Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 70/June 1907/The Value of Science: Nominalism and the Universal Invariant X

THE VALUE OF SCIENCE
By M. H. POINCARÉ

MEMBER OF THE INSTITUTE OF FRANCE

4. 'Nominalism' and 'the Universal Invariant'

IF from facts we pass to laws, it is clear that the part of the free activity of the scientist will become much greater. But did not M. LeRoy make it still too great? This is what we are about to examine.

Recall first the examples he has given. When I say: Phosphorus melts at 44°, I think I am enunciating a law; in reality it is just the definition of phosphorus; if one should discover a body which, possessing otherwise all the properties of phosphorus, did not melt at 44°, we should give it another name, that is all, and the law would remain true.

Just so when I say: Heavy bodies falling freely pass over spaces proportional to the squares of the times, I only give the definition of free fall. Whenever the condition shall not be fulfilled, I shall say that the fall is not free, so that the law will never be wrong.

It is clear that if laws were reduced to that, they could not serve in prediction; then they would be good for nothing, either as means of knowledge, or as principle of action.

When I say: Phosphorus melts at 44°, I mean by that: All bodies possessing such or such a property (to wit, all the properties of phosphorus, save fusing-point) fuse at 44°. So understood, my proposition is indeed a law, and this law may be useful to me, because if I meet a body possessing these properties I shall be able to predict that it will fuse at 44°.

Doubtless the law may be found to be false. Then we shall read in the treatises on chemistry: "There are two bodies which chemists long confounded under the name of phosphorus; these two bodies differ only by their points of fusion." That would evidently not be the first time for chemists to attain to the separation of two bodies they were at first not able to distinguish; such, for example, are neodymium and praseodymium, long confounded under the name of didymium.

I do not think the chemists much fear that a like mischance will ever happen to phosphorus. And if, to suppose the impossible, it should happen, the two bodies would probably not have identically the same density, identically the same specific heat, etc., so that, after having determined with care the density, for instance, one could still foresee the fusion point.

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 procedure is always the same. The primitive law enunciated a relation between two facts in the rough, A and B; between these two crude facts is introduced an abstract intermediary C, more or less fictitious (such was in the preceding example the impalpable entity, gravitation). And then we have a relation between A and C that we may suppose rigorous and which is the principle; and another between C and B which remains a law subject to revision.

The principle, henceforth crystallized, so to speak, is no longer subject to the test of experiment. It is not true or false, it is convenient.

Great advantages have often been found in proceeding in that way, but it is clear that if all the laws had been transformed into principles nothing would be left of science. Every law may be broken up into a principle and a law, but thereby it is very clear that, however far this partition be pushed, there will always remain laws.

Nominalism has therefore limits, and this is what one might fail to recognize if one took to the very letter M. LeRoy's assertions.

A rapid review of the sciences will make us comprehend better what are these limits. The nominalist attitude is justified only when it is convenient; when is it so?

Experiment teaches us relations between bodies; this is the fact in the rough; these relations are extremely complicated. Instead of envisaging directly the relation of the body A and the body B, we introduce between them an intermediary, which is space, and we envisage three distinct relations: that of the body A with the figure A′ of space, that of the body B with the figure B′ of space, that of the two figures A′ and B′ to each other. Why is this detour advantageous? Because the relation of A and B was complicated, but differed little from that of A′ and B′, which is simple; so that this complicated relation may be replaced by the simple relation between A′ and B′ and by two other relations which tell us that the differences between A and A′, on the one hand, between B and B′, on the other hand, are very small. For example, if A and B are two natural solid bodies which are displaced with slight deformation, we envisage two movable rigid figures A′ and B′. The laws of the relative displacements of these figures A′ and B′ will be very simple; they will be those of geometry. And we shall afterwards add that the body A, which always differs very little from A′, dilates from the effect of heat and bends from the effect of elasticity. These dilatations and flexions, just because they are very small, will be for our mind relatively easy to study. Just imagine to what complexities of language it would have been necessary to be resigned if we had wished to comprehend in the same enunciation the displacement of the solid, its dilatation and its flexure?

The relation between A and B was a rough law, and was broken up; we now have two laws which express the relations of A and A′, of B and B′, and a principle which expresses that of A′ with B′. It is the aggregate of these principles that is called geometry.

Two other remarks. We have a relation between two bodies A and B, which we have replaced by a relation between two figures A′ and B′; but this same relation between the same two figures A′ and B′ could just as well have replaced advantageously a relation between two other bodies A″ and B″, entirely different from A and B. And that in many ways. If the principles and geometry had not been invented, after having studied the relation of A and B, it would be necessary to begin again ab ovo the study of the relation of A″ and B″ That is why geometry is so precious. A geometrical relation can advantageously replace a relation which, considered in the rough state, should be regarded as mechanical, it can replace another which should be regarded as optical, etc.

Yet let no one say: But that proves geometry an experimental science; in separating its principles from laws whence they have been drawn, you artificially separate it itself from the sciences which have given birth to it. The other sciences have likewise principles, but that does not preclude our having to call them experimental.

It must be recognized that it would have been difficult not to make this separation that is pretended to be artificial. We know the role that the kinematics of solid bodies has played in the genesis of geometry; should it then be said that geometry is only a branch of experimental kinematics? But the laws of the rectilinear propagation of light have also contributed to the formation of its principles. Must geometry be regarded both as a branch of kinematics and as a branch of optics? I recall besides that our Euclidean space which is the proper object of geometry has been chosen, for reasons of convenience, from among a certain number of types which preexist in our mind and which are called groups.

If we pass to mechanics, we still see great principles whose origin is analogous, and, as their 'radius of action,' so to speak, is smaller, there is no longer reason to separate them from mechanics proper and to regard this science as deductive.

In physics, finally, the role of the principles is still more diminished. And in fact they are only introduced when it is of advantage. Now they are advantageous precisely because they are few, since each of them very nearly replaces a great number of laws. Therefore it is not of interest to multiply them. Besides an outcome is necessary, and for that it is needful to end by leaving abstraction to take hold of reality.

Such are the limits of nominalism, and they are narrow.

M. LeBoy has insisted, however, and he has put the question under another form.

Since the enunciation of our laws may vary with the conventions that we adopt, since these conventions may modify even the natural relations of these laws, is there in the manifold of these laws something independent of these conventions and which may, so to speak, play the rôle of universal invariant? For instance, the fiction has been introduced of beings who, having been educated in a world different from ours, would have been led to create a non-Euclidean geometry. If these beings were afterward suddenly transported into our world, they would observe the same laws as we, but they would enunciate them in an entirely different way. In truth there would still be something in common between the two enunciations, but this is because these beings do not yet differ enough from us. Beings still more strange may be imagined, and the part common to the two systems of enunciations will shrink more and more. Will it thus shrink in convergence toward zero, or will there remain an irreducible residue which will then be the universal invariant sought?

The question calls for precise statement. Is it desired that this common part of the enunciations be expressible in words? It is clear then that there are not words common to all languages, and we can not pretend to construct I know not what universal invariant which should be understood both by us and by the fictitious non-Euclidean geometers of whom I have just spoken; no more than we can construct a phrase which can be understood both by Germans who do not understand French and by French who do not understand German. But we have fixed rules which permit us to translate the French enunciations into German, and inversely. It is for that that grammars and dictionaries have been made. There are also fixed rules for translating the Euclidean language into the non-Euclidean language, or, if there are not, they could be made.

And even if there were neither interpreter nor dictionary, if the Germans and the French, after having lived centuries in separate worlds, found themselves all at once in contact, do you think there would be nothing in common between the science of the German books and that of the French books? The French and the Germans would certainly end by understanding each other, as the American Indians ended by understanding the language of their conquerors after the arrival of the Spanish.

But, it will be said, doubtless the French would be capable of understanding the Germans even without having learned German, but this is because there remains between the French and the Germans something in common, since both are men. We should still attain to an understanding with our hypothetical non-Euclideans, though they be not men, because they would still retain something human. But in any case a minimum of humanity is necessary.

This is possible, but I shall observe first that this little humanness which would remain in the non-Euclideans would suffice not only to make possible the translation of a little of their language, but to make possible the translation of all their language.

Now, that there must be a minimum is what I concede; suppose there exists I know not what fluid which penetrates between the molecules of our matter, without having any action on it and without being subject to any action coming from it. Suppose beings sensible to the influence of this fluid and insensible to that of our matter. It is clear that the science of these beings would differ absolutely from ours and that it would be idle to seek an 'invariant' common to these two sciences. Or again, if these beings rejected our logic and did not admit, for instance, the principle of contradiction.

But truly I think it without interest to examine such hypotheses.

And then, if we do not push whimsicality so far, if we introduce only fictitious beings having senses analogous to ours and sensible to the same impressions, and moreover admitting the principles of our logic, we shall then be able to conclude that their language, however different from ours it may be, would always be capable of translation. Now the possibility of translation implies the existence of an invariant. To translate is precisely to disengage this invariant. Thus, to decipher a cryptogram is to seek what in this document remains invariant, when the letters are permuted.

What now is the nature of this invariant it is easy to understand, and a word will suffice us. The invariant laws are the relations between the crude facts, while the relations between the 'scientific facts' remain always dependent on certain conventions.

(To be concluded)