Tag: Natural

Why it’s wrong to pick apart the distinction between “natural” and “unnatural.” Also, what is “the environment.”

Someone asks on Quora, How will you define nature and the environment? Here’s my answer.

Some people reject any distinction between “natural” things and “unnatural” things, saying that everything is natural because humans are natural and humans made the so-called unnatural things.

I think another reason people reject this distinction may be that there’s no clear delineation between when a tool created by humans ceases to be a “natural” creation and starts being “unnatural” on the basis of its level of sophistication. (I.e., a simple tool by made by a smart, non-human animal is still considered to be “natural,” so it should follow that a tool just as basic and directly derived from the natural environment made by a human should also be “natural,” yet television sets are not considered to be “natural.” Where does one category begin and the other end?)

But I would say that the solution is simply to label those things that are obviously/intuitively understood to be sophisticated enough to be unnatural as “unnatural” and those things that are obviously unsophisticated, simple and directly derived from the natural environment enough to be natural as “natural,” and simple to not to worry about the fuzzy gray area in between. We know intuitively what “natural” and “unnatural” mean, and there’s no reason to reach to logical extremes. And by reaching for a logical extreme in this way, saying that everything is natural, one completely removes any meaning and utility of the word “natural,” which is, of course, an error, because the words “natural” and “unnatural” exist in the language for reasons.

And the fact that words are defined according to common usage (i.e., a definition is descriptive, not prescriptive) also justifies upholding the popular, intuitive meanings of “natural” and “unnatural.” The difference between “natural” and “unnatural” or “artificial” isn’t a categorical, absolute or technical one; it’s a matter of two arenas that differ from each other in characteristic, per se.

One of the important uses of this distinction between “natural” and “unnatural” that gets wiped out by this appeal to logical extremes is within the subject of what is beneficial to do, create, consume, think, lingualize, or whatever—especially when working with the premise that nature/naturalness is generally or always more physically or mentally healthy than or otherwise superior to what’s unnatural, so that nature can be be used as our guide.

This premise isn’t assumed without good reason: we evolved within the context of nature for billions of years, so our bodies and minds are well-suited to exist and function within that context. Also, any given ecosystem itself evolved in such a way that it functions with balance, holism, wholeness and harmony, which are qualities that our mechanical, modular, brutish and simplistic technological creations don’t necessarily possess. The natural systems are able to utilize any and all natural principles, including ones living and magical enough that we can only dream of them, while the unnatural systems are only able to take advantage of the limited set of natural principles humans have been able to deduce.

And what is nature, exactly? I’d say it’s the set, or sum, of all things in our environment that are natural, as opposed to artificial. It’s the natural environment. You could also reason that it’s the source of our existence and, ultimately, of everything we create. (Nature being the ultimate, indirect source of everything we create doesn’t imply that everything we create is nature/natural.)

I would say that “the environment” is almost synonymous with “nature,” with a few subtle differences. “Nature” carries a connotation of involving natural principles and the overarching order of things, and may include the totality of life and the universe, while “the environment” is more about the life forms and geological terrain of our world. It’s the collection of all the flora and fauna in the world and the larger systems in which they interact. Examples may include all ecosystems (or the biosphere as a whole), in addition to all aspects of their habitat, such as rocks, dirt and water. It’s the context in which the human species lives. I would say, colloquially, it’s contrasted to the artificial environments we’ve created for ourselves such as houses and metropolises.

Unlike with the word “nature,” I would say it is fair to use the word “environment” to refer to any part of the context in which we live, including our houses and cars, for example, because “environment” has a more general sense to it, but that’s not the same as “the environment.”

On the Term “Supernatural”

I dislike the word “supernatural.” It’s used to describe things that are extraordinary in the sense that they defy intuition or mundane/gross patterns of causality, but such things (assuming they happen/exist) are not actually “supernatural.” Whatever is real is natural, though nature may not behave according to the rules and limitations that we like to ascribe to it.

One might argue that this is a purely semantic concern, as people are not using the term “supernatural” to denote anything outside of reality/existence, but the word fosters the sense of a stark division between two layers or sets of phenomena or overarching principles, the natural and the supernatural, while in reality it’s all one thing—everything is natural. Perhaps the one thing has many interplaying principles of operation and maybe there are various levels or realms to it, but the levels are not necessarily starkly delineated or incompatible, nor are there necessarily exactly two of them (the “natural” versus the “supernatural”).

Also, the term encourages the discrediting of any phenomena that fall under its umbrella, because the aesthetic impression is of a realm way higher than anything conceivable, or phenomena or beings that somehow defy the natural coherency of the universe. In other words, the term ‘”supernatural” conveys a sense that the phenomenon or object in question somehow eludes the natural order of things, which would be preposterous. And so skeptical/atheist/academic/scientistic/physicalist types are prone to dismissing the idea of anything “supernatural” as non-existent, whereas using other words for those things might be conducive to seeing them as more characteristically different rather than categorically different, which could help open their minds to seeing that there may be natural principles behind them that interweave more readily with scientifically known principles and physicality.

Sometimes taking a word to its logical extreme, such as defining everything as natural, defeats the purpose of using the word. I think this is the case if we claim that everything is “natural,” in the sense of being “earthly” or “environmental,” on account of the idea that that humans evolved within nature and are a part of it therefore all of our creations, including LSD and skyscrapers, are just as “natural” as a monkey using a stick to get insects out of a tree. Even though there’s no categorical distinction between what’s “natural” in this sense and what’s not, and even though there are plenty of in-between cases where it would be hard to decide, the word is useful to describe things that clearly fall within the general theme of products of geology, evolution, etc. that are not man-made, which is obviously a very different arena by characteristic. (See also this essay on why we shouldn’t take the term “natural” to its logical extreme.) But this is not the case with the greater sense of the word “natural” as the opposite of “supernatural.” This sense of the word “natural” as I’m suggesting using it is in opposition to the term “supernatural” which could be said to be a self-contradictory characterization, rather than being in opposition to “artificial,” so it may rightly include anything that’s real. 

One might object that “natural” describes everything by definition then it means nothing, but it actually only describes real things, and we know that the word “real” is valid and useful. One might then argue that we might as well just use the word “real” instead, but the point here isn’t so much to use an alternative to the word “real” as to eliminate the use of the misleading term “supernatural.”

One might still argue that if everything that’s real is “natural” then calling it “natural” as a characterization is meaningless, but I would say that sometimes words that apply to everything that exists by definition (such as, for example, God, by some people’s accounts) confer implications as to the fundamental qualities or nature of everything (such as sacredness, divinity, holiness, meaning, consciousness, etc.), thus giving the word meaning. But then, it’s not even really necessary that defining everything as “natural” imparts special meaning, when the point is only to defy the use of the term “supernatural” as a sort of self-contradicting category which one can use to dismiss anything unseen.

Anyway, back to the subject… some people actually go so far as to define “natural” as pertaining to the physical and the so-called laws of physics. (I say “so-called laws” for reasons explained in this essay and this essay.) This definition is even reflected in one of the senses of “natural” in Webster’s dictionary. (That’s not necessarily a justification or obligation to use the word this way, as a dictionary is descriptive, not prescriptive, and it’s only one of many alternative senses.) You could argue that definitions are neither correct nor incorrect, they’re just a basis for further communication, but there are implications involved, and how you frame things matters. To define “natural” as physical is to imply that what’s non-physical is unnatural and is therefore adverse and potentially unthinkable. And, as I’ve advocated for above, some people may see the natural as being all there is, so defining “natural” as physical borders on making the unfounded, scientistic assumption that nothing non-physical exists. If the non-physical is not seen as unnatural per se according to this definition (perhaps it’s seen as “supernatural” instead, whatever implications that might carry), it’s at least seen as categorically different and separate from everything we naturally know. It wooifies the non-physical.

Either way, it’s wrongheaded, mundanifying, magic-killing and life-suppressing thinking. The idea that the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution have demystified the world is a myth: the world is still fundamentally mysterious; the only thing that’s changed is that our thinking has become more narrow-minded and relegated to a thin, overlaying stratum of perception, relation, mind and its faculties. See also Notes on Science, Scientism, Mysticism, Religion, Logic, Physicalism, Skepticism, Etc.

“How gibbering man becomes, when he is really clever, and thinks he is giving the ultimate and final description of the universe! Can’t he see that he is merely describing himself, and that the self he is describing is merely one of the more dead and dreary states that man can exist in?” -D.H. Lawrence