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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 70.djvu/89

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THE VALUE OF SCIENCE

could have succeeded also, by giving other analogous fillips. Should we not always have been able to justify these fillips by the same reasons? One could at most have said to us: 'Your fillips are doubtless legitimate, but you abuse them; why move the exterior objects so often?'

To sum up, experience does not prove to us that space has three dimensions; it only proves to us that it is convenient to attribute three to it, because thus the number of fillips is reduced to a minimum.

I will add that experience brings us into contact only with representative space, which is a physical continuum, never with geometric space, which is a mathematical continuum. At the very most it would appear to tell us that it is convenient to give to geometric space three dimensions, so that it may have as many as representative space.

The empiric question may be put under another form. Is it impossible to conceive physical phenomena, the mechanical phenomena for example, otherwise than in space of three dimensions? We should thus have an objective experimental proof, so to speak, independent of our physiology, of our modes of representation.

But it is not so; I shall not here discuss the question completely, I shall confine myself to recalling the striking example given us by the mechanics of Hertz. You know that the great physicist did not believe in the existence of forces, properly so called; he supposed that visible material points are subjected to certain invisible bonds which join them to other invisible points and that it is the effect of these invisible bonds that we attribute to forces.

But that is only a part of his ideas. Suppose a system formed of material points, visible or not; that will give in all coordinates; let us regard them as the coordinates of a single point in space of dimensions. This single point would be constrained to remain upon a surface (of any number of dimensions in virtue of the bonds of which we have just spoken; to go on this surface from one point to another, it would always take the shortest way; this would be the single principle which would sum up all mechanics.

Whatever should be thought of this hypothesis, whether we be allured by its simplicity, or repelled by its artificial character, the simple fact that Hertz was able to conceive it, and to regard it as more convenient than our habitual hypotheses, suffices to prove that our ordinary ideas, and, in particular, the three dimensions of space, are in no wise imposed upon mechanics with an invincible force.

 

§ 6. Mind and Space

Experience, therefore, has played only a single role, it has served as occasion. But this rôle was none the less very important; and I have thought it necessary to give it prominence. This rôle would have been useless if there existed an a priori form imposing itself upon our sensitivity, and which was space of three dimensions.