Nature and humans: a false dichotomy (#174)

This post was inspired by a live discussion between Slavoj Žižek (pronounced SLAH-voy zhee-ZHEK) and Yuval Noah Harari on the topic “Nature: friend or foe?”. You can watch their conversation on YouTube here.

This post presents the ideas there more concretely and expands on the same. (You don’t need to watch the video first to understand what I talk about here.)

So let’s delve in.

It is a mistake to classify humans as different from nature. It’s common to hear someone say, “I came into this world” whereas in truth one comes out of the world. Just like the flower comes out of the plant and the fruit from the tree. We are not distinct from natural phenomena but the product of it. In fact, we are it.

Anything made possible by the laws of nature is by definition natural. And anything that is unnatural, simply does not and cannot exist since it lies outside the laws of nature. Though obvious, many continue to use the “not natural” argument against certain human “interventions”.

We cannot break the laws of nature as Yuval points out in the early part of his discussion with Slavoj. They aren’t like laws of the state that order “you cannot drive more than 90mph”. Even though the law says you cannot drive over 90mph, you nevertheless overspeed to 120mph and then a policeman gives you a ticket for violating the law. But with the laws of nature, you cannot transcend them. You cannot “over speed” nor violate anything imposed by the physical laws of the universe. You are contrived, so to speak, by natural laws. So in terms of the laws of nature, anything unnatural cannot possibly exist whereas everything that can and does exist is natural. Might it be humans destroying the forest, the possibility of genetically engineering human beings, the Internet, vaccinations, AI, and so on—they are all natural. Climate change is bad not because it is somehow against “nature” but because it can potentially cause immense suffering to humans and to other sentient beings.

The argument supposedly derived from “nature” that we shouldn’t do something because it is “going against nature” is never really an argument about nature, it is almost a supernatural one. Some condemn humans on the basis of “fiddling with nature” or downright “destroying” it. But those who use this argument forget that it is nature messing with “nature”. They think there exists a regular pattern of nature that shouldn’t be fiddled with. It’s like appealing the regular pattern of nature to something mythological or supernatural. Something we humans shouldn’t pollute with our artificiality. Almost never is this an argument from nature. It is appealing to the supernatural and needlessly degrading human action that is nothing but natural.

Language surrounding the word “natural” has become deceiving. “It is not natural for humans to mate with someone from the same sex”, some still say. Though it is understood that the speaker refers to the innate desire humans (and other animals) have inherited due to their evolutionary past which makes them tend towards copulating with someone from the different sex in order to be able to procreate, “natural” doesn’t really mean anything here (nor does it in most other usage of the word in a similar sense). After all, what about all those (“exceptions to the rule”) who tend towards wanting to mate with another of their own sex? What about all the principally and practically possible and existing human activities that go against human “nature” so to speak? Are they unnatural? No, they aren’t as has already been established: anything unnatural does not exist. The fact that an act is possible or some kind of human exists is a living proof of the act or person being natural in terms of the physical universe regardless of whether or not it is according to the arbitrary usage of the word “natural”. So it is not “not natural” for humans to do anything!

Nature can be ruthless and awe-inspiring at the same time. Somewhere someone is enjoying everything about the authentically serene natural environment of the beautiful rainforest they find themselves in whereas another is struggling to find (man-made) shelter elsewhere due to a (natural) hurricane that has destroyed the entire village. More often that not nature is ruthless to us (without a mysterious force lurking behind it, of course!). Why wouldn’t it be? Nature does not care about us. It is not conscious. Slavoj, perhaps a little vulgarly calls this “Mother Nature” a bitch and it makes sense to call it that jokingly. Nature is in no way motherly. It doesn’t really provide a helpful environment for us to thrive in. We formed as a species on this planet as a result of Darwinian natural selection that “just happened” to create us. And then we got into creating technologies that helped us survive through the harshness and indifference of this bitch-like Mother Nature that with her violent storms, dreaded droughts and whatnot constantly throws unwanted “natural” danger our way. Of course nature is not all harsh. It provides rain and sun and helps our food grow. Yet it is mostly our technologies and manipulation of nature (i.e. using and transforming nature for our purposes) which has allowed us to live easily in this environment we have created for ourselves.

Nature just is. Without us, there would be no good nor bad. That doesn’t mean everything without us (i.e. everything “natural” as some say) is good though—since there would be neither bad nor good without us. It also does not mean that humans and whatever they do (since they supposedly go against “nature”) is bad (same reason why).

Something that was true throughout history as Yuval points out is that it’s much easier to manipulate a system than to understand the full consequences of what you’re doing. We must understand and be wise enough to predict the effects of our manipulation of the environment before we end up doing something we shouldn’t have.

We need to stop using this argument that something is good or bad because it is natural or unnatural and move on to other arguments about morality. We should focus on the moral problem that arises from humans “intervening” (or not intervening) in the “regular pattern of nature”. Morality is a question about what to do next. Should we do it? Why or why not? Will doing it cause suffering or harm? Will it be evil not to do it?

Ultimately, it’s irrational to use the “not natural” argument to fight against humans creating technologies that will shape the environment for the better or worse when what we should really be tackling is the objectively moral aspect of implementing those technologies.

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