I recently sent out a series of tweets critiquing the concepts of ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ as they’re commonly used. I recorded a video on the topic, or tried to, but my computer failed to save it, so I’m returning to the medium where I actually know what I’m doing and writing a blog post about it.
It should be said at the outset that I do acknowledge that ‘natural’ has a proper meaning that we would do well to recover. This is the meaning that it has in the works of Aristotle and Aquinas, a meaning bound up in teleology. In this sense, we speak of things as having particular natures: there is a nature of a dog, of a cat, of a hammer, of a man, and so on. What is ‘natural’ to a thing is what is in accordance with its nature, with the sort of thing that it is.
In this sense, we can speak of ‘natural’ as meaning something very close to ‘good’ or ‘proper’ or ‘fitting’, and we can speak of ‘natural law’. It is from this ‘natural law’ that Catholic ethicists derive their opposition to contraception and to lying. The contention is that contraception violates the nature of the human sexual faculty, and that lying violates the nature of the human speech faculty, and that these things are therefore wrong.
Thus far, no real problem. However, there is another sense of ‘natural’ that has come into vogue. Where the antonym of ‘natural’ as I have explained above is probably ‘perverse’, the antonym of ‘natural’ as used in common speech by moderns is ‘artificial’.
The word ‘artificial’ is used to designate the set of things created by humans or existing in the form they do as a result of human influence, while the word ‘natural’ is used to designate the contents of the world, minus humans themselves and those things designated ‘artificial’.
The assumption is that there is some overarching thing called ‘Nature’, a category that unites all the non-human things in the world, as they exist and operate without human interference. Humanity, then, is some kind of interloper, bringing with it its ‘artificial’ things and interfering with the pre-existing harmony of ‘Nature’.
This is, of course, nonsense. Indeed, I will argue that it is man’s unique calling to impose harmony on the rest of the created order.
There are two errors that can arise from this false way of distinguishing man and his products from ‘Nature’.
The first is to view ‘Nature’, which again is a catch-all term not designating a real category, as an enemy to be destroyed, something to be simply crushed and shoved out of the way. This is the attitude that leads to Brutalist architecture, to heartless, soulless fields of asphalt, and this is the attitude against which the defenders of ‘Nature’ are really reacting, to the extent that there is a kernel of goodness and truth in their ideas.
The second error, however, is to view ‘Nature’ as a unified and sacrosanct whole, with which it is man’s duty to refrain from interfering. On this view, humanity, by its very existence, but most especially by its deplorable habit of clearing forests, erecting structures, planting crops, hunting animals, putting up fences, etc. constitutes a meddling with or a violation of the sanctity of something called ‘Nature’. This meddling ought to be minimised, on this view, or, if the most extreme interpretations are taken, eliminated altogether through the outright self-annihilation of man.
Both notions are perverse, though perhaps the latter is more so. In truth, man’s role is best compared to that of a gardener. What must be understood before the gardener analogy can be clear, however, is that while the dichotomy of ‘Nature’ and ‘artifice’ is spurious and an impediment to clear thought, there is a useful dichotomy that can to some extent take its place. That is the dichotomy of spirit and matter.
In the modern age, it is easy to subconsciously internalize the false premises that surround us, including that matter is all that ‘really’ exists. Of course, as Christians (or even pagans), we know that there is more to the world than matter. Specifically, there is spirit.
Some beings exist which are pure spirit. Christian cosmology enumerates angels, demons, God (of course), etc. as spiritual beings without bodies. But man is unique in that he possesses a rational soul animating a body of flesh.
The cosmic significance of the miracle that is humanity cannot be overstated. I’m borrowing freely from CS Lewis’s classic Miracles when I say that man is an outpost of spirit in the world of matter. Each living human being represents an imposition of the rational, spiritual order into the material world.
The spiritual animating principle first gives form and life to the body, imposing an order on it, compelling the muscles to move, the heart to pump, and so on. Then the spirit gains control of the higher functions of the body, learns to order its movements toward chosen purposes beyond immediate physical survival.
When the body is sufficiently mastered, the spirit then uses it as a tool to impose its chosen order on the rest of creation. The material powers of the body are directed toward the service of the ends chosen by the spirit, and they arrange the matter that exists in the world into tools to serve those ends.
At its core, this is humanity’s mandate and mission. This is what is meant in Genesis when God tells our first parents to ‘be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it’. But this cosmology leaves no room for a thing called ‘Nature’ that we can have some purely external relationship to.
As embodied creatures, we are intrinsically and inseparably part of the material world; this is why the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body is so important. Therefore, there isn’t a ‘Nature’ external to us; if ‘Nature’ means the physical world, we are part of it.
At the same time, and perhaps more importantly, we are both rational and spiritual beings. As such, if there is to be order, if there is to be harmony, if there is to be purpose and beauty in the material world, it falls to us to impose it, to govern it, and to preserve it.
We are therefore not ‘above’ the creation, nor below it, nor beside it, but rather at the head of it. The things humans make, if they are made well and serve both utility and beauty according to their particular roles, are the pinnacle, not the negation, of ‘nature’ in the only sense worth caring about.