What is “nature”?

Many critics of science, including Christian philosophers like Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig,attack something they call “naturalism”, the view that the natural world is all there is. As Papineau notes in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, the term has no very precise meaning in philosophy, or in science. However, as he goes on to note, there are two streams: ontological naturalism (the view that all that is, is natural) and methodological naturalism (the view that all that can be known can be known via natural methodologies such as scientific method). It is the former that I want to discuss today.

Naturalism relies upon there being some meaning to the term “nature”. It derives from the Latin word natus, meaning, birth. Nature is (in a human context) what you are born with. The Greek cognate term that natura translates is ousia which is a form of the verb “to be”. But despite the role that ousia played in Christian theology (the phrase “not one iota of difference” has to do with the Eastern and Western churches disputing whether the Son was of the same nature as the Father – homoousias – or a similar nature as the Father – homoiousias – quite literally one iota of difference, which split Christendom), it is the Latin term that plays a crucial role in western philosophy.

We often see advertisements that something is “all natural”, which philosophically is an absurd claim: if it exists, it is natural even if synthesised in an industrial chemical vat. And it should also be noted that arsenic is a natural substance, so make of that what you will. The word “natural” carries a lot of connotations.

John Stuart Mill, in an influential 1874 essay, noted that

As the nature of any given thing is the aggregate of its powers and properties, so Nature in the abstract is the aggregate of the powers and properties of all things. Nature means the sum of all phenomena, together with the causes which produce them; including not only all that happens, but all that is capable of happening; the unused capabilities of causes being as much a part of the idea of Nature as those which take effect.

“Nature”, however, is often held to exclude the “supernatural”, which is defined against the natural. If nature is all there is and their properties, then the supernatural doesn’t exist, or is propertyless. This cannot be the view Plantinga and Craig wish to defend, so the question remains: what is nature? Mill goes on to note that the natural is regular and lawful, that it behaves in ways which are predictable. This view is stressed, but not broken, by the existence of stochastic quantum properties like quantum foam and Hawking radiation. The regularities are just now the properties of ensembles of things, rather than of the things themselves.

This leads to the reason why ousias and nature were introduced. Around the 6th century BCE, a group of philosophers known as the Milesians started to ask what things were made of and how their properties led to the phenomena we see around us. Previously, explanations of events were tied into the role the gods played, rather capriciously and whimsically, in bring these events about. Gods were responsible for the seasons, fertility, and catastrophes. Science began when the assumption was made that the causes of things were the properties of the parts of things, which permitted us to begin to investigate these causes.

The supernatural, then, is that which does not follow from the regularities of the properties of things. The gods may have their own natures, but these are hidden from us, and their plans are opaque.

So Mill is roughly right: nature is the inherent properties and capacities of things.But the word “nature” is much more nuanced than this bare philosophical analysis. In our modern world, it has a number of meanings. The historian of nature, Peter Coates, notes five meanings:

1 – nature as a particular set of physical places, notably those parts of the world more or less unmodified by people. This meaning is captured in the phrase ‘unspoiled nature’;

2 – nature as all physical places and things, including those touched and untouched by people. Nature in this sense more or less equates with the word ‘environment’;

3 – nature as force or entity with almost religious qualities. This meaning is captured in the phrase ‘mother nature’or the ‘laws of nature’ which cause certain things to happen;

4 – nature as an essence, for example phrase human nature to explain certain behaviours;

5 – nature as the opposite of culture, so that it is everything that has nothing to do with humans.

[Coates, Peter (1998) Nature: Western attitudes since ancient times, Polity Press, Cambridge, pp 3–10.]

Nature in our time means, broadly, the world apart from human beings. Why are humans usually exempted from nature? The roots of this go back a long way. For the bulk of our existence, we humans lived as foragers (which used to be called “hunter-gatherers” by anthropologists). Like all species, though, we constructed our environment as much as we depended upon it. Elephants, for example, knock down trees and generate grassland savannahs and paths through forests. We used fire farming, selective hunting, and coevolution with other species like dogs to create our environments. Around 12,000 years ago, though, we began to use agriculture (called the neolithic transition in anthropology), and this affected our environments enormously. With a larger population density, and the effects of goats and cattle, we changed a heavily wooded Europe and the Ancient Near East into sparse shrub-dominated regions. The same thing happened also in America and Australia before the Europeans arrived. Megafauna and animals like lions and bears were hunted to local extinction. We constructed a human environment rapidly.

The availability of large food stores permitted an increase in populations. The first cities, like Ur in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), had thousands of individuals. By the time Rome hit its stride, that was millions. And the constructed environments we created were inward looking. In urbanised civilisations (the very word gives it away: city-fied), human society was more isolated from nature and even the rustic tradition in Rome was not for wild nature, but a tame agricultural environment. We saw ourselves as distinct from nature, taming it, or civilising it. The Christian tradition, in which humans were the pinnacle of creation and had dominance over nature, led further into this dualism of human/natural. As Lynn White said, the roots of our modern ecological crisis are the medieval institutionalisation of the Christian view that we dominate nature. Nature is there for us to exploit. Even so bucolic an author as Gilbert White, whose Natural History of Selbourne in the 18th century is regarded as a paen to nature, thought that the purpose of nature was for humans to find useful items. As historian Donald Worster notes:

These notes of pious admiration for the ecological order apparently did not interfere seriously with another assumption White carried along his rambles. The productions of nature, he was sure, exist partly, if not chiefly, to provide a benign and profitable environment for mankind. [Nature’s Economy: A history of ecological ideas, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1977, p8]

The “Arcadian” vision of nature was something for the benefit of humanity, decreed by a benevolent deity. So our separation from nature was based upon our agrarian, civilised, theistic vision of ourselves.

In recent years, we have seen a trend to “naturalise” humans, however. We have discovered the natural causes of mental activities and failures, of our physiology, our evolution, and even our abilities to know the world. Philosophers have attempted (or objected) to “naturalise” our epistemology, our ethics and our behaviours. A seminal essay by perhaps the most influential of American philosophers of the last century, Quine, was entitled “Epistemology naturalized”, in which he gave an evolutionary account of how it is that we can reliably know our world: evolution has made us thus:

Creatures inveterately wrong in their inductions have a pathetic but praiseworthy tendency to die before reproducing their kind. [Quine, W.V.O., 1969, Ontological Relativity and Other Essays, New York: Columbia University Press, p126.]

And this brings us back to our starting point. Plantinga argues that naturalism, if true, is self defeating. He calls this the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism [I have previously discussed this here, here and here]. If we evolved, then we have no warrant for our beliefs, since our beliefs are unreliable. So we cannot use evolution to reject the idea of God. Or something. But humans are a part of nature, as our present ecological crisis indicates. What we do has ecological consequences.We are just as bounded by nature as anything else, and our knowledge of the world depends on our being able to eliminate false beliefs, either through survival of the more correct, or by a process of eliminating beliefs that are unreliable (as in science).

In the end our idea of nature is incoherent or needs to be revised to be coherent, as Mill suggested. The world has its properties, and behaves regularly, and if there is a supernatural realm, then it cannot be investigated unless it, too, follows regular patterns.


Filed under Evolution, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Science

29 Responses to What is “nature”?

  1. David Duffy

    Reading through this, I thought a common thread might be Mind (and its products) versus mindless Nature, whether rational will versus natural base urges, domesticated versus wild, clever technological solutions to natural evils, out to various flavours of idealism.

    • That’s a good first cut, but we know (as the Cartesians and Christians denied) that animals have minds too…

      • Carl

        Certainly some Christians have denied that animals have minds, but only insofar as they were Cartesians, not as Christians. There are several Bible stories in which animals have mind-like behaviors (the snake in the garden of Eden, Balaam’s ass) and nothing in particular that can be pointed to as suggesting otherwise.

  2. Vanitas

    Hi John, I take your definition of natural to be contained in the passage: “The supernatural, then, is that which does not follow from the regularities of the properties of things. The gods may have their own natures, but these are hidden from us, and their plans are opaque.”

    I think you open up a fairly large can of worms with this attempt. If nature is defined by regularity, then all of those old Athenian tales about the gods were tales of nature, since the actions of the gods were often explained in terms of their motivations (i.e. their properties). Thunderstorm, caused by Zeus, caused by his anger.

    Also, we cannot exclude these gods simply on the basis of our lack of epistemic access to their motivations: there is no way for me to measure the motion of certain bits of matter on extremely distant galaxies, but that doesn’t mean that such matter is thereby excluded from nature (this would be a conflation of ontology and epistemology).

    I don’t mean to criticize harshly, since no-one has ever been able to define the ‘nature’ in ‘naturalism’ in a philosophically satisfying way. It’s no accident that you find it extremely difficult. But I do worry when a huge number of people are arguing over something that they haven’t been able to define.

    • That is not my definition, as I don’t seem to have one laying about. But if it were in principle (a weasel phrase) possible to investigate the regularities of gods, that would make them natural. I’m a physicalist, and so I think everything is physical, which means that it is subsumed under ideal physical theories (and thus nothing else does exist, such as divine whims, which are not physical). The term “nature” means that something is physical, or it means nothing much else. But I don’t insist upon this for those who are not physicalists.

      • Vanitas

        OK, fair enough. But now you say that (1) if the gods were regular, they would be natural, and (2) only the physical is natural. Do you want to exclude, a priori, the possibility of non-physical regularities? (I’m a naturalist too, by the way, I just worry more than most about what we are saying).

        • If the gods existed, were not physical, but were driven by their natures, I would say they are natural but not physical. As a physicalist, I do not think there is any such beast, though.

          • leopoldo

            sorry, John. If the gods are eternal, and
            immutable, I am not so sure, then they
            cannot have emotions or motives, desires,
            etc. for these would had spoiled their
            their immutability and even their omniscience. Being the gods omniscient they cannot be moved by any thing the humans could do, or by any other reason, for this would had been known since a whole eternity ago.
            The “natural” immutability of gods, a property, would not permit them to change the natural course of events.
            For in their omniscience they knew already that they would occur anyway.

  3. Markk

    I have always taken the “Natural World” in my (modern) view to be the world that we as humans can experience, investigate and and or project based on our (scientific) models.

    Then the supernatural would be “outside” this scope and not bound by our models. The scope of the things in the supernatural can go from nothing to whole realms. There is no natural way to tell that we know what the actual state is, or if one could even apply the notion.

    We seem to exist in a place with a structure that can be described by a small number of rules and have no evidence of existence of places not following these rules.

  4. gc

    “The same thing happened also in America and Australia before the Europeans arrived.”
    Don’t you mean “after the Europeans arrived”?

    • No, I mean before the Europeans arrived. Native Australians and Americans managed their environment through game management and fire farming. Amazonians had agriculture and managed woodlands. Almost no landscape was left untouched by human activity.

  5. TomS

    I cannot resist making two points when I see The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, If we evolved, then we have no warrant for our beliefs, since our beliefs are unreliable.
    (1) The argument applies with at least as much force against reproduction, development, genetics, sense perception, etc. as against evolution. More so, because of course we individuals are not evolved. Our population is. A “warranted true belief” (or however one defines “knowledge”) is not evolved, either. How does one use geocentrism to provide a warrant for our beliefs (after all, we appeared on planet of the Sun?
    (2) Supposing that the argument does cast doubt on evolution (birth, sense perception, whatever), still it does not suggest why one ought to look to “supernaturalism” for a solution. Satan is as capable of misleading us as is any optical illusion. Surely no one would seriously claim that “Satan told me so” is a warrant for my belief, so there is something other than supernaturalism needed for that warrant. And evolution is as well established as is anything in the natural world, so we know that there is a fault with the argument – unless we do, in fact, have no warrant with our beliefs consistent with evolutionary history, in which case it is pointless to look for a non-natural warrant in supernaturalism

  6. I think there is something to be said for the logical positivist definition of the supernatural: that which cannot be described. This is certainly how ‘experts’ on the supernatural treat it. A common trait they appear to have is resentment against an attempt to describe their, er…, stuff in common, rational terms. “So what is this ‘energy’, is it like heat, or radiation?” “No, no, nothing like that!”

    There is also the Islamic (Falsafa?) tradition of talking about God where he is one thing and the opposite at the same time: he would have properties and no properties, making him part of nature and supernatural, but mostly impossible to describe in meaningful terms.

    Once you have the supernatural defined, I suppose that nature is everything else.

  7. I can understand talking about the ineffable … it follows from talking about infinite, omnicient, omnipotent beings … which would certainly be ineffable to us. The real question is why (as you suggest) that doesn’t end the conversation all together. It should go something like this:

    “So, tell me about this god you believe in.”

    “God is ineffable.”

    “OK, then let’s talk about what we’re going to have for lunch.”

    The world would be a better place if we spent more time talking about what we were going to have for lunch.

  8. TomS

    I wonder about other expressions which contrast with “real” (in the sense of “physical”):
    In silico

  9. Here’s my one-liner: Nature is Planck-length membranes that perpetually vibrate in 10 space dimensions.

  10. I’m interested in the way in which people insist on using “nature” or “natural” as value-laden terms. If, to use the cliche, nature is what it is, how can nature serve as a standard since anything whatsoever counts as part of it and is as natural as the rest? Granted that’s not much of a problem for those who posit a supernatural elsewhere; but how can you go on valuing nature or even define the natural in the absence of God or a realm of the forms or something like that? It doesn’t help to say that nature is what nature would be if it didn’t fuck up since in the absence of a standard for what it should be, fucking up is undefinable and statistically aberrant behavior is just another part of the forest. As we used to say in the 60s, “Of course I’m neurotic. Angst is the Tao of the West.”

    Some of the same problem surfaces when you put too much weight on the culture/nature distinction since everybody besides the writers of science fiction and the prophets of gnostic religions eventually comes to the conclusion that culture is part of the biology of the human species. Just more nature. Note, I’m not saying talking about what comes naturally is meaningless, just that it doesn’t do to think about it too long.

    • Jeb

      I think its a fascinating subject as more often than not its a pure cultural argument that often says rather a lot about people and the context and culture which shapes such arguments.

      It also demands a generalist approach, messing around with a mass of different subject areas over a long period of time is serious fun.

      Nice article John. Not come across Peter Coates research, about to blow the Christmas book voucher on his work on invasive species.


    • Eridanus

      culture, and language, is similar to the roaring
      of the lions, or the noise made of hyenas, or the songs of birds, etc. These noises are a part of
      self trying to tell of its existence. A lion roaring
      is telling other lions he is the landowner of
      a good place to hunt. In a similar case, humans speak to inform they exist to other
      humans around. What sort of roar, or bird
      song made humans, tell us a little over
      the rank of the individual in question and about
      the language of their tribe his pertains to.
      In this sense, humans are like this bird of
      Australia or New Guinea that imitates some
      sounds that occur near them. So the Lyre bird
      imitates the sound of the switch of a camera
      of photos, or the sound of SUV starting,
      a chain saw, etc. Humans, according to their social class speak of baseball, football, or
      golf. And others can be speaking of some
      form of philosophy.

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