Commentary | The Conversationalist: Don’t call me molecule: a glimpse into law and nature

While I know that humans are more complex than molecules – in that molecules lack such important human characteristics as consciousness, agency, reason, and so on – I can’t help but dwell on the similarity of their natures.

You might say that the laws of science and those of human societies function complementarily: the laws of science declare things as they are, and the laws of the state work to temper and regulate the state of these things. For example, the second law of thermodynamics, or the universal law of increasing entropy, states that the disorder of an isolated system that is not in equilibrium will always tend to increase over time. This law implies that an expenditure of energy is required to work against disorder. Arguably, just like molecules in a closed system, we are equally inclined towards chaos, and arguably law, at its most fundamental and most general level, is that the force that works to restore the system to order. I feel so cold and reductive when I say these things, but they seem to stand solidly true.

I am, however, often proven happily wrong in my reductiveness. Although my conversation with Evan Fox-Decent, an assistant law professor, hovered in the theoretical, it was certainly more human than those things I had been imagining, and I began to see humans as more than particles bouncing chaotically off each other and off the walls of a container.

Our laws assume that we are free, in the sense that our laws aim to ground our society on a principle of non-domination. As Fox-Decent explained, “The idea of non-domination is that individuals should not be subject to the arbitrary will of others.” Under the principle of non-domination, the law provides for our equal freedom by ensuring that none of us can unilaterally set the terms of our interactions with others.

Not so in the molecular world: all molecules are not born free and equal under the laws of science. In fact, domination is essential in the molecular world. The arbitrary will of one molecule exerting its will – in the form of a polar charge – over another molecule is one of the most basic conditions underlying the majority of chemical and physical mechanisms.

Not to mention that humans have the ability to consent, to reject, to feel obligation, to trust, and so on; but I suppose it was silly to make a comparison between humans and molecules in the first place. Or perhaps such comparisons are useful to the extent that they illuminate those positive aspects of our societies’ functioning – such as the principle of non-domination – that were arrived at without no small amount of blood being shed.

What I mean is this: things such as non-domination and order might not be so natural and basic that they can be taken as givens. But, Fox-Decent said, a society where we may take our liberty for granted is one in which its citizens can “stand up and look each other in the eye; it’s a world in which we don’t have to bow and scrape.” I may have only been on this earth for 22 years, but I’ll tell you, never once have I seen a molecule do that.

Just when you think you know someone, they go and change on ya – the columnist you thought you knew as Rosie will now be Rosa. And you can reach her at theconversationalist@mcgilldaily.com.


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