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The Natural and the Artificial

Are these plants nature?

Are these plants nature?


The Natural and the Artificial

The smart-alecky twelve-year-old I was, I'd fight the concept of nature. 

I demanded that skyscrapers, shopping malls, cars, trains, and space shuttles be included. Humans are part of nature! After all, we, the creators of this industrial wonder world, are animals, too, made up of cells just like every critter in the forest. And we decompose back into these elemental parts after our bout with phenomenal consciousness is over. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, right? 

Let's see and whip out a definition (compiled from OED and Wiktionary):

Natural, adj.; Nature, noun

1. All things unaffected by, or predating, human technology, production and design
2. The basic or inherent features, character, or qualities of a thing. That what it will tend towards by its own constitution
3. Conformity to what is natural, as opposed to artificial, forced, or removed from actual experience.

The implications are plain -- whatever humans meddle with forfeits its naturalness. At this point, I could just accept this as a linguistic quirk: to elevate themselves from the rest, humans invented a word only to describe everything but themselves and their junk. Yet, I want to go deeper and pinpoint the difference between the Natural and the Artificial. Let's take a gander at the other side of the coin.

Artificial, adj.; Artifact, noun

1. Made or produced by human beings rather than occurring naturally, especially as a copy of something natural. 
(of a situation or concept) not existing naturally; contrived or false.

2. (of a person or their behaviour) insincere or affected.

What exactly is it that makes human products artificial instead of natural? Why exclude the the smooth and brown "artifacts" you flush down the toilet every day? Is sweat nature, what about semen? Is a heart transplant an artifact? Obviously, the definitions suggest we take up the words of action: 

"Made or produced."
"Human technology, production and design."

The question about definitions transformed into a question about human action. What is the relevant sense we make a rocket as opposed to "making" a functioning heart for ourselves as we develop in our mothers' wombs, or "making" a piece of number two after a cup of coffee? 

Passed a couple of years of insisting rockets are nature, I gave some thought to atoms and molecules. If there are such things as "natural laws," and molecules "obey" them and are predictable, and if we are just piles of molecules, doesn't that mean we can be predicted too? This epiphany blew up my teenaged brain -- everything was physics, everything was nature (the Greek φύσις means nature, that what has grown), and, suddenly, everything seemed simple. 

Gradually, however, the euphoria abated. A sun of existential confusion dawned on me: what would happen with freedom, with meaning, with purpose, with experience? I sweated.

This, it seems, is the distinction. Nature is what happens, artifacts are what humans freely make and give meaning and purpose to. Our bodily actions are involuntary, whereas space engineers decide to apply for NASA, decide to go to work every day, decide to keep clicking their computers, racking their brains, and assembling the rocket parts.

It all remains very mysterious. What does deciding mean?

Stay Tuned

-- Vinski