Source: This is a chapter from Science & Method (1897). Even today, it’s an interesting book to read.
IT is impossible to picture empty space. All our efforts to imagine pure space from which the changing images of material objects are excluded can only result in a representation in which highly-coloured surfaces, for instance, are replaced by lines of slight colouration, and if we continued in this direction to the end, everything would disappear and end in nothing. Hence arises the irreducible relativity of space.
Whoever speaks of absolute space uses a word devoid of meaning. This is a truth that has been long proclaimed by all who have reflected on the question, but one which we are too often inclined to forget.
If I am at a definite point in Paris, at the Place du Panthéon, for instance, and I say, “I will come back here tomorrow;” if I am asked, “Do you mean that you will come back to the same point in space?” I should be tempted to answer yes. Yet I should be wrong, since between now and tomorrow the earth will have moved, carrying with it the Place du Panthéon, which will have travelled more than a million miles. And if I wished to speak more accurately, I should gain nothing, since this million of miles has been covered by our globe in its motion in relation to the sun, and the sun in its turn moves in relation to the Milky Way, and the Milky Way itself is no doubt in motion without our being able to recognise its velocity. So that we are, and shall always be, completely ignorant how far the Place du Panthéon moves in a day. In fact, what I meant to say was,
“Tomorrow I shall see once more the dome and pediment of the Panthéon,”
and if there was no Panthéon my sentence would have no meaning and space would disappear.
This is one of the most commonplace forms of the principle of the relativity of space, but there is another on which Delbeuf has laid particular stress. Suppose that in one night all the dimensions of the universe became a thousand times larger. The world will remain similar to itself, if we give the word similitude the meaning it has in the third book of Euclid. Only, what was formerly a metre long will now measure a kilometre, and what was a millimetre long will become a metre. The bed in which I went to sleep and my body itself will have grown in the same proportion. When I awake in the morning what will be my feeling in face of such an astonishing transformation? Well, I shall not notice anything at all. The most exact measures will be incapable of revealing anything of this tremendous change, since the yard-measures I shall use will have varied in exactly the same proportions as the objects I shall attempt to measure. In reality the change only exists for those who argue as if space were absolute. If I have argued for a moment as they do, it was only in order to make it clearer that their view implies a contradiction. In reality it would be better to say that as space is relative, nothing at all has happened, and that it is for that reason that we have noticed nothing.
Have we any right, therefore, to say that we know the distance between two points? No, since that distance could undergo enormous variations without our being able to perceive it, provided other distances varied in the same proportions. We saw just now that when I say I shall be here tomorrow, that does not mean that tomorrow I shall be at the point in space where I am today, but that tomorrow I shall be at the same distance from the Panthéon as I am today. And already this statement is not sufficient, and I ought to say that tomorrow and today my distance from the Panthéon will be equal to the same number of times the length of my body.
But that is not all. I imagined the dimensions of the world changing, but at least the world remaining always similar to itself. We can go much further than that, and one of the most surprising theories of modern physicists will furnish the occasion. According to a hypothesis of Lorentz and Fitzgerald, all bodies carried forward in the earth’s motion undergo a deformation. This deformation is, in truth, very slight, since all dimensions parallel with the earth’s motion are diminished by a hundred-millionth, while dimensions perpendicular to this motion are not altered. But it matters little that it is slight; it is enough that it should exist for the conclusion I am soon going to draw from it. Besides, though I said that it is slight, I really know nothing about it. I have myself fallen a victim to the tenacious illusion that makes us believe that we think of an absolute space. I was thinking of the earth’s motion on its elliptical orbit round the sun, and I allowed 18 miles a second for its velocity. But its true velocity (I mean this time, not its absolute velocity, which has no sense, but its velocity in relation to the ether), this I do not know and have no means of knowing. It is, perhaps, 10 or 100 times as high, and then the deformation will be 100 or 10,000 times as great.
It is evident that we cannot demonstrate this deformation. Take a cube with sides a yard long. it is deformed on account of the earth’s velocity; one of its sides, that parallel with the motion, becomes smaller, the others do not vary. If I wish to assure myself of this with the help of a yard-measure, I shall measure first one of the sides perpendicular to the motion, and satisfy myself that my measure fit s this side exactly ; and indeed neither one nor other of these lengths is altered, since they are both perpendicular to the motion. I then wish to measure the other side, that parallel with the motion ; for this purpose I change the position of my measure, and turn it so as to apply it to this side. But the yard-measure, having changed its direction and having become parallel with the motion, has in its turn undergone the deformation so that, though the side is no longer a yard long, it will still fit it exactly, and I shall be aware of nothing.
What, then, I shall be asked, is the use of the hypothesis of Lorentz and Fitzgerald if no experiment can enable us to verify it? The fact is that my statement has been incomplete. I have only spoken of measurements that can be made with a yard-measure, but we can also measure a distance by the time that light takes to traverse it, on condition that we admit that the velocity of light is constant, and independent of its direction. Lorentz could have accounted for the facts by supposing that the velocity of light is greater in the direction of the earth’s motion than in the perpendicular direction. He preferred to admit that the velocity is the same in the two directions, but that bodies are smaller in the former than in the latter. If the surfaces of the waves of light had undergone the same deformations as material bodies, we should never have perceived the Lorentz-Fitzgerald deformation.
In the one case as in the other, there can be no question of absolute magnitude, but of the measurement of that magnitude by means of some instrument. This instrument may be a yard-measure or the path traversed by light. It is only the relation of the magnitude to the instrument that we measure, and if this relation is altered, we have no means of knowing whether it is the magnitude or the instrument that has changed.
But what I wish to make clear is, that in this deformation the world has not remained similar to itself. Squares have become rectangles or parallelograms, circles ellipses, and spheres ellipsoids. And yet we have no means of knowing whether this deformation is real.
It is clear that we might go much further. Instead of the Lorentz-Fitzgerald deformation, with its extremely simple laws, we might imagine a deformation of any kind whatever; bodies might be deformed in accordance with any laws, as complicated as we liked, and we should not perceive it, provided all bodies without exception were deformed in accordance with the same laws. When I say all bodies without exception, I include, of course, our own bodies and the rays of light emanating from the different objects.
If we look at the world in one of those mirrors of complicated form which deform objects in an odd way, the mutual relations of the different parts of the world are not altered; if, in fact, two real objects touch, their images likewise appear to touch. In truth, when we look in such a mirror we readily perceive the deformation but it is because the real world exists beside its deformed image. And even if this real world were hidden from us, there is something which cannot be hidden, and that is ourselves. We cannot help seeing, or at least feeling, our body and our members which have not been deformed, and continue to act as measuring instruments. But if we imagine our body itself deformed, and in the same way as if it were seen in the mirror, these measuring instruments will fail us in their turn, and the deformation will no longer be able to be ascertained.
Imagine, in the same way, two universes which are the image one of the other. With each object P in the universe A, there corresponds, in the universe B, an object P1 which is its image. The co-ordinates of this image P1 are determinate functions of those of the object P ; moreover, these functions ma be of any kind whatever – I assume only that they are chosen once for all. Between the position of P and that of P1 there is a constant relation ; it matters little what that relation may be, it is enough that it should be constant.
Well, these two universes will be indistinguishable.
I mean to say that the former will be for its inhabitants what the second is for its own. This would be true so long as the two universes remained foreign to one another. Suppose we are inhabitants of the universe A ; we have constructed our science and particularly our geometry. During this time the inhabitants of the universe B have constructed a science, and as their world is the image of ours, their geometry will also be the image of ours, or, more accurately, it will be the same. But if one day a window were to open for us upon the universe B, we should feel contempt for them, and we should say, “These wretched people imagine that they have made a geometry, but what they so name is only a grotesque image of ours; their straight lines are all twisted, their circles are hunchbacked, and their spheres have capricious inequalities.” We should have no suspicion that they were saying the same of us, and that no one will ever know which is right.
We see in how large a sense we must understand the relativity of space. Space is in reality amorphous, and it is only the things that are in it that give it a form. What are we to think, then, of that direct intuition we have of a straight line or of distance? We have so little the intuition of distance in itself that, in a single night, as we have said, a distance could become a thousand times greater without our being able to perceive it, if all other distances had undergone the same alteration. And in a night the universe B might even be substituted for the universe A without our having any means of knowing it, and then the straight lines of yesterday would have ceased to be straight, and we should not be aware of anything.
One part of space is not by itself and in the absolute sense of the word equal to another part of space, for if it is so for us, it will not be so for the inhabitants of the universe B, and they have precisely as much right to reject our opinion as we have to condemn theirs.
I have shown elsewhere what are the consequences of these facts from the point of view of the idea that we should construct non-Euclidean and other analogous geometries. I do not wish to return to this, and I will take a somewhat different point of view.
If this intuition of distance, of direction, of the straight line, if, in a word, this direct intuition of space does not exist, whence comes it that we imagine we have it? If this is only an illusion, whence comes it that the illusion is so tenacious ? This is what we must examine. There is no direct intuition of magnitude, as we have said, and we can only arrive at the relation of the magnitude to our measuring instruments. Accordingly we could not have constructed space if we had not had an instrument for measuring it. Well, that instrument to which we refer everything, which we use instinctively, is our own body. It is in reference to our own body that we locate exterior objects, and the only special relations of these objects that we can picture to ourselves are their relations with our body. It is our body that serves us, so to speak, as a system of axes of co-ordinates.
For instance, at a moment a the presence of an object A is revealed to me by the sense of sight; at another moment b the presence of another object B is revealed by another sense, that, for instance, of hearing or of touch. I judge that this object B occupies the same place as the object A. What does this mean? To begin with, it does not imply that these two objects occupy, at two different moments, the same point in an absolute space, which, even if it existed, would escape our knowledge, since between the moments a and P the solar system has been displaced and we cannot know what this displacement is. It means that these two objects occupy the same relative position in reference to our body.
But what is meant even by this? The impressions that have come to us from these objects have followed absolutely different paths – the optic nerve for the object A, and the acoustic nerve for the object B – they have nothing in common from the qualitative point of view.’ The representations we can form of these two objects are absolutely heterogeneous and irreducible one to the other. Only I know that, in order to reach the object A, I have only to extend my right arm in a certain way; even though I refrain from doing it, I represent to myself the muscular and other analogous sensations which accompany that extension, and that representation is associated with that of the object A.
Now I know equally that I can reach the object B by extending my right arm in the same way, an extension accompanied by the same train of muscular sensations. And I mean nothing else but this when I say that these two objects occupy the same position.
I know also that I could have reached the object A by another appropriate movement of the left arm, and I represent to myself the muscular sensations that would have accompanied the movement. And by the same movement of the left arm, accompanied by the same sensations, I could equally have reached the object B.
And this is very important, since it is in this way that I could defend myself against the dangers with which the object A or the object B might threaten me. With each of the blows that may strike us, nature has associated one or several parries which enable us to protect ourselves against them. The same parry may answer to several blows. It is thus, for instance, that the same movement of the right arm would have enabled us to defend ourselves at the moment a against the object A, and at the moment b against the object B. Similarly, the same blow may be parried in several ways, and we have said, for instance, that we could reach the object A equally well either by a certain movement of the right arm, or by a certain movement of the left.
All these parries have nothing in common with one another, except that they enable us to avoid the same blow, and it is that, and nothing but that, we mean when we say that they are movements ending in the same point in space. Similarly, these objects, of which we say that they occupy the same point in space, have nothing in common, except that the same parry can enable us to defend ourselves against them.
Or, if we prefer it, let us imagine innumerable telegraph wires, some centripetal and others centrifugal. The centripetal wires warn us of accidents that occur outside, the centrifugal wires have to provide the remedy. Connections are established in such a way that when one of the centripetal wires is traversed by a current, this current acts on a central exchange, and so excites a current in one of the centrifugal wires, and matters are so arranged that several centripetal wires can act on the same centrifugal wire, if the same remedy is applicable to several evils, and that one centripetal wire can disturb several centrifugal wires, either simultaneously or one in default of the other, every time that the same evil can be cured by several remedies.
It is this complex system of associations, it is this distribution board, so to speak, that is our whole geometry, or, if you will, all that is distinctive in our geometry. What we call our intuition of a straight line or of distance is the consciousness we have of these associations and of their imperious character.
Whence this imperious character itself comes, it is easy to understand. The older an association is, the more indestructible it will appear to us. But these associations are not, for the most part, conquests made by the individual, since we see traces of them in the newly-born infant they are conquests made by the race. The more necessary these conquests were, the more quickly they must have been brought about by natural selection.
On this account those we have been speaking of must have been among the earliest, since without them the defence of the organism would have been impossible. As soon as the cells were no longer merely in juxtaposition, as soon as they were called upon to give mutual assistance to each other, some such mechanism as we have been describing must necessarily have been organised in order that the assistance should meet the danger without miscarrying.
When a frog’s head has been cut off, and a drop of acid is placed at some point on its skin, it tries to rub off the acid with the nearest foot; and if that foot is cut off, it removes it with the other foot. Here we have, clearly, that double parry I spoke of just now, making it possible to oppose an evil by a second remedy if the first fails. It is this multiplicity of parries, and the resulting co-ordination, that is space.
We see to what depths of unconsciousness we have to descend to find the first traces of these spatial associations, since the lowest parts of the nervous system alone come into play. Once we have realised this, how can we be astonished at the resistance we oppose to any attempt to dissociate what has been so long associated? Now, it is this very resistance that we call the evidence of the truths of geometry. This evidence is nothing else than the repugnance we feel at breaking with very old habits with which we have always got on very well.
The space thus created is only a small space that does not extend beyond what my arm can reach, and the intervention of memory is necessary to set back its limits. There are points that will always remain out of my reach, whatever effort I may make to stretch out my hand to them. If I were attached to the ground, like a sea-polyp, for instance, which can only extend its tentacles, all these points would be outside space, since the sensations we might experience from the action of bodies placed there would not be associated with the idea of any movement enabling us to reach them, or with any appropriate parry. These sensations would not seem to us to have any spatial character, and we should not attempt to locate them.
But we are not fixed to the ground like the inferior animals. If the enemy is too far off, we can advance upon him first and extend our hand when we are near enough. This is still a parry, but a long-distance parry. Moreover, it is a complex parry, and into the representation we make of it there enter the representation of the muscular sensations caused by the movement of the legs, that of the muscular sensations caused by the final movement of the arm, that of the sensations of the semi-circular canals, etc. Besides, we have to make a representation, not of a complexus of simultaneous sensations, but of a complexus of successive sensations, following one another in a determined order, and it is for this reason that I said just now that the intervention of memory is necessary.
We must further observe that, to reach the same point, I can approach nearer the object to be attained, in order not to have to extend my hand so far. And how much more might be said? It is not one only, but a thousand parries I can oppose to. the same danger. All these parries are formed of sensations that may have nothing in common, and yet we regard them as defining the same point in space, because they can answer to the same danger and are one and all of them associated with the notion of that danger. It is the possibility of parrying the same blow which makes the unity of these different parries, just as it is the possibility of being parried in the same way which makes the unity of the blows of such different kinds that can threaten us from the same point in space. It is this double unity that makes t he individuality of each point in space, and in the notion of such a point there is nothing else but this.
The space I pictured in the preceding section, which I might call restricted space, was referred to axes of co-ordinates attached to my body. These axes were fixed, since my body did not move, and it was only my limbs that changed their position. What are the axes to which the extended space is naturally referred – that is to say, the new space I have just defined? We define a point by the succession of movements we require to make to reach it, starting from a certain initial position of the body. The axes are accordingly attached to this initial position of the body.
But the position I call initial may be arbitrarily chosen from among all the positions my body has successively occupied. If a more or less unconscious memory of these successive positions is necessary for the genesis of the notion of space, this memory can go back more or less into the past. Hence results a certain indeterminateness in the very definition of space, and it is precisely this indeterminateness which constitutes its relativity.
Absolute space exists no longer; there is only space relative to a certain initial position of the body. For a conscious being, fixed to the ground like the inferior animals, who would consequently only know restricted space, space would still be relative, since it would be referred to his body, but this being would not be conscious of the relativity, because the axes to which he referred this restricted space would not change. No doubt the rock to which he was chained would not be motionless, since it would be involved in the motion of our planet; for us, consequently, these axes would change every moment, but for him they would not change. We have the faculty of referring our extended space at one time to the position A of our body considered as initial, at another to the position B which it occupied some moments later, which we are free to consider in its turn as initial, and, accordingly, we make unconscious changes in the co-ordinates every moment. This faculty would fail our imaginary being, and, through not having travelled, he would think space absolute. Every moment his system of axes would be imposed on him; this system might change to any extent in reality, for him it would be always the same, since it would always be the unique system. It is not the same for us who possess, each moment, several systems between which we can choose at will, and on condition of going back by memory more or less into the past.
That is not all, for the restricted space would not be homogeneous. The different points of this space could not be regarded as equivalent, since some could only be reached at the cost of the greatest efforts, while others could be reached with ease. On the contrary, our extended space appears to us homogeneous, and we say that all its points are equivalent. What does this mean?
If we start from a certain position A, we can, starting from that position, effect certain movements M, characterised by a certain complexus of muscular sensations. But, starting from another position B, we can execute movements M, which will be characterised by the same muscular sensations. Then let a be the situation of a certain point in the body, the tip of the forefinger of the right hand, for instance, in the initial position A, and let b be the position of this same forefinger when, starting from that position A, we have executed the movements M. Then let a1 be the situation of the forefinger in the position B, and b1 its situation when, starting from the position B, we have executed the movements M1.
Well, I am in the habit of saying that the points a and b are, in relation to each other, as the points a’ and b, and that means simply that the two series of movements M and M1 are accompanied by the same muscular sensations. And as I am conscious that, in passing from the position A to the position B, my body has remained capable of the same movements, I know that there is a point in space which is to the point a’ what some point b is to the point a, so that the two points a and a’ are equivalent. It is this that is called the homogeneity of space, and at the same time it is for this reason that space is relative, since its properties remain the same whether they are referred to the axes A or to the axes B. So that the relativity of space and its homogeneity are one and the same thing.
Now, if I wish to pass to the great space, which is no longer to serve for my individual use only, but in which I can lodge the universe I shall arrive at it by an act of imagination. I shall imagine what a giant would experience who could reach the planets in a few steps, or, if we prefer, what I should feel myself in presence of a world in miniature, in which these planets would be replaced by little balls, while on one of these little balls there would move a Lilliputian that l should call myself. But this act of imagination would be impossible for me if I had not previously constructed my restricted space and my extended space for my personal use.
Now we come to the question why all these spaces have three dimensions. Let us refer to the “distribution board” spoken of above. We have, on the one side, a list of the different possible dangers – let us designate them as A1, A2, etc. – and, on the other side, the list of the different remedies, which I will call in the same way B1, B2, etc. Then we have connections between the contact studs of the first list and those of the second in such a way that when, for instance, the alarm for danger A3 works, it sets in motion or may set in motion the relay corresponding to the parry B4.
As I spoke above of centripetal or centrifugal wires, I am afraid that all I have said may be taken, not as a simple comparison, but as a description of the nervous system. Such is not my thought, and that for several reasons. Firstly, I should not presume to pronounce an opinion on the structure of the nervous system which I do not know, while those who have studied it only do so with circumspection. Secondly, because, in spite of my incompetence, I fully realise that this scheme would be far too simple. And lastly, because, on my list of parries, there appear some that are very complex, which may even, in the case of extended space, as we have seen above, consist of several steps followed by a movement of the arm. It is not a question, then, of physical connection between two real conductors, but of psychological association between two series of sensations.
If A1 and A2, for instance, are both of them associated with the parry B1, and if A1 is similarly associated with B2, it will generally be the case that A2 and B2 will also be associated. If this fundamental law were not generally true, there would only be an immense confusion, and there would be nothing that could bear any resemblance to a conception of space or to a geometry. How, indeed, have we defined a point in space? We defined it in two ways: on the one hand, it is the whole of the alarms A which are in connection with the same parry B ; on the other, it is the whole of the parries B which are in connection with the same alarm A. If our law were not true, we should be obliged to say that A1 and A2 correspond with the same point, since they are both in connection with B1 ; but we should be equally obliged to say that they do not correspond with the same point, since A1 would be in connection with B2, and this would not be true of A2 – which would be a contradiction.
But from another aspect, if the law were rigorously and invariably true, space would be quite different from what it is. We should have well-defined categories, among which would be apportioned the alarms A on the one side and the parries B on the other. These categories would be exceedingly numerous, but they would be entirely separated one from the other. Space would be formed of points, very numerous but discrete; it would be discontinuous. There would be no reason for arranging these points in one order rather than another, nor, consequently, for attributing three dimensions to space.
But this is not the case. May I be permitted for a moment to use the language of those who know geometry already? It is necessary that I should do so, since it is the language best understood by those to whom I wish to make myself clear. When I wish to parry the blow, I try to reach the point whence the blow comes, but it is enough if I come fairly near it. The n the parry B1 may answer to A1, and to A2 if the point which corresponds with B1 is sufficiently close both to that which corresponds with A1 and to that which corresponds with A2. But it may happen that the point which corresponds with another parry B2 is near enough to the point corresponding with A1, and not near enough to the point corresponding with A2. And so the parry B2 may answer to A1 and not be able to answer to A2.
For those who do not yet know geometry, this may be translated simply by a modification of the law enunciated above. Then what happens is as follows. Two parries, B1 and B2, are associated with one alarm A1, and with a very great number of alarms that we Will place in the same category as A1, and make to correspond with the same point in space. But we may find alarms A2 which are associated with B2 and not with B1, but on the other hand are associated with B3, which are not with A1, and so on in succession, so that we may write the sequence B1, A1, B2, A2, B3, A3, B4, A4, in which each term is associated with the succeeding and preceding terms, but not with those that are several places removed.
It is unnecessary to add that each of the terms of these sequences is not isolated, but forms part of a very numerous category of other alarms or other parries which has the same connections as it, and may be regarded as belonging to the same point in space. Thus the fundamental law, though admitting of exceptions, remains almost always true. Only, in consequence of these exceptions, these categories, instead of being entirely separate, partially encroach upon each other and mutually overlap to a certain extent, so that space becomes continuous.
Furthermore, the order in which these categories must be arranged is no longer arbitrary, and a reference to the preceding sequence will make it clear that B2 must be placed between A1 and A2, and, consequently, between B1 and B3, and that it could not be placed, for instance, between B3 and B4.
Accordingly there is an order in which our categories range themselves naturally which corresponds with the points in space, and experience teaches us that this order presents itself in the form of a three circuit distribution board, and it is for this reason that space has three dimensions.
Thus the characteristic property of space, that of having three dimensions, is only a property of our distribution board, a property residing, so to speak, in the human intelligence. The destruction of some of these connections that is to say of these associations of ideas, would be sufficient to give us a different distribution board, and that might be enough to endow space with a fourth dimension.
Some people will be astonished at such a result. The exterior world, they think, must surely count for something. If the number of dimensions comes from the way in which we are made, there might be thinking beings living in our world, but made differently from us, who would think that space has more or less than three dimensions. Has not M. de Cyon said that Japanese mice, having only two pairs of semicircular canals, think that space has two dimensions? Then will not this thinking being, if he is capable of constructing a physical system, make a system of two or four dimensions, which yet, in a sense, will be the same as ours, since it will be the description of the same world in another language?
It quite seems, indeed, that it would be possible to translate our physics into the language of geometry of four dimensions. Attempting such a translation would be giving oneself a great deal of trouble for little profit, and I will content myself with mentioning Hertz’s mechanics, in which something of the kind may be seen. Yet it seems that the translation would always be less simple than the text, and that it would never lose the appearance of a translation, for the language of three dimensions seems the best suited to the description of our world, even though that description may be made, in case of necessity, in another idiom.
Besides, it is not by chance that our distribution board has been formed. There is a connection between the alarm A1 and the parry B1, that is, a property residing in our intelligence. But why is there this connection? It is because the parry B1 enables us effectively to defend ourselves against the danger A1, and that. is a fact exterior to us, a property of the exterior world. Our distribution board, then, is only the translation of an assemblage of exterior facts; if it has three dimensions, it is because it has adapted itself to a world having certain properties, and the most important of these properties is that there exist natural solids which are clearly displaced in accordance with the laws we call laws of motion of unvarying solids. If, then, the language of three dimensions is that which enables us most easily to describe our world, we must not be surprised. This language is founded on our distribution board, and it is in order to. enable us to live in this world that this board has been established.
I have said that we could conceive of thinking beings, living in our world, whose distribution board would have four dimensions, who would, consequently, think in hyperspace. It is not certain, however, that such beings, admitting that,, they were born, would be able to live and defend ‘themselves against the thousand dangers by which they would be assailed.
A few remarks in conclusion. There is a striking contrast between the roughness of this primitive geometry which is reduced to what I call a distribution board, and the infinite precision of the geometry of geometricians. And yet the latter is the child of the former, but not of it alone; it required to be fertilised by the faculty we have of constructing mathematical concepts, such, for instance, as that of the group. It was necessary to find among these pure concepts the one that was best adapted to this rough space, whose genesis I have tried to explain in the preceding pages, the space which is common to us and the higher animals.
The evidence of certain ‘geometrical postulates is only, as I have said, our unwillingness to give up very old habits. But these postulates are infinitely precise, while the habits have about them something essentially fluid. As soon as we wish to think, we are bound to have infinitely precise postulates, since this is the only means of avoiding contradiction. But among all the possible systems of postulates, there are some that we shall be unwilling to choose, because they do not accord sufficiently with our habits. However fluid and elastic these may be, they have a limit of elasticity.
It will be seen that though geometry is not an experimental science, it is a science born in connection with experience; that we have created the space it studies, but adapting it to the world in which we live. We have chosen the most convenient space, but experience guided our choice. As the choice was unconscious, it appears to be imposed upon us. Some say that it is imposed by experience, and others that we are born with our space ready-made. After the preceding considerations, it will be seen what proportion of truth and of error there is – in these two opinions.
In this progressive education which has resulted in the construction of space, it is very difficult to determine what is the share of the individual and what of the race. To what extent could one of us, transported from his birth into an entirely different world, where, for instance, there existed bodies displaced in accordance with the laws of motion of non-Euclidean solids – to what extent, I say, would he be able to give up the ancestral space in order to build up an entirely new space?
The share of the race seems to preponderate largely, and yet if it is to it that we owe the rough space, the fluid space of which I spoke just now, the space of the higher animals, is it not to the unconscious experience of the individual that we owe the infinitely precise space of the geometrician? This is a question that is not easy of solution. I would mention, however, a fact which shows that the space bequeathed to us by our ancestors still preserves a certain plasticity. Certain hunters learn to shoot fish under the water, although the image of these fish is raised by refraction ; and, moreover, they do it instinctively. Accordingly they have learnt to modify their ancient instinct of direction, or, if you will, to substitute for the association A1, B1, another association A1, B2, because experience has shown them that the former does not succeed.