8

Humans have synthesized elements that do not exist in nature, at least not around here. This strikes me as a serious philosophical hairball: where does a philosophical naturalist put these critters?

On the one hand, they are arguably a product of culture, not nature. On the other hand, presumably their structure and properties are dictated by the laws of nature, and they do exist (at least, we can make them exist). Scientists put them in the periodic table, and you can hardly get more naturalistic than that. So I would be reluctant to say that are not natural. But if they only exist at our pleasure, how can they be natural?

  • It is hard to say that they are a "product of culture"... – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Oct 1 '16 at 19:53
  • @Mauro ALLEGRANZA : why? they are purely the product of human culture, as far as I can see. no different than the Mona Lisa in that respect. – user20153 Oct 1 '16 at 19:58
  • 1
    They are "artifacts", produced according to natural laws. The fact that we do not find them "in nature" seems to be a contingent fact, and not some sort of "impossibility". Thus, it seems to me that we have to consider them as a sort of "natural extensions", like many Hybrid (biology) that are the product of human "creation". – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Oct 1 '16 at 19:58
  • @Mauro ALLEGRANZA : ok, but the same is true of all artifacts. Leonardo did not violate any natural laws in producing his art. I can't see any reason to treat the invention of synthetic elements as essentially different than the invention of any other artifact. I'm thinking that this sort of stuff radically subverts the idea that there is a clear line between natural and artificial. and that's a problem for lots of philosophy, no? – user20153 Oct 1 '16 at 20:06
  • @Mauro ALLEGRANZA : regarding hybridization, I think that may be a separate issue. it may be human directed, but it's entirely natural - we've been doing it for millenia. Genetic engineering is a whole 'nother story - not at all natural. of course it uses laws,of nature, but it does things nature's does not do, so to speak. nature does not design, we so. – user20153 Oct 1 '16 at 20:11
7

To me the question strikes at the heart of the modern debate about natural and artificial kinds. The term "natural kind" was introduced by Mill and then forgotten until Kripke and Putnam resuscitated it in 1970s, but the idea goes back to Plato and Aristotle. Namely, that things out there fall into "natural" categories, which science discovers by, as Plato expressively put it in Phaedrus, "carving nature at its joints". Those are also known as the "essential" properties, and the view itself as scientific essentialism.

The identification of natural kinds is tangled with modal metaphysics a la Kripke and, his also with Putnam, causal theory of reference. This is where the rigid designation and "water is H2O", as a necessary a posteriori, come from, see What is the relationship between Kripke's rigid designators and scientific realism? The Kripke-Putnam theory depends on a strong notion of "modal intuitions" which dictate that in other possible worlds the identification of the molecular structure of water might have gone differently, but the end result remains rigid, hence the necessity. So by analogy, it matters not that synthetic elements can only be produced artificially, once they are what they are is an a posteriori necessity, hence "natural". On the other hand, there is no necessity in Leonardo painting Mona Lisa as opposed to somebody else, or painting her exactly as he actually did, or there being a Leonardo for that matter, or Coca Cola being the particular drink we know (and love?).

Modal metaphysics, necessary a posteriori, and scientific essentialism with natural kinds are controversial. How do we know what is or is not rigid? "Consult your metaphysical intuitions", as Almog put it in Naming without Necessity. Dupré in Natural Kinds and Biological Taxa shows how the modal strategy falls apart for biological species:"I will assume the interpretation of biological taxonomy most favorable to Putnam's theory, and show that even this is often not as Putnam needs it to be." Ben-Yami in Semantics of Kind Terms gives a more broad recent critique of natural kinds, and concludes that "there isn’t any difference between natural kind terms and other kind terms in their semantic function, in the way their reference is determined, or in the way they are introduced into language."

In practice, what essentialists seem to have in mind as "natural" are aspects of objects (more precisely, of universals) that are particularly closely tied to what we consider the laws of nature. Given the contextuality and fallibility of our knowledge about the latter, presumably our identification of natural kinds is equally contextual and fallible. Hacking's Tradition of Natural Kinds offers a pragmatic view that may accomodate such use without "Plato's unsavoury rubbish about carving nature at the joints":

"We can devise rough and ready characterizations of 'natural kind'; none are precise, but with good will and a little charity we can agree, in most cases, on what is a natural kind according to a given characterization... For various purposes and interests there are better and worse, more fruitful and less fruitful classifications of objects, organisms and substances."

This sort of fruits vs vegetables distinction between natural and artificial kinds along a continuum might satisfy even Quine, who was having none of it in Reference and Modality, exactly because he saw metaphysical essentialism as incompatible with (his) scientific naturalism. He was even willing to throw out modal logic along with it:

"An object, of itself and by whatever name or none, must be seen as having some of its traits necessarily and others contingently, despite the fact that the latter traits follow just as analytically from some ways of specifying the object as the former traits do from other ways of specifying it... the way to do quantified modal logic, if at all, is to accept Aristotelian essentialism... Such a philosophy is as unreasonable by my lights as it is by Carnap’s or Lewis’s. And in conclusion I say, as Carnap and Lewis have not: so much the worse for quantified modal logic.

  • thanks. I have to ponder this some more, but my first impression fwiw: I'm not sure this really about natural kinds. synthetic elements strike me as a whole different kind of beast. they're both natural and artificial. things that are already there, so to speak, like artichokes and Greek trgedies, may or may not fit into natural kinds. but synthetic elements are completely new, unprecedented things. yet they are in some sense undeniably natural. so if philosophy answers to natural science, which answers to nature, then ??? (Coca Cola, ok, but Coke and rum? altogether different) – user20153 Oct 2 '16 at 0:04
  • @mobileink I am the opposite, I see incremental spectrum as with analytic/synthetic and no bright lines, from feathers to zippers. Suppose no black holes were observed prior to the micro black holes being generated in LHC. Why should that make a difference concerning their status? It seems that "completely new" and "unprecedented" are human-all-too-human for the kind of view from nowhere in particular that science strives for, and although I am for modal restraint, it is simply impractical to hang classifications on contingencies of our timetable of discoveries and technological advances. – Conifold Oct 2 '16 at 3:00
  • not sure I follow. the differnce between the Mona Lisa and, say, the element Helium, seems very stark. for one thing, there was no ""painter" for Helium. – user20153 Oct 2 '16 at 22:26
  • at the very least, we need to account for the difference in the way we ordinarily treat concepts like "electron" and "symphony". synthetic elements s – user20153 Oct 2 '16 at 22:32
  • synthetic elements screw things up. – user20153 Oct 2 '16 at 22:33
1

Are artificially synthesized chemical elements natural?

Only if by "natural" you mean not (yet) found in the world without human action(s) - but why would you use the term nature to exclude humanity: a sub-specie to apes? It seems a false dichotomy to oppose "natural" and "synthetic" (or "artificial"). Considering the history of the term synthetic - is there anything in nature that cannot be put together with something else? Consider the term "organic" - in one sentimental sense it means "natural" according to "organisms" and yet scientifically it just means having carbon, like the hydrocarbons in gasoline.

Humans have synthesized elements that do not exist in nature, at least not around here. This strikes me as a serious philosophical hairball: where does a philosophical naturalist put these critters?

Is there anything that exists that does not exist in nature? From beyond the pale of quantum decoherence to cosmological epistemic limits beyond which are obscure to us (i.e. event horizons of "black holes") I am pretty sure the answer is "no". I think you can put them critters squarely in the maxim: "anything is possible but not everything is probable."

On the one hand, they are arguably a product of culture, not nature. On the other hand, presumably their structure and properties are dictated by the laws of nature, and they do exist (at least, we can make them exist). Scientists put them in the periodic table, and you can hardly get more naturalistic than that. so I would be reluctant to say that are not natural. But if they only exist at our pleasure, how can they be natural?

Products of culture or aspects of culture? What are humans except "products" of natural biological evolution? Hmmm... I think if you think about if enough you might find desire independent reasons for synthesizing heretofore unforeseen elements.

  • "Is there anything that exists that does not exist in nature? " sure. lots of stuff, like marriages, criminals, politicians, etc. – user20153 Oct 6 '16 at 23:46
  • ". I think if you think about if enough you might find desire independent reasons for synthesizing heretofore unforeseen elements." I don't understand this. what do you mean? can you express this in different terms? – user20153 Oct 6 '16 at 23:52
  • @mobileink are you suggesting that language is not natural? I don't imagine so, but the ontological status of such things as marriages, criminals, politicians and such is that these descriptions and the status functions are only found in language - or, perhaps you are suggesting that a marriage has a weight, a color, a smell? – Mr. Kennedy Oct 11 '16 at 15:45
  • @mobileink, you might appreciate ch.6 in John Searle's "Rationality In Action" – Mr. Kennedy Oct 11 '16 at 15:47
1

Water that results from burning hydrogen made by humans splitting other water is still natural, in a strong sense. It is something that ordinarily exists, but it just being produced in an unusual way.

From that position, one could argue that human-made transuranic elements are natural. We would not be able to construct these unless they existed in the universe's past, when matter was more compact. They proceed from the patterns of nature, whether or not they are assembled by us.

0

If you define "natural" as, not created by human intervention, then all elements created by human intervention are "not natural." However, if we chose not to make a distinction as to where the energy to create the element comes from (stars, accelerators, etc.), then the "synthetic" elements are just as "natural" as all other elements. There is no "hairball," not even a philosophical question. It's only a matter of definition.

EDIT: Yes, artificially synthesized chemical elements are natural.
Since there is no distinction among electrons, protons, neutrons, etc., it makes no difference whether an element was created by stars, black holes, or accelerators! Once the element is created, there are no tests that could tell how it was created.

  • you can "solve any problem by definition your terms so that the proposed answer comes out as true. if you define any painting made by Leonardo as natural then the Mona Lisa comes out as natural. – user20153 Oct 6 '16 at 19:17
  • @mobileink: Since you don't define what "natural" means, then I can only provide the answer I did. I will edit it and see if I can make it a better answer. – Guill Apr 15 '17 at 5:19
0

In the biginning there was only energy / radiation. After 10^(-35) seconds quarks and leptons were formed. After 10^(-10) seconds protons and neutrons were formed. After 1 second hydrogen and and helium and perhaps a bit of lithium were formed and after 3 minutes the constitution of matter was finished (Steven Weinberg: The first three minutes).

There were no heavy elements. in order to syntheticise heavier elements than iron you have to add energy. So these elements had to wait until in supernova explosions plenty of surplus energy was available. And in these furnaces there were also with certainty all elements like plutoniom and heavier formed that ever can be created by humans (and also elements like technetium that are missing (or seemed to be missing) in our terrestrial environment).

Therefore the question "Are artificially synthesized chemical elements natural?" has to be answered by a clear yes.

And finally: Since humans are as natural as supernovas, all they do is natural too.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy