Thursday, January 04, 2007

The nature of nature

It's getting near twelve o'clock so here are some rambling thoughts on the nature of nature, which, thinking ahead, if they convince me of anything will probably convince me always to revise what I write before I push the 'publish post' button. Still, a nice picture from flickr.

Nature is both the natural world that surround us and an essential characteristic of things. The essential characteristic of things is also described as being natural. This word designates a whole host of ideologically motivated opinions. It's either perfectly natural to do or be 'x', or not natural. I wonder Do these concepts 'nature' and 'natural' exist independent of each other or is there a way of uniting them. What then is the nature of nature?

Nature when applied as a description of the natural world seems to rope together all phenomena that is not a product of human work of interference. There is a distinction for instance between natural and manufactured materials and natural and manufactured products. In the latter case this distinction seems oxymoronic. Who ever heard of a natural products? Although this is taken to extremes today, as 'natural' is an appellation applied to all sorts of dodgy foods and toxic shampoos so as to mean roughly its opposite.

But what is the idea of nature implied in this natural/artificial distinction? I think the answer to that question if that nature is considered to be something that exists beyond us and in spite of us (humans). Like Antarctica is considered to be the last natural wilderness left on earth because it is the only place not routinely occupied by humans (with the honourable exception of the citizens of McMurdo and other permanent bases on the ice of course).

If that is true, what then should we make of human nature? Is this something inside us that exists beyond us and in spite of us? Well perhaps. Jung certainly seemed to think so, he wrote in Man and His Symbols that we will never be able to triumph over nature because we would first have to triumph over our own human nature, which was impossible. Jung thus suggests that nature is the fundamental ground on which humanity stands, something unknown and unknowable and yet we cannot escape from it no matter how hard we may try. Of course other cultures do not share this dualistic view of human versus nature. The Japanese have no myths appointing them stewards of the Garden of Eden. In the west we are taught from an early age to consider ourselves, like Spiderman, hugely powerful, but weighted down by the guilt of the responsibility of that power. Whether this is hubris on an accurate description of events is open to question.

Human beings are driven by curiosity, dare I say, the desire to find out and to know and understand their nature is actually part of their nature. Therefore if nature is to be understood as what is not known, this means that the destiny of our nature is in some senses to destroy itself, or know itself, and thus transcend itself. And you can take that particular metaphor into all kinds of well worn territories. For example you can consider human beings to be the consciousness of Gaia. An then the desire to understand rather than conquer nature suggest a noble teleology for the race. But can nature completely disappear? And is it possible for the knower to know everything about themselves for surely a position of knowledge assumes a knower who is more knowledgeably than that which is known. Or do we in the final analysis adopt a similar view to Jung and conclude that nature itself cannot be transcended, precisely because it will always inhere in humans (this seems to be to be a particularly fixed and immutable view of nature but no matter). I suppose the answer to that question is logically the knower has to transcend the framing of his knowing and become a different kind of knower. Only then can the knower can look back on her old self and define it in terms of its limitations. Thus I conclude that the destiny of nature is to disappear into knowledge. Although, Shiva-like, human curiosity has a capacity to destroy its, knowledge of anything operates according to the rules of the dialectic and according to the principles of balance and equilibrium. Although all systems are susceptible to pressure and tolerances can only be pushed so far. Even when all things are known, there will still be things that are unknown, although the nature of these things will be quite different from the mysteries we can envisage now.

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