What is Natural?


People often use the argument that something is ‘natural’ or ‘not natural’ to defend an intuitively derived position. But what does this actually mean, and does it have any validity as an argument?

Gratuitous photo of the Earth, since its natural (mostly)

Gratuitous photo of the Earth, since it's natural (mostly)

To begin with I suppose we need to define what ‘natural’ means, so we’re not getting confused by using the same word to mean different things.

Top three definitions according to The Free Dictionary:
1 : Present in or produced by nature: a natural pearl
2: Of, relating to, or concerning nature: a natural environment
3: Conforming to the usual or ordinary course of nature: a natural death…

Top three definitions according to Your Dictionary:
1 : of or arising from nature; in accordance with what is found or expected in nature
2: produced or existing in nature; not artificial or manufactured
3: dealing with nature as an object of study a natural science…

Top three definitions according to Dictionary.com:
1 : existing in or formed by nature (opposed to artificial ): a natural bridge
2: based on the state of things in nature; constituted by nature: Growth is a natural process
3: of or pertaining to nature or the universe: natural beauty…

I could go on – some sources cite over 30 definitions of natural and these are not exhaustive. So we can say that natural has a wide variety of meanings – but which of those meanings are actually meaningful?

Apart from Merriam-Webster (see below for discussion about their definition), the other online sources (and the offline ones I have checked) tend to focus on “natural” as being something founded in nature. Of course, that beggars the question ‘what is nature?’ – the answer to which is, in the broadest available terms, the physical world (see Wiki for discussion). Immediately this suggests that anything that can possibly happen in the physical world can be considered natural. So is it possible for anything to be ‘not natural’ and actually exist or occur? If it’s real it’s ‘natural’.

For something to be ‘not natural’ it would need to be distinct from the physical world, which moves us into the realm of the unnatural or supernatural. Ghosts, telepathy, fairies, souls and gods are all part of the supernatural realm – there is nothing to suggest that they exist in the natural realm that we inhabit. That said, we each have a brain capable of generating unnatural/supernatural concepts – ideas that are not constrained by physical reality. All those supernatural entities do after all exist, in the conceptual space of our imagination.

I expect I will get some comments about using too broad an interpretation of nature/natural here. Many consider that something artificial (made by human artifice) can also be considered ‘not natural’. To me artificial is not equivalent to ‘not natural’, since it involves a product of nature (humans) taking another product of nature (from subatomic particles upwards) and directing them, combining them or shaping them in new ways. Plants also do this, bacteria also do this, other animals also do this – we just happen to do it with incredible panache.

Regardless of what we produce, it is still constrained by nature, even if it turns out to be harmful or damaging to what came before it was produced. That said, bacteria managed to create nuclear reactors over 1.7 billion years ago, long before animals (let alone humans) appeared on the scene, whilst cyanobacteria (and later plants) have been responsible for polluting the planet with toxic gas (pdf) for billions of years, causing a massive impact on the evolution of life. I hope that puts human impact in some sort of perspective.

In reality, the perceived dichotomy between humans and nature is not really a dichotomy at all. Humans are subject to the same natural laws as everything else, we have evolved to be what we are and we are dependent on nature – even if the nature of nature (if you get my drift) has adapted around human activities. The past is not a template for some long-lost ideal condition where humans and nature coexisted peacefully – this never happened. All organisms are in conflict with other organisms and all are co-dependent on each other in varying degrees – humans included. 

We like to add human values to things that are value-free, often based on the perceived amount of artificiality. Some people will laud the benefits of water, but decry the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide: some people want things that are chemical free – tricky in a world composed of nothing but chemicals…

Let’s move on to the top three definitions of “natural” according to Merriam-Webster:

1 : based on an inherent sense of right and wrong <natural justice>
2 a : being in accordance with or determined by nature b : having or constituting a classification based on features existing in nature
3 a (1) : begotten as distinguished from adopted; also : legitimate (2) : being a relation by actual consanguinity as distinguished from adoption <natural parents> b : illegitimate <a natural child>…

Here we find a rather different interpretation of ‘natural’ to that proposed elsewhere – the concept of an inherent sense of morality. Is this the interpretation of natural that people are using when they say that something’s ‘not natural’? If so it opens up a whole can of worms about the assumptions being made about morality. If a sense of right and wrong is inherent, where did it originate? Is the inherent sense of right and wrong based on moral absolutes or is there scope for variation as with other inherent traits? Does inherent morality arise from natural processes? Is the inherent sense of what is right and wrong determined by what happens in the natural world?

Since we have no accepted answers to the various questions posed by the Merriam-Webster definition, I think we might as well come back to the big question about the validity of the argument that something should or shouldn’t be tolerated because of it’s state of ‘naturalness’, where ‘naturalness’ pertains to whether or not it is seen in the non-anthropogenic physical world.

First we can ask whether things that are natural are good and should be tolerated. Incest, rape, infacticide, killing competitors and cannibalism are all seen in nature – are they good and should they be tolerated? I think not. Natural isn’t necessarily good. Also, let’s not forget that some very nasty toxic substances are produced in nature, just look at botulism and foxgloves as a couple of quick examples.

Next, are the things which are considered ‘not natural’ actually not seen in nature? Homosexuality is a classic, just consider Thomas Aquinas and his “peccatum contra naturam” (sin against nature). Yet, homosexuality is observed in pretty much every social mammal and is documented in about 1500 animal species so far, it is quite clearly perfectly natural. An extension of homosexuality being somehow ‘not natural’ is alluded to in discussions about gay marriage – which is odd, because I don’t think that marriage can be considered particularly ‘natural’, whether it is homosexual or heterosexual. Marriage is a human construct that is certainly not seen in nature, but do I hear the cry “what about monogamous pair-bonds – aren’t they natural equivalents to marriage?”. Well, no. Monogamous pair-bonds are monogamous pair-bonds, marriage is a cultural celebration and formalisation of sexual partnership: if you are a Christian it might be a monogamous partnership, but for a Mormon (for example) it could relate to bigamy or polygamy. The bond (pair or otherwise) exists independently of marriage (and it could be argued that marriage can exist in a legal sense without a genuine relationship).

A quick google search throws up other examples, including post-feminist conservative sexism regarding paternity leave and some woefully inaccurate vegetarian propaganda (which probably deserves full rebuttal in a separate post, since it deals with evidence in some very misleading ways and it contains more logical fallacies than I can witness without swearing loudly). Needless to say, the use of ‘natural’ or ‘not natural’ as the basis of an argument is meaningless and invalid – it’s an emotive rather than a logical position. In other words it’s the fallacy of an appeal to nature.

All of this leads me to Naturopathy, the organised embodiment of an appeal to nature:

A Naturopath is a health practitioner who applies natural therapies. Her/his spectrum comprises far more than fasting, nutrition, water, and exercise; it includes approved natural healing practices such as Homeopathy, Acupuncture, and Herbal Medicine, as well as the use of modern methods like Bio-Resonance, Ozone-Therapy, and Colon Hydrotherapy.

At a time when modern technology, environmental pollution, poor diet, and stress play a significant role in the degradation of health, a Naturopath’s ability to apply natural methods of healing is of considerable importance. By using natural therapies he or she is able to treat both acute and chronic ailments successfully. Frequently, a Naturopath is the last resort in a patient’s long search for health. Providing personalised care to each patient, the naturopath sees humankind as a holistic unity of body, mind, and spirit.

[Quote from the College of Naturopathic Medicine UK website]

Despite the obvious woo factor (it receives a full 10 Canards on the Quackometer) it also seems to ignore the fact that sticking a hosepipe up your bum (Colon Hydrotherapy) is certainly ‘not natural’ and nor is sticking needles in your back/face (Acupuncture). They also fail to mention the fact that in “natural” human populations people do not live longer (far from it) and in this time where “modern technology, environmental pollution, poor diet, and stress play a significant role in the degradation of health“, the life expectancy has been increasing linearly by about 3 months per year for the last 160 years. Of course, we may be sick for much of that extended lifetime, but to be honest there doesn’t seem to be much evidence to suggest that naturopaths can do anything to help. Far from it (pdf). Indeed, it rather looks like naturopathy might be an opportunity for the underqualified (pdf)unscientific (50 page rtf)  and pseudoscientific to attempt to minister to the hopeful, misguided and credulous.

So please don’t believe arguments based on appeals to nature and be wary of people who rely on such arguments – they may not realise it, but they are probably wrong and they may be bad for you health.

6 thoughts on “What is Natural?

  1. Here’s an example of ‘not natural’:

    I dressed light yesterday, knowing I would be teaching in a big computer lab at the top of the Tower block with lots of students. So sandals, no tights, fairly light skirt, vest and cotton top. After the Friday Tonic at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, walked across the South Bank then the footbridge to the Embankment at 8.15 pm – and I didn’t need to get my coat out of my backpack.

    The whole atmosphere – weather, warmth in the air and social atmosphere – felt more like 10 pm in August than 8 pm in October.

    You could say ah, but that’s from nature so it’s natural, but it is not what one expects. We make predictions based on knowledge of past events, both from information and personal experience.

    My Chambers dictionary that’s almost as old as you has almost a full page on natural and nature, but its first definition of nature is:

    the power that creates and regulates the world.

    I like that and I think you might too!

  2. We make predictions based on knowledge of past events, both from information and personal experience.

    We do indeed make predictions based on knowledge of past events. People also use this knowledge as a comparison against which they make definitions of what is ‘natural’. However, the sampling method by which experience is acquired tends to be rather biased (particularly with regard to over-sensitivity to outliers), so the knowledge that is used to identify what is ‘natural’ tends to be unreliable.

    Moreover, there is no requirement for ‘natural’ occurences to be expected – indeed, an element of stochasticity is invariably present in most ‘natural’ systems – just look at attempts to predict weather. So I will indeed say “ah, but that’s from nature so it’s natural”.

    As to nature being “the power that creates and regulates the world” I would broadly agree, although rather than “power” I would say “emergent property of interacting physical systems”, since ‘power’ has connotations and specific definitions (e.g. “rate at which work is done or energy is transferred”) that are not really that applicable in this context.

    • A couple of points there: first the definition was not mine, it is from a Chambers dictionary c.1976 but I’m not sure of exact date because the dog ate the covers off it. That definition is only the first phrase of many in the entry for ‘nature’. I think it is useful sometimes to go back to older definitions, ideally back to the etymology, to understand nuances and how meanings segue over time.

      Secondly definite and indefinite articles can change meanings quite significantly. The definition you give is the engineering or scientific definition of ‘power’ – ‘the’ or ‘a power’ can be used much more widely. The wider use of terms which have specific meanings in certain contexts is very common: I have used “significantly’ above but would not if discussing experimental results unless statistical tests had been done. Words can have different meanings altogether in different areas of study – the word ‘process’ for example means something totally different to you than it does to me.

      I don’t think we should, or indeed could, try to stop the exchange of words between technical and everyday language. We do, however, need to be aware of it. Simply drawing out people’s understanding and agreeing a definition both can work to can be very beneficial.

  3. I liked this entry. It brought together a few thoughts I’d had myself, added some structure, a few hyperlinks (the use of hyperlinks in blogs is one of their advantages over printed media), and a some useful additional thoughts and then published it. Very good.
    I think I agree with the points you make. Much of society seldom want to face up to the implications of the use of some of the definitions of “natural” especially when used to describe human behaviour (e.g. homosexuality). I also agree that arguments that say that something has value or does not have value for society because it is either natural or unnatural should certainly be treated with suspicion/skepticism.

  4. In regards to the examples of “unnatural” things being all supernatural, you list many woo topics as examples, but there are plenty of non-woo “things” that also have no physical manifestation. Consider the number PI. There are many approximations to PI in the real world, but the number itself does not exist in nature. Likewise for e. These transcendental numbers are limits or ideals of physical phenomena we observe, but we can not observe the numbers themselves. Much of math is like this, discovered by man, but not created by man, and not at all reliant on the physical universe for it’s “existence”. Before the universe, there was still PI, just no one to appreciate it.

    • Woo happened to be at the crux of the piece – I see no problem with things that only exist in a conceptual space, as long as it is acknowledged that they may not be relevant to the real world simply because they appear to have conceptual relevance.

      I tend to think of mathematics as a conceptual model that closely approaches a description and explanation for the structure of reality, by consistently applying self limiting rules closely akin to the self limiting properties of reality.

      Mathematics is a human construct that gets compounded with what it describes, because it describes it so well (unlike woo). PI would not exist before the universe because PI is conceptual – without a conceptual space in which to exist it doesn’t exist. What PI relates to would also not exist, since without a universe there would not be the coherent framework within which PI would have any relevance, so PI would be an irrelevance.

      I am sure others will disagree!

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