Natural and Unnatural

I have been for some time now bothered by the usage of these words in common parlance: natural and unnatural. I wish to make clear here what these concepts are supposed to refer to and whether or not there is value in maintaining this dichotomy. I hope to convince the reader by the end of this that this duality is in fact flawed and that it is a nonsensical division of the world in what follows. 

To begin with, what is natural? This appears to not require much elucidation as we all have a rather intuitive understanding of what nature is, namely the green earth and the life process it undergoes. But, the further into this issue we probe, we will immediately begin to face some difficulties. For instance, is it limited to the earth, or does it span the entirety of the universe? It doesn’t take too large of a leap of understanding to realize that there is no sense in drawing an arbitrary boundary on this particular spatiotemporal locale of the universe that we reside in. For that division already has a concept, namely ‘earth’, and this is surely not what is intended to be referred to redundantly by that other concept ‘ nature’. But, by such expansion of the region of influence of nature, we have now made it redundant with the concept ‘universe’. I am more comfortable with this identification than with its limitation to ‘earth’ as ‘nature’ is meant to be a very broad and general concept, ‘universe’ fulfilling such a role much more so than ‘earth’. 

Another issue that emerges from examining the common understanding of the word nature is that it is specific to life processes. This is not always the case, exhibited by the reference to the beauty of nature in such awe-inspiring photographs of the cosmos captured by our electromechanical emissaries to outer space. We could have just as easily chosen to limit its sphere of influence to life, but we prefer to retain its generality as already mentioned previously. Perhaps we can synthesize what has been said into the following account: the concept ‘universe’ offers a somewhat static notion of reality in that it appears to be like an ontological indexing of what exists, in contrast to the concept ‘nature’, which offers a much more dynamic view of the processes that occur, like life and nebulae, and their evolution and interconnection.

So, nature is the matter/energy flux that is everywhere continuous and lawful, generating the large heterogeneity of phenomena dispersed throughout the universe, and so captures an element of the constant change in accordance with the laws of physics, which when viewed macroscopically appears to us as the evolution of life forms or star systems. 

Having stated the referent of ‘nature’ as such it is clear where the problem resides: the broad generality of this notion precludes the ability of its antithesis to refer to anything at all. In other words, we have clarified that ‘nature’ refers to the evolution of the matter/energy throughout the entire universe, and so when searching for unnatural things we find ourselves dealing with square circles and iron wood, so to speak. If nature is everything then nothing can be unnatural. Let us delve into this issue a little deeper.

We are often warned of the dangers of eating unnatural foods, such as everything processed and produced in factories that humans have constructed. Our vast concrete empire is similarly berated for its intrusion upon nature’s free green wilderness. If the preceding analysis of the concept ‘nature’ is correct, then we have to concede that humanity is just as much a natural phenomena as any plant, animal, or rock. Where birds build nests and spiders spin webs, we humans construct dizzyingly complex environs to inhabit. However, these are just an outflow of the natural instinct we have to shelter. Not only in what structures we impose onto the Earth, but any activity ever performed or ever to be performed by a human is just nature’s incomprehensibly complex intertwining laws operating with law-like necessity. It is therefore incoherent to claim that our activities are damaging nature, for they themselves are part and parcel of nature. And in fact nature is not a purely benevolent place, consisting of just as much death, hostility and aggression as love and compassion. The grey areas abound, and this complex reality shivers in reverie of the morning light to be darkened by dusk into more sinister tones. 

Why is the common human so resiliently bound to this notion of us and our activities as being unnatural? For one thing, it is correct to claim that we and our activities are harming the diversity of the ecosystem and the wellbeing of the life forms with whom we share the planet. The effects of our collective technological advances have accreted into the multifarious phenomena associated with global warming, which together threaten the biosphere and with it all of life’s chances of survival. However, despite all this, nature remains nature, untouched, ongoing, constantly unfolding and evolving. Even if all life on Earth were to perish, who’s to say where and when it will arise once again. So perhaps the problem is just a matter of lack of clarity of thought and clear delineation of the referents of the concepts people use, boiling the issue down to one of semantics. But perhaps there is a deeper reason for this false dichotomization, something much more subtle than semantics, driving all our delusional thinking, of which this is but one example.

In the traditions of the Abrahamic religions, it is said that God created the earth and all the plants and animals in it for man and gave man dominion over it. This sets up the duality of man vs. nature as a metaphysical one, which unfortunately the majority of humans subscribe to. However, these literal religious ideas are not the source, but merely an example of the dress the underlying delusion may take up as it arises in one culture or another. Hidden under the surface is the belief in the separateness of one’s individual existence, implicit in the creation of the myth of the ‘I’. However, this independent individual existence is clearly at odds with reality, as many have a chance to intuit by careful observation of the incessant flux and change and impermanence of all things. Therefore, some story is sold, whether of the soul or consciousness or whatever, in order to placate the masses for their fears and allow them to retain their happy ignorance, where humans are construed as the exception to the law of change, and therefore have the right to take advantage of all that ephemeral stuff that composes this fickle nature of which we are not in this manner taken to be part. That this is a delusion is hard for many of them to see, and even though it may dawn on their intellect it would remain forever occluded from their underlying belief structure.

We must grow to realize that in all our actions flows the underlying current of nature’s inexhaustible process. We must forgive our powerful species the abuse of its awesome abilities. We must Identify the source of these problems at their root in our own individual hearts and minds, and begin the process of mending the error. Only then does society stand a chance to be healed, and returned into union with its supporter. May that hasten to arrive. May all beings be happy!

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