Science and Hypothesis/PART III

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Science and Hypothesis by Henri Poincaré
Part III: Force


PART III.


FORCE.



CHAPTER VI.


THE CLASSICAL MECHANICS.


THE English teach mechanics as an experimental science; on the Continent it is taught always more or less as a deductive and à priori science. The English are right, no doubt. How is it that the other method has been persisted in for so long; how is it that Continental scientists who have tried to escape from the practice of their predecessors have in most cases been unsuccessful? On the other hand, if the principles of mechanics are only of experimental origin, are they not merely approximate and provisory? May we not be some day compelled by new experiments to modify or even to abandon them? These are the questions which naturally arise, and the difficulty of solution is largely due to the fact that treatises on mechanics do not clearly distinguish between what is experiment, what is mathematical reasoning, what is convention, and what is hypothesis. This is not all.

1. There is no absolute space, and we only conceive of relative motion; and yet in most cases mechanical facts are enunciated as if there is an absolute space to which they can be referred.

2. There is no absolute time. When we say that two periods are equal, the statement has no meaning, and can only acquire a meaning by a convention.

3. Not only have we no direct intuition of the equality of two periods, but we have not even direct intuition of the simultaneity of two events occurring in two different places. I have explained this in an article entitled "Mesure du Temps."[1]

4. Finally, is not our Euclidean geometry in itself only a kind of convention of language? Mechanical facts might be enunciated with reference to a non-Euclidean space which would be less convenient but quite as legitimate as our ordinary space; the enunciation would become more complicated, but it still would be possible.

Thus, absolute space, absolute time, and even geometry are not conditions which are imposed on mechanics. All these things no more existed before mechanics than the French language can be logically said to have existed before the truths which are expressed in French. We might endeavour to enunciate the fundamental law of mechanics in a language independent of all these conventions; and no doubt we should in this way get a clearer idea of those laws in themselves. This is what M. Andrade has tried to do, to some extent at any rate, in his Leçons de Mécanique physique. Of course the enunciation of these laws would become much more complicated, because all these conventions have been adopted for the very purpose of abbreviating and simplifying the enunciation. As far as we are concerned, I shall ignore all these difficulties; not because I disregard them, far from it; but because they have received sufficient attention in the first two parts of the book. Provisionally, then, we shall admit absolute time and Euclidean geometry.

The Principle of Inertia. — A body under the action of no force can only move uniformly in a straight line. Is this a truth imposed on the mind à priori? If this be so, how is it that the Greeks ignored it? How could they have believed that motion ceases with the cause of motion? or, again, that every body, if there is nothing to prevent it, will move in a circle, the noblest of all forms of motion?

If it be said that the velocity of a body cannot change, if there is no reason for it to change, may we not just as legitimately maintain that the position of a body cannot change, or that the curvature of its path cannot change, without the agency of an external cause? Is, then, the principle of inertia, which is not an à priori truth, an experimental fact? Have there ever been experiments on bodies acted on by no forces? and, if so, how did we know that no forces were acting? The usual instance is that of a ball rolling for a very long time on a marble table; but why do we say it is under the action of no force? Is it because it is too remote from all other bodies to experience any sensible action? It is not further from the earth than if it were thrown freely into the air; and we all know that in that case it would be subject to the attraction of the earth. Teachers of mechanics usually pass rapidly over the example of the ball, but they add that the principle of inertia is verified indirectly by its consequences. This is very badly expressed; they evidently mean that various consequences may be verified by a more general principle, of which the principle of inertia is only a particular case. I shall propose for this general principle the following enunciation: — The acceleration of a body depends only on its position and that of neighbouring bodies, and on their velocities. Mathematicians would say that the movements of all the material molecules of the universe depend on differential equations of the second order. To make it clear that this is really a generalisation of the law of inertia we may again have recourse to our imagination. The law of inertia, as I have said above, is not imposed on us à priori; other laws would be just as compatible with the principle of sufficient reason. If a body is not acted upon by a force, instead of supposing that its velocity is unchanged we may suppose that its position or its acceleration is unchanged.

Let us for a moment suppose that one of these two laws is a law of nature, and substitute it for the law of inertia: what will be the natural generalisation? A moment's reflection will show us. In the first case, we may suppose that the velocity of a body depends only on its position and that of neighbouring bodies; in the second case, that the variation of the acceleration of a body depends only on the position of the body and of neighbouring bodies, on their velocities and accelerations; or, in mathematical terms, the differential equations of the motion would be of the first order in the first case and of the third order in the second.

Let us now modify our supposition a little. Suppose a world analogous to our solar system, but one in which by a singular chance the orbits of all the planets have neither eccentricity nor inclination; and further, I suppose that the masses of the planets are too small for their mutual perturbations to be sensible. Astronomers living in one of these planets would not hesitate to conclude that the orbit of a star can only be circular and parallel to a certain plane; the position of a star at a given moment would then be sufficient to determine its velocity and path. The law of inertia which they would adopt would be the former of the two hypothetical laws I have mentioned.

Now, imagine this system to be some day crossed by a body of vast mass and immense velocity coming from distant constellations. All the orbits would be profoundly disturbed. Our astronomers would not be greatly astonished. They would guess that this new star is in itself quite capable of doing all the mischief; but, they would say, as soon as it has passed by, order will again be established. No doubt the distances of the planets from the sun will not be the same as before the cataclysm, but the orbits will become circular again as soon as the disturbing cause has disappeared. It would be only when the perturbing body is remote, and when the orbits, instead of being circular are found to be elliptical, that the astronomers would find out their mistake, and discover the necessity of reconstructing their mechanics.

I have dwelt on these hypotheses, for it seems to me that we can clearly understand our generalised law of inertia only by opposing it to a contrary hypothesis.

Has this generalised law of inertia been verified by experiment, and can it be so verified? When Newton wrote the Principia, he certainly regarded this truth as experimentally acquired and demonstrated. It was so in his eyes, not only from the anthropomorphic conception to which I shall later refer, but also because of the work of Galileo. It was so proved by the laws of Kepler. According to those laws, in fact, the path of a planet is entirely determined by its initial position and initial velocity; this, indeed, is what our generalised law of inertia requires.

For this principle to be only true in appearance — lest we should fear that some day it must be replaced by one of the analogous principles which I opposed to it just now — we must have been led astray by some amazing chance such as that which had led into error our imaginary astronomers. Such an hypothesis is so unlikely that it need not delay us. No one will believe that there can be such chances; no doubt the probability that two eccentricities are both exactly zero is not smaller than the probability that one is 0.1 and the other 0.2. The probability of a simple event is not smaller than that of a complex one. If, however, the former does occur, we shall not attribute its occurrence to chance; we shall not be inclined to believe that nature has done it deliberately to deceive us. The hypothesis of an error of this kind being discarded, we may admit that so far as astronomy is concerned our law has been verified by experiment.

But Astronomy is not the whole of Physics. May we not fear that some day a new experiment will falsify the law in some domain of physics? An experimental law is always subject to revision; we may always expect to see it replaced by some other and more exact law. But no one seriously thinks that the law of which we speak will ever be abandoned or amended. Why? Precisely because it will never be submitted to a decisive test.

In the first place, for this test to be complete, all the bodies of the universe must return with their initial velocities to their initial positions after a certain time. We ought then to find that they would resume their original paths. But this test is impossible; it can be only partially applied, and even when it is applied there will still be some bodies which will not return to their original positions. Thus there will be a ready explanation of any breaking down of the law.

Yet this is not all. In Astronomy we see the bodies whose motion we are studying, and in most cases we grant that they are not subject to the action of other invisible bodies. Under these conditions, our law must certainly be either verified or not. But it is not so in Physics. If physical phenomena are due to motion, it is to the motion of molecules which we cannot see. If, then, the acceleration of bodies we cannot see depends on something else than the positions or velocities of other visible bodies or of invisible molecules, the existence of which we have been led previously to admit, there is nothing to prevent us from supposing that this something else is the position or velocity of other molecules of which we have not so far suspected the existence. The law will be safeguarded. Let me express the same thought in another form in mathematical language. Suppose we are observing n molecules, and find that their 3n co-ordinates satisfy a system of 3n differential equations of the fourth order (and not of the second, as required by the law of inertia). We know that by introducing 3n variable auxiliaries, a system of 3n equations of the fourth order may be reduced to a system of 6n equations of the second order. If, then, we suppose that the 3n auxiliary variables represent the co-ordinates of n invisible molecules, the result is again conform able to the law of inertia. To sum up, this law, verified experimentally in some particular cases, may be extended fearlessly to the most general cases; for we know that in these general cases it can neither be confirmed nor contradicted by experiment.

The Law of Acceleration. — The acceleration of a body is equal to the force which acts on it divided by its mass.

Can this law be verified by experiment? If so, we have to measure the three magnitudes mentioned in the enunciation: acceleration, force, and mass. I admit that acceleration may be measured, because I pass over the difficulty arising from the measurement of time. But how are we to measure force and mass? We do not even know what they are. What is mass? Newton replies: "The product of the volume and the density." "It were better to say," answer Thomson and Tait, "that density is the quotient of the mass by the volume." What is force? "It is," replies Lagrange, "that which moves or tends to move a body." "It is," according to Kirchoff, "the product of the mass and the acceleration." Then why not say that mass is the quotient of the force by the acceleration? These difficulties are insurmountable.

When we say force is the cause of motion, we are talking metaphysics; and this definition, if we had to be content with it, would be absolutely fruitless, would lead to absolutely nothing. For a definition to be of any use it must tell us how to measure force; and that is quite sufficient, for it is by no means necessary to tell what force is in itself, nor whether it is the cause or the effect of motion. We must therefore first define what is meant by the equality of two forces. When are two forces equal? We are told that it is when they give the same acceleration to the same mass, or when acting in opposite directions they are in equilibrium. This definition is a sham. A force applied to a body cannot be uncoupled and applied to another body as an engine is uncoupled from one train and coupled to another. It is therefore impossible to say what acceleration such a force, applied to such a body, would give to another body if it were applied to it. It is impossible to tell how two forces which are not acting in exactly opposite directions would be have if they were acting in opposite directions. It is this definition which we try to materialise, as it were, when we measure a force with a dynamometer or with a balance. Two forces, F and F', which I suppose, for simplicity, to be acting vertically upwards, are respectively applied to two bodies, C and C'. I attach a body weighing P first to C and then to C'; if there is equilibrium in both cases I conclude that the two forces F and F' are equal, for they are both equal to the weight of the body P. But am I certain that the body P has kept its weight when I transferred it from the first body to the second? Far from it. I am certain of the contrary. I know that the magnitude of the weight varies from one point to another, and that it is greater, for instance, at the pole than at the equator. No doubt the difference is very small, and we neglect it in practice; but a definition must have mathematical rigour; this rigour does not exist. What I say of weight would apply equally to the force of the spring of a dynamometer, which would vary according to temperature and many other circumstances. Nor is this all. We cannot say that the weight of the body P is applied to the body C and keeps in equilibrium the force F. What is applied to the body C is the action of the body P on the body C. On the other hand, the body P is acted on by its weight, and by the reaction R of the body C on P the forces F and A are equal, because they are in equilibrium; the forces A and R are equal by virtue of the principle of action and reaction; and finally, the force R and the weight P are equal because they are in equilibrium. From these three equalities we deduce the equality of the weight P and the force F.

Thus we are compelled to bring into our definition, of the equality of two forces the principle of the equality of action and reaction; hence this principle can no longer be regarded as an experimental law but only as a definition.

To recognise the equality of two forces we are then in possession of two rules: the equality of two forces in equilibrium and the equality of action and reaction. But, as we have seen, these are not sufficient, and we are compelled to have recourse to a third rule, and to admit that certain forces — the weight of a body, for instance — are constant in magnitude and direction. But this third rule is an experimental law. It is only approximately true: it is a bad definition. We are therefore reduced to Kirchoff's definition: force is the product of the mass and the acceleration. This law of Newton in its turn ceases to be regarded as an experimental law, it is now only a definition. But as a definition it is insufficient, for we do not know what mass is. It enables us, no doubt, to calculate the ratio of two forces applied at different times to the same body, but it tells us nothing about the ratio of two forces applied to two different bodies. To fill up the gap we must have recourse to Newton's third law, the equality of action and reaction, still regarded not as an experimental law but as a definition. Two bodies, A and B, act on each other; the acceleration of A, multiplied by the mass of A, is equal to the action of B on A; in the same way the acceleration of B, multiplied by the mass of B is equal to the reaction of A on B. As, by definition, the action and the reaction are equal, the masses of A and B arc respectively in the inverse ratio of their masses. Thus is the ratio of the two masses defined, and it is for experiment to verify that the ratio is constant.

This would do very well if the two bodies were alone and could be abstracted from the action of the rest of the world; but this is by no means the case. The acceleration of A is not solely due to the action of B, but to that of a multitude of other bodies, C, D, . . . To apply the preceding rule we must decompose the acceleration of A into many components, and find out which of these components is due to the action of B. The decomposition would still be possible if we suppose that the action of C on A is simply added to that of B on A, and that the presence of the body C does not in any way modify the action of B on A, or that the presence of B does not modify the action of C on A; that is, if we admit that any two bodies attract each other, that their mutual action is along their join, and is only dependent on their distance apart; if, in a word, we admit the hypothesis of central forces.

We know that to determine the masses of the heavenly bodies we adopt quite a different principle. The law of gravitation teaches us that the attraction of two bodies is proportional to their masses; if r is their distance apart, m and m' their masses, k a constant, then their attraction will be kmm'/r². What we are measuring is therefore not mass, the ratio of the force to the acceleration, but the attracting mass; not the inertia of the body, but its attracting power. It is an indirect process, the use of which is not indispensable theoretically. We might have said that the attraction is inversely proportional to the square of the distance, without being proportional to the product of the masses, that it is equal to f/r² and not to kmm. If it were so, we should nevertheless, by observing the relative motion of the celestial bodies, be able to calculate the masses of these bodies.

But have we any right to admit the hypothesis of central forces? Is this hypothesis rigorously accurate? Is it certain that it will never be falsified by experiment? Who will venture to make such an assertion? And if we must abandon this hypothesis, the building which has been so laboriously erected must fall to the ground.

We have no longer any right to speak of the component of the acceleration of A which is due to the action of B. We have no means of distinguishing it from that which is due to the action of C or of any other body. The rule becomes inapplicable in the measurement of masses. What then is left of the principle of the equality of action and reaction? If we reject the hypothesis of central forces this principle must go too; the geometrical resultant of all the forces applied to the different bodies of a system abstracted from all external action will be zero. In other words, the motion of the centre of gravity of this system will be uniform and in a straight line. Here would seem to be a means of defining mass. The position of the centre of gravity evidently depends on the values given to the masses; we must select these values so that the motion of the centre of gravity is uniform and rectilinear. This will always be possible if Newton's third law holds good, and it will be in general possible only in one way. But no system exists which is abstracted from all external action; every part of the universe is subject, more or less, to the action of the other parts. The law of the Motion of the centre of gravity is only rigorously true when applied to the whole universe.

But then, to obtain the values of the masses we must find the motion of the centre of gravity of the universe. The absurdity of this conclusion is obvious; the motion of the centre of gravity of the universe will be for ever to us unknown. Nothing, therefore, is left, and our efforts are fruitless. There is no escape from the following definition, which is only a confession of failure: Masses are co-efficients which it is found convenient to introduce into calculations.

We could reconstruct our mechanics by giving to our masses different values. The new mechanics would be in contradiction neither with experiment nor with the general principles of dynamics (the principle of inertia, proportionality of masses and accelerations, equality of action and reaction, uniform motion of the centre of gravity in a straight line, and areas). But the equations of this mechanics would not be so simple. Let us clearly understand this. It would be only the first terms which would be less simple — i.e., those we already know through experiment; perhaps the small masses could be slightly altered without the complete equations gaining or losing in simplicity.

Hertz has inquired if the principles of mechanics are rigorously true. "In the opinion of many physicists it seems inconceivable that experiment will ever alter the impregnable principles of mechanics; and yet, what is due to experiment may always be rectified by experiment." From what we have just seen these fears would appear to be groundless. The principles of dynamics appeared to us first as experimental truths, but we have been compelled to use them as definitions. It is by definition that force is equal to the product of the mass and the acceleration; this is a principle which is henceforth beyond the reach of any future experiment. Thus it is by definition that action and reaction are equal and opposite. But then it will be said, these unverifiable principles are absolutely devoid of any significance. They cannot be disproved by experiment, but we can learn from them nothing of any use to us; what then is the use of studying dynamics? This somewhat rapid condemnation would be rather unfair. There is not in Nature any system perfectly isolated, perfectly abstracted from all external action; but there are systems which are nearly isolated. If we observe such a system, we can study not only the relative motion of its different parts with respect to each other, but the motion of its centre of gravity with respect to the other parts of the universe. We then find that the motion of its centre of gravity is nearly uniform and rectilinear in conformity with Newton's Third Law. This is an experimental fact, which cannot be invalidated by a more accurate experiment. What, in fact, would a more accurate experiment teach us? It would teach us that the law is only approximately true, and we know that already. Thus is explained how experiment may serve as a basis for the principles of mechanics, and yet will never invalidate them.

Anthropomorphic Mechanics. — It will be said that Kirchoff has only followed the general tendency of mathematicians towards nominalism; from this his skill as a physicist has not saved him. He wanted a definition of a force, and he took the first that came handy; but we do not require a definition of force; the idea of force is primitive, irreducible, indefinable; we all know what it is; of it we have direct intuition. This direct intuition arises from the idea of effort which is familiar to us from childhood. But in the first place, even if this direct intuition made known to us the real nature of force in itself, it would prove to be an insufficient basis for mechanics; it would, moreover, be quite useless. The important thing is not to know what force is, but how to measure it. Everything which does not teach us how to measure it is as useless to the mechanician as, for instance, the subjective idea of heat and cold to the student of heat. This subjective idea cannot be translated into numbers, and is therefore useless; a scientist whose skin is an absolutely bad conductor of heat, and who, therefore, has never felt the sensation of heat or cold, would read a thermometer in just the same way as any one else, and would have enough material to construct the whole of the theory of heat.

Now this immediate notion of effort is of no use to us in the measurement of force. It is clear, for example, that I shall experience more fatigue in lifting a weight of 100 lb. than a man who is accustomed to lifting heavy burdens. But there is more than this. This notion of effort does not teach us the nature of force; it is definitively reduced to a recollection of muscular sensations, and no one will maintain that the sun experiences a muscular sensation when it attracts the earth. All that we can expect to find from it is a symbol, less precise and less convenient than the arrows (to denote direction) used by geometers, and quite as remote from reality.

Anthropomorphism plays a considerable historic rôle ill the genesis of mechanics; perhaps it may yet furnish us with a symbol which some minds may find convenient; but it can be the foundation of nothing of a really scientific or philosophical character. The Thread School. — M. Andrade, in his Leçons de Mecanique physique, has modernised anthropomorphic mechanics. To the school of mechanics with which Kirchoff is identified, he opposes a school which is quaintly called the "Thread School."

This school tries to reduce everything to the consideration of certain material systems of negligible mass, regarded in a state of tension and capable of transmitting considerable effort to distant bodies — systems of which the ideal type is the fine string, wire, or thread. A thread which transmits any force is slightly lengthened in the direction of that force; the direction of the thread tells us the direction of the force, and the magnitude of the force is measured by the lengthening of the thread.

We may imagine such an experiment as the following: — A body A is attached to a thread; at the other extremity of the thread acts a force which is made to vary until the length of the thread is increased by α, and the acceleration of the body A is recorded. A is then detached, and a body B is attached to the same thread, and the same or another force is made to act until the increment of length again is α, and the acceleration of B is noted. The experiment is then renewed with both A and B until the increment of length is β. The four accelerations observed should be proportional. Here we have an experimental verification of the law of acceleration enunciated above. Again, we may consider a body under the action of several threads in equal tension, and by experiment we determine the direction of those threads when the body is in equilibrium. This is an experimental verification of the law of the composition of forces. But, as a matter of fact, what have we done? We have defined the force acting on the string by the deformation of the thread, which is reasonable enough; we have then assumed that if a body is attached to this thread, the effort which is transmitted to it by the thread is equal to the action exercised by the body on the thread; in fact, we have used the principle of action and reaction by considering it, not as an experimental truth, but as the very definition of force. This definition is quite as conventional as that of Kirchoff, but it is much less general.

All the forces are not transmitted by the thread (and to compare them they would all have to be transmitted by identical threads). If we even admitted that the earth is attached to the sun by an invisible thread, at any rate it will be agreed that we have no means of measuring the increment of the thread. Nine times out of ten, in consequence, our definition will be in default; no sense of any kind can be attached to it, and we must fall back on that of Kirchoff. Why then go on in this roundabout way? You admit a certain definition of force which has a meaning only in certain particular cases. In those cases you verify by experiment that it leads to the law of acceleration. On the strength of these experiments you then take the law of acceleration as a definition of force in all the other cases.

Would it not be simpler to consider the law of acceleration as a definition in all cases, and to regard the experiments in question, not as verifications of that law, but as verifications of the principle of action and reaction, or as proving the deformations of an elastic body depend only on the forces acting on that body? Without taking into account the fact that the conditions in which your definition could be accepted can only be very imperfectly fulfilled, that a thread is never without mass, that it is never isolated from all other forces than the reaction of the bodies attached to its extremities.

The ideas expounded by M. Andrade are none the less very interesting. If they do not satisfy our logical requirements, they give us a better view of the historical genesis of the fundamental ideas of mechanics. The reflections they suggest show us how the human mind passed from a naive anthropomorphism to the present conception of science.

We see that we end with an experiment which is very particular, and as a matter of fact very crude, and we start with a perfectly general law, perfectly precise, the truth of which we regard as absolute. We have, so to speak, freely conferred this certainty on it by looking upon it as a convention.

Are the laws of acceleration and of the composition of forces only arbitrary conventions? Conventions, yes; arbitrary, no — they would be so if we lost sight of the experiments which led the founders of the science to adopt them, and which, imperfect as they were, were sufficient to justify their adoption. It is well from time to time to let our attention dwell on the experimental origin of these conventions.


CHAPTER VII.


RELATIVE AND ABSOLUTE MOTION.


The Principle of Relative Motion. — Sometimes endeavours have been made to connect the law of acceleration with a more general principle. The movement of any system whatever ought to obey the same laws, whether it is referred to fixed axes or to the movable axes which are implied in uniform motion in a straight line. This is the principle of relative motion; it is imposed upon us for two reasons: the commonest experiment confirms it; the consideration of the contrary hypothesis is singularly repugnant to the mind.

Let us admit it then, and consider a body under the action of a force. The relative motion of this body with respect to an observer moving with a uniform velocity equal to the initial velocity of the body, should be identical with what would be its absolute motion if it started from rest. We conclude that its acceleration must not depend upon its absolute velocity, and from that we attempt to deduce the complete law of acceleration.

For a long time there have been traces of this proof in the regulations for the degree of B. ès Sc. It is clear that the attempt has failed. The obstacle which prevented us from proving the law of acceleration is that we have no definition of force. This obstacle subsists in its entirety, since the principle invoked has not furnished us with the missing definition. The principle of relative motion is none the less very interesting, and deserves to be considered for its own sake. Let us try to enunciate it in an accurate manner. We have said above that the accelerations of the different bodies which form part of an isolated system only depend on their velocities and their relative positions, and not on their velocities and their absolute positions, provided that the movable axes to which the relative motion is referred move uniformly in a straight line; or, if it is preferred, their accelerations depend only on the differences of their velocities and the differences of their co-ordinates, and not on the absolute values of these velocities and co-ordinates. If this principle is true for relative accelerations, or rather for differences of acceleration, by combining it with the law of reaction we shall deduce that it is true for absolute accelerations. It remains to be seen how we can prove that differences of acceleration depend only on differences of velocities and co-ordinates; or, to speak in mathematical language, that these differences of co-ordinates satisfy differential equations of the second order. Can this proof be deduced from experiment or from à priori conditions? Remembering what we have said before, the reader will give his own answer. Thus enunciated, in fact, the principle of relative motion curiously resembles what I called above the generalised principle of inertia; it is not quite the same thing, since it is a question of differences of co-ordinates, and not of the co-ordinates themselves. The new principle teaches us something more than the old, but the same discussion applies to it, and would lead to the same conclusions. We need not recur to it.

Newton's Argument. — Here we find a very important and even slightly disturbing question. I have said that the principle of relative motion was not for us simply a result of experiment; and that à priori every contrary hypothesis would be repugnant to the mind. But, then, why is the principle only true if the motion of the movable axes is uniform and in a straight line? It seems that it should be imposed upon us with the same force if the motion is accelerated, or at any rate if it reduces to a uniform rotation. In these two cases, in fact, the principle is not true. I need not dwell on the case in which the motion of the axes is in a straight line and not uniform. The paradox does not bear a moment's examination. If I am in a railway carriage, and if the train, striking against any obstacle whatever, is suddenly stopped, I shall be projected on to the opposite side, although I have not been directly acted upon by any force. There is nothing mysterious in that, and if I have not been subject to the action of any external force, the train has experienced an external impact. There can be nothing paradoxical in the relative motion of two bodies being disturbed when the motion of one or the other is modified by an external cause. Nor need I dwell on the case of relative motion referring to axes which rotate uniformly. If the sky were for ever covered with clouds, and if we had no means of observing the stars, we might, nevertheless, conclude that the earth turns round. We should be warned of this fact by the flattening at the poles, or by the experiment of Foucault's pendulum. And yet, would there in this case be any meaning in saying that the earth turns round? If there is no absolute space, can a thing turn without turning with respect to something; and, on the other hand, how can we admit Newton's conclusion and believe in absolute space? But it is not sufficient to state that all possible solutions are equally unpleasant to us. We must analyse in each case the reason of our dislike, in order to make our choice with the knowledge of the cause. The long discussion which follows must, therefore, be excused.

Let us resume our imaginary story. Thick clouds hide the stars from men who cannot observe them, and even are ignorant of their existence. How will those men know that the earth turns round? No doubt, for a longer period than did our ancestors, they will regard the soil on which they stand as fixed and immovable! They will wait a much longer time than we did for the coming of a Copernicus; but this Copernicus will come at last. How will he come? In the first place, the mechanical school of this world would not run their heads against an absolute contradiction. In the theory of relative motion we observe, besides real forces, two imaginary forces, which we call ordinary centrifugal force and compounded centrifugal force. Our imaginary scientists can thus explain everything by looking upon these two forces as real, and they would not see in this a contradiction of the generalised principle of inertia, for these forces would depend, the one on the relative positions of the different parts of the system, such as real attractions, and the other on their relative velocities, as in the case of real frictions. Many difficulties, however, would before long awaken their attention. If they succeeded in realising an isolated system, the centre of gravity of this system would not have an approximately rectilinear path. They could invoke, to explain this fact, the centrifugal forces which they would regard as real, and which, no doubt, they would attribute to the mutual actions of the bodies — only they would not see these forces vanish at great distances — that is to say, in proportion as the isolation is better realised. Far from it. Centrifugal force increases indefinitely with distance. Already this difficulty would seem to them sufficiently serious, but it would not detain them for long. They would soon imagine some very subtle medium analogous to our ether, in which all bodies would be bathed, and which would exercise on them a repulsive action. But that is not all. Space is symmetrical — yet the laws of motion would present no symmetry. They should be able to distinguish between right and left. They would see, for instance, that cyclones always turn in the same direction, while for reasons of symmetry they should turn indifferently in any direction. If our scientists were able by dint of much hard work to make their universe perfectly symmetrical, this symmetry would not subsist, although there is no apparent reason why it should be disturbed in one direction more than in another. They would extract this from the situation no doubt — they would invent something which would not be more extraordinary than the glass spheres of Ptolemy, and would thus go on accumulating complications until the long-expected Copernicus would sweep them all away with a single blow, saying it is much more simple to admit that the earth turns round. Just as our Copernicus said to us: "It is more convenient to suppose that the earth turns round, because the laws of astronomy are thus expressed in a more simple language," so he would say to them: "It is more convenient to suppose — that the earth turns round, because the laws of mechanics are thus expressed in much more simple language. That does not prevent absolute space that is to say, the point to which we must refer the earth to know if it really does turn round — from having no objective existence. And hence this affirmation: "the earth turns round," has no meaning, since it cannot be verified by experiment; since such an experiment not only cannot be realised or even dreamed of by the most daring Jules Verne, but cannot even be conceived of without contradiction; or, in other words, these two propositions, "the earth turns round," and, "it is morel convenient to suppose that the earth turns round," have one and the same meaning. There is nothing more in one than in the other. Perhaps they will not be content with this, and may find it surprising that among all the hypotheses, or rather all the conventions, that can be made on this subject there is one which is more convenient than the rest? But if we have admitted it without difficulty when it is a question of the laws of astronomy, why should we object when it is a question of the laws of mechanics? We have seen that the co-ordinates of bodies are determined by differential equations of the second order, and that so are the differences of these co-ordinates. This is what we have called the generalised principle of inertia, and the principle of relative motion. If the distances of these bodies were determined in the same way by equations of the second order, it seems that the mind should be entirely satisfied. How far does the mind receive this satisfaction, and why is it not content with it? To explain this we had better take a simple example. I assume a system analogous to our solar system, but in which fixed stars foreign to this system cannot be perceived, so that astronomers can only observe the mutual distances of planets and the sun, and not the absolute longitudes of the planets. If we deduce directly from Newton's law the differential equations which define the variation of these distances, these equations will not be of the second order. I mean that if, outside Newton's law, we knew the initial values of these distances and of their derivatives with respect to time — that would not be sufficient to determine the values of these same distances at an ulterior moment. A datum would be still lacking, and this datum might be, for example, what astronomers call the area-constant. But here we may look at it from two different points of view. We may consider two kinds of constants. In the eyes of the physicist the world reduces to a series of phenomena depending, on the one hand, solely on initial phenomena, and, on the other hand, on the laws connecting consequence and antecedent. If observation then teaches us that a certain quantity is a constant, we shall have a choice of two ways of looking at it. So let us admit that there is a law which requires that this quantity shall not vary, but that by chance it has been found to have had in the beginning of time this value rather than that, a value that it has kept ever since. This quantity might then be called an accidental constant. Or again, let us admit on the contrary that there is a law of nature which imposes on this quantity this value and not that. We shall then have what may be called an essential constant. For example, in virtue of the laws of Newton the duration of the revolution of the earth must be constant. But if it is 366 and something sidereal days, and not 300 or 400, it is because of some initial chance or other. It is an accidental constant. If, on the other hand, the exponent of the distance which figures in the expression of the attractive force is equal to -2 and not to -3, it is not by chance, but because it is required by Newton's law. It is an essential constant. I do not know if this manner of giving to chance its share is legitimate in itself, and if there is not some artificiality about this distinction; but it is certain at least that in proportion as Nature has secrets, she will be strictly arbitrary and always uncertain in their application. As far as the area-constant is concerned, we are accustomed to look upon it as accidental. Is it certain that our imaginary astronomers would do the same? If they were able to compare two different solar systems, they would get the idea that this constant may assume several different values. But I supposed at the outset, as I was entitled to do, that their system would appear isolated, and that they would see no star which was foreign to their system. Under these conditions they could only detect a single constant, which would have an absolutely invariable, unique value. They would be led no doubt to look upon it as an essential constant.

One word in passing to forestall an objection. The inhabitants of this imaginary world could neither observe nor define the area-constant as we do, because absolute longitudes escape their notice; but that would not prevent them from being rapidly led to remark a certain constant which would be naturally introduced into their equations, and which would be nothing but what we call the area-constant. But then what would happen? If the area-constant is regarded as essential, as dependent upon a law of nature, then in order to calculate the distances of the planets at any given moment it would be sufficient to know the initial values of these distances and those of their first derivatives. From this new point of view, distances will be determined by differential equations of the second order. Would this completely satisfy the minds of these astronomers? I think not. In the first place, they would very soon see that in differentiating their equations so as to raise them to a higher order, these equations would become much more simple, and they would be especially struck by the difficulty which arises from symmetry. They would have to admit different laws, according as the aggregate of the planets presented the figure of a certain polyhedron or rather of a regular polyhedron, and these consequences can only be escaped by regarding the area-constant as accidental. I have taken this particular example, because I have imagined astronomers who would not be in the least concerned with terrestrial mechanics and whose vision would be bounded by the solar system. But our conclusions apply in all cases. Our universe is more extended than theirs, since we have fixed stars; but it, too, is very limited, so we might reason on the whole of our universe just as these astronomers do on their solar system. We thus see that we should be definitively led to conclude that the equations which define distances are of an order higher than the second. Why should this alarm us — why do we find it perfectly natural that the sequence of phenomena depends on initial values of the first derivatives of these distances, while we hesitate to admit that they may depend on the initial values of the second derivatives? It can only be because of mental habits created in us by the constant study of the generalised principle of inertia and of its consequences. The values of the distances at any given moment depend upon their initial values, on that of their first derivatives, and something else. What is that something else? If we do not want it to be merely one of the second derivatives, we have only the choice of hypotheses. Suppose, as is usually done, that this something else is the absolute orientation of the universe in space, or the rapidity with which this orientation varies; this may be, it certainly is, the most convenient solution for the geometer. But it is not the most satisfactory for the philosopher, because this orientation does not exist. We may assume that this something else is the position or the velocity of some invisible body, and this is what is done by certain persons, who have even called the body Alpha, although we are destined to never know anything about this body except its name. This is an artifice entirely analogous to that of which I spoke at the end of the paragraph containing my reflections on the principle of inertia. But as a matter of fact the difficulty is artificial. Provided that the future indications of our instruments can only depend on the indications which they have given us, or that they might have formerly given us, such is all we want, and with these conditions we may rest satisfied.


CHAPTER VIII.


ENERGY AND THERMODYNAMICS.


Energetics. — The difficulties raised by the classical mechanics have led certain minds to prefer a new system which they call Energetics. Energetics took its rise in consequence of the discovery of the principle of the conservation of energy. Helmholtz gave it its definite form. We begin by defining two quantities which play a fundamental part in this theory. They are kinetic energy, or vis viva, and potential energy. Every change that the bodies of nature can undergo is regulated by two experimental laws. First, the sum of the kinetic and potential energies is constant. This is the principle of the conservation of energy. Second, if a system of bodies is at A at the time t0, and at B at the time t1, it always passes from the first position to the second by such a path that the mean value of the difference between the two kinds of energy in the interval of time which separates the two epochs t0 and t1 is a minimum. This is Hamilton's principle, and is one of the forms of the principle of least action. The energetic theory has the following advantages over the classical. First, it is less incomplete — that is to say, the principles of the conservation of energy and of Hamilton teach us more than the fundamental principles of the classical theory, and exclude certain motions which do not occur in nature and which would be compatible with the classical theory. Second, it frees us from the hypothesis of atoms, which it was almost impossible to avoid with the classical theory. But in its turn it raises fresh difficulties. The definitions of the two kinds of energy would raise difficulties almost as great as those of force and mass in the first system. However, we can get out of these difficulties more easily, at any rate in the simplest cases. Assume an isolated system formed of a certain number of material points. Assume that these points are acted upon by forces depending only on their relative position and their distances apart, and independent of their velocities. In virtue of the principle of the conservation of energy there must be a function of forces. In this simple case the enunciation of the principle of the conservation of energy is of extreme simplicity. A certain quantity, which may be determined by experiment, must remain constant. This quantity is the sum of two terms. The first depends only on the position of the material points, and is independent of their velocities; the second is proportional to the squares of these velocities. This decomposition can only take place in one way. The first of these terms, which I shall call U, will be potential energy; the second, which I shall call T, will be kinetic energy. It is true that if T + U is constant, so is any function of T + U, Φ (T + U). But this function Φ (T + U) will not be the sum of two terms, the one independent of the velocities, and the other proportional to the square of the velocities. Among the functions which remain constant there is only one which enjoys this property. It is T + U (or a linear function of T + U), it matters not which, since this linear function may always be reduced to T + U by a change of unit and of origin. This, then, is what we call energy. The first term we shall call potential energy, and the second kinetic energy. The definition of the two kinds of energy may therefore be carried through without any ambiguity.

So it is with the definition of mass. Kinetic energy, or vis viva, is expressed very simply by the aid of the masses, and of the relative velocities of all the material points with reference to one of them. These relative velocities may be observed, and when we have the expression of the kinetic energy as a function of these relative velocities, the coefficients of this expression will give us the masses. So in this simple case the fundamental ideas can be defined without difficulty. But the difficulties reappear in the more complicated cases if the forces, instead of depending solely on the distances, depend also on the velocities. For example, Weber supposes the mutual action of two electric molecules to depend not only on their distance but on their velocity and on their acceleration. If material points attracted each other according to an analogous law, U would depend on the velocity, and it might contain a term proportional to the square of the velocity. How can we detect among such terms those that arise from T or U? and how, therefore, can we distinguish the two parts of the energy? But there is more than this. How can we define energy itself? We have no more reason to take as our definition T + U rather than any other function of T + U, when the property which characterised T + U has disappeared namely, that of being the sum of two terms of a particular form. But that is not all. We must take account, not only of mechanical energy properly so called, but of the other forms of energy heat, chemical energy, electrical energy, etc. The principle of the conservation of energy must be written T + U + Q = a constant, where T is the sensible kinetic energy, U the potential energy of position, depending only on the position of the bodies, Q the internal molecular energy under the thermal, chemical, or electrical form. This would be all right if the three terms were absolutely distinct; if T were proportional to the square of the velocities, U independent of these velocities and of the state of the bodies, Q independent of the velocities and of the positions of the bodies, and depending only on their internal state. The expression for the energy could be decomposed in one way only into three terms of this form. But this is not the case. Let us consider electrified bodies. The electro-static energy due to their mutual action will evidently depend on their charge — i.e., on their state; but it will equally depend on their position. If these bodies are in motion, they will act electro-dynamically on one another, and the electro-dynamic energy will depend not only on their state and their position but on their velocities. We have therefore no means of making the selection of the terms which should form part of T, and U, and Q, and of separating the three parts of the energy. If T + U + Q is constant, the same is true of any function whatever, Φ (T + U + Q).

If T + U + Q were of the particular form that I have suggested above, no ambiguity would ensue. Among the functions Φ (T + U + Q) which remain constant, there is only one that would be of this particular form, namely the one which I would agree to call energy. But I have said this is not rigorously the case. Among the functions that remain constant there is not one which can rigorously be placed in this particular form. How then can we choose from among them that which should be called energy? We have no longer any guide in our choice.

Of the principle of the conservation of energy there is nothing left then but an enunciation: There is something which remains constant. In this form it, in its turn, is outside the bounds of experiment and reduced to a kind of tautology. It is clear that if the world is governed by laws there will be quantities which remain constant. Like Newton's laws, and for an analogous reason, the principle of the conservation of energy being based on experiment, can no longer be invalidated by it.

This discussion shows that, in passing from the classical system to the energetic, an advance has been made; but it shows, at the same time, that we have not advanced far enough.

Another objection seems to be still more serious. The principle of least action is applicable to reversible phenomena, but it is by no means satisfactory as far as irreversible phenomena are concerned. Helmholtz attempted to extend it to this class of phenomena, but he did not and could not succeed. So far as this is concerned all has yet to be done. The very enunciation of the principle of least action is objectionable. To move from one point to another, a material molecule, acted upon by no force, but compelled to move on a surface, will take as its path the geodesic line — i.e., the shortest path. This molecule seems to know the point to which we want to take it, to foresee the time that it will take it to reach it by such a path, and then to know how to choose the most convenient path. The enunciation of the principle presents it to us, so to speak, as a living and free entity. It is clear that it would be better to replace it by a less objectionable enunciation, one in which, as philosophers would say, final effects do not seem to be substituted for acting causes.

Thermo-dynamics. — The rôle of the two fundamental principles of thermo-dynamics becomes daily more important in all branches of natural philosophy. Abandoning the ambitious theories of forty years ago, encumbered as they were with molecular hypotheses, we now try to rest on thermo-dynamics alone the entire edifice of mathematical physics. Will the two principles of Mayer and of Clausius assure to it foundations solid enough to last for some time? We all feel it, but whence does our confidence arise? An eminent physicist said to me one day, àpropos of the law of errors: — every one stoutly believes it, because mathematicians imagine that it is an effect of observation, and observers imagine that it is a mathematical theorem. And this was for a long time the case with the principle of the conservation of energy. It is no longer the same now. There is no one who does not know that it is an experimental fact. But then who gives us the right of attributing to the principle itself more generality and more precision than to the experiments which have served to demonstrate it? This is asking, if it is legitimate to generalise, as we do every day, empiric data, and I shall not be so foolhardy as to discuss this question, after so many philosophers have vainly tried to solve it. One thing alone is certain. If this permission were refused to us, science could not exist; or at least would be reduced to a kind of inventory, to the ascertaining of isolated facts. It would not longer be to us of any value, since it could not satisfy our need of order and harmony, and because it would be at the same time incapable of prediction. As the circumstances which have preceded any fact whatever will never again, in all probability, be simultaneously reproduced, we already require a first generalisation to predict whether the fact will be renewed as soon as the least of these circumstances is changed. But every proposition may be generalised in an infinite number of ways. Among all possible generalisations we must choose, and we cannot but choose the simplest. We are therefore led to adopt the same course as if a simple law were, other things being equal, more probable than a complex law. A century ago it was frankly confessed and proclaimed abroad that Nature loves simplicity; but Nature has proved the contrary since then on more than one occasion. We no longer confess this tendency, and we only keep of it what is indispensable, so that science may not become impossible. In formulating a general, simple, and formal law, based on a comparatively small number of not altogether consistent experiments, we have only obeyed a necessity from which the human mind cannot free itself. But there is something more, and that is why I dwell on this topic. No one doubts that Mayer's principle is not called upon to survive all the particular laws from which it was deduced, in the same way that Newton's law has survived the laws of Kepler from which it was derived, and which are no longer anything but approximations, if we take perturbations into account. Now why does this principle thus occupy a kind of privileged position among physical laws? There are many reasons for that. At the outset we think that we cannot reject it, or even doubt its absolute rigour, without admitting the possibility of perpetual motion; we certainly feel distrust at such a prospect, and we believe ourselves less rash in affirming it than in denying it. That perhaps is not quite accurate. The impossibility of perpetual motion only implies the conservation of energy for reversible phenomena. The imposing simplicity of Mayer's principle equally contributes to strengthen our faith. In a law immediately deduced from experiments, such as Mariotte's law, this simplicity would rather appear to us a reason for distrust; but here this is no longer the case. We take elements which at the first glance are unconnected; these arrange themselves in an unexpected order, and form a harmonious whole. We cannot believe that this unexpected harmony is a mere result of chance. Our conquest appears to be valuable to us in proportion to the efforts it has cost, and we feel the more certain of having snatched its true secret from Nature in proportion as Nature has appeared more jealous of our attempts to discover it. But these are only small reasons. Before we raise Mayer's law to the dignity of an absolute principle, a deeper discussion is necessary. But if we embark on this discussion we see that this absolute principle is not even easy to enunciate. In every particular case we clearly see what energy is, and we can give it at least a provisory definition; but it is impossible to find a general definition of it. If we wish to enunciate the principle in all its generality and apply it to the universe, we see it vanish, so to speak, and nothing is left but this — there is something which remains constant. But has this a meaning? In the determinist hypothesis the state of the universe is determined by an extremely large number n of parameters, which I shall call x1, x2, x3, . . xn. As soon as we know at a given moment the values of these n parameters, we also know their derivatives with respect to time, and we can therefore calculate the values of these same parameters at an anterior or ulterior moment. In other words, these n parameters specify n differential equations of the first order. These equations have n-1 integrals, and therefore there are n-1 functions of x1, x2, x3, . . xn, which remain constant. If we say then, there is something which remains constant, we are only enunciating a tautology. We would be even embarrassed to decide which among all our integrals is that which should retain the name of energy. Besides, it is not in this sense that Mayer's principle is understood when it is applied to a limited system. We admit, then, that p of our n parameters vary independently so that we have only n-p relations, generally linear, between our n parameters and their derivatives. Suppose, for the sake of simplicity, that the sum of the work done by the external forces is zero, as well as that of all the quantities of heat given off from the interior: what will then be the meaning of our principle? There is a combination of these n-p relations, of which the first member is an exact differential; and then this differential vanishing in virtue of our n-p relations, its integral is a constant, and it is this integral which we call energy. But how can it be that there are several parameters whose variations are independent? That can only take place in the case of external forces (although we have supposed, for the sake of simplicity, that the algebraical sum of all the work done by these forces has vanished). If, in fact, the system were completely isolated from all external action, the values of our n parameters at a given moment would suffice to determine the state of the system at any ulterior moment whatever, provided that we still clung to the determinist hypothesis. We should therefore fall back on the same difficulty as before. If the future state of the system is not entirely determined by its present state, it is because it further depends on the state of bodies external to the system. But then, is it likely that there exist among the parameters x which define the state of the system of equations independent of this state of the external bodies? and if in certain cases we think we can find them, is it not only because of our ignorance, and because the influence of these bodies is too weak for our experiment to be able to detect it? If the system is not regarded as completely isolated, it is probable that the rigorously exact expression of its internal energy will depend upon the state of the external bodies. Again, I have supposed above that the sum of all the external work is zero, and if we wish to be free from this rather artificial restriction the enunciation becomes still more difficult. To formulate Mayer's principle by giving it an absolute meaning, we must extend it to the whole universe, and then we find ourselves face to face with the very difficulty we have endeavoured to avoid. To sum up, and to use ordinary language, the law of the conservation of energy can have only one significance, because there is in it a property common to all possible properties; but in the determinist hypothesis there is only one possible, and then the law has no meaning. In the indeterminist hypothesis, on the other hand, it would have a meaning even if we wished to regard it in an absolute sense. It would appear as a limitation imposed on freedom.

But this word warns me that I am wandering from the subject, and that I am leaving the domain of mathematics and physics. I check myself, therefore, and I wish to retain only one impression of the whole of this discussion, and that is, that Mayer's law is a form subtle enough for us to be able to put into it almost anything we like. I do not mean by that that it corresponds to no objective reality, nor that it is reduced to mere tautology; since, in each particular case, and provided we do not wish to extend it to the absolute, it has a perfectly clear meaning. This subtlety is a reason for believing that it will last long; and as, on the other hand, it will only disappear to be blended in a higher harmony, we may work with confidence and utilise it, certain beforehand that our work will not be lost.

Almost everything that I have just said applies to the principle of Clausius. What distinguishes it is, that it is expressed by an inequality. It will be said perhaps that it is the same with all physical laws, since their precision is always limited by errors of observation. But they at least claim to be first approximations, and we hope to replace them little by little by more exact laws. If, on the other hand, the principle of Clausius reduces to an inequality, this is not caused by the imperfection of our means of observation, but by the very nature of the question.

General Conclusions on Part III. — The principles of mechanics are therefore presented to us under two different aspects. On the one hand, there are truths founded on experiment, and verified approximately as far as almost isolated systems are concerned; on the other hand, there are postulates applicable to the whole of the universe and regarded as rigorously true. If these postulates possess a generality and a certainty which falsify the experimental truths from which they were deduced, it is because they reduce in final analysis to a simple convention that we have a right to make, because we are certain beforehand that no experiment can contradict it. This convention, however, is not absolutely arbitrary; it is not the child of our caprice. We admit it because certain experiments have shown us that it will be convenient, and thus is explained how experiment has built up the principles of mechanics, and why, moreover, it cannot reverse them. Take a comparison with geometry. The fundamental propositions of geometry, for instance, Euclid's postulate, are only conventions, and it is quite as unreasonable to ask if they are true or false as to ask if the metric system is true or false. Only, these conventions are convenient, and there are certain experiments which prove it to us. At the first glance, the analogy is complete, the rôle of experiment seems the same. We shall there fore be tempted to say, either mechanics must be looked upon as experimental science and then it should be the same with geometry; or, on the contrary, geometry is a deductive science, and then we can say the same of mechanics. Such a conclusion would be illegitimate. The experiments which have led us to adopt as more convenient the fundamental conventions of geometry refer to bodies which have nothing in common with those that are studied by geometry. They refer to the properties of solid bodies and to the propagation of light in a straight line. These are mechanical, optical experiments. In no way can they be regarded as geometrical experiments. And even the probable reason why our geometry seems convenient to us is, that our bodies, our hands, and our limbs enjoy the properties of solid bodies. Our fundamental experiments are pre-eminently physiological experiments which refer, not to the space which is the object that geometry must study, but to our body — that is to say, to the instrument which we use for that study. On the other hand, the fundamental conventions of mechanics and the experiments which prove to us that they are convenient, certainly refer to the same objects or to analogous objects. Conventional and general principles are the natural and direct generalisations of experimental and particular principles. Let it not be said that I am thus tracing artificial frontiers between the sciences; that I am separating by a barrier geometry properly so called from the study of solid bodies. I might just as well raise a barrier between experimental mechanics and the conventional mechanics of general principles. Who does not see, in fact, that by separating these two sciences we mutilate both, and that what will remain of the conventional mechanics when it is isolated will be but very little, and can in no way be compared with that grand body of doctrine which is called geometry.

We now understand why the teaching of mechanics should remain experimental. Thus only can we be made to understand the genesis of the science, and that is indispensable for a complete knowledge of the science itself. Besides, if we study mechanics, it is in order to apply it; and we can only apply it if it remains objective. Now, as we have seen, when principles gain in generality and certainty they lose in objectivity. It is therefore especially with the objective side of principles that we must be early familiarised, and this can only be by passing from the particular to the general, instead of from the general to the particular.

Principles are conventions and definitions in disguise. They are, however, deduced from experimental laws, and these laws have, so to speak, been erected into principles to which our mind attributes an absolute value. Some philosophers have generalised far too much. They have thought that the principles were the whole of science, and therefore that the whole of science was conventional. This paradoxical doctrine, which is called Nominalism, cannot stand examination. How can a law become a principle? It expressed a relation between two real terms, A and B; but it was not rigorously true, it was only approximate. We introduce arbitrarily an intermediate term, C, more or less imaginary, and C is by definition that which has with A exactly the relation expressed by the law. So our law is decomposed into an absolute and rigorous principle which expresses the relation of A to C, and an approximate experimental and revisable law which expresses the relation of C to B. But it is clear that however far this decomposition may be carried, laws will always remain. We shall now enter into the domain of laws properly so called.

   




Footnotes[edit]

  1. Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, t. vi., pp. 1-13, January, 1898