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An essay on the Foundations of Geometry: Chapter III - Section B, Part III

An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry, by Bertrand Russell is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. The Table of Links for this book can be found here. Chapter III - Section B, Part III: The Axiom of Distance

III. The Axiom of Distance

162. We have already seen, in discussing projective Geometry, that two points must determine a unique curve, the straight line. In metrical Geometry, the corresponding axiom is, that two points must determine a unique spatial quantity, distance. I propose to prove, in what follows, (1) that if distance, as a quantity completely determined by two points, did not exist, spatial magnitude would not be measurable; (2) that distance can only be determined by two points, if there is an actual curve in space determined by those two points; (3) that the existence of such a curve can be deduced from the conception of a form of externality, and (4) that the application of quantity to such a curve necessarily leads to a certain magnitude, namely distance, uniquely determined by any two points which determine the curve. The conclusion will be, if these propositions can be successfully maintained, that the axiom of distance is à priori in the same double sense as the axiom of Free Mobility, i.e. it is presupposed in the possibility of measurement, and it is necessarily true of any possible form of externality.

163. (1) The possibility of spatial measurement allows us to infer the existence of a magnitude uniquely determined by any two points. The proof of this depends on the axiom of Free Mobility, or its equivalent, the homogeneity of space. We have seen that these are involved in the possibility of spatial measurement; we may employ them, therefore, in any argument as to the conditions of this possibility.

Now to begin with, two points must, if Geometry is to be possible, have some relation to each other, for we have seen that such relations alone constitute position or localization. But if two points have a relation to each other, this must be an intrinsic relation. For it follows, from the axiom of Free Mobility, that two points, forming a figure congruent with the given pair, can be constructed in any part of space. If this were not possible, we have seen that metrical Geometry could not exist. But both the figures may be regarded as composed of two points and their relation; if the two figures are congruent, therefore, it follows that the relation is quantitatively the same for both figures, since congruence is the test of spatial equality. Hence the two points have a quantitative relation, which is such that they can traverse all space in a combined motion without in any way altering that relation. But in such a general motion, any external relation of the two points, any relation involving other points or figures in space, must be altered. Hence the relation between the two points, being unaltered, must be an intrinsic relation, a relation involving no other point or figure in space; and this intrinsic relation we call distance

164. It might be objected, to the above argument, that it involves a petitio principii. For it has been assumed that the two points and their relation form a figure, to which other figures can be congruent. Now if two points have no intrinsic relation, it would seem that they cannot form such a figure. The argument, therefore, apparently assumes what it had to prove. Why, it may be asked, should not three points be required, before we obtain any relation, which Free Mobility allows us to construct afresh in other parts of space?

The answer to this, as to the corresponding question in the first section of this chapter, lies, I think, in the passivity of space, or the mutual independence of its parts. For it follows, from this independence, that any figure, or any assemblage of points, may be discussed without reference to other figures or points. This principle is the basis of infinite divisibility, of the use of quantity in Geometry, and of all possibility of isolating particular figures for discussion. It follows that two points cannot be dependent, as to their relation, on any other points or figures, for if they were so dependent, we should have to suppose some action of such points or figures on the two points considered, which would contradict the mutual independence of different positions. To illustrate by an example: the relation of two given points does not depend on the other points of the straight line on which the given points lie. For only through their relation, i.e. through the straight line which they determine, can the other points of the straight line be known to have any peculiar connection with the given pair.

165. But why, it may be asked, should there be only one such relation between two points? Why not several? The answer to this lies in the fact that points are wholly constituted by relations, and have no intrinsic nature of their own. A point is defined by its relations to other points, and when once the relations necessary for definition have been given, no fresh relations to the points used in definition are possible, since the point defined has no qualities from which such relations could flow. Now one relation to any one other point is as good for definition as more would be, since however many we had, they would all remain unaltered in a combined motion of both points. Hence there can only be one relation determined by any two points.

166. (2) We have thus established our first proposition—two points have one and only one relation uniquely determined by those two points. This relation we call their distance apart. It remains to consider the conditions of the measurement of distance, i.e., how far a unique value for distance involves a curve uniquely determined by the two points.

In the first place, some curve joining the two points is involved in the above notion of a combined motion of the two points, or of two other points forming a figure congruent with the first two. For without some such curve, the two point-pairs cannot be known as congruent, nor can we have any test by which to discover when a point-pair is moving as a single figure. Distance must be measured, therefore, by some line which joins the two points. But need this be a line which the two points completely determine?

167. We are accustomed to the definition of the straight line as the shortest distance between two points, which implies that distance might equally well be measured by curved lines. This implication I believe to be false, for the following reasons. When we speak of the length of a curve, we can give a meaning to our words only by supposing the curve divided into infinitesimal rectilinear arcs, whose sum gives the length of an equivalent straight line; thus unless we presuppose the straight line, we have no means of comparing the lengths of different curves, and can therefore never discover the applicability of our definition. It might be thought, perhaps, that some other line, say a circle, might be used as the basis of measurement. But in order to estimate in this way the length of any curve other than a circle, we should have to divide the curve into infinitesimal circular arcs. Now two successive points do not determine a circle, so that an arc of two points would have an indeterminate length. It is true that, if we exclude infinitesimal radii for the measuring circles, the lengths of the infinitesimal arcs would be determinate, even if the circles varied, but that is only because all the small circular arcs through two consecutive points coincide with the straight line through those two points.

Thus, even with the help of the arbitrary restriction to a finite radius, all that happens is that we are brought back to the straight line. If, to mend matters, we take three consecutive points of our curve, and reckon distance by the arc of the circle of curvature, the notion of distance loses its fundamental property of being a relation between two points. For two consecutive points of the arc could not then be said to have any corresponding distance apart—three points would be necessary before the notion of distance became applicable. Thus the circle is not a possible basis for measurement, and similar objections apply, of course, with increased force, to any other curve. All this argument is designed to show, in detail, the logical impossibility of measuring distance by any curve not completely defined by the two points whose distance apart is required. If in the above we had taken distance as measured by circles of given radius, we should have introduced into its definition a relation to other points besides the two whose distance was to be measured, which we saw to be a logical fallacy. Moreover, how are we to know that all the circles have equal radii, until we have an independent measure of distance?

168. A straight line, then, is not the shortest distance, but is simply the distance between two points—so far, this conclusion has stood firm. But suppose we had two or more curves through two points, and that all these curves were congruent inter se. We should then say, in accordance with the definition of spatial equality, that the lengths of all these curves were equal. Now it might happen that, although no one of the curves was uniquely determined by the two end-points, yet the common length of all the curves was so determined. In this case, what would hinder us from calling this common length the distance apart, although no unique figure in space corresponded to it? This is the case contemplated by spherical Geometry, where, as on a sphere, antipodes can be joined by an infinite number of geodesics, all of which are of equal length. The difficulty supposed is, therefore, not a purely imaginary one, but one which modern Geometry forces us to face. I shall consequently discuss it at some length.

169. To begin with, I must point out that my axiom is not quite equivalent to Euclid's. Euclid's axiom states that two straight lines cannot enclose a space, i.e., cannot have more than one common point. Now if every two points, without exception, determine a unique straight line, it follows, of course, that two different straight lines can have only one point in common—so far, the two axioms are equivalent. But it may happen, as in spherical space, that two points in general determine a unique straight line, but fail to do so when they have to each other the special relation of being antipodes. In such a system every pair of straight lines in the same plane meet in two points, which are each other's antipodes; but two points, in general, still determine a unique straight line. We are still able, therefore, to obtain distances from unique straight lines, except in limiting cases; and in such cases, we can take any point intermediate between the two antipodes, join it by the same straight line to both antipodes, and measure its distance from those antipodes in the usual way. The sum of these distances then gives a unique value for the distance between the antipodes.

Thus even in spherical space, we are greatly assisted by the axiom of the straight line; all linear measurement is effected by it, and exceptional cases can be treated, through its help, by the usual methods for limits. Spherical space, therefore, is not so adverse as it at first appeared to be to the à priori necessity of the axiom. Nevertheless we have, so far, not attacked the kernel of the objection which spherical space suggested. To this attack it is now our duty to proceed.

170. It will be remembered that, in our à priori proof that two points must have one definite relation, we held it impossible for those two points to have, to the rest of space, any relation which would be unaltered by motion. Now in spherical space, in the particular case where the two points are antipodes, they have a relation, unaltered by motion, to the rest of space—the relation, namely, that their distance is half the circumference of the universe. In our former discussion, we assumed that any relation to outside space must be a relation of position—and a relation of position must be altered by motion. But with a finite space, in which we have absolute magnitude, another relation becomes possible, namely, a relation of magnitude. Antipodal points, accordingly, like coincident points, no longer determine a unique straight line. And it is instructive to observe that there is, in consequence, an ambiguity in the expression for distance, like the ordinary ambiguity in angular measurement. If 1/k2 be the space constant, and d be one value for the distance between two points, 2πkn ± d, where n is any integer, is an equally good value. Distance is, in short, a periodic function like angle. Thus such a state of things rather confirms than destroys my contention, that distance depends on a curve uniquely determined by two points. For as soon as we drop this unique determination, we see ambiguities creeping into our expression for distance. Distance still has a set of discrete values, corresponding to the fact that, given one point, the straight line is uniquely determined for all other points but one, the antipodal point. It is tempting to go on, and say: If through every pair of points there were an infinite number of the curves used in measuring distance, distance would be able, for the same pair of points, to take, not only a discrete series, but an infinite continuous series of values.

171. This, however, is mere speculation. I come now to the pièce de résistance of my argument. The ambiguity in spherical space arose, as we saw, from a relation of magnitude to the rest of space—such a relation being unaltered by a motion of the two points, and therefore falling outside our introductory reasoning. But what is this relation of magnitude? Simply a relation of the distance between the two points to a distance given in the nature of the space in question. It follows that such a relation presupposes a measure of distance, and need not, therefore, be contemplated in any argument which deals with the à priori requisites for the possibility of definite distances

172. I have now shown, I hope conclusively, that spherical space affords no objection to the apriority of my axiom. Any two points have one relation, their distance, which is independent of the rest of space, and this relation requires, as its measure, a curve uniquely determined by those two points. I might have taken the bull by the horns, and said: Two points can have no relation but what is given by lines which join them, and therefore, if they have a relation independent of the rest of space, there must be one line joining them which they completely determine. Thus James says:

"Just as, in the field of quantity, the relation between two numbers is another number, so in the field of space the relations are facts of the same order with the facts they relate.... When we speak of the relation of direction of two points towards each other, we mean simply the sensation of the line that joins the two points together. The line is the relation.... The relation of position between the top and bottom points of a vertical line is that line, and nothing else."

If I had been willing to use this doctrine at the beginning, I might have avoided all discussion. A unique relation between two points must in this case, involve a unique line between them. But it seemed better to avoid a doctrine not universally accepted, the more so as I was approaching the question from the logical, not the psychological, side. After disposing of the objections, however, it is interesting to find this confirmation of the above theory from so different a standpoint. Indeed, I believe James's doctrine could be proved to be a logical necessity, as well as a psychological fact. For what sort of thing can a spatial relation between two distinct points be? It must be something spatial, and it must, since points are wholly constituted by their relations, be something at least as real and tangible as the points it relates. There seems nothing which can satisfy these requirements, except a line joining them. Hence, once more, a unique relation must involve a unique line. That is, linear magnitude is logically impossible, unless space allows of curves uniquely determined by any two of their points.

173. (3) But farther, the existence of curves uniquely determined by two points can be deduced from the nature of any form of externality. For we saw, in discussing Free Mobility, that this axiom, together with homogeneity and the relativity of position, can be so deduced, and we saw in the beginning of our discussion on distance, that the existence of a unique relation between two points could be deduced from the homogeneity of space. Since position is relative, we may say, any two points must have some relation to each other: since our form of externality is homogeneous, this relation can be kept unchanged while the two points move in the form, i.e., change their relations to other points; hence their relation to each other is an intrinsic relation, independent of their relations to other points. But since our form is merely a complex of relations, a relation of externality must appear in the form, with the same evidence as anything else in the form; thus if the form be intuitive or sensational, the relation must be immediately presented, and not a mere inference. Hence the intrinsic relation between two points must be a unique figure in our form, i.e. in spatial terms, the straight line joining the two points.

174. (4) Finally, we have to prove that the existence of such a curve necessarily leads, when quantity is applied to the relation between two points, to a unique magnitude, which those two points completely determine. With this, we shall be brought back to distance, from which we started, and shall complete the circle of our argument.

We saw, in section A § 119, that the figure formed by two points is projectively indistinguishable from that formed by any two other points in the same straight line; the figure, in both cases, is, from the projective standpoint, simply the straight line on which the two points lie. The difference of relation, in the two cases, is not qualitative, since projective Geometry cannot deal with it; nevertheless, there is some difference of relation. For instance, if one point be kept fixed, while the other moves, there is obviously some change of relation. This change, since all parts of the straight line are qualitatively alike, must be a change of quantity. If two points, therefore, determine a unique figure, there must exist, for the distinction between the various other points of this figure, a unique quantitative relation between the two determining points, and therefore, since these points are arbitrary, between only two points. This relation is distance, with which our argument began, and to which it at least returns.

175. To sum up: If points are defined simply by relations to other points, i.e., if all position is relative, every point must have to every other point one, and only one, relation independent of the rest of space. This relation is the distance between the two points. Now a relation between two points can only be defined by a line joining them—nay further, it may be contended that a relation can only be a line joining them. Hence a unique relation involves a unique line, i.e., a line determined by any two of its points. Only in a space which admits of such a line is linear magnitude a logically possible conception. But when once we have established the possibility, in general, of drawing such lines, and therefore of measuring linear magnitudes, we may find that a certain magnitude has a peculiar relation to the constitution of space. The straight line may turn out to be of finite length, and in this case its length will give a certain peculiar magnitude, the space-constant.

Two antipodal points, that is, points which bisect the entire straight line, will then have a relation of magnitude which, though unaltered by motion, is rendered peculiar by a certain constant relation to the rest of space. This peculiarity presupposes a measure of linear magnitude in general, and cannot, therefore, upset the apriority of the axiom of the straight line. But it destroys, for points having the peculiar antipodal relation to each other, the argument which proved that the relation between two points could not, since it was unchanged by motion, have reference to the rest of space. Thus it is intelligible that, for such special points, the axiom breaks down, and an infinite number of straight lines are possible between them; but unless we had started with assuming the general validity of the axiom, we could never have reached a position in which antipodal points could have been known to be peculiar, or, indeed, a position which would have enabled us to give any quantitative definition whatever of particular points.

Distance and the straight line, as relations uniquely determined by two points, are thus à priori necessary to metrical Geometry. But further, they are properties which must belong to any form of externality. Since their necessity for Geometry was deduced from homogeneity and the relativity of position, and since these are necessary properties of any form of externality, the same argument proves both conclusions. We thus obtain, as in the case of Free Mobility, a double apriority: The axiom of Distance, and its implication, the axiom of the Straight Line, are, on the one hand, presupposed in the possibility of spatial magnitude, and cannot, therefore, be contradicted by any experience resulting from the measurement of space; while they are consequences, on the other hand, of the necessary properties of any form of externality which is to render possible experience of an external world.

176. In connection with the straight line, it will be convenient to discuss the conditions of a metrical coordinate system. The projective coordinate system, as we have seen, aims only at a convenient nomenclature for different points, and can be set up without introducing the notion of spatial quantity. But a metrical coordinate system does much more than this. It defines every point quantitatively, by its quantitative spatial relations to a certain coordinate figure. Only when the system of coordinates is thus metrical, i.e., when every coordinate represents some spatial magnitude, which is itself a relation of the point defined to some other point or figure—can operations with coordinates lead to a metrical result. When, as in projective Geometry, the coordinates are not spatial magnitudes, no amount of transformation can give a metrical result. I wish to prove, here, that a metrical coordinate system necessarily involves the straight line, and cannot, without a logical fallacy, be set up on any other basis. The projective system of coordinates, as we saw, is entirely based on the straight line; but the metrical system is more important, since its quantities embody actual information as to spatial magnitudes, which, in projective Geometry, is not the case.

In the first place, a point's metrical coordinates constitute a complete quantitative definition of it; now a point can only be defined, as we have seen, by its relations to other points, and these relations can only be defined by means of the straight line. Consequently, any metrical system of coordinates must involve the straight line, as the basis of its definitions of points.

This à priori argument, however, though I believe it to be quite sound, is not likely to carry conviction to any one persuaded of the opposite. Let us, therefore, examine metrical coordinate systems in detail, and show, in each case, their dependence on the straight line.

We have already seen that the notion of distance is impossible without the straight line. We cannot, therefore, define our coordinates in any of the ordinary ways, as the distances from three planes, lines, points, spheres, or what not. Polar coordinates are impossible, since,—waiving the straightness of the radius vector—the length of the radius vector becomes unmeaning. Triangular coordinates involve not only angles, which must in the limit be rectilinear, but straight lines, or at any rate some well-defined curves. Now curves can only be metrically defined in two ways: Either by relation to the straight line, as, e.g., by the curvature at any point, or by purely analytical equations, which presuppose an intelligible system of metrical coordinates. What methods remain for assigning these arbitrary values to different points? Nay, how are we to get any estimate of the difference—to avoid the more special notion of distance—between two points? The very notion of a point has become illusory. When we have a coordinate system, we may define a point by its three coordinates; in the absence of such a system, we may define the notion of point in general as the intersection of three surfaces or of two curves. Here we take surfaces and curves as notions which intuition makes plain, but if we wish them to give us a precise numerical definition of particular points, we must specify the kind of surface or curve to be used. Now this, as we have seen, is only possible when we presuppose either the straight line, or a coordinate system. It follows that every coordinate system presupposes the straight line, and is logically impossible without it.

177. The above three axioms, we have seen, are à priori necessary to metrical Geometry. No others can be necessary, since metrical systems, logically as unassailable as Euclid's, and dealing with spaces equally homogeneous and equally relational, have been constructed by the metageometers, without the help of any other axioms. The remaining axioms of Euclidean Geometry—the axiom of parallels, the axiom that the number of dimensions is three, and Euclid's form of the axiom of the straight line (two straight lines cannot enclose a space)—are not essential to the possibility of metrical Geometry, i.e., are not deducible from the fact that a science of spatial magnitudes is possible. They are rather to be regarded as empirical laws, obtained, like the empirical laws of other sciences, by actual investigation of the given subject-matter—in this instance, experienced space.

178. In summing up the distinctive argument of this Section, we may give it a more general form, and discuss the conditions of measurement in any continuous manifold, i.e., the qualities necessary to the manifold, in order that quantities in it may be determinable, not only as to the more or less, but as to the precise how much.

Measurement, we may say, is the application of number to continua, or, if we prefer it, the transformation of mere quantity into number of units. Using quantity to denote the vague more or less, and magnitude to denote the precise number of units, the problem of measurement may be defined as the transformation of quantity into magnitude.

Now a number, to begin with, is a whole consisting of smaller units, all of these units being qualitatively alike. In order, therefore, that a continuous quantity may be expressible as a number, it must, on the one hand, be itself a whole, and must, on the other hand, be divisible into qualitatively similar parts. In the aspect of a whole, the quantity is intensive; in the aspect of an aggregate of parts, it is extensive. A purely intensive quantity, therefore, is not numerable—a purely extensive quantity, if any such could be imagined, would not be a single quantity at all, since it would have to consist of wholly unsynthesized particulars. A measurable quantity, therefore, is a whole divisible into similar parts. But a continuous quantity, if divisible at all, must be infinitely divisible. For otherwise the points at which it could be divided would form natural barriers, and so destroy its continuity.

But further, it is not sufficient that there should be a possibility of division into mutually external parts; while the parts, to be perceptible as parts, must be mutually external, they must also, to be knowable as equal parts, be capable of overcoming their mutual externality. For this, as we have seen, we require superposition, which involves Free Mobility and homogeneity—the absence of Free Mobility in time, where all other requisites of measurement are fulfilled, renders direct measurement of time impossible. Hence infinite divisibility, free mobility, and homogeneity are necessary for the possibility of measurement in any continuous manifold, and these, as we have seen, are equivalent to our three axioms.

These axioms are necessary, therefore, not only for spatial measurement, but for all measurement. The only manifold given in experience, in which these conditions are satisfied, is space. All other exact measurement—as could be proved, I believe, for every separate case—is effected, as we saw in the case of time, by reduction to a spatial correlative. This explains the paramount importance, to exact science, of the mechanical view of nature, which reduces all phenomena to motions in time and space. For number is, of all conceptions, the easiest to operate with, and science seeks everywhere for an opportunity to apply it, but finds this opportunity only by means of spatial equivalents to phenomena

179. We have now seen in what the à priori element of Geometry consists. This à priori element may be defined as the axioms common to Euclidean and non-Euclidean spaces, as the axioms deducible from the conception of a form of externality, or—in metrical Geometry—as the axioms required for the possibility of measurement. It remains to discuss, in a final chapter, some questions of a more general philosophic nature, in which we shall have to desert the firm ground of mathematics and enter on speculations which I put forward very tentatively, and with little faith in their ultimate validity. The chief questions for this final chapter will be two: (1) How is such à priori and purely logical necessity possible, as applied to an actually given subject-matter like space? (2) How can we remove the contradictions which have haunted us in this chapter, arising out of the relativity, infinite divisibility, and unbounded extension of space? These two questions are forced upon us by the present chapter, but as they open some of the fundamental problems of philosophy, it would be rash to expect a conclusive or wholly satisfactory answer. A few hints and suggestions may be hoped for, but a complete solution could only be obtained from a complete philosophy, of which the prospects are far too slender to encourage a confident frame of mind.

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This book is part of the public domain. Bertrand Russell. (1897). AN ESSAY ON THE FOUNDATIONS OF GEOMETRY. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved June 2022, from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/52091/52091-h/52091-h.htm#N162

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