What is "Nature"?

The “Is a man a part of nature?” thread got me wondering just how folks define nature to themselves.

Is it any green space outside a city? Is it the mythical(?) unspoiled wilderness (the ideal of Eden)? Is it like Tennyson said, “…red in tooth and claw.”?

Is nature scenery? Snowcapped mountains? Stormfraught seas? The shifting sands of deserts and coastal dunes?

Does nature include the artifacts of humanity: If farmland is part of nature, aren’t cities also part of it?

This sounds like a GD to me, manny. wink

I read a book called Darwin’s Worms by Adam Philips. He said that nature is everything esential about ourselves. When something is natural it means we have no choice in the matter. Nature effectively sets some kind of limit to what we might think of as politics.

If something is natural this is where discussion must stop and we must bear our fate. Nature replaces consensus or law or duty as our guide. That’s what he said - almost word for word I think.

Hmmmm, G. Nome. Nature as determinism? A bit more abtract (and more Newtonian)than I was hoping for, maybe. Could lead this thread into souls and Prime Movers, and god knows where else from there – not that there’s anything wrong with that, I suppose. But what about physical, tangible nature? What does it consist of?

The word “nature” has been called the most complex word in the English language. So, as far as I’m concerned, your question is one of the most difficult you could submit to the Straight Dope. It probably rates up there with “Is it possible that you are really Cecil Adams?” and stuff like that.

I believe Nature can mean the essential quality or character of something, the inherent force which directs the world or the material world itself. Your question is about the material world and whether things in it can be called natural if they are man-made. That’s fine by me because I don’t want to go on giving the impression I believe all that “biology is destiny” stuff.

You can divide everything that exists into two categories can’t you? The products of the human mind and everything else. Usually what people make is considered unnatural e.g. machines and everything else is natural. (I think that view orginally depended on seeing human beings as having fallen from a state of grace). So you find definitions like: “nature is what man has not made, though if he made it long enough ago - a desert for instance - it will usually be included as natural.” In genetic terms does that mean that if you wait long enough transgenic animals will be considered natural? That in the 22nd Century a human/camel hybrid will, in fact, be considered one of God’s creatures?

I was hoping for a little more feedback on this. Ummm, how about I take one part of my OP and expand on it…

Does nature include the artifacts of humanity? The question itself, of course, is in some respects a restatement of “Is man a part of nature?” I believe the answer to that question is yes.

I also believe that what we humans make is a part of nature.
We are but one species of organism on this planet. Like all other organisms, we reproduce. Like beavers, we build shelters. Like ants, we colonize new areas. Also like ants, we keep herds of livestock to provide us with convenient access to food. Like bees, we build cities.

The most profound way that we differ from other species is that we talk incessantly about we have done, what we are doing, and what we will do. This does not mean that we are outside or above nature. It is only one more example of nature’s mind-boggling richness in variety; one more manifestation of nature’s infinite possibilities.

I say infinite because what I see as nature is the Universe.
The scope of nature humbles me. As a human being, it frightens me to look up and realize that I only one of a few billion members of one species confined to one “pale blue dot” orbiting one of billions of stars in one galaxy drifting in a limitless Universe.

Damn, I have to run to work. I’m not finished my train of thought, but I’m going to post this anyway.

Perhaps this belongs in IMHO… what do you think, Mods?

I am going to be late for work. G. Nome, I will take those thoughts with me and chew 'em over.

Yeah, I was just waiting to see whether IMHO or GD was the right place.

Off to IMHO.

How about this as a definition of nature, and an exploration of whether both man and his artifacts are part of it?

(Please correct me if my reasoning is flawed.)

The universe is infinite.

The law of the conservation of mass-energy states that the total amount of mass-energy in the universe never changes. E = mc² allows mass to change to energy, and energy to mass, but does not allow an increase or loss in the total amount of mass-energy. Therefore everything in the universe consists of some part of that unchanging amount of mass-energy.

If nature is defined as the essence of a thing, is it then reasonable to postulate that the stuff of which the universe is made – its mass-energy, its essence – is definable as its nature? If so, doesn’t it follow that, since everything which we can perceive consists of either mass, or energy, everything we perceive must be said to be part of the nature of the infinite universe? Can’t nature then be defined as that which we can perceive as the universe? In other words, the universe itself is nature.

If everything we perceive is part of nature, then every event (I’m using event to mean any configuration of mass, or energy, be it animate, or inanimate, from a sedimentary rock to a vertebrate to a black hole) which has a possiblity of occurring within the infinite universe must be natural. This makes it meaningless to speak of an event, or a possible event, as being unnatural.

When we say an event is unnatural what we really mean is that we think it may be harmful to us in some manner.

Take G. Nome’s hypothetical example of a human/camel hybrid, for instance. When I think of events which have occurred in the last few years within the field of biotechnology, events such as introducing the luminescence of a firefly into a tobacco plant, or causing a mouse to grow a human ear (the first example consists not only of transferring a gene between species, but between phyla!), I immediately want to pronounce these things as unnatural because I don’t know where they will lead. What I actually mean is that I’m afraid that loss of control of biotechnology will harm me or my descendants in some manner.

But humanity is only one small part of nature. What is harmful to us as individuals, or as a species, is not harmful to nature as a whole: Remember, the total of amount of mass-energy which is the essence, the nature, of the universe, never changes.

I can see the possiblity of this line of thought leading to nihilism. But I don’t believe it has to.

While we may seem insignificant in the infinite(?) array of possibilities inherent in the nature of the universe, we must remember that, by virtue of the fact that we exist as an event within the universe, we are an essential part of nature’s form, just as nature – because we are made up of molecules which consist of atoms which are in turn comprised of the sub-atomic particles which appear to be the basic fabric of that very mass-energy which is nature – is the essence of our form. We are formed from the essence of nature.

Our very consciousness, the thing on which we pride ourselves, is made possible by nature. The consciousness which allows us to perceive and observe the rest of the universe is seated firmly in the brain. And what is the brain but one possible event, one possible configuration, of that mass-energy which never increases or lessens?

Our artifacts are not willed into being. They require the spending of energy. First we conceive of the possiblity of an artifact in the consciousness, the brain. We call this being creative; it uses energy. Then we look for the best possible way of making that which we conceived. We call this analysing; it also uses energy. Once we have decided on how to make our artifact, we gather what we need from our surroundings; again using energy. Each step of the process from conception to completion involves manipulating a part of that total mass-energy.

From this (wordy and unwieldy as it may be) can we not conclude that humanity and everything humanity makes are part of nature?

(Does that make any sense to others?)

[Edited by Czarcasm on 01-18-2001 at 09:04 PM]

Like a lot of words, nature can be altered to represent a whole bunch of opposites. Off the top of my head:

Not Man Made vs. Man Made

Pastoral vs. Urban

Luddite vs. Scientific

Instinctual vs. Intenional

I think the majority of people who don’t think about it too much view nature as:

Things as They Are vs. Things as They Are Becoming

A skyscraper or an automobile is seen as “natural” because we are used to it. A glowing tobacco plant is “unnatural” because it is not (yet) part and parcel of the modern human existence. It’s on the outside of our personal universes, and hence viewed as something fearful and strange. Same thing with a lot of cultural/artistic movements. We see the music we grew up on as “natural” because it is an integrated part of who we are as individuals and as a generation. The music of past/future generations is (until and unless we develop an ear for it) “unnatural” because its style doesn’t mesh with our currently concieved notions of what music is.

Still, nature is really just a word, and hence can mean cabbage vs. not cabbage if enough people get together and agree on it.

I like to say that all chemicals are made from all natural ingredients. The material was dug up or derived from something. So even the worse chemical you can imagine in made from all natural ingredients.

Although the iron is our blood may be identical with that in our artifacts the differences between human beings and golf clubs, for instance, make it unlikely they will ever be seen as equals. Are there no distinctions to be drawn, as far as you are concerned, between the living and non-living or the conscious and non-conscious?

Our ability to manipulate nature or, as you describe it matter and energy, is a result of of biological evolution. But although our brains may consist of mass/energy and the things we create are made of mass/energy we are not the things we create and they are not us. We remain alive and they don’t become alive and a tool used to create an object remains a tool.

I do, indeed, draw such distinctions: A oak tree is a tree, and not a granite boulder. The lines blur, though…

For instance, viruses acts like living things in that they replicate, make copies of themselves. But take viruses out of living tissue and they cystalize into inert polyhedron forms – they show no signs of life. Put them back into the plant or animal you took them from and away they go with their damn replication again.

I think we would agree that viruses are part of nature. But are they living, or non-living?

I would qualify this by saying one possible result of biological evolution.

We, as conscious beings, are a manifestation of one possiblity of nature. And what we make is an extension of us.

Hmmmm, okay, maybe I can put it this way: Water is wet, sand is dry; when we add water to sand, we do not say that the resulting mud is not a part of nature. We simply accept it as what happens when water and sand are mixed. We accept it as part of nature.

Consciousness observes, reflects on what it observes, makes connections between observations and, as one possible result of these actions, creates. What it creates is as much a part of nature as mud.

Myself, I predict dualism will make a big comeback sometime in the next twenty years. Does dualism make sense to you in any way?

If I am right about only one thing it is about how confusing this subject is. When you say everything is natural are you really saying anything at all? Is even the interesting thought that “all of our artifacts exist only because they fit into natural possibility…out of complete deference to nature” (Mary Catherine Bateson)really saying much? She was talking about how “unnatural” things like nuclear power plants still count as natural because they are built in accordance with the laws of physics etc. But isn’t she just saying everything is everything - much like you?

I seem to fall victim to synchronicity more often than I would like and while I realise that discussing this when there are skeptics nearby can only be bad (and a fast track to the Francis Farmer underwear department) I can’t help but bring up the jar thing. Jars are a part of the one other thread I am currently a contributor to and they fit in with this one too. It’s because of the Wallace Stevens poem:

The Anecdote of the Jar

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
I am right in thinking you don’t see things Wallace Stevens’ way?

Hmmm. Jars. Wallace Stevens. Not the idea of the thing, but the thing itself… Been a long time since I read that poem. I’m not saying I’m right in what I’ve said about nature, I’m just searching for a more satisfactory way to define it to? for? myself. Could you expand some on how “The Anecdote of the Jar” fits into your idea of nature? (And yes, sychronicity might be a little difficult to defend – it often is. Let’s leave it at coincidence, shall we?)

Well, in the same way an intelligence test sometimes shows a person how smart they would have been not to have taken it, interpreting Wallace Stevens poems for me is a risky business. But the subject matter of the Anecdote of the Jar - man and nature - was identical with your thread’s so I just thought I’d bring it up. I tentatively see the poem as a support of my argument that man made artifacts are not “natural”. I think he sees nature and civilisation as inimical in some way.

Perhaps when consciousness reaches a self-referential level the animal possessing it isn’t a perfect ecological fit any more and what eventuates is much like the Biblical fall from grace. A fall from grace in ecological terms would be a loss of balance. The ability to make and use nuclear weapons is surely an unbalanced thing even if as you say “they are not harmful to nature as a whole.” So all bombs are natural except the one that blows up the whole universe at once? I think I remember reading in Omni magazine once that experiments with antimatter have the potential to do just that. I wish I could remember more about it. I think Greenpeace were trying to stop them.

Hey thanks, Czarcasm, for fixing my screw-up. It was a bit hard on the eyes.

Tentatively was a good choice of words, because the support is tenuous. Stevens specifically used the word wilderness in the poem, not the word nature – the two are not synonymous. And, as it is a poem by a fine poet who paid close attention to his work, I would have to say that wilderness is in fact what he meant.

Wilderness and manmade artifacts are often at odds with each other since man normally seeks to alter his environment to make it both comfortable and predictable; while wilderness, what little there is left of it, tends to grow every which way and be chockfull of surprises. This too, is natural.

Sounds familiar. Have you read Evan Eisenberg’s The Ecology of Eden?

<nothamlet mumbles to himself>
bomb that would blow up the whole universe…
how did Hactar get into this?
<looks around, sees no white robots,
breathes a sigh of relief and lights a smoke>

I refer you to a previous post in which I asked if nature could be defined as the universe: If the mass-energy of the universe does not increase, or decrease, if it can neither be created, nor destroyed – as physics, in my slight understanding, seems to say – then your question is meaningless.

Nature… that which is natural… that which is not governed by LOGIC against its INSTINCT. Whether it be grass or a forest or bugs or cows or a spontaneous and loving person.

which by the way means that most things humans make aren’t natural because they fight chaos.

Could you expand on this? As it stands, your first statement does not mean your second statement.

Humans, cows, bugs, blades of grass; all these exist as ordered groupings of cells. Is this unnatural?