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. (Read more…) 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.