Natural Law and Forgiveness

by Bryce Lefever, Ph.D. © 2011


Once you begin to fathom the dimensions of Natural Law, and accept as its basic premise that there is an order to all of the complexities of the universe, it is then possible to ask questions that lead to greater understanding.  In physics and other scientific modes of inquiry into Natural Law, there is an attempt to observe and test nature in order to learn facts and then organize those facts in relation to other known facts.   Where facts (really observations of Nature) are believed to be related, the relationship is written as  statements that are called hypotheses.  Then these hypotheses are objectively tested in an attempt to show that they can withstand the test.  In science there is no direct attempt to prove an hypothesis because it must be held that someday another challenge or test might come along that shows the hypothesis (the relationship between the facts) to be spurious or false, in whole or in part.  However, hypotheses that are sufficiently and repeatedly tested without being disproved can enter into a group of statements in which we (humans and scientists) have more confidence.[1]  These are called theories. 

Normally, a theory contains several or many hypotheses that have stood up to repeated testing.  If the theory continues to organize and explain the relationship between these hypotheses (and demonstrates the consistency of their relationship), and if the theory is useful to scientists (and mankind) it can enter into a category of knowledge upon which we place even greater confidence.  This theory, or group of theories, can be organized into a Law.  Of course, we have all heard of “the Laws of Nature” that describe or explain important phenomena and natural experiences such as gravity, the speed of sound, the boiling point of water, the speed of light, and why certain materials conduct electricity.  When it comes to the Laws of Nature, we seek to understand them in their truest and most basic forms and we write statements about them—hopefully with truth and accuracy.  If something were to violate a Law of Nature, then it would mean that we have an incomplete or erroneous understanding of the phenomenon described in the law and that the matter would have to be studied further and another, more basic, law discovered and another statement written to describe it.


The Laws Governing Man vs. the Laws Governing Nature

             Our ideas of the Laws of physical Nature contrast with the ideas we have about laws that are part of our legal system.  Judicial Laws are laws created by man for the purpose of controlling behavior and when one of these laws is violated, the person who violated it should be held accountable and punished.  The violation of a legal law, or one written by man, normally does not require the law to be re-written when it is violated.  In a nutshell, if a man breaks a Law of Nature, the Law is wrong and needs to be re-investigated and re-written.  If a man breaks a Law of Man (legal law), the man is wrong and it is he, not the law, who needs to be corrected.


The Laws of Human (or animal) Behavior

There is another system of Laws that pertain to human behavior.  There has been a considerable amount of research over the last 100 years into the nature of human beings, physically, psychologically and behaviorally, and this research has been conducted in large part using the scientific method.  This research has led to a huge amount of isolated data, some hypotheses about that data, and some testing of these hypotheses.  Some rudimentary theories have been developed and, for the most part, found seriously incomplete, inconsistent, or filled with unexplained data which is called “error.”  A good example of this was the Hull-Spence Drive Reduction Theory which attempted to predict human or animal behavior by a mathematical formula based on the idea that organisms build drives (like hunger, thirst, or sexual interest) and will seek behaviors which reduce those drives (eating, drinking, sexual gratification) and further, that it was the reduction of a drive that reinforced the behaviors that led up to it.  The problem was that humans or animals could also be rewarded for activity that increased their drives without subsequently reducing it (consuming, imbibing, consummating).  Appropriately, when this was discovered the drive-reduction theory had to be thrown out. [2]

Some behavioral principles have stood up to much testing and scrutiny and there have been a few attempts at deriving behavioral laws from data—the most noteworthy is Thorndike’s “law of effect” which has been the cornerstone of operant psychology. Among its basic tenets are that the kind and frequency of behavior can be drastically affected by the consequences it produces. Behaviors that are rewarded tend to increase in frequency while those that are punished or ignored (no perceptible consequence) tend to decrease.  The establishment of such lawfulness—essentially cause and effect—is essential for human and animal learning and its applications are numerous when it comes to training either group.  For example, the natural and vast olfactory potential in dogs can be exploited by humans who, using a system of consequences, can train them to detect minute quantities of illegal drugs, or bomb components, or even slight chemical changes in their human companions.


Some Questions about Behavioral Law, Judicial Law and the Laws of Nature

            Are the laws that govern human (or animal behavior) different that the laws that govern the laws of nature?  Are the laws of man as codified in the Judicial system really different than the Laws of Nature?  Is it possible that they are all derivatives of a larger set, that is Natural Law? If so, then there must be some binding similarities.  I will suggest two.  First, that encounters by humans with the natural world as described by The Laws of Nature and encounters by humans with each other (as described in Behavioral Research or in our Legal System) are consequential—and in every case we learn from the consequences.  The second is that there is a significant degree of tolerance or forgiveness when encountering any of the lawful systems whether they are legal, social, or natural.


The Physical World:

The laws of nature pertain to the physical properties of things in ways that can be observed, described and measured.  Physical things are subject to forces (like gravity and time) and these forces are subject to the context in which they are measured.   In the absence of something tangible, does gravity exist or is gravity a property of every tangible thing?  Speed is a measurement using time and distance, but it is neither time nor a distance but does require a the movement of a physical property (a bullet or an airplane can travel faster than the speed of sound—but they have very dissimilar physical properties).  Is time a physical property or a force? 

Most people think of Laws of Nature as immutable, unchangeable and for lack of a better term “hard and fast.” However, this is not so.  The boiling point of water depends upon the altitude.  The speed of sound depends upon both altitude and the substance it is traveling through (it travels much faster in water, for example).  The law of gravity, as measured by falling objects, is true in a vacuum—but where there is air, objects fall at very different speeds due to air pressure (think of a man falling with and without a parachute).  Whereas the Laws of Nature are not universally constant, they are universally consistent.  That is, they are believed to behave the same way, given the same context, every time.  And this consistency is readily understood by humans.  Therefore, if we acknowledge that it is possible to take into account the slight variations in context that affect them, we can concede that the Laws of Nature are generally experienced the same way by every human.  That is, given similar physical surroundings, the Laws of Nature will behave consistently and that each human, to succeed must develop an articulate understanding of how to interact with them.  That means, we have a relationship with the physical world and the more we understand it the more we are able to use it to our benefit.


Our relationship with the physical world. 

We know nothing but what is physically around us.  We have five ways of knowing the physical world: sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste (and perhaps a kinesthetic sense which helps us to maintain balance, attitude and indicates our position in reference to our surroundings).  We do not experience much of the physical world because our senses are not capable of perceiving it—very high and very low sound frequencies are beyond our perception, as are ultraviolet and infrared light.  However, what we are capable of knowing is considerable and necessary for our survival.

The physical world is both our friend and our foe.  To succeed as humans, we must understand the parameters of our physical world in order to survive—or to thrive.  We must stay within the extremes of high and low temperatures—the effect of short and long term exposure to heat and cold are well documented and well understood.  Encounters with hot and cold are learning experiences which lead to more efficient and successful living.  Touching hot stove is a good example of a rapid learning experience.  Once done, it does not have to be repeated for the acquisition of knowledge.  And, there is much research on behavioral thermo regulation (e.g. you put on a sweater when your mom gets cold). 

The examples of gravity are obvious.  You can fall from 2 feet, in most cases, without significant injury.  Falling from 10 feet is likely to hurt.  Try 20 feet and you can be really injured or killed.  Clearly, you are fortunate to live from a fall of 40 feet or more.  Context matters and it depends upon how you land and what you land in.  I talked to a Navy SEAL who, due to a misunderstanding, jumped out of a helicopter at 150 feet and recovered with a lot of bruises.  Another SEAL, who jumped from the aircraft a moment earlier with the same misunderstanding of his physical context, was killed.  They both landed in the ocean.

The point is threefold.  First, we can gain knowledge of the physical world through our experiences with it.  And, we know the success or failure of those experiences only by the consequences of our actions.  Second, we can learn about the parameters of the physical world because many of our experiences are incremental and not lethal.  And third, extreme encounters with the physical world are highly injurious or lethal. 


Forgiveness in the Physical World

Our incremental and non-lethal encounters demonstrate that there is forgiveness in our relationship with the physical world.  There is a range of encounters with it that permit us to learn without being killed.  Whereas the properties of the physical world are consistent and regarded as “hard and fast,” there is a range of experience with it that is quite soft and forgiving.  In fact, to remain in the range of forgiveness is not only not lethal, it can be quite pleasing and conducive to life.

One final point about the physical world—it is idiotic to proclaim that because something is “natural” it must be good for you.  The physical world has boundaries that, if crossed, will kill you.  Gravity is essential for life, otherwise we would all be floating around and incapable of getting a glass of water.  However, extreme encounters with gravity will kill you.  Likewise, poison ivy, the king cobra, the Bengal tiger, quicksand, and the Grizzly Bear are all natural, but they are not good for us.  Think of tobacco and tornadoes—natural?  Yes.  Good for us?  No.  Heroin in very small amounts has its place in medicine.  In large amounts it is worse than a hurricane. 


Forgiveness in The Social World

            We can learn from our encounters with the physical world due to the very consistent consequences that it produces.  The consequences of our choices with other people are somewhat less consistent, but they do have consistencies and are subject to investigation and measurement.  Just as we cannot push the boundaries of the laws that govern our physical world without suffering deleterious consequences, we cannot push the boundaries of the natural laws that govern how we interact with one another without also suffering.

That is, mankind has long believed that the order established in the physical universe also applied to our behavior with one another.  We are able to learn from the consequences of our actions with one another by our built-in emotions.  Each action, each choice, could produce an emotional consequence that was positive, neutral, or negative.  Each of us has a built-in system that allows us to learn about the correctness of our actions and interactions with the physical and with the social world.  And, like the physical world, in the social world we can make many mistakes without suffering extreme consequences.  That is, in our relationships with others, there is forgiveness built-in.  As children, we are learning rapidly in both the physical and social domains.  Our language is shaped by success and failure at forming words and sounds.  As adolescents and adults, we are capable of moral reasoning because logic can teach us that if someone’s actions hurt me, then my similar actions can hurt another.  And, the hurt person’s reaction is so similar to our own reaction when we are hurt that we can confirm the relationship.  This helps us to understand that, in order to succeed; we must limit our actions and confine them to the set that produces a positive emotional effect in ourselves and others.  This is the basis of moral behavior.  Clearly, all of us make many and huge mistakes and can harm ourselves and others.  Yet, there is so much forgiveness in the system that we rarely die from the experience or even face the severity of consequence that it perhaps deserves.  Simply put, we are permitted to learn and to improve because of the forgiveness of others.


Forgiveness in Judicial Law:

            Our modern Legal System is an extension of English Law which was derived from Common Law which was derived from the philosophy of Natural Law.  The Legal System is an attempt to codify not the extremes of human behavior, but instead to codify and prescribe a set of negative consequences for extremely negative, destructive or harmful behavior.  The idea of justice is no different in the judicial system than it is in the naturally occurring system of human interaction, but it makes more of an attempt to be consistent.  In the naturally occurring system of Behavioral Law, one is tempted to “take matters into his own hands,” or “take the law into his own hands.”  The legal system is an attempt to make consequences of behavior more severe than are naturally occurring (as in many cases of spouse abuse) or less severe than might occur in Behavioral Law (as in the case of the spouse caught cheating).  The judicial system, though flawed, has as its admirable quality an ethic to “make the punishment fit the crime.”  Clearly, forgiveness also pervades Judicial Law—that is, first time offenders get a “slap on the wrist,” and those who show that they have learned something (which is the hope in all circumstances of Natural Law) by showing remorse get a lesser sentence from the judge.  And, if the point of forgiveness in the Judicial system is to enable learning, after being incarcerated for a crime we can be released earlier than the full term of the sentence (parole) if it is deemed that we have learned our lesson.



            Natural Law is the order of the universe that governs all things and relationships between things.  This includes all human relationships whether it is encounters with the physical (natural) world or the social world of human behavior.  Natural Law is the belief that all behavior and all natural phenomena are subject to determinism—which is not “pre-determinism,” but is the opposite of randomness and meaninglessness.  In every lawful system, there are parameters or boundaries which are observable, subject to inquiry and investigation, and ultimately knowable.  Learning the parameters is only possible because of the considerable forgiveness built-in to the system. 

Clearly, human beings have the capacity to study Natural Law in all of its facets in order to derive from it principles for more effective living.  It is evident from such inquiry that tolerance or forgiveness is a built-in part of every system of human interaction.  What is the purpose of a system of forgiveness?  Clearly, forgiveness serves to allow us to make mistakes and to learn and to grow without experiencing death.  Living a full life without seriously violating the parameters of Natural Law is a tricky and unlikely prospect.  What is the purpose of all of this forgiveness? Even the smartest, most perceptive, most moral of us eventually violate one of the boundaries of Natural Law.   Even the considerable amount of built-in forgiveness in the Natural Law cannot save us from time.  Is “time” the one exception to the presence of forgiveness in Natural Law?  Or, in the very end of our lives, can forgiveness also triumph over time?

[1] In fact, it was Sir Karl Popper who pointed out that the “hallmark of science” –really the litmus test for establishing a “scientific fact”—is the “failure to disprove.”

[2] See Frank Beach’s Coitus Interruptus in Rattus Norvegicus.