument for the study of nature, is it really more fundamental than the geometrical notions which it is to supersede? The accounts of primitive peoples would seem to show that, in the generality which is a necessary condition for this purpose, it is in no less degree artificial and acquired. Moreover, does not the act of enumeration, as applied to actual things, involve the very same process of selection and idealization which we have already met with in other cases? As an illustration, suppose we were to try to count the number of drops of water in a cloud. I am not thinking of the mere practical difficulties of enumeration, or even of the more pertinent fact that it is hard to say where the cloud begins or ends. Waiving these points, it is obvious that there must be transitional stages between a more or less dense group of molecules and a drop, and in the case of some of these aggregates it would only be by an arbitrary exercise of judgment that they would be assigned to one category rather than to the other. In whatever form we meet with it, the very notion of counting involves the highly artificial conception of a number of objects which for some purposes are treated as absolutely alike, whilst yet they can be distinguished.

The net result of the preceding survey is that the systems of geometry, of mechanics and even of arithmetic, on which we base our study of nature, are all contrivances of the same general kind: they consist of series of abstractions and conventions devised to represent, or rather to symbolize, what is most interesting and most accessible to us in the world of phenomena. And the progress of science consists in a great measure in the improvement, the development and the simplification of these artificial conceptions, so that their scope may be wider and the representation more complete. The best in this kind are but shadows, but we may continually do something to amend them.

As compared with the older view, the function of physical science is seen to be much more modest than was at one time supposed. We no longer hope by levers and screws to pluck out the heart of the mystery of the universe. But there are compensations. The conception of the physical world as a mechanism, constructed on a rigid mathematical plan, whose most intimate details might possibly some day be guessed, was, I think, somewhat depressing. We have been led to recognize that the formal and mathematical element is of our own introduction; that it is merely the apparatus by which we map out our knowledge, and has no more objective reality than the circles of latitude and longitude on the sun. A distinguished writer not very long ago speculated on the possibility of the scientific mine being worked out within no distant period. Recent discoveries seem to have put back this possibility indefinitely; and the tendency of modern speculation as to the nature of scientific knowledge should be to banish it altogether.