§2. Axioms 3


130. The science which, next after logic, may be expected to throw the most light upon philosophy, is mathematics. It is historical fact, I believe, that it was the mathematicians Thales, Pythagoras, and Plato who created metaphysics, and that metaphysics has always been the ape of mathematics. Seeing how the propositions of geometry flowed demonstratively from a few postulates, men got the notion that the same must be true in philosophy. But of late mathematicians have fully agreed that the axioms of geometry (as they are wrongly called) are not by any means evidently true. Euclid, be it observed, never pretended they were evident; he does not reckon them among his {koinai ennoiai}, or things everybody knows,P1) but among the {aitémata}, postulates, or things the author must beg you to admit, because he is unable to prove them. At any rate, it is now agreed that there is no reason whatever to think the sum of the three angles of a triangle precisely equal to 180 degrees. It is generally admitted that the evidence is that the departure from 180 degrees (if there is any) will be greater the larger the triangle, and in the case of a triangle having for its base the diameter of the earth's orbit and for its apex the furthest star, the sum hardly can differ, according to observation, so much as 0.1«. It is probable the discrepancy is far less. Nevertheless, there is an infinite number of different possible values, of which precisely 180 degrees is only one; so that the probability is as 1 to 8 or 0 to 1, that the value is just 180 degrees. In other words, it seems for the present impossible to suppose the postulates of geometry precisely true. The matter is reduced to one of evidence; and as absolute precision [is] beyond the reach of direct observation, so it can never be rendered probable by evidence, which is indirect observation.

131. Thus, the postulates of geometry must go into the number of things approximately true. It may be thousands of years before men find out whether the sum of the three angles of a triangle is greater or less than 180 degrees; but the presumption is, it is one or the other.

132. Now what is metaphysics, which has always formed itself after the model of mathematics, to say to this state of things? The mathematical axioms being discredited, are the metaphysical ones to remain unquestioned? I trow not. There is one proposition, now held to be very certain, though denied throughout antiquity, namely that every event is precisely determined by general laws, which evidently never can be rendered probable by observation, and which, if admitted, must, therefore, stand as self-evident. This is a metaphysical postulate closely analogous to the postulates of geometry. Its fate is sealed. The geometrical axioms being exploded, this is for the future untenable. Whenever we attempt to verify a physical law, we find discrepancies between observation and theory, which we rightly set down as errors of observation. But now it appears we have no reason to deny that there are similar, though no doubt far smaller, discrepancies between the law and the real facts. As Lucretius says,1) the atoms swerve from the paths to which the laws of mechanics would confine them. I do not now inquire whether there is or not any positive evidence that this is so. What I am at present urging is that this arbitrariness is a conception occurring in logic, encouraged by mathematics, and ought to be regarded as a possible material to be used in the construction of a philosophical theory, should we find that it would suit the facts. We observe that phenomena approach very closely to satisfying general laws; but we have not the smallest reason for supposing that they satisfy them precisely.


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