Thursday, December 01, 2005

Law - A Disambiguation.

Often times I would here a theist saying: “Laws requires a lawgiver. There exist, what scientists call, laws of nature. Therefore a laws-of-nature-lawgiver exists.” But this is an error in reasoning due largely to a misunderstanding of what a law is. A browsing in wikipedia will enable you to see the different definitions of what a law is. Have a look:

Law or Laws can refer to more than one thing:
  • In human societies, law is a set of norms, which can be seen both in a sociological or in a philosophical or semantic sense.
  • In science, a law of nature, an empirical law or principle, or physical law is a statement that describes regular or patterned relationships among observable phenomena.
  • Laws of logic and mathematics describe the nature of rational thought.
  • Laws of economics and psychology describe the nature of human behavior and interaction.
  • Many adages are popularly known as "laws"; such as Murphy's law.
  • In some Christian denominations, the Old Testament tradition is referred to as the Law, in contrast with the New Testament, which is referred to as the Gospel. More specifically, in Hebrew the first five books of the Tanakh are called the Torah, which means the Law, as distinguished from the sections of the Prophets and the Writings.
  • Items associated with the practice of law are often called "legal," such as "legal paper size."
  • The Laws is a dialogue by Plato.
  • LAWs are light anti-armor rockets used by NATO armies.
Notice the second definition of law. It says there that laws are statements which describe regular or patterned relationships among observable phenomena. The third and fourth definition also mentioned the word “describe”. The laws of nature then are merely a description of reality – not something that is prescribed.

For example, I could describe something I am doing right now and call it “the law of crumpling a piece of wrinkle-free paper” For brevity’s sake I would just call it the “law of paper crumpling”. The law states that every time I clench my hand while holding a wrinkle-free paper, it would result into a crumpled paper. Now, this law was not created in the same manner that the Philippine congress and senate creates laws and ordinances. I merely described an event that I observed to be consistently happening in reality, that is, every time I clench my fist while holding a piece of paper, the paper crumples. In this particular instance, can we reasonably deduced that there exist a supernatural being who created this "law"? Of course not! Nor did I create this “law”. I did not prescribe it. I merely describe what is consistently happening in reality. Even if I prescribed a law wherein the paper would remain not crumpled and wrinkle free, that wouldn’t make it alter reality to give in to my whim. Instead it would remain as it is – crumpling the paper yields to a crumpled paper.

And this is the whole point. To give descriptions of reality and call them "laws" does not necessarily entail that these laws are decreed by a lawgiver. Laws of nature does not need a lawgiver. But nature can have a “nature/reality describer”. And this is what scientists are simply doing - describing patterns and relationships in reality and giving them names such as law of gravity, laws of motion, laws of thermodynamics etc. Laws of nature are not "laws" in the colloquial sense of the word (that is, orders, commands, rules, among others that are formulated, written, and then sanctioned), laws of nature are simply labels to those events which are consistently occurring in the observable reality. They could just as well label it with anything, like "repetitious actions" or "the pesky little nasties that keeps happening over and over again" or "a series of not-so-unfortunate events" or what have you's. It just happens to be conventional to use the term "law of".

It is then important to use terms in their proper context lest we commit a logical fallacy called equivocal confusion. Simply put, this fallacy is the attempt to misuse a particular word that has varying meanings out of proper context. Like in my opening paragraph, the theist mistakenly connected the laws of nature, which are descriptive in nature with the lawgiver, whose laws are prescriptive in nature. It is like me claiming that there is a supernatural lawgiver who prescribed the “Law of Paper Crumpling.”