Thursday, April 16, 2009

On the nature of nature

A lot of my ideas on what I call dualism (it's possible that nobody else calls it that) come out of an ecology class I once took, in which I learned, among other things, that 1) anything and everything can be thought of in terms of ecology, and 2) the word "unecological" can be used as a scathing insult. I didn't buy wholeheartedly into the professor's philosophy, and I still don't now, but one thing I took away from the class was that people tend to understand things by splitting them into two groups, and then taking sides. This is unecological. The distinctions between between Western and Eastern cultures, between animals and machines, between Us and Them are never quite as sharp as we'd like them to be. For some reason, this inspired me. So, I made dualism my enemy (which, now that I think of it, is rather dualistic of me). I decided that it would be fun to promote greater understanding by, whenever I had the chance, demonstrating that two things people tend to think of as separate are actually inseparable from each other - not only can you not have one without the other, but in fact there's no consistent way of drawing a line between them. A great example of this is the idea of nature.

As a technological crusader (in my own mind, at least), one of the things that most bothers me is the view of the world that says that technology and the environment are diametrically opposed. The basis of this attitude is simple enough: technology is by definition used to change our environment to our liking; the environment would rather stay as it is. But what is this "environment" thing, anyway? Most people would agree that plants and animals are part of it. We might also include features of the land (lakes, mountains, and such), and maybe more abstract concepts like habitats or ecosystems. But what about humans? We're animals too, right? Why aren't we part of the environment? And if we are, what about the things we make? If a bird's nest is natural, then why isn't a skyscraper? We can talk about details like materials, but everything we use comes from somewhere, and if we go far back enough we'll find nature. At what point did humans become a class of our own, separate from the world around us?

My answer, of course, is that there is no meaningful difference. A forest, a park, an office building; there's nothing more or less natural about any of these. Our drive to shape our environment isn't artificial, any more than a bird's nesting instinct. The human capacity for thought, reasoning, innovation is a natural occurrence; everything that follows from it is a natural consequence. This doesn't mean that there's nothing worth preserving in the parts of the world we haven't yet changed to suit us; it just means that casting us as the villains and the woodland creatures as the heroes (or the other way around, which is something I've done on occasion) isn't a coherent line of argument. This kind of dualism is very easy to create, and it might help us make sense of the world, but it doesn't make sense in itself.

A plea for clemency: these are very rough ideas. There may be holes, there may be avenues of argument I've missed. Part of my goal in putting these up here is to help turn my vague ideas into a coherent philosophy. Please comment, but please be gentle.

(As a side note, half of the aforementioned class was spent in debates between two students who considered themselves to be on the side of nature and the environment, and myself and one other student who considered ourselves to be on the side of technology, human progress, etc. I thought this was kind of ironic.)

1 comment:

  1. Awesome. I'm all for pointing out arbitrary distinctions (and incoherent distinctions).

    And nice blog.