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Erwin Biser 1941 Discrete Real Space. The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 38, No. 19 (Sep. 11, 1941), pp.




pRIOR to the coming of the relativity theory, space was regarded as the prerequisite for the possibility of motion, and as that in which bodies have position. It was considered as being made up of points. The fact that nobody has ever seen a point, just as nobody has ever perceived an instant, did not matter. Space for the physicists and for some philosophers did not contain material bodies, nor was it made up of them; at best it served as a receptacle for them, something extrinsic to physical bodies. It could exist apart from physical entities and had all the characteristics of a ready-made void without which bodies could not co-exist, nor occupy positions. The physicist, primarily interested in relations, identified space with his theory concerning it; space was nothing more than a geometry, it was exhausted by the relations exhibited in formal statements. In reducing space to the possibility of relations-relations of occupancy-he called upon the mathematician to supply him with multi-dimensional formal geometries. That the relativity theory in its general and special aspects effected a radical transformation of our concepts of space, is now accepted without dispute; but it still left many of the older notions intact. True it is, it identified space and matter by equating the "curvature tensor" to the "energy tensor," apart from a universal proportionality factor. But this is done vicariously, since it is a far cry from the highly refined concepts, such as energy and curvature tensors, to physical entities or, for that matter, to bodies of our ordinary experience. Then, too, no absolute significance is attached to either space or time, but only to the intermingling of the two. Relativity leaves open the possibility of empty space, as when we speak in the special theory of space free of matter. It is for this reason that I shall refer to such space, as dealt with by the physicist, as abstract, geometrical, or symbolic space, i.e., the possibility of relating bodies with respect to each other by means of a formal theory. Let us now turn to the properties of real space, the space engendered by physical bodies; it is sometimes referred to as actual or ontological space. 1. Our point of departure is that the physical world consists of a multiplicity of interacting entities. These are complexes of energy intensities which are ultimate in nature. Space and physical entity are inextricably intertwined, each presupposing the other; there is no space apart from the physical entities, and no physical ac1 Read at the meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association, University of Pennsylvania, December, 1940.



tualities without space. Space is not an extrinsic container in which an entity is housed; it is part and parcel of the very entity itself, since the very being of space is wholly due to the existence of entities. Thus space is the voluminosity of a physical entity, denoting filling and content. It is intrinsic to a physical actuality, since the extension of a body belongs to that body of its own right. In other words, space is co-intensive with the physical body (to use the term "coextensive" would be redundant). It is not necessary that there be more than one body for space to exist. If there were only one physical entity in the world, there would still be space, since the latter is contentual and the entity has extension of its own right; it does not need other bodies to create its voluminosity. 2. Space is not to be looked upon as a field in which bodies can move. Such a view is reminiscent of pre-relativistic philosophy, according to which space was a void in which material bodies could move, and which could exist apart from them. There are no empty spatial regions because there are no vacuous entities, as is well known from the writings of A. N. Whitehead; and apart from entities there is no space-all entities being complexes of energy intensities. Motion of bodies is possible because there is a thinning out and decrease of these intensities; this also serves to define the boundaries of bodies with respect to each other. It is highly regrettable that the grammatical structure of our language is quite inappropriate to the conception of space as voluminosity. We usually speak of a spatial region as that in which a body is contained. To do so, however, is to presuppose that there is a readymade immutable space and a ready-made body both of which somehow manage to fit one another. It would be more in keeping with our view to say that a physical entity is its space, just as for similar reasons a particle is defined as a geodesic according to relativity theory. 3. Relative to the human perspective, entities are three-dimensional.2 This by no means implies that the three-dimensional aspect of bodies is subjective and therefore illusory because of our perspective. It is just as objective as the other features and properties of bodies apprehended through our bodily selective organs. To state that no entity can be physical unless it be three-dimensional, is really a definition of a physical entity. Hence there are no extensive relations apart from the physical world, and vice versa. When we say that a body is three-dimensional, it is to be understood in both the qualitative and quantitative sense. An actual body,
2 See by the same author A General Schema for Natural Systems, Westbrook Pub. Co., Philadelphia, 1938.



hence an actual region, is a qualitative whole, it has immediacies of qualities not commensurate with nor exhausted by geometrical relations. Macroscopic bodies can be "felt" visually, tactually, and kinesthetically. Our position is that the physical world is streaked with qualities; these permit the selection of structures conducive to metrical relations. We hold this view in order to obviate the notorious procedure of splitting nature into two antithetical realms: that of quality attributed to mind, consciousness, and feeling; and that of quantity ascribed to matter and motion. Once such a split is effected no dialectical sleight of hand, not even a deus ex machina, can weld the two realms, much less to have one fructify the other. 4. There are no point-bodies, hence no points; the latter are abstractions in the literal meaning of the term, and as such they enjoy only a dialectical status, not that of metaphysical primacy. They are not ultimate in nature; at best they are to be understood as ideal entities instrumental and fruitful in mathematical as well as in physical theory. Points may be derived either by some method of abstraction devised by A. N. Whitehead and N. Wiener, or recourse may be had to the number-continuum. No physical entity shrinks to a point. The non-existence of points in real space has a definite bearing on the fact that bodies can not be subdivided indefinitely and that there are limits to such division. This is the basis of the notion of quanta of extension to be taken up subsequently. 5. Each entity, and therefore each region, as a qualitative whole, is undivided; it is a definite unit and has definite volume and size. The entity and its dimensions are perspectivized differently by observers according to the state of relative rest or of relative motion of their respective reference systems. However, since time does not enter into these reflections, we are considering the world from a static point of view. The physical world is atomized by these unit-wholes. Though undivided in its organic wholeness, an entity is divisible into a finite number of subordinate entities. Since this number is finite and there are no points and no empty regions, there is a lower limit below which an entity can not be further subdivided and still possess physical actuality. This irreducible quantum of voluminous extension of a physical entity I call a quantumcell, or simply a cell. Thus a region consists of a finite number of cells and the volume of a region equals to a constant times the volume of its quantum-cell. Spaces satisfying these conditions are said to be discrete. The theory concerning the physical world as propounded in this paper is that of a cellular continuum atomized by the undivided



physical entities and quantized by the cells that serve as irreducible subdivisions of these entities. The cellular discreteness of the physical world does away with the notion of indefinite divisibility for actual entities, a source of many philosophical quarrels. This notion is not an ultimate category of nature, since points are derivative constructs and are therefore relegated to the status of an instrumental and intellectual function. There is an important ambiguity to be cleared up as regards the irreducibility of the cell.3 The volume of a cell is not a rigid, immutable constant, enduring throughout all time and environments. On the contrary, it is subject to variations, depending on the stability or modification of the external environment, since an entity does not exist apart from its environment. But the cell may still be regarded as irreducible, for, given a specific determinate stable environment of an entity, there will be a corresponding irreducible constant volume of its cell. It was stated previously that an entity is divisible into a finite number of subordinate entities called cells. This, however, does not mean that a physical entity is simply the arithmetical sum of aggregational units. Such a statement would be palpably false not only in the case of living organisms but even in the realm of physical theory. A system of two atoms is not the arithmetical addition of two isolated atoms; its properties are not those of each taken in isolation from the other and added up. An entity, to be sure, is an oversummative whole; these reflections, however, are not concerned with the organismic aspects of the physical world. Discreteness, which has assumed great significance with the coming of the quantum theory in physics, is not to be thought of as incompatible with continuity. There are no lacunae, because there are no vacuous entities; and between any two regions there is at least another filled with entities, unless these be contiguous. The physical world presents a solid continuum of atomic regions each quantized by cells. There is no empty betweenness; the regions overlap or are contiguous end to end. Each region is continuous with any other by a successive chain of intermediate contiguous or overlapping regions. 6. Discreteness and the Uncertainty Relations.-Thus far the doetrine of cellular actuality concerned itself primarily with actual physical entities. The formal conditions of discreteness, however, can be abstracted from actual regions and be profitably applied to such "space" known as the phase-space of physics. This space is
3 I am indebted to Professors F. C. Northrop and P. Weiss for the critical remarks and the interesting discussion of the paper, and especially to the latter for the invaluable suggestions and revisions of form and content.



not real or actual, it does not contain bodies, nor does it consist of entities. Furthermore, it is not apprehended by our senses, nor is it given to our immediate sense-perception; it is a formalized system whose elements are the positions and momenta of physical bodies. It is not, however, as fictitious as is commonly supposed. According to well-known principles of dynamics a mechanical system completely isolated from its environment and possessing n degrees of freedom is fully determined by the numerical values of 2n coordinates, the n spatial coordinates and the corresponding momenta. (Momentum is mass times velocity.) The system is said to evolve as some or all of these coordinates take on different values with time. Since it is composed of spatial coordinates and their corresponding momenta, which can be directly deduced, this space may be looked upon as an n-dimensional space, by grouping the positions and momenta in pairs. Let us now recapitulate the conditions of discreteness of actual regions in order to apply them to this abstract system. They are as follows: (1) there are no points, (2) a region is divisible into a finite number of cells of voluminous extension, alnd (3) a cell is an irreducible quantum of extension, below which an entity can not be further subdivided without losing its actuality. Thus, according to the cellular hypothesis, a region of phase-space is divisible into a finite number of cells, there being no points. The volume of each of these irreducible cells for one dimensional phase-space is equal to the elementary quantum of action, known as Planck's constant. It has the dimensions of energy multiplied by time. The fundamental quantum of action is thus seen to be the volume of a one-dimensional cell of phase-space. (Action is momentum multiplied by distance; the total action of a dynamical system is obtained by summing up over the small distances covered by the system. There is a definite value of energy corresponding to each value for the action of a body.) It will be recalled that in the earlier portion of this paper voluminosity was emphasized as one of the cardinal features of space; here we have an instance of the quantitative aspects of voluminosity associated with phase-cells having a great bearing on the development of quantum physics. It was the irreducible value of Planck's constant h that formed the essence of the early quantum hypothesis, the fact that action could take on only discrete finite values brought to focus the discrete character of quantum phenomena. (Planck discovered the universal constant h as a result of theoretical and experimental researches in the domain of incandescent radiation. Whereas, according to classical theory, emission and



absorption of radiation took place continuously, i.e., the action of the system could take on any arbitrary positive value, the quantum theory proposes that these possible values for the action are discrete integral numbers, and the transition between energy states is "jumpy," not continuous. We have in mind the early quantum theory; subsequent research showed these integral values to be inadequate.) It would be highly gratuitous and misleading to suppose that Planck's constant was deduced from purely philosophical considerations about real space. Let us pause to recapitulate the procedure adopted in the preceding inquiry: We started out with the dominant concept of cell, the irreducible chunk of extension into which an actual body is divisible. This was seen to be a pervasive trait of the physical world. Then the formal conditions of discreteness of real entities was applied to the abstract space known as the phase-space of physics. This space is of such structure that the volume of a one-dimensional cell is the universal constant h, whose dimensions are elnergy multiplied by time. This procedure should be construed as the application of dominant generic traits, such as the cellular character of the physical world, to a specific domain of fact. 7. An Interpretation of the Uncertainty Relations.-One of the most significant implications of the cellular hypothesis, and one very fruitful in the interpretation of physical theory, is the intimate connection between the conditions of discreteness and the celebrated Heisenberg principle of indeterminacy. This principle is exhibited through the uncertainty relations; it states that it is impossible to obtain a simultaneous knowledge of position and momentum of a particle through direct measurement. It is our contention that these uneertainty relations are implicitly contained in the conditions of discreteness of phase-space, i.e., in its being partitioned into cells. One of the quantum conditions of discreteness is that the volume of a one-dimensional region is k times the volume of a cell, k being a constant and the volume of a cell being equal to h, Planck's constant. Thus the product of positioln and momentum is greater than or equal to h, but never less than h. We may look upon a region of phase-space as the product of the possible range of values of position multiplied by the possible ranige of values of momentum. Let us consider the uncertainty principle: accordilng to it the product of the uncertainties of position and momentum for one degree of freedom is of the order of magnitude of Planck's constant. Thus the quantizing condition of our space has the same import and form as the uncertainty relations. Both show how the dimensions and



partitioning of cell-space are connected with the possible ranges of position and momenta. If, however, the quantum requirements of the space under consideration have the same significance and form as the uncertainty relations, then the latter are as fundamental as the discreteness of phase-space. They are not due merely to the inadequacy of our observation or the fallibility of our concepts; these relations hold only because phase-space is discrete. For on the supposition that Planck's constant decreases indefinitely, i.e., the volume of the cell takes on arbitrarily small values below the admissible minimum, the uncertainty relations would disappear and the quantum theory would degenerate into classical science. It would follow from our reflections that the laws of quantum mechanics exhibit fundamental linkages in nature and that the uncertainty relations represent something very fundamental. The formulation of these is independent of the disturbance produced by the act of measurement, and the indeterminacy is not to be attributed to the perturbation incident to the process of observation. As evidence of this view, one may cite the intimate connection of the uncertainty principle with the phenomena of radio-active disintegration-these natural processes are surely independent of the act of measurement.4 The simplest and most popular way of demonstrating the uncertainty relations is by way of determining the position of a partidle viewed under a microscope. This method, however, gives the erroneous impression that these uncertainties are due to our clumsiness or to our ignorance of the intricate details involved in measurement, and not to something fundamental and real. We are, for instance, ignorant of the angle under which collision takes place between the photon and electron. But the following points are usually lost sight of: (a) Planck's constant h never fails to appear in the expression of the uncertainty of momentum; and this is because of Einstein's theory of photo-electric effect known before Heisenberg's uncertainty relations. Thus the perturbation of the momentum and the recoil of the photon are themselves quantum phenomena. (b) The uncertainty relations can be derived theoretically by the matrix method; they are implicitly contained in the commutation rules for matrices. These rules can be shown to be equivalent to Bohr's quantizing conditions for stable energy levels. (c) Bohr's quantizing conditions, however, are subsumed under those of discreteness of phase-space; and the experimentally verified stable energy-levels can not be ascribed to the fallibility of our concepts.
4 Kennard, Phys. Zeitsch., Vol. 30, pp. 495-497.



Thus the connection between the uncertainty relations and the discreteness of the space is shown to be very intimate, making the former as fundamental as the latter. The wide range of applicability and flexibility of the quantum principles as shown by their extension to the problem of specific heat for solids and gases at low temperature, photo-electric phenomena, and photo-chemical reactions show the pervasive existence of quanta or cells in nature. Quantum laws are presupposed by our instruments and observation. In fact we ourselves obey quantum requirements in a very intimate way; our very acts, our thoughts, the organic phases of our thinking involve definite quanta of time and energy.

BOOK NOTES The Genesis of Plato's Thought. ALBAN DEWES WINSPEAR. New York: The Dryden Press, Inc. 1940. vii + 348 pp. $3.00. This book is a continuation of Who was Socrates? written by Professor Winspear and Mr. Tom Silverberg, and it contains many of the same virtues and faults as the earlier book. It is essentially an attempt to interpret Plato's philosophy and the work of his predecessors in the light of their social, economic, and political background. The author commences with the Homeric age and traces the major social changes in Greece down to the end of the fifth century B.C., with special emphasis on the rise of the landowning aristocracy, the origin of the merchant class, and the growth of slavery. Against this background he depicts the change in religious and social ideas, portraying the Delphic Apollo as the mainstay of the aristocracy, Hermes as the god of the merchants, and Athena as the patrolness of the city, whose function it was to unite these two groups. The theme of justice is traced throughout this history as it changes from the notion of custom, "what is done," to a more remote, divine conception, representing what ought to be but is not, the court of appeal of the disfranchised groups, whose literary mouthpiece is Hesiod. The Pre-Socratic philosophers are divided into two groups oln the basis, largely, of their political programs or affiliations, the conservatives, including the Pythagoreans and the Eleaties, and the progressives, including everyone else, the Ionian physicists, the medical writers, and the Sophists. Mr. Winspear connects the Pythagorean number-theory with the conservative political activity, as others have before him, but he makes the connection so