girl ipsa loquitur: 11/28/2004 - 12/05/2004 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.

"To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else." ~ Emily Dickinson

"Ouch!" ~ Mrs. Palsgraff

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