I read about how the human being is nature nature (which it is), about global warming (which can be a myth), the production of certain commodities (oil, sugar, PET bottles, glass) etc.

I was wondering why this acts are sometimes considered to be "unnatural". Aren't we all created by mother earth after all, and therefore natural? As well as everything we produce, by induction?

  • @iphigenie thanks for edits, question is much clearer now. – Kyslik Jan 7 '14 at 15:31
  • Our interpretation of our own species as distinct from nature historically began with the agricultural revolution and the rise of civilization. When we 'parted' from the natural world – Canadian Coder Feb 9 '17 at 19:12

We use "nature" in at least three related ways, to mean:

  1. the intrinsic properties of things, as in "it's in the nature of copper to conduct electricity," and sometimes what is normal for them. We might say in this way that it's not in the nature of pigs to fly, and that it is unnatural for pigs to have five legs, meaning just that it is abnormal;
  2. the universe as it is, especially with respect to its own intrinsic properties, as in "Nature includes everything that exists." Here, "nature" contrasts only with what's supernatural, if it contrasts with anything at all;
  3. the parts of the universe which are not created or produced or significantly modified or impacted by humans. In this sense, it is simply the opposite of "artificial" or "artifact," which means something created by us. In this sense of nature, what we call "nature" is a subset of nature in the second sense.

Human creations and our destructive effects on the non-human world are natural in the second sense and are not natural (or unnatural) in the third sense. The first sense is not especially relevant. The potential confusion here arises from equivocation, which means using the same word in two different ways.

We see that there is something in common among these different usages, in that the second two are related to what I think is the oldest meaning—the first, about intrinsic or essential properties. The connection is that we sometimes think of intrinsic properties as properties not changed by us. For example, an oak tree isn't blue unless someone paints it.

So, these meanings are related. However, I think when people use "nature" clearly, they make it plain that they are using it in one of these ways. The trouble is that some people are sloppy about usage. This word "nature" is very easy to be sloppy with because it sounds appealing, and so it gets used to advertise manufactured cleaning supplies, and advertisers want you to notice connotations, not clear meanings.

This is a nice example of how trying to understand the various ways people use words helps us distinguish genuine philosophical puzzles from things that needn't puzzle us once we're clear.

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    Let me add a 4th use of "natural", and that's as a purposely vague marketing term used to sell both commercial products and (political and social) ideas. "Natural" in this sense has a strong association with goodness, and having such a loose definition makes it very useful in this marketing sense. – obelia Jan 6 '14 at 18:26
  • Yes, good. That usage is close to the third sense about what's not artificial, with connotations of the first sense of what's normal and thus good. – ChristopherE Jan 6 '14 at 18:28

There is a thought that can be traced back to thinkers as Marx and Rousseau (though I am sure that this is not their root) that the human being, at a certain point in history, stops just using nature to fulfil the most basic and actual needs. Instead, humans come together and split the production that is necessary to fulfil these needs. By fulfilling basic needs, more advanced ones arise. The further the progress of needs and division of labour, the further man estranges from nature, herself and others, becoming more and more "unnatural".

You can check out Marx's Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, especially the part on "Estranged Labour". For Rousseau, check the Discourse on Inequality.

This thought is often used to criticise the greedy, short-sighted life nowadays. The argument, roughly, is that people would be somehow happier, if they stuck to a more "natural" life, or that it would be "better" to do that in another sense. Though not everyone subscribing to that thought is advocating a return to the Stone Age, a certain pessimism of progress is a common denominator.

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