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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 70.djvu/529

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It is, moreover, unimportant; it suffices to remark that there is a law, and that this law, true or false, does not reduce to a tautology.

Will it be said that if we do not know on the earth a body which does not fuse at 44° while having all the other properties of phosphorus, we can not know whether it does not exist on other planets? Doubtless that may be maintained, and it would then be inferred that the law in question, which may serve as a rule of action to us who inhabit the earth, has yet no general value from the point of view of knowledge, and owes its interest only to the chance which has placed us on this globe. This is possible, but, if it were so, the law would be valueless, not because it reduced to a convention, but because it would be false.

The same is true in what concerns the fall of bodies. It would do me no good to have given the name of free fall to falls which happen in conformity with Galileo's law, if I did not know that elsewhere, in such circumstances, the fall will be probably free or approximately free. That then is a law which may be true or false, but which does not reduce to a convention.

Suppose the astronomers discover that the stars do not exactly obey Newton's law. They will have the choice between two attitudes; they may say that gravitation does not vary exactly as the inverse of the square of the distance, or else they may say that gravitation is not the only force which acts on the stars and that there is in addition a different sort of force.

In the second case, Newton's law will be considered as the definition of gravitation. This will be the nominalist attitude. The choice between the two attitudes is free, and is made from considerations of convenience, though these considerations are most often so strong that there remains practically little of this freedom.

We can break up this proposition: (1) The stars obey Newton's law, into two others; (2) gravitation obeys Newton's law; (3) gravitation is the only force acting on the stars. In this case proposition (2) is no longer anything but a definition and is beyond the test of experiment; but then it will be on proposition (3) that this check can be exercised. This is indeed necessary, since the resulting proposition (1) predicts verifiable facts in the rough.

It is thanks to these artifices that by an unconscious nominalism the scientists have elevated above the laws what they call principles. When a law has received a sufficient confirmation from experiment, we may adopt two attitudes: either we may leave this law in the fray; it will then remain subjected to an incessant revision, which without any doubt will end by demonstrating that it is only approximative. Or else we may elevate it into a principle by adopting conventions such that the proposition may be certainly true. For that the pro-