Only gods and magic are “unnatural”

I dislike the manner in which we use the words “nature” and “natural” to surround some things with a halo of virtue and rectitude and righteousness, while we use “unnatural” to disparage others. The usage is somewhat perverse and illogical. There are some who define “nature” as “existing in or derived from nature; not made or caused by humankind”. By what logic can humans not be part of nature? Are they inherently, unnatural? What actually is “nature”? Is my garden part of nature or an unnatural artefact created by man. I find that defining nature without man is almost as stupid as defining “environment” to be all that excludes man and his works.

When a male lion takes over a pride from another and kills all his predecessor’s cubs it is natural and a part of nature. When ISIS does something similar, it is barbaric and unnatural. When weeds take over my garden and kill other plants, it is natural. If I use weed killer, it is unnatural. When humans make artefacts, they are unnatural. When a chimpanzee uses a stick to poke into and extract insects from down a hole, it is a wonder of nature. Evolution is taken to be a natural wonder of nature. But less than 1% of all species produced by evolution are still alive. Of all the species alive today, most have failed to develop any semblance of intelligence. Should I take human intelligence and its evolution to be unnatural? (Actually, I take the fact that only humans, of all the species, have developed intelligence to any degree, as being proof of the ineffectiveness of evolution). Earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis are examples of the awesome power of nature and perfectly natural. How is it that when an earthquake and tsunami kills 18,000 it is natural but when the same event damages a man-made nuclear reactor and causes great fear – but no loss of life and relatively little damage – it is unnatural?

When the monsoon fails once every decade or brings bumper rains – also around once a decade – it is natural variation. Almost every location on earth sees a natural variation of temperature during a single day of between 10 and 30ºC. Over a year the natural temperature variation at any location is between 30 and 50ºC. But an alleged temperature warming of about 0.8ºC over the last 100 years is termed unnatural. Natural climate change has caused forests to become pastures and vice versa. What were deserts in the past have become fertile land and what were seas in the past have become deserts today.Rivers have changed their courses and even ceased to flow or been created. All that was perfectly natural.

When some event or behaviour is deemed natural or to have natural causes, no further explanation is necessary. It is used to shut down discussion or questioning of the causes. A natural death needs no further explanation or discussion. When bad behaviour is to be excused it is termed natural whether it is the behaviour of a lion or a human psychopath. We tend to use unnatural to be synonymous with abnormal. Abnormal of course only means that the probability of something is low – not that it is impossible. We use the terms to imbue virtue or awe to the event or thing or behaviour being described. Natural foods are good foods. Natural storms are awesome and unstoppable. And we use unnatural to disparage without further justification. Our use of natural and unnatural already includes a value judgement.

The natural world can only be everything that obeys the laws of nature (as we know them). And that has to include humans and their works. There is nothing holy or sacrosanct then about being natural. The conclusion I come to is that there is nothing we know of in the Universe which is not part of nature. Everything is part of nature And everything that exists or happens in the Universe is also natural.

And that leaves only the gods and magic as being unnatural.

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2 Responses to “Only gods and magic are “unnatural””

  1. Rahul Murdeshwar Says:

    In response to your concluding statements, i think its counter-intuitive too label everything as natural anyway.
    Apropos the first section of the article, i think you can label most human activities that are conducted as a result of human intelligence as unnatural. You said yourself that humans are exceptionally intelligent, or at least i think you did. That exceptional intelligence can be defined as a deviation from a statistical norm prevalent among all creatures on Earth, or ‘unnatural’, statistically. Using that definition of our unnatural intelligence, one can say that all actions executed by humans that are characteristic to other species are natural (when i say this, i mean things we do that are shared by other animals- things like psychopathy, murder, organized murder, even basic forms of leadership, can all be termed as natural as they are seen in other life forms as well.)
    Conversely, unnatural actions can be termed as things done by humans characteristic of higher intelligence, for example, violation of artificial peace by ISIS, or manufacturing of potted plants, or consumerism.
    To be honest, i’m a tad bit confused by my own comment.
    Anyway, thanks for posting, good read.

  2. ktwop Says:

    I agree that intelligence among species is abnormal (statistically) but abnormal is still natural. “Male” and “female” are the two peaks on the bi-polar gender scale. Other positions on this scale are “abnormal” but perfectly natural. A minority of humans (10%) are in extreme poverty — abnormal but not unnatural. A tiny minority of humans are enormously wealthy and those individuals are surely abnormal – but not, I think, unnatural.
    We imbue “unnatural” with a value of being “bad” – and then the word is no longer a description of the world around us but is just a value judgement.

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