girl ipsa loquitur: A Post in Which I Ponder Turtles & The Universe Email me!

Friday, December 03, 2004

A Post in Which I Ponder Turtles & The Universe

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In our constitutional law class we have been engaged in discussion about where our laws flow from. The United States Constitution is the "supreme law of the land", it says so right in there with that supremacy clause. But the question remains? Says who?

The religious, or metaphysical, underpinnings of our laws are undeniable. This is one of the reasons that we are having such trouble, as a country, unweaving the religious-moral threads from the fabric of our laws. (I am not suggesting that we are required to do this, or even that it is desirable, only that we are engaged in that process to one extent or another right now)

For instance, when asked to articulate a rationale for the abolition of slavery, most people have no trouble. But when boiled down it all flows to the inherent wrongness or rightness of certain things, which seems to suggest that things are just wrong or right at some fundamental level which we accept with out question. That core principle just IS. We accept it and then build up on it but never bend down to look underneath. What holds that up?

There is a bit of lore which comes to mind and has been retold like this:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy.

At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise."

The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?"

"You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down."

The world is balanced on the shell of a giant turtle. It is the turtle which holds us up (or Atlas, I suppose). And beneath that is the next turtle. And so on. Forever. Does it matter what you put in the place of the turtle?

I posited in class that the answer to this question (What is the basis of our law if not divine command?) is "It comes from us. From human beings. We decided. We commanded it and now we comply." This is very dissatisfactory. With this answer there isn't even a turtle. This answer leaves us suspended in space and standing on nothing!

If we are the ultimate basis of our own laws and our own morals and our own frameworks then we are like Wile E. Coyote when the Acme Rocket Shoes fail -- suspended in a moment of anti-gravity equilibrium between assent and plummet -- just waiting for the fall to begin. We can not hold our own selves up.

So, I don't believe that we will ever divorce ourselves from the supernatural explanations for what holds stuff up. Nor do I believe that we have to. We are clever, as a group, we humans. We will be able to strike a balance where we are (judicially speaking, our private lives are just that - private) making the right decisions and finding non-religious based reasons to support them. And the occasional interjection of inherent wrong or rightness, supported by divine command, will work to better us in the end. We abolished slavery not because it was wrong in the law, or wrong in fact, but because it was wrong inherently to deny the humanity of another human.

Also of interest to me is the boundary of this model, that each thing supports the next. It is very linear. Most things in the law are linear. History is linear. Even the creation story is linear. Yet there are no satisfactory stopping places in the linear model. That's why the turtles go all the way down. But down to where?

In celebration of this basic question I'd like to introduce you to I Zwicky 18 a Baby Galaxy. We stooped, for a moment to look underneath, but lets now stand and look out (I say OUT and not UP in rejection of the linear) to the universe. It is not linear. It is circular, orbital, spiraling and expanding ever outward. It is in a constant state of pushing out and pulling back in which each thing exerts such a force on the others that we all hold our own selves up.

Ponder that.


Blogger The Zero Boss said...

I've also heard that story told about William James and Ralph Waldo Emerson. One of these days, I'm going to figure out whether it really happened to any of them.

12:12 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

"It is circular, orbital, spiraling"

Not exactly, we can't see the edges of the universe, so we aren't really sure of it's overall shape.

On the whole, I was quite impressed with this post. The idea of morality coming from inside instead of from without (i.e. some supernatural source) is a very hard to hold idea, yet there have been many people who have done so. They base the idea on the "fact" that there are certain inherently good moral ideas. You, yourself, give nod to that idea by stating "it was wrong inherently to deny the humanity of another human." However, you also say that "We can not hold our own selves up." These two statements can be seen as mutually exclusive, and I belive, they often are.

I believe the argument runs something like this:

Assuming that I am a person who moralizes through self instead of through religion or anything else. My first thought would be that anything that hurts me is bad or evil. Upon learning that there are other people, and that with those other people I can do things that I could not do on my own. Because of this, I realize that the things that hurt me can also hurt other people, and therefore, they are bad for everyone.

This is the recognition of the importance of humanity, through self. No spiritual or supernatural involvement. It is entirely self-supported.

2:30 PM  
Blogger Nominal Me said...

I'm starting to think that most things in life come from common sense, which has a force and an inertia all of its own.

As for science, as I've recently written in my blog, it is trying to figure out if Pluto is a planet right now. We are no closer to the ultimate answer on things now than when we began.

6:12 PM  
Blogger Girl Ipsa said...

Hi Greg,

Just want to point out that the idea that something is inherently wrong and the idea that we can not hold our own selves up are not mutually exclusive ideas. The inherent nature of something may be as good an indication of divine command as I've heard.

Also, just so I am clear, I am not suggesting that I personally believe that we can not hold our own selves up. However, this is a basis for a desire to believe in the supernatural and in the divine. It is perilous to reject that which supports us with out having a clear idea of what will replace it. This is to fall. And that is a very scary proposition for many people.

My point is that the fear of something is not the best rationalization for belief in or rejection of any concept. My charge is always to think about things more deeply than perhaps you had before you stopped by.

Thanks for Reading Girl Ipsa!

P.S. Even if the absolute ends of the universe are square, it is still at its most fundamental level, at its center, a circular and orbital thing.

9:53 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Oy. I think I'm running into a case of too many negatives and modifiers. Bear with me while I try to sort things out to make sure I'm understanding you and we aren't talking past each other.

Ok. Original statements:
1. We can NOT hold ourselves up. (i.e. we can not define morality without divine/supernatural help)
2. it is inherently wrong to deny the humanity of another human. (i.e. it is an inherent truth that it is wrong to deny the humanity of another human)

If I'm reading correctly, your original post therefore concludes that inherent truths cannot be discovered without the aid of a supernatural force.

Ah yes, I see now. And in my response, I showed that it the inherent truth of the wrongness of denying the humanity of another human can be discovered without the aide of a supernatural force. I think however, that my use of the phrase "mutually exclusive" may have been misleading (I have problems writing clearly directly onto a computer). I think it would have been better phrased to say that there are many people who have rejected proposition #1, and therefore the conclusion.

I am not suggesting that I personally believe that we can not hold our own selves upWhich is rather funny, since you're the one presenting an argument for the necessity of a supernatural power, where I believe in God and am presenting the argument whereby he isn't needed. As for believing via fear, well, that is something that has long been a part of encouraging faith, though it pains me to see it as such. Christianity, in particular, is supposed to be a faith of joy and happiness not fear.

P.S. Even if the absolute ends of the universe are square, it is still at its most fundamental level, at its center, a circular and orbital thing.Hmmm. I'd love to get into a discussion of the theoretical physical nature and shape of the universe (it's what I'm getting a degree in after all), but I think that's probably a topic big enough for a whole other blog.

P.S. It's been nearly 4 years since I've studied any latin, so correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't ipsa loquitur something like "she will talk to herself"? I knew ipsa and the root of loquitur, but the fact that its a deponent verb threw me, but I think I got it right with wikipedia's help.

11:26 PM  
Blogger Girl Ipsa said...

Hello again ~

First let me say that the study of law is the one area I know in which people should give greater attention and thought to opposing arguments than to their own. It is necessary in order to fully understand anything to view it in all its aspects. So, my post is a discussion of several things but a conclusion as to none. The idea of man having to support himself is such a shock to many that this is where their inquiry ends and they do not think beyond it. Lets consider that a self generated fear, or even a reflexive response.

The question, to my mind, is this : Is something inherently wrong or right because it resonates with us on a spiritual level? Or does it resonate with us because its is inherently wrong or right? Which state of being has caused the other.

In the end, there is always the idea that the circular nature of things is how it was divinely organized and so these two things are clearly compatible.

As for the name: Girl Ipsa Loquitur, it means Girl Speaks for Herself. It is a rip-off of a tort law term of art, res ipsa loquitur, which means the thing speaks for itself. I do not suggest that I will ever reach the level of being so self evidently correct that just to say I said it will prove its truth. But a girl can dream, can't she?

Thanks for reading!

Ms. Ipsa

8:19 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

Is something inherently wrong or right because it resonates with us on a spiritual level? Or does it resonate with us because its is inherently wrong or right?Well, that is one of the great philosophical/metaphysical questions. I guess the way I was reading it originally, I was seeing some vestiges of a conclusion being presented. I'm not familiar with law to any extent beyond television.

But I don't know that a supernatural force is the immediate conclusion once people feel like they can't support themselves. At least not today. Because many people are raised under the influence of some religion, it is hard to find an example of someone developing morals without the influence of belief in the supernatural. I find it hard to believe that such moral ponderings led to the origins of belief in the supernatural though. I much more favor the idea of moral attributes being ascribed to some other source, after that source has been provided as an explanation of why physical things are the way they are.

Historically and anthropologically, it seems that most ancient cultures developed their deities to explain the physical universe, and only later added the metaphysical to them. Like I said though, it is one of the great philosophical questions, as at least one of those ancient cultures, the Greeks, thought about it quite a lot.

8:56 AM  
Blogger Bernie said...

you are really cute

3:51 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

why...thank you

10:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was expecting more about turtles to be honest


11:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My comments, to follow, is not a statement of how things should be (necessarily), rather how I think they are...

People base their ideas on how law should be on a variety of different things (religion...). However, these "things" (reasons) can be dynamic.

The reasons for any particular law can change over time, as society changes. These laws do not need to be based upon any absolutes. Your example of slavery is a good example. Slavery was once viewed as legal, and was considered acceptable by some. Now it is not (in US law).

Did the religion change? No. The fact is, people change their minds - thus their laws and views...

Many people base laws upon their religious beliefs. However, people also base laws on their non-belief in any religion or super-natural being.

The 'turtle' varies as much as people and the times...


Bernie Online

11:53 AM  
Blogger Girl Ipsa said...

Ozel ~

So sorry to disappoint. I would bet that my usual readers were expecting less about turtles and more about the death penalty or some other interesting legal hornets nest. I am considering a post on wolves, willows and water temperature. Keep your eye on me! I'm tricky.

Thanks for reading ~ Girl Ipsa

11:54 AM  
Blogger Lumo said...

Interesting reading. However. A turtle cannot be all the way down because it would collapse into a black hole, see my blog.

Fritz Zwicky was famous for having called his colleagues Spherical bastards - because no matter what direction you watch them from, they are always bastards.

4:29 PM  
Blogger d.x. said...

i think the moral of the story is that turtles are awesome. i want a turtle for christmas.

5:43 PM  
Blogger Ozle said...

If your going for W's then yopu have to include Wildebeast, herds of them, roaming across the open plains.

And on your main point, the world is flat, and the truth is being hidden from us by airlines and governments who tell us it is round to stop the mass panic it would create if we knew we could fall off the edge.

It ends somewhere in the middle of one of the oceans. The tricky thing is, its not a straight edge, so its very hard to pinpoint, and the airline companies are very carefull not to fly over these parts.

Also due to the curents and the unique nature of a flat earth, you can't sail to the edge. Because all our navigation instruments are noweither based on the position of stars for a round earth, or government satillites when you think you are going around, you are in fact being diverted away from the edge.

Its all very clever really.

And apart from a government funded 'theory' there is no proof except the governments words that the Earth goes round the sun....

5:20 AM  

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