What is Law?

By Robert Bernstein   |   July 15, 2021

“186,000 Miles Per Second. It’s Not Just a Good Idea. It’s The Law.” A friend in grad school at UCSB Physics had this sign on his desk.

Why is this funny? Because we confuse two kinds of laws. Everyday laws are the ones we should not break. Or else we may get a ticket or a fine or even a prison sentence. These are prescriptive laws. They prescribe how we are asked to behave in society.

In contrast, 186,000 miles per second is the speed of light. Einstein showed that no material thing or signal can exceed this speed. It is not that breaking this speed limit will result in a fine or arrest. It is that it is physically impossible to exceed this speed.

He showed this in his Special Theory of Relativity. A “theory” in the scientific sense is not wild speculation. It is something backed up by careful observation as well as a theoretical framework that ties it to other established facts. As in Newton’s “Theory of Gravity.”

In Special Relativity, an object accelerated near the speed of light gets measurably more massive. Meaning that it takes ever more energy to accelerate it to even higher speeds. It would take all the energy in the universe to accelerate a spaceship to something close to the speed of light. (Photons have zero mass so they can go the speed of light.) This difficulty in accelerating even tiny objects to high speed explains why particle accelerators are miles long and use so much energy.

How does this compare with human-made laws? Think about the Ten Commandments, for example. Legend has it that these laws were engraved in stone by an all-powerful God who handed them to Moses. They bear a striking resemblance to laws that already were around.

Ask the average person what those laws are, and they probably don’t really know. They might say, “You know. Don’t steal. Don’t kill.” That is two, not 10. Some of the other Commandments do not even fit with our modern legal system at all.

A few years back I had to be sworn in as a witness in court. I said that I do not believe in any gods. The judge reached under her desk and pulled out a special affirmation for me. That I would tell the truth under penalty of the perjury laws of the State of California. No gods named. Why isn’t that invoked for everyone?

The fact is that people mostly obey laws out of matters of cultural habit and rarely think about threats of penalties. If they do think of penalties, they probably think more of fines and jail than about some mysterious hereafter. Good thing, because Ecclesiastes advises in the Bible “All share a common destiny — the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad.” And that destiny is non-existence. “The dead know nothing; they have no further reward.” No hell or heaven. Just as John Lennon asked us to “Imagine.”

Laws are the rules for operating a society. You could get rid of laws against killing and stealing and it would not violate physics. But societies without such norms are not sustainable.

In most cases laws are made to encode practices that are already in place. Conversely, you may have a brilliant idea for a law, but no lawmaker will try to pass it. Until it is already widely accepted. At which point the law is somewhat redundant.

Sometimes laws are passed without such buy-in. Consider the 15th Amendment, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Neuroscientist Sam Harris is one who believes that it is possible to derive a set of prescriptive laws from descriptive laws. He argues that we know enough about human brains and behavior to make laws for the smooth running of society. We also know enough about the physical world to know that we must stay within the environmental carrying capacity of this planet.

Philosopher David Hume claimed that one cannot derive an ought from an is. But I am with Harris on this. We better learn how to derive prescriptive laws based on descriptive facts. Laws like carbon taxes. Otherwise, our society will be as unsustainable as one that legalizes murder and theft. •MJ


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