Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Natural law and human preference

There are at least two explanations for how various things tend to turn out: Natural laws and human preferences. (Where the terms used should be taken in wide and abstract senses.)

For instance, that an object emits light is a consequence of natural law; but the way that the emission is experienced is human preference—including the possibility that a human can classify a certain surface as non-emissive, because the light emitted is not in the visible spectrum or that too few photons are emitted per time unit.

Consider, to lead up to the main point, sound changes: It has been shown that there are several “natural” laws that govern sound changes, in that a certain set of pronunciations tend to drift towards another set over time; or that certain transitions are possible (e.g. between “s” and “t” as in “emission” and “emit” above), while others are virtually impossible or require accumulation of intermittent changes (e.g. “s” and “k”). (Cf. e.g. the Wikipedia article on sound changew.) This, however, is really human preference, and if humans were just a little bit different (say in brain physiology or oral anatomy) a completely different set of laws might be in place. Similarly, art, poetry, music, whatnot, often have a set of formal or informal laws, rules of thumb, or general principles that on casual observation can seem like reflections of a natural law of some kind. Yet, these too are human preferences—sometimes based in the inborn; sometimes in the learned.

The eventual point: Very many (most?) humans seem to be unaware of this distinction between natural law and human preference—and incorrectly consider both to be natural law. This leads to a flawed world-view, and can actually be dangerous where humans are concerned that are “differently wired” or come from different cultural backgrounds. Consider e.g. that musicians from different parts of the world can consider the other’s “obvious” choice to be highly odd, or that what one person considers the “obvious” thing to do in a social situation is absurd in the eyes of another. If even one of the involved humans considers his preference to be given by natural law... (Also see my discussion of the tall dancer phenomenon.)


This notwithstanding that, obviously, humans and human preferences exist within the framework of real natural laws: This influence is many times removed when we discuss e.g. a law of sound change, and numerous other, different laws would be fully compatible with the natural laws. Even the laws of music, often having something mathematical and natural seeming about them, are human preferences—albeit, possibly, only several times removed from natural law.