Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Obama before the Weekend

On Friday, Chris Mathews put together this great piece on Donald Trump and Barack Obama. Towards the end of the piece, Bob Schrum cited a piece by Lawrence H. Tribe, written with the assistance of Obama, called the Curvature of Constitutional Space. Schrum said it was so elevated that it was difficult to read.

So, sporting my Philosophy degree, I marched to the Google and found the PDF of the piece (http://hubcap.clemson.edu/~daw/D_Realism/Tribe.pdf) in order to find out how elevated it was.

I made notes as I went (included here) to find out how complex this sort of work it is. I have to say, it isn't massively complicated. All the tricky concepts are familiar to me from other reading, so maybe I have a head start.

However, it shows a level of understanding of law and physics that I am heartened to find in Mr. Obama. He's clearly a great guy, he's smart and is deeply thought.

The comparison between him and Donald Trump, and many other Republican candidates, is stark.

Notes on "The Curvature of Constitutional Space: What Lawyers can Learn from Modern Physics" by Lawrence H. Tribe (Barrack Obama assisted with analyses) 1989

Intro.: "Metaphors and intuitions that guide physics can enrich our comprehension of social and legal issues"

Opposes dogmatism (strict ideology) because it shuts down debate - he thinks that fluidity of thought is better than ideological intransigence.

- there is an interesting footnote, damning cost-benefit analyses as method for finding preferred conclusions - against utilitarian views

- there is no certainty to be drawn from science into law/philosophy - it is not an infallible referee that can be appealed to in cases of law or ethics.

- he feels law has not kept pace with science in the way that it understands and talks about the relationship between perception, reality and judgment.

- the American Constitution was written from the perspective of people who understood their world in non-mystical, Newtonian, mechanistic terms ("checks and balances", etc.)

- later, the theory of evolution inspired constitutional scholars to look on it as "a living, evolving thing."

- Tribe does not want to view the constitution as a 'Thing' at all, but wants to concentrate on the process of interpretation, in accordance with our scientific milieu (quantum physics and relativity).

-Tribe sees Newtonian physics as relying on a metaphysic that involves God and absolute laws.

- Tribe goes on to explain his view of the new physics in order to then construct a new mode of Legal thought/argument/"paradigm"

General Relativity

- Space is curved by masses - everything falls at the same rate, even light: reality itself is bent by the presence of material.

- Planets are not 'connected by gravity', but rather gravity is the bend of space under the weight of a mass.

The sun creates a bowl in reality, which the planets roll around in orbits. (Tribe's understanding seems to be somewhere between 2D and 3D - where masses are 3D and space is 2D, however his explanation is a brief summary, not an in-depth explication)

Curved Legal Space

- Decisions made in law affect the law itself. By interpreting a law anew, as is done with every decision, the law is changed - it does not remain unaffected by an impossible, objective obedience.

- Laws exercise power over their citizenry and so create obligation on the part of the state to maintain the personal freedoms which they are designed to regulate.

- The state is not a disinterested observer or referee, but by its nature it affects its citizenry and acts upon them. (there are some great examples in the paper, the details of which are too important to be abridged here)

Quantum Theory

- Act of observation affects what is being observed - we affect what we see by seeing it. (Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle)

- We can never be certain whether the observation affected the thing in a certain way.

- Both General Ralativity and Quantum Physics deny the possibility of isolation, of a pristine observer - of objectivity.

-- the state alters the order of society by providing a framework for order within society.

- It expresses judgments that lead society along a path. Like putting your finger on a sheet of linen will create a bowl into which fluff will tend to fall, so judging a case a certain way will coerce other cases to be decided in that way. In this way, courts are not observers, but are interacting with society through their judgments.


  1. Trump's a joke, barring a complete disaster, Obama is going to cruise 2012. Should he though?

  2. Nothing is going to be a cruise for this president - not with an economy still in the formative stages of a shaky recovery and gas prices so high. He is rightly nervous of John Huntsman, a smart, good looking Republican who hasn't said anything crazy yet.

  3. Huntsman is also an ex-Mormon missionary in Taiwan. Having met my fair share of whitebread pimply Utah dorks cycling around wearing black trousers, white shirts, black ties, black shoes, and those stupid (black) badges identifying them as "Elder So-and-so" whilst in Taiwan, I believe this in itself should disqualify him. His ambassadorship in Beijing didn't exactly show the best judgement either - showing up to the fizzled pro-democracy demonstrations wearing a jacket with stars-and-stripes shoulder flashes wasn't a good idea. Claiming to have been there "by accident" makes him look either dumb (the demo was much trailed and there was a huge police presence) or dishonest. I support the pro-democracy movement, but the worst thing for them right now is to be seen to be directly linked to the US in this way.

  4. You're thinking like an intelligent, well informed man. You clearly, therefore, have little understanding of the political climate in America.

    Next you'll be pointing out how Obama saved the economy from total meltdown, instead of blaming him for it and for the bailouts signed by GWB. Or (scoff) suggesting that universal healthcare would not result in everybody being subjected to lethal injections once they reach the age of 26.

    You clearly have no idea.