What exactly does "nature" mean? Where do these meanings come from? And how do they shape our policies and interactions with it?
I want to close out on the thread I’ve been running for almost a month now. We’ve been discussing the supernatural: superstition and idolatry, miracles, and more specifically the Resurrection leading into Easter. And today, I want to focus on nature, or the natural, to contrast and complement the previous discussion.
As always, let’s start with definitions. What comes to your mind when you hear the word “nature”? Depending on what you like, or where you grew up, you may think of a pristine beach, an unaltered valley, an untouched mountain brimming with wildlife, and similar images. To a great degree, today’s definition of nature goes hand in hand with “unadulterated” or “unaltered”.
What if I tell you that this is a fairly recent definition?
When you look back in time, the first meanings of “nature” had to do with “being” and “growing”. The alternate meaning, having to do with “essence” or “character”, is also pretty old. At some point, the word took on a very broad meaning: the phsyical or material world at large, or even the whole universe.
Two examples illustrate this meaning. First, you may have heard of a very prestigious scientific journal, where several break-through discoveries have been first announced Do you remember its title? That’s right; it’s Nature. Here’s the second example. Do you remember the definition of “metaphysics” in philosophy? It’s the branch that studies reality, and the connection between mind and matter. It’s a Greek portmanteau that literally means “beyond nature”. Beyond the physical.
A contested debate that persists to this day is whether humanity itself is part of nature, or whether human activity can always be considered natural. On one hand, everything we do in the physical world seems to involve some manipulation, transformation or application of things that already existed. Even something as artificial as a plastic plant is made of products derived from natural substances, like oil. On the other hand, if we define nature as “that which lives and grows”, pretty much all human products by definition become artificial.
What influences the various definitions of nature? Like many other definitions and groundings for concepts, our worldviews inform the definitions we choose. Here are a few examples.
In the pantheist worldview, God is nature. This is the viewpoint of Hinduism, as well as several Aboriginal cultures. Even today, you may hear Earth being called “Gaia” or “Mother Nature”, either as a belief or as a poetic designation. That will inform a specific attitude towards nature.
Conversely, in an atheist worldview, nature is simply matter, the expression of the laws uncovered by science. Here’s Charles Darwin’s definition:
I mean by Nature only the aggregate action and product of many natural laws, and by laws the sequence of events as ascertained by us.
This will also inform specific attitudes of its own.
And taking Christianity as an example of a monotheist worldview, God is not nature, but exists outside of it. As Creator, nature bears His mark and points to Him. Humanity is His masterpiece, part of creation and therefore part of nature, with a special role in it – to fill it and to subdue it. Yet another specific attitude towards nature.
These are the major religious worldviews. We can also look at this from a metaphysical point of view – from the perspective of how do we define and relate to reality. Here’s an interesting articulation from Gene Edward Veith, Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College. From a modernist viewpoint, where all that exists is the physical or the “rational” abstract, mind is external to nature; thus, free to observe and decode it, to anticipate it, to even predict it. Nature is just the expression of the laws of science. This is essentially the same as the atheist viewpoint we saw earlier. From a post-modernist viewpoint, mind is not just external to nature – it actively seeks to bend or build reality in its own shape. This viewpoint seeks to apply technology to modify or re-shape our environment – our own bodies, even – to better conform to the reality that the mind dictates.
What About Science?
Hopefully, by now it’s obvious that our relationship with nature, the boundaries and the contract we set for ourselves, are mainly dictated by our worldview. But – why is it so? Isn’t this the domain of science? Wouldn’t you expect this to be the ideal type of problem that science can solve?
To answer this, I need to go back to a foundational concept we’ve discussed here before. Science cannot take the place of philosophy. A lot of the problems people have with science today have nothing to do with science itself, but with the appropriation of science by some philosophical worldview. Thus, you often find the post-modernist, or the religious, taking issue with science. But science is not the enemy. Science simply can’t answer questions about origin, identity, purpose, morality or destiny.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped several worldviews from hijacking science in various ways. Take the current conflict on climate change. No matter what side of it you’re on, there seems to be science on both sides of the debate. There also seem to be other interests that may obscure or alter science. After all, both sides can’t be right. Unfortunately, pure and raw science can be as difficult to find as a patch of nature in a poorly planned mega city.
The Issue of Incomplete or Inconsistent Worldviews
Thus, we’re left with our philosophical worldviews – which, to make things more complicated, we seldom adopt comprehensively, as a whole. This makes it hard to agree on anything but the most basic and fundamental facts. I think most people would agree that some degree of preservation of nature in its original state is necessary. That some measure of contact with such nature is healthy and desirable, while also agreeing that some degree of intervention is needed to maximize our health and comfort. But from here, things get messy in a hurry.
Let’s look at the following question: is something “natural” always better than something artificial?
Think about housing. For safety, security, and privacy reasons, we intervene nature substantially when we build our homes. We use a mixture of materials, in various degrees of transformation, to prepare our homes and surroundings. And interestingly, this isn’t limited to the boundaries. We also alter the climate, controlling the temperature and the humidity, and effectively insulating our dwellings from their surroundings. While we cherish the occasional interaction with nature “in the raw”, in general we seem to prefer certain improvements to our environment.
What about food? Do you prefer seedless grapes, or regular ones? What about watermelons? We know that naturally occurring genetic errors cause fruit to lack seeds, or at least visible and hard seeds. And there are generally natural techniques to breed these variants. So, which one’s the natural fruit: the regular one, or the seedless one?
What about changing the shape of fruit, like those cubic watermelons that are grown into a container, and take its shape? They were invented in Japan in order to be easier to fit in fridges and safer to cut. Are they natural? Are they better than natural fruit?
What about plant-based meat substitutes? Companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat take plant-based proteins and other ingredients, and process them to reproduce meat’s flavors, texture and other attributes. This is supposed to be better for our health, and better for the environment. In that sense, is it better than “natural” beef and poultry?
And what about Genetically Modified Organisms or GMOs? According to some worldviews, any application of science to nature is itself nature. But these products remain controversial. We don’t want to repeat the experience of margarine and other vegetable fat spreads, which in time were found to be less healthy – not more – than the animal fat products they sought to replace.
As we talk about fat, I think about energy. What’s the best source of energy? Is it natural? Is it moral to continue to use gas for our vehicles? Or should they run on electricity? If so, where do we source it from? The sun? The wind? Nuclear energy? What about controversies around the materials used to build batteries for cars, and the total cost of production and ownership? Are we condemned to continue to burn carbon for decades to come? Can we even afford it?
And again, note how the underlying worldview shapes many of these reactions – sometimes in surprising ways. Remember Professor Veith’s observation on modernist and post-modernist approaches to nature? They seemed fairly different, but in his view, they stem from the same idea – the idea of humans as something apart from nature. The idea, even, of humans in the place of God.
I can think of at least one example where these opposite viewpoints converge. When the pandemic started, there was no shortage of cartoons and stickers decrying humans as “the true virus”. Interestingly, my first recollection of this concept goes back to 1999, when the seminal Matrix movie came out. “Humans as a virus” was a key characterization of humans by the simulation, through Agent Smith.
I think it’s no coincidence that this came up in a movie that questions the very reality of our world. If reality is just a construct of mind, then humanity has no special place in creation, and no special rights to it. But also – if this world exists merely by chance, as materialists believe, then humanity has no special place in it, and no special rights to it either.
Does the Christian worldview fare better? I think it does. Remember, no matter how modern and complicated these problems seem, we can always go back to the origin and purpose to find guiding principles. In Christianity, this is laid out very early in the book of Genesis. God created everything (“nature”, in its broadest definition). Therefore, humans are also created, and as such, are part of nature. Moreover, we have a special role within nature – to “fill the Earth and subdue it”. Though Eden was perfect in every sense, Adam was in charge of working and caring for it.
These basic facts can shed light on some of our issues. In them, there is an implicit expectation to sensibly exploit nature to mankind’s benefit. In this viewpoint, God continues to develop His creation providentially, which is to say, through our own efforts. This viewpoint entails the broad definition of nature, where everything around us – yes, even our homes, our cars (whether gas-powered or electric) are in a sense part of nature, by contrast with the supernatural realm.
However, as I like to say, heaven is in the details. The interpretation of these principles can be diverse. The idea that this earth is marked for destruction, and that our true identity and destiny are spiritual, has been used to justify attitudes and practices that others deem incompatible with the stewardship of creation endowed to us. What is the right definition of “subdue”? And if nature encompasses the whole universe, is humanity really able to destroy it? Is it really able to save it?
Fascinating questions. And faced with problems like this, I’ll take a worldview with sound foundational principles over any other, any day. Because then I know what my homework looks like. Dig deep into those foundational definitions. Think carefully as I answer new questions from first principles. Seek the viewpoint that best corresponds to facts, even if it doesn’t fulfill my innermost desires or inclinations.
I fully expect these isues to flare up as the next federal budget is announced. The budget is expected to earmark significant spending on a so-called “green recovery”. And if this really is a life-and-death matter, the crisis of our generation – I hope we can come together and think robustly, carefully and respectfully about all the implications – the evident ones, for sure, but also the more nuanced ones, too.