Page:Our knowledge of the external world.djvu/178

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.


if it were a sort of separation of consecutives, and as if it were their differentiation; and that this also is what is first in numbers, for it is the void which differentiates them.”

This seems to imply that they regarded matter as consisting of atoms with empty space in between. But if so, they must have thought space could be studied by only paying attention to the atoms, for otherwise it would be hard to account for their arithmetical methods in geometry, or for their statement that “things are numbers.”

The difficulty which beset the Pythagoreans in their attempts to apply numbers arose through their discovery of incommensurables, and this, in turn, arose as follows. Pythagoras, as we all learnt in youth, discovered the proposition that the sum of the squares on the sides of a right-angled triangle is equal to the square on the hypotenuse. It is said that he sacrificed an ox when he discovered this theorem; if so, the ox was the first martyr to science. But the theorem, though it has remained his chief claim to immortality, was soon found to have a consequence fatal to his whole philosophy. Consider the case of a right-angled triangle whose two sides are equal, such a triangle as is formed by two sides of a square and a diagonal. Here, in virtue of the theorem, the square on the diagonal is double of the square on either of the sides. But Pythagoras or his early followers easily proved that the square of one whole number cannot be double of the square of another.[1]

  1. The Pythagorean proof is roughly as follows. If possible, let the ratio of the diagonal to the side of a square be m/n, where m and n are whole numbers having no common factor. Then we must have m^2=2n^2. Now the square of an odd number is odd, but m^2, being equal to 2n^2, is even. Hence m must be even. But the square of an even number divides by 4, therefore n^2, which is half of m^2, must be even. Therefore n must be even. But, since m is even, and m and n have no common factor, n must be odd. Thus n must be both odd and even, which is impossible; and therefore the diagonal and the side cannot have a rational ratio.