Theology, philosophy, math, science, and random other things

Human laws, natural laws, and the Fourth of July

Have you heard about the time they tried to redefine pi(π) - the mathematical constant - by law? Yes, that really happened. The cherry on top is that the suggested value of pi was not anywhere near the correct value: the bill implied various different values like 3.2 and 4.

Thankfully, the bill never became law, and the story simply ends there. It's told nowadays as just a funny anecdote. But I think this story could be more. I think it could serve as a fable, or a parable - one that may be relevant in our time.

What, exactly, would have been the nature of the legislators' error, if the bill had passed? It would have been hubris. They would have been confusing man's laws with nature's laws. Men - even lawmakers - do not have the power to define mathematical truths, or change the other laws of nature.

That's all well and good, but I think that this principle applies much more broadly, far beyond instances of trying to define pi by law. In fact I think that ALL human laws are like this pi law to some extent. They all attempt to bend or redefine or impose some constraint on the natural laws, to a greater or a lesser degree. A law is considered "good" or "bad" precisely to the degree that it conforms to the natural laws. So, a law that says "pi = 4" is terrible. A law that says "pi = 3.14" is not as bad. A law that says "pi is a irrational number, which is approximately 3.14159" is better still, and may actually be useful if people were inclined to use erroneous values for pi.

You may think that this doesn't apply to laws governing human behavior, but that's not true. Humans are physical beings. We naturally behave in certain predictable ways, according to natural laws which operate independently from any human laws: if you starve us, we die. If you overfeed us, we grow fat. If you put a man and a woman together under the right conditions, we reproduce. And we naturally love the children produced in this way. We do all this in the absence of any externally imposed human laws, in simple obedience to the natural laws.

"So are you saying that we don't need human laws at all, since we only need to follow the natural laws? Wouldn't that lead to the collapse of civilization? Are you an anarchist?" Not at all. We need human laws BECAUSE they help us understand nature's laws. Natural laws are, in general, too far beyond us. They are complicated and difficult to apply correctly for a human. That's why we need human laws, and that's why human laws are good only insofar as they help us apply and conform to nature's laws.

Take the "do not murder" law as an example. The laws of nature say that humans can be killed by subjecting them to certain physical conditions. They also say, in a much more complicated way, that there are severe negative consequences for murdering a human. Some of the possible consequences are a cycle of revenge, grief and ruin for the victim's family, and the destruction of trust and security in society.

Now, it may be that a would-be murderer says "I will kill my victim and take his money. I see no potential downside". He does not understand the natural consequences of his actions. This is where the human law is helpful, for it now steps in and says "Even if you can't understand the natural law that leads to negative consequences, the law passed by other humans makes things clear: if you commit murder, you will be punished". The human law helps this would-be murderer to understand the natural law, or at least allows him to behave as if he did. In this way, human laws are subservient to the natural laws, and derive their legitimacy precisely to the degree that they conform to the natural laws.

Imagine if the law concerning murder was "murder is illegal: you must pay a $10 fine if you commit murder". This is a bad law, precisely because it fails to conform to the natural law: the negative natural consequences of a murder are far great than $10.

On a more mundane level, imagine if the tax law said "you must pay 75% of your income as tax". Again, this is a bad law because it fails to conform to the natural law. Very few people would naturally choose to exchange 75% of their income for the services provided by their government. If the tax rate was instead set at 1%, then the opposite problem arises: very few governments could naturally provide its services to its citizens on 1% of the people's income. This example can get more complicated if we start discussing exactly what services governments should provide, but the fundamental fact remains: even in something as mundane as the tax rate, human laws are subservient to natural laws, and they are only "good" to the degree that they conform to the natural laws.

What I am saying is that we all need a healthy dose of disregard for human laws. But this disregard ought not come from a general disdain for authority, or some sense of cynicism about the world. It is to come from an understanding of the natural law. ALL laws - including ones governing mundane human behavior, like tax rates or speed limits - are like that law that tried to set the value of pi. They are all simply better or worse approximations to the natural law. They have no power to actually change any natural law, but are in fact subservient to it and are judged by it.

This is why the Declaration of Independence appeals to the laws of nature, in stating that the United States must "assume among the powers of the earth, [a] separate and equal station". This was despite the fact that this action was plainly illegal according to the laws of Great Britain. Natural law trumps human laws. "We must obey God rather than men".

This difference between human laws and the natural law can also help us understand the meaning of "freedom" and "tyranny". We are free insofar as we live according to the natural law - God's law. If we deviate from this law due to ignorance, as in the case of the murderer saying "I see no downside to killing", then we are lawless barbarians. On the other hand, if we deviate from the natural law due to human laws, then we live under tyranny.

Now, the Declaration of Independence says some very extreme things about people living under a tyrannical government. It says that "it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security". This is such a dramatic position that I don't think I could have come to call it my own without having read it in the Declaration of Independence. If you don't think this is extreme, think about what it's saying in our context today. Remember that the Declaration of Independence was written after the Revolutionary War had already started, and was written to justify that war. The Declaration is saying that, if the United States government goes bad, it is our duty to take up arms and wage war against it. That we are obligated to pick up our guns, point them at other Americans in uniform, and shoot them to kill them. That we may employ tactics considered "dishonorable" by the American government, as the American revolutionaries employed tactics considered "dishonorable" by the British. That we are not only allowed, but obligated, to do these things to overthrow the government. That this is the just and righteous thing to do - meaning that just being a "good law-abiding citizen" in such times is servile cowardice.

But prudence dictates that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; history has indeed shown that it is so very easy to go wrong in a revolution, that what is heralded as a progressive advancement only turns out to increase suffering and tyranny. So we always have to put up with some difference between human and natural laws. Some degree of legal fiction is necessary, just as it's sometimes necessary to pretend that pi is 3.14, for the sake of convenience.

In today's America, the specter of a revolution is far away. We don't have to think too much about overthrowing the government. This is one of the many ways that God has blessed America. But we must not grow complacent, as if we had some inherent superiority compared to other peoples of the world which prevents our government from going bad. The Fourth of July is a good time to remember some important truths: human law is subservient to natural law. We must obey God rather then men. Tyranny is the failure of human law to conform to natural law. And lastly, in extreme cases of tyranny, we have the righteous duty to rebel, because "good" is not synonymous with "nice".

You may next want to read:
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How is God related to all other fields of study?
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