An Atheist and his Natural Universe

Posted by on May 23, 2010 in Thoughts | 24 comments

I have, in the past tried to put forward my thoughts on the idea that all things that happen in a universe are natural. There is no such thing as an unnatural act, because when you look at THIS world on a universal scale, it is little more than a small speck of dust comparatively, and what we do here on earth is inconsequential to anything that happens elsewhere in the universe.

I’d like to expand upon this idea a little more, and forgive me if I think this one through as I go. It’s a huge topic, and probably worth more than the several hundreds words I’ll devote to it here.

Let’s start with a few basic ideas.

Spiral galaxies NGC 5426 and NGC 5427

Spiral galaxies NGC 5426 and NGC 5427 from apod.nasa.gov

Humans have evolved from what we commonly call “nature”, which could be described as the world around us, the ecosystems and environments untainted by the interference and destructive influence of humanity. For instance, before civilization proper arose, our ancestors were part of this definition of nature. All things within that ecosystem would play a role, the ecosystem’s many parts interacting with each other to appear in balance. This common usage of the word “nature” is not what I’m talking about here. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the aforementioned definition of nature is not only lacking, but is actually incorrect, and that “Fern Gully”-like utopian vision of the natural does not exist at all. The natural is not a balance but a continual and brutal struggle for survival, and all things are in competition to expand the dominion of their genes by whatever means they can. Adaptation and natural selection has delivered any organism to where it is now evolutionary, and due to geological and atmospheric changes, these organisms either adapt further or are wiped out. Now this is simplifying the whole process terribly, but I think you get the idea.

We get this skewed view of “nature” as in balance, because of a the characteristics of human understanding, our perceptive abilities as a species, and the way we are taught to look at the nature culturally.

We can’t see the adaptations for what they are, because we each only live for a very short time on this planet. Time is against us and this makes for difficulties in gauging activities of our surroundings to all but the immediate past and present. We find it difficult to see the massive changes that happen on a large timescale, because we can only really view changes over a single human lifetime. We do have the collective knowledge of generations past, but we can never really know this from a personal perspective. Our finite individual timescales blinker our ability to see nature as an imbalance which constantly teeters one way or the other, all things adapting or disappearing. The “balance of nature” is only temporary, and is ever shifting.

I’d like to extend this idea beyond our immediate surroundings, and look at a much large picture. The universe, made up as it is by mostly empty space, dotted here and there by stars and planets and gas clouds, and it’s easy to think that everything is in balance out there too. But this is far from the truth. Celestial bodies are constantly crashing into each other, ripping what was there apart, stars absorbing matter around them, black holes gulping up matter, asteroids collide, meteors are constantly bombarding the surfaces of planets and moons, all with terrible destructive force. And we fail to see these things happening because for one, earth is tiny and isolated. For another, we can;t possibly comprehend anything like a super-nova star, because there is nothing in human history to compare it to. Also, the numbers involved in calculating these massive cosmic events are staggering, numbers that we abbreviate and round to the nearest string of zeroes just to make them workable or even comprehensible.

The Orion Nebula from the Spitzer Space Telescope via apod.nasa.gov

The Orion Nebula from the Spitzer Space Telescope via apod.nasa.gov

People so often say that “the universe is in balance”, citing the fact that there is life on earth, that all the plants and animals have adapted over time on this planet, that the earth spins and circles the sun “just so”, and that everything is perfect. But the universe is chaotic in the macro, just as life on earth is chaotic in the micro. So I’d like toi extend the idea of nature to beyond the little bubble we call earth, and grow to include the goings-on of the entire universe. All things are at the mercy of the basic principles of physics and chemistry.

So let’s return to the idea that man evolved from nature. Given that all things in the universe can be considered nature, does this mean that we humans have really removed ourselves from nature? Just because something is “artificial” or man-made, does this make it any less natural?

I’d like to say no, it doesn’t.

All things we have created culturally are the products of the human brain’s evolution. From societies to sciences, domestication to religion, all are a product of the evolution of the human brain. I’d like to ask this, why do we disassociate our actions as humans from the natural, when if you think of nature, there can be nothing in the universe which is not part of this process? Our brains have evolved to make give us the physical abilities to create all these things in our civilization, who’s to say that this is not part of the natural process too? I think to remove ourselves from the natural at all is folly.

We have created all these things as a reaction to our environments, and as adaptations to the changes our past deeds have put upon us. So is there really such thing as unnatural?

Further reading
What’s unnatural about human nature?

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  1. [...] planet we have. Everything on this planet is finite, and while I have said in the past here and here that on a universal scale that everything we do is inconsequential, on a global and local level [...]

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