Laws Of Man And Laws Of Nature

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Marcelo Gleiser philosophizes on how the laws of man and the laws of naure differ. via NPR

We humans are an unruly bunch. So much so that we need laws to keep order, to make sure we stay on track. Without our laws, society would quickly descend into chaos. The laws of man are guarantors of order, a necessary control against the inherent greediness of our species.

Nature, on the other hand, shows ordered patterns at all scales: trees branch, and so do rivers, bodies, and arteries; tides and planetary orbits are periodic, day follows night, the seasons alternate, the moon has phases. The display of order in Nature allowed for a methodic counting and organizing as a means to gain some level of control over what was otherwise distant and unapproachable, the marching patterns of a world moving in ways beyond human reach.

The laws of Nature, from the simplest to the most complex, are attempts to summarize this widespread display of order. They are discovered from repeated observation and often allow for a concise mathematical expression. Sometimes laws are deduced from mathematics, as if we could divine Nature’s secret patterns. Physicists are fond of saying that the simplest laws with the most explanatory power are the most elegant or beautiful. A favorite example is the law of conservation of energy (or, even better, of energy and momentum), or of electric charge: in every interaction between bodies of matter, the total energy is the same before and after, and the total electric charge is the same before and after. Even if these laws are approximations (as are any physical laws), in the sense of being the results of measurements of finite precision, we haven’t seen any indication of a departure yet.

The laws of Nature are very different from the laws of man. While the laws of man seek to order and control individual and social behavior so as to make communal life less risky, the laws of Nature are deduced from long-term observation of repeatable patterns and trends. While the laws of man may vary from culture to culture, based as they are on moral values that lack universal standards, the laws of Nature aim at universality, at uncovering behaviors that are true — in the sense of being verifiable — across time and space. Thus, while certain cultural trends that are accepted in one group may seem barbaric to others (such as female circumcision), stars across the Universe have been burning according to the same rules since they’ve first appeared some 200 million years after the Big Bang. Likewise, while in some countries the death penalty is abhorrent and in others it is exercised withalmost fanatical zest, atoms and molecules across trillions of planets and moons in this and other galaxies combine and recombine in chemical reactions that follow patterns of order based on well-defined laws of conservation and of attraction and repulsion.

The variation in the laws of man shows that we know little of ourselves and of what are, or should be, truly universal moral standards. On the other hand, the apparent certainty of the natural laws seem to confer a sense of trust and finality to the laws of Nature that has inspired many a movement to use them as a basis for all laws, including the laws of man. The Enlightenment, of course, is a well-known example. Fortunately, the quantum revolution of the early twentieth century was quick to show that the overconfidence of a clockwork determinism was greatly exaggerated; there is uncertainty in the Universe and any hope of making physics into an oracle is doomed to fail.

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  • Rhoid Rager

    Marcelo Gleiser is confused. There are no ‘laws of man’. There are simply individuals who hold world views that closely align with those people whom they associate with for fun or for survival. ‘Objective laws of men’ are a ruse to inspire people to conform. That’s all they have ever been. This is why civil disobedience is as frightening to those that attempt to manipulate others through persuasion or coercion (aka TPTB) as it is. Read some Thoreau, or Gandhi, or Bakunin and you will see what civil disobedience actually is. It’s a statement of the free will of the individual, and that statement resonates so widely because we are individuals.

    Order naturally occurs. It does not need an exterior force to impose it. In contrast, the ‘order’ that the ‘laws of man’ induces is analogous to what we would know to be chaos–namely, the unflinching destruction of our life-supporting biosphere; the mass insanity of collective violence referred to aseptically as ‘war’; and, the constant state of fear we are burdened with through the bombardment of our senses with dizzying amounts of information on complex risks/dangers. These are just a sampling of the self-eviscerating thoughtlessness that arises when we believe that there are actually objective ‘laws of man’. Think for yourselves!

    • echar

      I do what I want!

    • flipdog

      Absolutely right. Laws of nature/physics/what have you implies there’s some kind of celestial parliament and consequent enforcement agency, patrolling the galaxy looking for delinquent matter. ‘Hey Saturn – you violated your orbit by 3% more than is acceptable, it’s off to the courts with you!’

      I don’t know whether its simply limitations of language that makes us use the same word for both or whether there was a conscious attempt to make constraints on human free will seem equivalent to the naturally occurring order of the external world.

      • Rhoid Rager

        Exactly. I don’t think it is any inherent limitations of language; it’s sociological. Referring to something as a ‘law’ is now associated with some sort of legitimacy that’s derived from some absolute that we can’t imagine as layman. In essence, it’s made untouchable. Utterly ridiculous. Our condition of mass hypnosis by abstract concepts like this is every science fiction dystopianists wet dream. All the great classics clamour to mimic this inversed reality we live in…none of them quite approach its subtlties–but not well read enough to claim that unequivocably. :P

        The idea of a ‘natural law’ actually contradicts what the scientific establishment’s late hero–Karl Popper–wrote about falsification. The idea of something being a ‘law’ insinuates its universal nature, and that’s something that has been kicked against all the way back to David Hume’s black swan argument against induction. Induction is an illusion that we hold fast to to make sense of the world for our fleeting time in it. What a wretched legacy to pass on to our children!

      • Rhoid Rager

        Exactly. I don’t think it is any inherent limitations of language; it’s sociological. Referring to something as a ‘law’ is now associated with some sort of legitimacy that’s derived from some absolute that we can’t imagine as layman. In essence, it’s made untouchable. Utterly ridiculous. Our condition of mass hypnosis by abstract concepts like this is every science fiction dystopianists wet dream. All the great classics clamour to mimic this inversed reality we live in…none of them quite approach its subtlties–but not well read enough to claim that unequivocably. :P

        The idea of a ‘natural law’ actually contradicts what the scientific establishment’s late hero–Karl Popper–wrote about falsification. The idea of something being a ‘law’ insinuates its universal nature, and that’s something that has been kicked against all the way back to David Hume’s black swan argument against induction. Induction is an illusion that we hold fast to to make sense of the world for our fleeting time in it. What a wretched legacy to pass on to our children!

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