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Posts Tagged ‘descriptive law’

In the thirteenth century, Western Europe rediscovered the teachings of ancient Greece. Two friars played a lead role in this: the Dominican Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) and the Franciscan Roger Bacon (1214/1220 –1292).  Aquinas combined the teaching of Aristotle with Christianity. His teachings became the orthodoxy in both Christianity and natural philosophy until the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century. Aquinas took Aristotle as an authority and, in turn, was taken as an authority by those who followed him. To some extent this has continued down to the present day, at least in the Catholic Church. The scientific revolution was, to a large extent, the overturning of Aristotelian philosophy as repackaged by Aquinas.

Bacon took a different track and extracted something different from the study of Aristotle. This something different was an early version of the scientific method. He applied mathematics to describe observations and advocated using observation to test models. Bacon described a repeating cycle of observation, hypothesis, experimentation, and the need for independent verification.  Bacon was largely ignored and, unlike Aquinas, was not declared a saint. Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642), if not directly influenced by Bacon, was in many ways following his tradition, both in his use of mathematics and in stressing the importance of observations. The difference between Aquinas and Bacon is the contrast between the appeal to authority and the finding out for oneself. In this contest, the appeal to authority lost rather decisively, but it was a long tough fight. People generally prefer a given answer, even if it is wrong, to the tough process of extracting the correct answer.

In spite of all that, appeal to authority is frequently necessary. The legal system in most democracies, for example, is based on the idea of appeal to authority. The parliament may make the laws but it is the courts that decide on what they mean.  Frequently, the courts even have the authority to override laws based on the constitution. This is true in many countries but most famously in the United States of America. In these countries, what the Supreme Court says, is the law. What a law actually means is commonly a matter of interpretation as evidenced by split decisions where one judge holds one opinion and another judge the opposite. Perhaps the interpretations are even arbitrary as they sometimes change over time despite the authority given to precedence. But a decision is required and there is no objective criteria, so the majority rules.

Now, it is worth commenting that that laws of nature and laws of man are completely different beasts and it is unfortunate that they are given the same name. The so called laws of nature are descriptive. They describe regularities that have been observed in nature.  They have no prescriptive value. In contrast, the laws of man are prescriptive, not descriptive. Certainly, the laws against smoking marijuana are not descriptive in British Columbia, neither were the laws against drinking during US prohibition. The laws describe what the government thinks should happen with prescribed punishments for those who disobey. However, there is no penalty for breaking the law of gravity because, as far as we know, it can’t be done. If someone actually did it, it would cease to be a law and there would be a Nobel Prize, not a penalty.  Like the laws of man, the laws of God—for example, the Ten Commandments—are prescriptive, not descriptive, with penalties given for breaking them. You can break the law of man and the laws of God, but not the laws of physics.

In science, things are different than in the courts of law. In the latter, we are concerned with the meaning of a law that some group of people have written. This, by its very nature, has a subjective component. In science, we are trying to discover regularities in how the universe operates. In this, we have the two objective criteria: parsimony and the ability to make correct predictions for observations. As pointed out in the previous post, idolizing a person is a mistake, even if that person is Isaac Newton. Appeal to observation trumps appeal to a human authority, but in the short term, even in science, appeal to a human authority is often necessary. Life is too short and the amount to know too large to discover it all for oneself. Thus, one relies on authorities. I consult the literature rather than trying to do experiments myself. We consult other people for expertise that we do not have ourselves. We rely on the collective wisdom of the community as reflected in the published literature. When we require decisions, we must rely on the proximate authorities of peers in a process called peer review. This process is relied on to maintain the collective wisdom and will be discussed in more detail in the next post.  In the meantime, we conclude this post by paraphrasing William Lyon McKenzie King[1] (1874 –1950): Appeal to authority if necessary but not necessarily appeal to authority.

Additional posts in this series will appear most Friday afternoons at 3:30 pm Vancouver time. To receive a reminder follow me on Twitter: @musquod.


[1] The longest serving Canadian Prime Minister.

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