Friday, January 2, 2009

On "Natural."

One of the concepts that is very difficult for many people to grasp is the meaning of "natural."  It's another one of those words we use in at least a half a dozen ways, and we tend to interchange them or worse -- use the word without any precise meaning.

To a materialist, the word "unnatural" is almost nonsensical.  That is, the natural universe is defined as everything that exists.  Saying that something is unnatural is equivalent to saying that it doesn't exist, much the same as supernatural, preternatural, or any other variation of the word.

Most people, however, aren't using the word in this strict sense.  When someone says that something is unnatural, they mean something more akin to "extremely out of the ordinary."  When we talk about behavior, morality, or other social phenomena, we normally use unnatural to mean "highly deviant."  (Nevermind that deviant is equally difficult to define, especially for psychologists.)  When we talk about the earth, unnatural usually means man-made.

If you've read my blog on free will, you know that from a strictly materialist point of view, we can't really make a distinction between natural and unnatural in many of these cases.  Humans are as much a product of evolution as anything else, and there is really no objective difference between the tools we make and the tools used by birds or chimps.  Our tools are certainly far more sophisticated, and require more "design," but our ability to make the tools is granted by our genes, just as a chimp's ability to use a stick or rock is granted by its genes.

The universe as we know it is ordered and lawful.  That is, everything does what it does because there is no alternative.  Even though carbon can form a vast number of different bonds with a large number of other elements, there is no such thing (nor will there ever be) as a car that randomly spits diamonds out its exhaust pipes instead of carbon dioxide.  Similarly, humans cannot help but be what we are.  We are conscious.  We have morals.  We have desires.  In all cases, we have no choice but to be human, for we are also made of elements which have no choice but to do what they do.

I've addressed how this effects free will as a concept, so I will not belabor the point.  What I'd like to focus on here is that the debate between design and accident is a non-debate from the materialist point of view.  A spaceship is something built by man, to be sure.  We designed it and built it with the purpose of flying it into space.  However, and this is the crucial point, purpose itself is something that has happened entirely naturally, and cannot be avoided any more than carbon dioxide can avoid being expelled from a combustion engine.

Consciousness evolved without consciousness, and it is just like long legs or molars in the eyes of evolution.  Certainly it is an emergent property -- that is, it is greater than the sum of its parts -- but there's nothing magical about that.  Emergence is not limited to consciousness, but we as humans have the tendency to view consciousness as being special because it dominates our lives.  We cannot imagine being unconscious yet alive.  For that matter, we cannot imagine life in any other way than how we experience it.  The fact is, though, that millions of other organisms do experience life in very different ways, and they are just as oblivious to our experience.

We think of human accomplishment as having meaning, and it does -- within the context of human awareness.  Someone asked me one time, "When humanity is gone, what will be the greatest thing we accomplished?"  I replied that I couldn't possibly answer that question because value only exists within the context of human existence.  Once we are gone, everything we have done will be completely meaningless.  Without a frame of reference, there is no way to answer the question.

I know this is a bit rambling, so I'll recap the major points I'm trying to make.  Natural and unnatural are tricky words, and strictly speaking, "unnatural" doesn't exist.  Everything that humans do is natural.  We place value on actions and things, but only because we cannot help but do so.  Consciousness is just as much a part of the ordered and lawful universe as anything else.  We cannot help but be conscious, and we cannot help but be human.  Anything and everything we do in life is done precisely and only because we are as completely immersed in the natural universe as anything else.

Ok.  If this is making you uncomfortable, go back and re-read my blog on free will.


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