Russell Brunelle (russellb) wrote,
Russell Brunelle

Res nullius cedit occupanti and the Sokal Affair

One thing I've enjoyed this quarter is catching little glimpses into how the overarching history of our species is reflected in its evolving concepts of law.

I'm reviewing my property outline now, specifically the material from the first few days of the quarter when we covered ancient ideas about property such as Roman law occupancy: the right to simply take possession of things which have no (or have never had an) owner, such as "wild beasts" or "islands found in the sea."

To me, what this focus within Roman law really captures is the one-time experience of an unexplored world that was ours for the exploring, where there actually were untouched islands to discover, and where we couldn't even be sure we were the most powerful species; today, not only are we quite sure we're the most powerful species on the planet, but we actually have to be careful how we live so as not to permanently harm our planet. And, of course, there are no more undiscovered islands, unless you count tiny land masses permanently covered by and surrounded by arctic ice (and even then it's been fifteen years since one of those was discovered).

Similarly, although a common science fiction theme is "exploring the stars," it occurs to me that since (1) apparently nothing goes faster than light and (2) our ability to create better telescopes will probably develop apace with our ability to travel, if we ever do send people to other stars it won't be so much "exploring" as simply "moving."

I admit I sometimes wonder whether the appeal of intentionally confusing New Age writing (e.g. anything that inappropriately pulls random jargon from quantum mechanics) is simply that it artificially injects a sense of mystery back into life: a sense of mystery that we lost easy access to with the close of the age of exploration.

If that's actually true, then I suppose the point I'd want to make is that it isn't necessary to discover new lands or "study" made-up things just to feel a sense of mystery or wonder: what real physicists and cosmologists are contemplating right now is more mind-boggling than anything the lesser minds appropriating their language have come up with, and the sense of wonder from contemplating nature isn't diminished by understanding that evolution generated it.
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