The Battle for Our Place in Nature
Yes, 100%: if you use the definition of nature that physicists use, nothing is therefore outside of nature. This includes all of our technology and everything we have ever done, or will ever do. We live in the universe, and we are subject to the same laws as everything else in the universe.
Some folks get hung up on the word, though, and mean "everything besides humans." It's a pretty common usage, probably a lot more common than the physics-oriented one I tend to prefer using. I'm not sure how useful of a distinction it is to divide "us" and "them", except insofar as (as you point out) that we are likely the only entities who consider our larger role with regard to the planet and cosmos.
I think 95% or more of these types of arguments arise because folks mean different things by words. It's possible to argue about the nature of consciousness, freedom, intelligence, and so on. Here, it's easy to argue about "nature" when you mean two different things by the word.
I think the real philosophical question to ask is: do we have an obligation to preserve the other species on earth if we are the only ones who understand that we're killing them? Does the curse of the Tree of Knowledge give us some kind of moral obligation that other (oblivious) species like cyanobacteria don't have?
Interesting stuff. I immediately thought of Maria Montessori’s lecture on nature vs supernature when I saw this post. First delivered in 1946: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1077012.pdf
The Second Law of Thermodynamics, the concept of entropy, is really the core of any such discussion that attempts to separate what is "natural" from "unnatural." This law holds that universe tends toward the diffusion of energy. On the surface, life seems to counter entropy by creating order from the chaos and concentrating energy. In fact, life does exactly the opposite. Life is a vehicle that while it lowers entropy within itself, actually accelerates the trend toward increasing entropy for everything around it.
We humans are no different, not just in our biological processes, but in modern usage of energy for industrial processes. When we pump oil (concentrated fossilized energy) and burn it in our cars, buses, and trains, we convert low entropy to high entropy far faster than the universe would be able to on its own. From this perspective, everything we do is fulfilling the universe's purposes.
Am working on a write up for Risk & Progress on this very topic.
Really interesting article. I tend to agree with your assessment that human behavior is "natural". There is a growing subset of influencers on social media that call for a return to a "primal" or "natural" state of existence. The recent steroid scandal surrounding the Liver King comes to mind. The underlying premise of these influencers seems to be that humanity's progress out of a dysentery-ridden existence was an unfortunate accident.
I believe that Christianity and other widespread religions serve as a rectifying force for humanity's childish tendencies for destruction and wild play in nature. I don't attribute this aspect of religion as the sole reason for the existence of religion, but it is an integral part. They demand personal responsibility from humanity at every level of analysis: personal and political, home and community, individual and group.
Fascinating insight or perspective of what human purpose is, in nature. I've always wondered what that is. One thing I've realized by researching world leaders and inherent Kings, Pharaohs, Emperor's and the like. Is: "just because you can doesn't mean you should." Which I interpret as not abusing one's supernatural abilities to overcome others, but to be empathetically conscious enough to realize your not.
I'm looking forward to reading more of this. Thanks.
Wonderful article Michael! I especially loved being reminded of the cyanobacteria. From the page you linked:
> As methane was displaced by oxygen, global temperatures cooled sufficiently to generate ice sheets that extended all the way from the poles to the tropics.
> Since life was totally anaerobic 2.7 billion years ago when cyanobacteria evolved, it is believed that oxygen acted as a poison and wiped out much of anaerobic life, creating an extinction event.
This ties nicely into our discussion on climate change. Your view (if I understand it correctly) is that we shouldn’t try to reduce carbon emissions, and that we might actually benefit from the change, such as by forcing us to move and redesign our cities to better fit our needs.
Most people would say these 2 consequences (global cooling and species extinction) were BAD, but if they hadn’t occurred we wouldn’t be here today and Earth would have been a very different (and perhaps much more desolate) planet.
It is interesting to point out, as a meta observation, the human capacity for self-reflection, as evidenced by the writing of philosophical articles, is a unique feature of our species. It is the product of our conscious awareness and ability to reason, which are cognitive abilities that are not shared by other animals. None of the animals you mention, as far as I know, have the ability, nor the need, to sit and examine why they do what they do and if the nature of their abilities is natural or supernatural.
So just so you know how I'm understanding the definitions: Natural refers to phenomena that occur within the natural world and are governed by the laws of nature. Examples include evolution, natural selection, and the activities of other species that impact the environment. In the context of humans, natural processes include our evolution from primates and our use of natural resources. It follows that any processes that further arises due to priors is also natural. If humans evolved a consciousness through millions of years we would then conclude that the ways in which man expresses that consciousness, such as philosophizing and solving man mad problems like pollution, is also a natural occurrence.
Supernatural refers to phenomena that lie beyond the natural world and cannot be explained by the laws of nature.
So religious beliefs about the creation of humans by God(s) and some even peoples having animistic tendencies (believing natural things around them also possesses a spirit) is certainly unique among humans and thanks to our consciousness process but would lean towards the supernatural.
So our ability to actively conserve the environment through laws and stewardship. We could look at this as a natural and supernatural thing. We are natural organisms that are subject to the same laws of biology as other species. However, we also possess unique cognitive abilities that allow us to understand and manipulate the natural world in ways that other species do not. We understand the consequences of not conserving our environment and what this will mean in the future so we have a means and an ends to act.
But do humans engage in activities such as environmental conservation, which can be seen as a form of transcendence of the natural world? I have come across some Native American customs and other spiritualties that have animistic tendencies that oddly enough also conclude, among other things, that the environment must be conserved for reasons that are spiritual and that the reason is deduced through a spiritual kind of contemplation rather than a deduction based on naturalistic observation.
So I think I am with you on humans being natural and supernatural. Someone may point out that for something to supernatural, given the definition earlier, we can extrapolate that natural things follow a cause-and-effect pattern. The supernatural is often viewed as those causes or effects in the world which does not follow this chain; as for example the idea of an uncreated or perhaps a self-created deity suddenly creating the universe that did not previously exist.
I think your argument in the article illustrates this point:
- Cyanobacteria caused a mass extinction event by producing oxygen pollution.
- Beavers terraform landscapes through dam building.
- Ants farm fungi and keep livestock.
∴ Therefore, human activities like pollution, terraforming, farming and livestock are aligned with natural processes exhibited by other species.
And we can further conclude from the argument that all animals including us are reacting to a cause-and-effect chain of events. That is natural. Further:
- Humans evolved through natural selection from primate ancestors
- Everything humans use and create comes from the natural world
∴ Therefore, what humans do must be natural, outside of supernatural implications.
So based on my distinction between what is natural and supernatural I would tweak the argument thusly:
- Human actions are aligned with the broader dynamics of the natural world
- Humans also possess the unique ability to attribute or perceive supernatural traits in the world that cannot be explained by natural processes
- Advanced environmental mastery is a natural tendency of humans, but this tendency can also be motivated by supernatural beliefs and values
∴ Humans exist in a tension between being both natural and supernatural beings.
I think tension is at the crux of the issue and what philosophers, theologians, and scientists struggle with.
Would love to get your thoughts on this and if you think I'm way off base or not.
There is a phrase I love, used by Alan Watts, which does an astonishing job of identifying both mindsets: "Do you say 'I was born into this world...' or do you say 'I was born out of it...'"