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Are not the dictionary definitions of natural and unnatural inconsistent?

Why wouldn't whatever humans create (e.g. money, plastic bags, books, internet, laptop, lamp, buildings, airplanes, etc) be natural when humans are natural and part of nature themselves and their artificial creations come from a mixture of natural materials?

It seems to me that nothing can be unnatural when its substance initially comes from nature. Humans alter things, but that doesn't make it unnatural when the mechanisms used to alter a substance are natural, right? The processes used to alter are often an expression of natural law

A dam that a human builds is unnatural by general definition whereas a dam a beaver creates even if it almost identical in construction is natural. This opposition seems, pardon me, unnatural

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  • Questions about definitions of words are off-topic here, please use English SE.
    – Conifold
    Commented Nov 4, 2021 at 21:53
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    @Conifold well ... when I asked on reddit they told me these are philosophical questions. Now you're telling me it's a language question. Pretty sure if I asked in other places, they'd tell me these are philosophical questions again.
    – ActualCry
    Commented Nov 4, 2021 at 22:00
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    @Conifold, some say philosophy, is exactly the study of definitions
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Nov 5, 2021 at 8:55
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    @ActualCry "What are the definitions of natural and unnatural?" You will find any definition you need in dictionaries. Your question is trivial. You get the result you want by adopting the definition you like. There is no absolute definition. Only those you find in dictionaries. Commented Nov 5, 2021 at 11:20
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    I'm suggesting such edits because they change the question from one of 'what are definitions' which is the domain of dictionaries to 'why is this particular distinction philosophically defensible' which admits itself readily to philosophical explanation and reference. I'll give it a shot bc I think I understand what you're really asking.
    – J D
    Commented Nov 5, 2021 at 14:48

7 Answers 7

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Natural is one of those words that fit the description of what John Austin called trouser-words in his book Sense and Sensibilia. Sometimes you can only understand a word by reference to what it is being contrasted with. In such cases, Austin describes the contrasting term as "wearing the trousers". The word real is like that: you can only understand what it means by whether it is being contrasted with ideal, imaginary, nominal, artificial, toy, fake, illusory, etc. Failing to observe such distinctions can lead to philosophical confusions, and Austin was keen on the idea that philosophical problems can often be dispelled just by paying careful attention to our use of language.

Similarly, with natural, you have to ask what it is being contrasted with.

Not artificial - e.g. a natural remedy, natural flavouring, someone's natural hair colour. 
Not contrived - e.g. a natural pose, a natural reaction. 
Not acquired - e.g. a natural talent, a natural leader, a person's natural parents.
Not abnormal - e.g. the natural course of things, natural curiosity, natural growth. 
Not of human origin - e.g. lions have no natural predators, a river may be a natural boundary. 
Not of divine origin, not supernatural - e.g. this has a perfectly natural explanation. 

If you wish to use natural to mean pertaining to anything in nature, then of course everything is natural, but this is not how the word is conventionally used, unless perhaps it is being contrasted with supernatural. Philosophical problems may arise from confusing these different senses. For example, in some senses 'unnatural' is bad, while in others it is not.

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  • Good points on the contextuality and contrast between the terms
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Nov 5, 2021 at 19:20
  • This seems to answer a question entirely different from the one that was asked. The question was what principled distinction can be made between, e.g., a natural remedy and an artificial remedy.
    – benrg
    Commented Nov 6, 2021 at 0:24
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    It is perhaps a better answer to the question as originally worded. That said, it is still the case that one cannot have a principled distinction between natural and unnatural without specifying the precise sense of natural, and this depends on what it is being contrasted with. The principled distinction between a natural remedy and an artificial remedy is precisely that one is an 'artifice' and the other is not.
    – Bumble
    Commented Nov 6, 2021 at 0:46
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    Why do words in a natural language require justification? If they weren't useful, people wouldn't use them. Sometimes distinctions drop out of common usage, because they are not considered useful. Occasionally, distinctions without a difference persist. I suppose there are difficult cases, like 'natural justice', where I struggle to understand what the contrast is. We do distinguish 'natural rights' from 'positive rights' so maybe it is related to that. If someone wanted to argue that something is good because it is natural, then that would definitely require justification.
    – Bumble
    Commented Nov 6, 2021 at 13:29
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    Careless use of language and terms leads to serious problems eg even genocide, so clarifying terms is of great importance and value
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Nov 6, 2021 at 17:02
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This transparently is a philosophical question, because of the appeal-to-nature fallacy. Also the state of nature plays a key role in social contract theory, as pictured contrastingly by Hobbes & Rousseau. What you have to look at is what service do people put a distinction between natural & unnatural to?

Blue-green algae poisoning themselves by creating our oxygen-rich atmosphere is 'natural', humans poisoning themselves with air pollution is 'unnatural'.

Heterosexual sex is 'natural' if you picture sex as purely for reproduction, homosexual sex is often alleged to be 'unnatural' despite being documented in at least 450 species including all apes.

The expensive skincare with ingredients you recognise is 'natural', the one with a long shelf life & ingredients with long names is 'unnatural'.

Intensive breeding is 'natural', genetic engineering even when it's doing the same thing but with markers of gene activation, is 'unnatural'.

It's a canard, a red herring, used polemically, usually to reject new things. Being time-tested is a good thing, it's not necessarily a bad instinct to question what's new, especially if the risks are substantial. But we should try to avoid the appeal to natural as intrinsically good, & unnatural as intrinsically bad. Natural & nature are terms for casual language, not philosophy, and they are likely to obscure points rather than illuminate.

On things to read (other than Hobbes & Rousseau), Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature is very good:

"philosophers may, if they please, extend their reasoning to the suppos'd state of nature; provided they allow it to be a mere philosophical fiction, which never had, and never could have any reality"

-book 3 part 2 section 2

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a famous essay on Nature.

Yeats' greatest poem Sailing To Byzantium has interesting reflections on natural as time-bound, and unnatural artifice as what reaches beyond that.

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    Good points bringing up the sociopolitical nuances of the terms "natural" and "unnatural"
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Nov 5, 2021 at 15:06
  • I remember hearing about the battle over what the "USDA Organic" mark would allow and exclude. Big money in that little symbol! Back when Organic was a thing.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 17, 2022 at 10:08
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    @ScottRowe: Ironically given the USA's alleged political preferences, the state-operated system there basically fails to deliver the changes to farming consumers want because it got so watered-down by lobbying. Whereas in the UK, there is a marketplace of different certifiers, & in many ways it works very well. Organic also 'is a thing' in Denmark, where the commitment to make 60% of school hospital & prison food organic, has allowed it to become mainstream making up 13% of production, & help exports.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Mar 17, 2022 at 12:48
  • Maybe the US political system is unnatural?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 17, 2022 at 17:01
  • @ScottRowe: The food system there, most certainly.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Mar 17, 2022 at 17:19
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Short Answer

Instead of addressing your specific question, let's generalize, so that you might understand the larger picture. Is any dichotomy in language defensible? Yes and no. Sometimes. Maybe. Whether or not a definition is true depends on what you accept to be true of a definition. This is a perennial issue that rears its head in philosophical discussion because of the intimate relationship between epistemology and ontology. In the case of the natural and unnatural, it is both defensible to accept a binary category that accepts the principle of bivalence and to reject it in favor of fuzzy categories and multivalued logics. It's even possible to embrace the dialetheism.

On the one hand, it is very pragmatic to use the natural/unnatural, or natural/artificial (I think you intend the latter) distinction because it works, and yet, in the definitions, one might see the seeds of a contradiction born of the analytic meanings that inhere to the words. The preferences and methods of philosophy that are brought to bear on the question ultimately determine the answers philosophers reject, or accept as weak or even strong arguments.

Long Answer

Metaphysics or Philosophy of Language?

It may be tempting to go to metaphysics to answer this question, and some here shall, I have no doubt, to discuss the impact on ontological commitment required by the predicate natural. But I suggest linguistics and the philosophy of language on the basis of a naturalized epistemology. Hence, what philosophers know about language is much more decisive in answering this question than what philosophers think about the nature of 'natural'.

The Linguistic Turn and Words as Tools

Let's accept the findings of the linguistic turn. When you start talking about the nature of definition, you must first accept that definitions are to no small degree normative. That is to say, the general definition of natural and unnatural is a linguistic convention. No, people don't get together and vote on what words mean, but they do, in a way, cast a vote metaphorically by how they practice usage in their idiolect. If 99 out of 100 people use definition X, then from a descriptivist perspective, the definition is X regardless of its logical flaws. Is it possible that the general usage of natural and unnatural, therefore is logically inconsistent? You seem to offer a prima facie argument for that.

So, what does philosophy have to say about this? Well, that depends on your metaphysical presuppositions about language. Some philosophical dispositions lend themselves towards language prescription, where uses of definitions are compelled socially. A philosopher who believes in an absolutist notion of definition may try to argue that the definitions of natural and unnatural are correct not by virtue of their logical relationship, but perhaps because of the emancipatory politics of the governing body. For instance, in the USSR, lysenkoism is an instance of whether or not the truth of definitions and ideas is determined by political fiat. An instrumentalist view of language doesn't conceive definitions as right or wrong, so much as examines them for pragmatic outcome. That is, does the definition work for the people who use it?

Dissolving the Problem

So, now, we are in a position to answer questions about the natural, unnatural, and the supernatural.

The dichotomy between the natural and the artificial in general usage is absolutely defensible on the pragmatic grounds that it quickly seeks to establish two classes of things for the exchange of meaning. If you are in the infantry, what you want to know is 'is that thing you are about to step on natural or artificial. If it's artificial, like an anti-personnel mine, then you have to exercise extra caution. Even it's the wristwatch dropped by a hostile, it tells you something about the state of affairs that a natural object wouldn't. It tells you the enemy may be near, and that has survival value. Does the dichotomy perhaps fail to capture some of the finer grades of meaning about the relationship and origin of the materials of the thing? Absolutely! But are we more likely to survive if you stand around pondering the definition on a battlefield? Absolutely not. Hence, from an epistemic perspective, the definition is pragmatically true and the dichotomy is pragmatically defensible based on defeasible reasoning which strictly speaking may not be devoid of contradiction.

But let's now think about another context where a pragmatic definition might not suffice, where logical precision is much more important. Let's say you are defending an academic thesis, and the same question about whether an object on the table is natural or unnatural is posed, and it is important to answer to defend the thesis by impressing upon your advisor that you have a sophisticated use of language. In this case, the truth and utility of the definition might be a function of its epistemic coherence. Let's say you are explicitly called to undermine the dichotomy!

What if your thesis evaluator says asks you if sheep are natural because they have been subject to artificial selection. Said thesis evaluator accepts that sheep before Homo sapiens are natural, that robotic sheep by Boston Dynamics are unnatural, but then asks you to classify a sheep that has been bred over generations to be woolier is natural or unnatural? Is the atmosphere still nature because there are trace pollutants in it? Is any of earth still natural because of the widespread impact of human action on its biological, chemical, and physical composition? Here now definitions of what constitutes natural have a different role.

This is what is meant when talking about the normativity of truth and language. Whether or not a definition is true or a dichotomy holds depends on what you accept to be true of definitions and dichotomies. :D

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  • Good points on the intentionality and contextuality of the terms
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Nov 5, 2021 at 19:22
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    @NikosM. I think you might be thinking of intension instead of intentionality. Intentionality is spoken of when we have an agent that manifests 'aboutness' recognized in the SVO sense of propositions... and I'm not speaking contextuality or anaphora, but rather the notion that epistemic first principles determine the nature of truth, where truth can be recognized from among several flavors or deflated entirely. :D But I do appreciate the feedback :D
    – J D
    Commented Nov 5, 2021 at 23:39
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    What about natural/unnatural are used as terms for anything desirable/undesirable? Is this justified use?
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Nov 6, 2021 at 10:09
  • @NikosM. If it's clear that it 'is', must we contemplate if it 'ought'? Language normativity is a reflection of the deeper values of a speaker. The question of justification is contextual. Under what context? In an ordinary conversation? Sure, why not? It's a dictionary definition.
    – J D
    Commented Nov 6, 2021 at 16:07
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    Ostracisation can be a nice way to choose where to live and how dear sir..
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Nov 7, 2021 at 16:30
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Historically, most people considered that humans occupied a special place in the world. Western religions taught that humans were created in God's image and were endowed with unique traits. Prior to Darwin, almost all scientists considered that we were a unique species, and even after Darwin it took a while for most scientists to accept that we were genetically linked to other animals, and closely to apes.

Our use of language, posession of consciousness, and use of tools set us apart from the rest of nature. Consistent with this, anything created by humans was considered qualitatively different from things created by other processes in nature, whether they be purely physical (e.g. waves in the sea, clouds in the sky, rock crystals) or due to the action of animals (e.g. beehives, bird nests, beaver dams).

Going along with this dichotomy we have the concepts of natural and artificial. Artificial refers to the creations of humans, while natural refers to everything else.

And even when we admit that we're just part of nature, it can still be useful to make this distinction. Consider natural selection versus animal breeding. They both cause species to evolve, but in different ways. Natural selection is relatively slow and directionless -- changes tend to be beneficial, but which changes we get results from the happenstance of which mutations occur and how they relate to competition among individuals and groups. Animal breeding is faster because the breeders can directly control which individuals mate, and since they consciously decide which traits are preferred, it's directed by the desires of the breeders.

You could say that this is just a quantitative difference, but it's different to such an extent that most consider it a qualitative difference, much like the difference between animal communication and human language.

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  • For example, a stone lying on the ground is a rock. Pick it up to hit something and it is a tool. But for us to judge it unnatural, it would have to be substantially altered, like by knocking off part to make a sharp edge. The distinction is: can we tell by looking that someone has used it? Is the change something that was unlikely to come about naturally? Sheep with very long wool would be maladaptive, so such a change would fail in nature. But then, the Peacock, right? Sometimes maladaptive things are selected for and persist. But not for rocks, usually. But, the arch bridges... Ugh
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 17, 2022 at 10:24
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The most fundamental opposition between natural and unnatural is purely logical. Once you have a notion of natural, you have a notion of not natural, i.e., unnatural.

The question, then, is whether you put these concepts to use, and eventually, how you do it. How you use the concept of natural, and therefore, possibly, the concept of unnatural, depends entirely on what you want to mean by "natural". The scientific discoveries of the last centuries have led to the idea, true or false, that humans were an integral part of nature. However, it is also clear that there is a strong tendency in humans to define themselves in opposition to nature. Accordingly, humans and everything they do is considered unnatural.

Who is right? Why not everybody? People who have a scientific outlook will probably see humans and everything they make as part of nature, while people not interested in science will want to maintain the opposition between humans and nature. There is absolutely not doubt that this opposition is based on hard facts. A human is not a monkey and a monkey is not a human. Science discovered that this opposition is not absolute since both humans and monkeys descend from a common ancestor species, however, everyday life is premised on a myriad of distinctions which are barely ever absolute, and yet are nonetheless useful. Whatever we may think of Trump, it is a fact that a monkey could not run for the American presidential election. Yet, it is also not at all absolutely impossible that one does so in some more or less distant future.

The opposition between nature and humanity is also used in the war between ideologies. Thus, some people will make the contradictory claims, perhaps not at the same time, that nothing human is natural and that only the marriage between a man and a woman is natural, which gives the special pleading game away.

So the beaver's dam is natural or unnatural depending on what we want to mean by "natural", and the same applies to the dams constructed by humans.

This is not much of a philosophical question. It is essentially an ideological one. By definition, most people will use "natural" and "unnatural" as per the everyday use of these concepts, i.e., either to emphasise either the similarity or the opposition between things, and this depending on their personal objective. Some political or religious groups will use the opposition between humans and nature to make a political point, but this isn't really a philosophical question.

When you disagree with how people use words, the first port of call should be the dictionary, if only to understand if this is a legitimate use. And then, it is up to you to explain why a particular use would be somehow erroneous, but don't expect people to change their dictionary because you object to a definition.

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  • I guess our own answers missed much of the context in which the terms can be used, touched by other answers
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Nov 5, 2021 at 19:23
  • @NikosM. I'm not sure I understand... Commented Nov 6, 2021 at 10:50
  • I mean other answers expanded a lot on the contextuality of the terms, which includes cases not covered by our answers. Regardless.. Cheers!
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Nov 7, 2021 at 9:48
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In one sense, something manufactured since it is possible (evidently) and was made using natural things, isn't itself also natural? This is a point made.

Something that cannot even exist because of other natural processes blocking its very possibility of existence would be necessarily unnatural.

In this sense everything realisable is natural and vice-versa.

But, many people would define natural in a more limited sense. Not everything that can be realized is natural if it can conflict with other natural processes of higher value. So in this sense a plastic bag is unnatural, since it degrades the environment.

So in this more limited sense, natural and realisable are not identical.

If one pushes this point far enough, one gets to primitivism. That the only things worth of being called natural are the ones which are not manufactured at all or use only very primitive means, that is, they are not artificial.

As a sidenote, as @CriglCragl's answer has noted, the terms are also loaded with ideological, sociopolitical nuances. Thus for example, someone may term "unnatural" anything that contradicts, or is undesirable to, a certain, historically settled, order of things or established tradition. This answer does not touch on this aspect.

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Yes, but you'll have to believe in GOD. If GOD creates things perfectly (in harmony with all other parts), then it is ''natural'', we'll say.

Everything else, by Man, then, is imperfect.

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    By your logic, if God creates things perfectly, in harmony with all other parts, then humans are perfect and in harmony with all other parts. How then can humans introduce imperfection? This is a religious answer, not a philosophical one. Commented Nov 12, 2021 at 13:58
  • A lot of what God created seems pretty destructive and awful. I'm comforted that at least these things are not unnatural as well.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 17, 2022 at 16:56
  • @ScottRowe: YHVH didn't create anything destructive. The serpent is part of the evolutionary story of YHVH, but it was under the command of YHVH. It only gets power when we believe what it says. And here lies the downfall of Man.
    – Marxos
    Commented Mar 17, 2022 at 19:30
  • @JustSomeOldMan: Nope. It's not religious. Humans didn't introduce imperfection., The serpent was only perfect so long as we obeyed YHVH. Once we listened and believed in the serpent, we lost the perfection. The serpent was more ancient than GOD's human form at Genesis. And this is how it slipped in between the awareness of YHVHs human form and got us to do YHVH's own questions.
    – Marxos
    Commented Mar 17, 2022 at 19:35
  • I wonder how old COVID-19 is? God seems to still be coming up with new things that arbitrarily kill people.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 17, 2022 at 22:49

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