I. What is a Law of the Land?

Thomas Hobbes thought that in a state of nature there’s “no government at all, except the government of small families, the concord whereof dependeth on natural lust,”  I’m not sure the concord of families, if concord it be called, dependeth on natural lust. More likely it dependeth on the back of the hand. But in any case, things change when we exit the cave and find ourselves dealing with others who are not our own kin. So very early on in our pre-history – perhaps even earlier than where we are today in our physical evolution – we decided our behaviour, and the behaviour of others, stood in need of being governed. And this governance is what we mean by law.

The speed limit is 100. I set my cruise control at 125. If I get caught, maybe once a decade, I just add it to the cost of driving, like insurance or gasoline. In what sense, then, am I being ‘governed’ by the speed limit? Other laws, like those against theft or assault, are such as to be taken more seriously. So ‘governance’ varies with its enforcement. A law that’s not enforced at all isn’t a law. A law that gives one pause is.    

Did law exist before we had reason to impose it? It’s hard to see how. We could allow, as did Hobbes, that there are laws we’d be welladvised to adopt, notwithstanding we’ve yet to do so. But to say that because we’d be well-advised to adopt them these laws already exist, is to say this paper existed before I wrote it because I’d have been well-advised to write it. Well then, perhaps I should have listed it in my last year’s Professional Activities Report instead of waiting until now.

2. What is a Law of Nature?

So laws, in the moral or political sense, are things we make up, or, as often as not, are made for us by those who take themselves to be authorized to do so. But what we call the laws of physics are different. They’re not invented, they’re discovered. That is, if they exist, they‘ve existed from the beginning of time. And they are what they are even if we think they’re other than what they are. They are, we might say, mind-independent.

Well, yes and no. Let’s take closer look.

Because we neither know – nor, says David Hume, can we know – what these laws might be, the best we can do is induce them from what we observe in the physical world around us. But induction is notoriously non-monotonic. Boil a liquid and it becomes a gas, right? Too quick. Boil an egg and its innards turn solid. So we come up with a theory that covers both, and then we add that theory to our laws of nature until further observation reveals we got it wrong. But to say we got it wrong is to suppose we could one day get it right. That there is, as I say, a mind-independent fact of the matter.  

A law of the moral/political kind is prescriptive. Thou shall not kill. A law of nature is descriptive. The force of attraction between objects is the product of their masses divided by the square of the distance between them. But how came these two so different things to both be called ‘law’? By that all-too-common process by which we understand something by subsuming it under something we already understand. What could account for the regularities we find in nature? The same thing that accounts for the regularities we find in our social relations. They’re being commanded, and then enforced, by someone with the authority to do so. To be sure the laws of nature are only metaphorically laws, but then we forget it was only a metaphor. 

That is, we forget that it’s only as if laws of nature are governing the behaviour of physical objects in the same way laws (in the original sense) govern our moral and political behaviour. I slow down when I see the cop parked by the side of the road.  Somewhere in the back of the back of my mind, it’s as if the apple falls to the ground for fear of being fined if it doesn’t. 

But fined by whom?

Hume described our description of causation as being a ‘magical’ power precisely because it invokes an unseeable overseer, an overseer who misses nothing, and will punish with 100% regularity if we, or anyone else, or anything else, attempts to defy any of the laws it’s set down. So in the back of our minds inanimate objects are not inanimate. They’re infused with intentionality. We see the physical world as, to use Charles Taylor’s word, “enchanted”. I pull the apple from the tree because I intend to. How that intention guides my hand is a mystery to me. It’s a mystery to me how an apple falls to the ground. So perhaps it too intends to do so. If magic can be invoked in the one case, why not the other?  

So the purely ‘abstruse’ issue for Hume is not whether there are laws of nature. It’s who, if anyone, or what, if anything, is enforcing those laws. He doesn’t deny there could be such an Enforcer. And clearly you and I think there is. Otherwise how could it be a law? And because we live under this rule of law, we can’t afford to test the Enforcer  of the law of gravity the way I do the speed limit. 

So laws of nature are descriptions of the world which have morphed in our minds into commands. Thou shall not speed. Neither shall a liquid be boiled to a solid. But there’s an interesting difference here. If you do speed, you’re defying the law, not altering it. But if the innards of an egg is boiled to a solid, it’s not defying the law. We’ve just been wrong about what the law is.

This is too quick. Imagine driving by the cop at 125 instead of 100 and invariably doing so with impunity. At what point would it occur to you that you were wrong about the speed limit? So it should come as no surprise the law metaphor has ceased to be just a metaphor. The parallels are just too compelling!

3. So What is a Miracle? 

This analysis has profound implications for our understanding of miracles. If what we thought was a law of nature – for example that dead men stay dead – is being violated, we have no way of knowing whether it is being violated or we’ve just been wrong about what the law is. 

Nor would it help to ask God. Why not? Because He’d be faced with the same ambiguity. Even supposing He makes the law, He’d have no way to distinguish between His having violated a law He’d laid down, and His having changed His mind as to what the law shall be, at least for the duration of the moment in question. If He’d violated His own law, He might let out a triumphant “Ha ha!” But if He’d simply changed the rules, there would have been nothing to feel triumphant about. So when kindergarten Christians proclaim the Resurrection as Christ’s triumph over death, it’s not at all clear what the fuss is all about.

This is what comes of mixing theology with philosophy. Do it if you must, but do it at your peril!

Categories: Philosophy of Religion

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2 replies

  1. In law school we sometimes debated these issues. If the sign beside the highway says “Speed Limit 100 KPH” but we all know that the police won’t pull you over unless you are driving at 120+, what is the speed limit, 100 or 120?

    The question is not “what is the law”, because that raises the further question “as written or as enforced?” The question I have to decide as a driver is: what is the limit I should observe as I drive?


    • Just a pedestrian consideration…there are technological limitations in using radar. My understanding is that the majority of cases of speeding over 16km/h are dismissed in court due to the inaccuracy of the technology. We culturally ‘settle in’ to the technological limitations under which we operate.

      But – of course – that’s not the question at hand. The real question underlying the 3 questions raised is whether there is an inherent “order’ in nature, and is it available to rational inquiry.

      Shouldn’t we be asking the metaphysicians to answer these three questions?


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