(Original publication date: April 27, 2007)
Every law student knows—or had better know in time for the bar exam—that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land, meaning, that no law can conflict with the Constitution and still be deemed valid. That is the case here in the United States, and virtually every other country has some document or body of law that is treated as supreme in that country. In short, laws of lower priority (local laws, for instance) must yield to the supreme law of the sovereign nation. Meanwhile, foreign laws have even lower status, namely, no effect at all; the law in France does not apply to me, unless, of course, I go to France or become a French citizen.
The discussion of supremacy could end there and, typically, it does. But, in fact, there are laws that trump even the supreme law of the land, and there are laws that apply in every country, transcending all national boundaries, regardless of sovereignty.
Chief among these “over-laws” are the laws of nature. We could pass a constitutional amendment saying that “Gravity shall not apply in Massachusetts” or “All citizens over the age of 18 shall be invisible.” But these “supreme” laws would in fact be void; they would have no effect. When Nature and the Constitution square off, Nature wins.
Fair enough, one might say. There is no need to belabor the obvious. End of discussion.
But the discussion actually does not end there either. When applied in advance (prediction) or after the fact (reflection) in the imagination of a person, the laws of nature have a different name: logic. Yet the supremacy of the laws of nature remains.
For instance, imagine an individual who is accused of murdering someone else. But the murder in question occurred three years before the accused was born. The laws of nature, in such a case, would prevent the accused from being the actual murderer.
In a court of law, considering the crime after the fact, we would apply the laws of nature by saying that to convict someone of a crime that, under the laws of nature, he or she could not have committed “would not make sense”; in other words, it would be “illogical.” Specifically, it is illogical for an effect to precede its cause.
While one flows from the other, there are some major differences between logic and the laws of nature. Perhaps most importantly, the laws of nature cannot be ignored in the present. Gravity works, whether we acknowledge it or not. Our opinion is irrelevant to the functioning of the laws of nature.
But when considering the past or the future, it is far too easy to forget the laws of nature or to misapply them, i.e., to be irrational, to draw illogical inferences. We can easily imagine scenarios that are, while imaginable, impossible. We can imagine, for instance, that a person traveled back in time so as to commit the murder that happened three years before he or she was born. We can imagine a perpetual motion machine. But imagining such things does not make them real.
Misapplying the laws of nature in reflection or prediction is a human error. When we make such errors, grave injustices can be committed. Innocent people are burned at the stake; perpetrators go free; plaintiffs find no relief. Nonetheless, the laws of nature remain supreme and govern in every nation, as does their lieutenant in the minds of men and women, logic. It is we who forget this fundamental supremacy at our peril.