For all the epistemologists in the audience

Jamie Lewis’ most recent post on “Laws” versus “Principles” has to be quoted in its entirety:

In an earlier post, I talked about how I see Kim Cameron’s “laws of identity” as a set of architecture principles. More recently, Craig Burton posted a response, wondering if I’m splitting hairs. He goes on to say that “if you look up the definition of a principle, you can't help but run into the word ‘law’.”

Perhaps I am splitting hairs. Wouldn’t be the first time, won’t be the last. But at least I’m not alone in doing so. Craig first pointed to comments by Chris Ceppi on the subject and then later posted a thoughtful response from Mark Wahl. Both make interesting points. And Craig is correct in saying that if you look up the word “principle,” the word “law” quickly surfaces. (The opposite is also true.) But if we’re going to start pulling out our dictionaries, then I feel compelled to point out that those very definitions underscore the point I was trying to make about connotation.

For example, here’s how The American Heritage Dictionary (Fourth Edition), defines the word “law”:

A rule of conduct or procedure established by custom, agreement, or authority; the body of rules and principles governing the affairs of a community and enforced by a political authority. . . A set of rules or principles dealing with a specific area of a legal system, such as tax law or criminal law . . . something, such as an order or dictum, having absolute or unquestioned authority.

One could argue that the word “law” would apply when and if Kim’s proposals become “rule or law” by “custom or agreement.” But are we there yet? I don’t think so, since we still seem to be in a period of debate and discussion. And in the above definition, the connotation of a legal system here is overwhelmingly clear, along with fun things like authority, governance, and enforcement. It was this strong legal connotation that spooked me a bit on the word “law.” That and the fact that Microsoft (or any other vendor) will have a hard time positioning itself as “the authority” capable of handing down laws in this matter.

The American Heritage Dictionary also offers alternative definitions of the word “law,” which are consistent with Mark Wahl’s usage of the term:

A statement describing a relationship observed to be invariable between or among phenomena for all cases in which the specified conditions are met, such as the law of gravity.

The connotation here is equally clear, and Mark Wahl said it well in his discussion of inherent properties. One can easily argue that Kim is trying to describe inherent properties, the “Newtonian physics” of identity.

But can Kim (or anyone else) say that these “laws” are “invariable for all cases”? As I said, these are issues over which reasonable people can (and probably will) disagree. In fact, I’m willing to bet that companies and people will build identity systems that violate Kim’s laws, even if those laws become widely accepted. While we may all wish them to be so, it’s hard for me to see them as absolutes.

That’s why we focus on architecture principles. Discussing architecture principles is a forcing function; it requires architects to reveal their biases and beliefs as to how systems should be constructed. Yes, it also helps that Burton Group has four working sets of architecture principles, so I have a pre-existing affinity (bias?) for the term. But we called them principles for a reason: We assume that different architects will take different positions with regard to core architectural principles. And that’s where The American Heritage Dictionary’s definition of “principle” comes in:

A basic truth, law, or assumption; a rule or standard, especially of good behavior; the collectivity of moral or ethical standards or judgments; a fixed or predetermined policy or mode of action; a basic or essential quality or element determining intrinsic nature or characteristic behavior; a rule or law concerning the functioning of natural phenomena or mechanical processes.

Here, the connotation isn’t a legal one, or necessarily one of an absolute. There are some great words and phrases here, such as “assumption,” “rule or standard,” “ethical standards or judgments,” “policy,” and “behavior.” These words and phrases speak directly to what (I think) we're trying to do: construct an identity system. These are things over which reasonable people can disagree, but have a huge impact on how systems are designed. Take for example the principle of democracy. Many hold that principle to be a sacred truth, but that doesn’t stop countries from using other forms of government. Simply put, there are no natural laws that prevent people from doing stupid things. Similarly, we may agree on Kim’s laws. And many folks may end up fervently believing in their truth, but that won’t stop others from building systems that violate them.

Having said all of that, I agree that the discussion is, at least to some degree, hairsplitting. So, as to whether Kim needs to call these things “laws” or “principles,” I’m not sure it matters that much. I was simply saying that’s how I see them. Still do, and so to each his own. (That, and sometimes I enjoy hairsplitting as much as the next person.)

UPDATE: It seems as if P. T. Ong agrees with me, calling the laws “design principles.” As P. T. says, the term “principles” may not “sound as cool,” but is more accurate. One has to consider the marketing value of calling them laws, however, a thought that I'm sure hasn't escaped Kim's mind.

Naughty Jamie for implying I might have used the word “Laws” just to turn the level of this discussion up to the maximum! But I love him anyway. Just like I love (loud) rock ‘n roll.

Just so people know what my intentions were, I did in fact propose the word “law” in the sense of a scientific law, meaning something that models the structure and behavior of some aspect of objective reality. And here I fear the American Heritage Dictionary betrays its need for a bit of modernization. Newtonian “invariability”, after all, gave way to thinking that embraced concepts like probability. Classical mechanics led to quantum mechanics. Today our scientific laws tend to include the concept of “tendency”. It is such tendencies which must be understood in the case of identity, and which I have been attempting to understand with specific regard to the properties and behaviors that define the contours of any identity system that can extend across the Internet.

More imporantly, Jamie, Craig, Chris, P. T. Ong, and Mark Wahl all make good points.

Thanks for signalling the danger that someone might interpret our work as positing the way “people ought to be”. Nothing could be further from our intentions, and I am sobered by the possibility.

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Kim Cameron

Work on identity.