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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24 Comments

  1. No, just as there is no supernatural, there is no unnatural. We are part of the universe, not removed from it, we aren’t in control of it, the fact that we are clever enough to make a digital watch doesn’t mean we are outside our natural environment. We’re just really good at manipulating some shit. Just like beavers can chew down a tree and build a damn, that’s not a particularly natural thing for a healthy tree to do.

    Although… I wouldn’t say we evolved from nature, that sort of sets us apart, I’d say we evolved naturally.

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    • Yep fair point, we evolved in nature and naturally then? :D

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  2. I agree with a lot that you just said. I don’t even think about those things that much. Thanks. Opened my mind.

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  3. I’ve been thinking along similar lines for a while. Humans are just animals who happen to have an enormous capacity to choose, learn, and adapt. A lot of people put a lot of weight on our capacity to choose, as if it’s unique or really significant. A lion may choose or not to run after a baby antelope based on how she feels. Maybe she’s tired. Maybe she’s hurt. Maybe her young are vulnerable. Her scope of decisions are limited by her body, in particular the brain. Her brain is simply not capable of contemplating the choice to give up chasing antelope and open a McDonalds.

    Our choices are still limited by our bodies/minds, and while we are capable of considering what is ludicrous and incomprehensible to a lion (albeit much more productive/pleasing/safe/etc.), we are severely limited. Only after thousands of years have we come to a place where rigorous and scientific study of nature is possible, where we can choose to go to the moon, where we think we can choose to do almost anything. But we can’t do everything. We don’t know what we can’t choose … because we don’t know it. So we stick with the choices we know of, even though there are many more possibilities to every decision.

    All this to say: We’re animals. We think. Thought comes from the mind, which is a function of the brain, which is part of our bodies, which is definitely natural.

    That being said, the distinction between the synthetic (man-made) and non-synthetic is still a good practical distinction, and often we make it for moral reasons simply because as the creatures with the greatest capacity for choice on earth, we bear more responsibility for our actions to the same degree.

    People with mental illness and disease are vivid examples of the limitations of consciousness that we should all take to heart as exaggerated examples of our own mental limitations. We’re natural. The mind is natural. I think it best to realize this. Ayn Rand’s straw man (paraphrase), “You’re saying that because I have eyes I can’t see,” is a particularly destructive argument. We’re wholly fallible, and not only are we fallible, we are limited, even in what we are capable of thinking and thus choosing.

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    • Exactly, but you know what? I make this argument and people think I’m saying we should just do whatever because on a cosmological scale, we don’t mean anything and have but the smallest impact. But I will extrapolate and say that it’s precisely that this IS the case that we should take more care with what we have. I hope to show the severe isolation we face as a planet, the insurmountable distances between us and who knows what, the fact that we only get one chance at this.

      The other thing I hope to say is that, although I believe at times that is our potential outcome to destroy ourselves, that it is precisely because we HAVE choice that we can possibly avert it.

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  4. It’s odd, isn’t it?

    One thing I’ve learned in my own mental hygiene self-education (i.e., introspection and therapy) it’s absurd to claim that something doesn’t mean anything on a cosmological scale. Almost nothing means anything on that scale. And the key is: Who cares about the cosmological scale anyway? You MIGHT have the opportunity to have GLOBAL significance with skill, empathy, and a shit-ton of luck, but the fact is ALMOST NO ONE CAN or does. What matters to us is always local.

    And yeah, we definitely can choose not to destroy ourselves, but that has only, so far, come about as we’ve learned about our less controllable impulses and then were empowered not to act on them with that knowledge.

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  5. I believe that everything is natural. You mention that “people say that the universe is in balance”. I think many of us, and it increases with education, realize that the universe is not in balance. It is, as seen in macro-universe and micro-universe in total chaos. I believe that the laws of thermodynamics could have been mentioned in your post. (actually, i think you explained them in very simple terms, willing or unwillingly :o) )

    As we know, energy exists, it is not created nor destroyed but merely “changed in form?”. Looking at it from our point of view. . . human life is born, then we die and our ashes again form part of our earth. Looking at it from the “Universal” point of view, galaxies form and galaxies destroy each other, stars are born, stars explode.

    Also, there is constant caos in the world. When one’s entropy is in balance, other’s entropy increases. Again, same with the universe (between galaxies) and our personal point of view (between humans and life on earth). It might even seem cruel to think this but, we as humans can’t all be well off. Some countries are doing good, others will be in constant state of war and poverty (Examples of the 2nd law of thermodynamics).

    You also mention “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.” (Very good quote BTW) I think the best we can do is live the best way we can, live for the moment and with our knowledge, strive to improve our future while trying to improve the happiness around us. I don’t think there is such a thing as unnatural, but there is a “manipulation of the natural” to improve on its functions, (i.e. medicines).

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  6. All ain’t said n’ done till we rid the world of this atrocious mess masquerading as religious supernatural shit:)
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    • Wow, reading that was like having a lobotomy!

      Seriously dude I have no idea what you’re saying?

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  7. I agree with you completely. By your larger, universal definition of nature, there are no unnatural occurrences.

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    • Thank you! As I said above, this is a preface to a larger matter, about how I feel that people should have a better knowledge of how we fit into the universe, and at what scale, and this might drive them toward the understanding that our isolation in the universe is precisely what makes us special, not divine words form a man-made god.

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  8. This reply was left for this article at ThinkAtheist.com

    Comment by Christopher Berman 17 hours ago

    I agree with what you have written here, though I would still want to reserve the word ‘natural’ as separate from what is artificial or human-made, within particular conversations. You are right; insofar as there is nothing (that we know of) beyond our universe, it is fitting to call our world the natural world (where ‘world’ simply refers to ‘everything that is’).

    Nevertheless, insofar as humanity is unique on earth in its intellectual capacities, it is sometimes useful to refer to the natural world (where ‘world’ here has a much smaller scope than before) as a certain rough and brutish hunt for food and water and shelter that is characterized by fear, and our own, human world, where we have developed to a different sort of life that is not present elsewhere. Some humans still live a fear-based life of hunting and fleeing, in primitive tribes around the world. But much of the world now lives in an age of cellular telephones and romantic marriages and football. Such things are hardly supernatural, but they are not ‘natural’ in any Rousseauian sense. There is certainly a precedent for using the word ‘natural’ in this fashion, without positing anything supernatural, and I do not think this is terribly problematic.

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  9. This reply was left for this article at ThinkAtheist.com

    Comment by Allen Sneed 4 hours ago

    Competition is only a small part of the equation in biological systems, although I think it gets unfairly hyped in our capitalist culture. If one really looks at different living ecosystems it becomes obvious that cooperation is much more prevalent. Pack animals cooperate in the hunt; herd animals form tight knit social groups to defend against predators; plants have developed flowers to attract pollinating insects and other animals who get food in exchange for helping the plant to propagate itself; plants develop fruits to attract animals who get food in exchange for helping to spread the plant’s seeds; single celled organisms have congregated to create colonies with specialized cells performing separate functions for the whole; and on and on, etc.

    Another thing that I think is over-hyped is the idea that the wild or the “natural” world is all tooth and claw or a constant struggle for survival. While such dramatic scenes make for great TV and nature documentaries seem to focus on that theme a lot, the real world is not really so “rough and brutish.” Careful observation of animals in the wild shows that the vast majority of their time is spent in more pleasurable pursuits, sleeping, relaxing, playing, mating, etc. Most animals in the wild do not live in a constant state of fear or distress. I recommend reading “Pleasurable Kingdom” by animal behaviorist Jonathan Balcombe for more on this topic.

    The reason I bring this up is because I think that these over-hyped ideas of what separates man from beast, or humans from non-human animals, plays a big role in our definition of “natural” and is the reason that many people view humans as outside of natural processes.

    For example, Christopher mentions a few examples of human behaviors he feels are unique to humans and therefore take us beyond “nature” as experienced by other animals. While I don’t disagree that human intellect is somewhat unique, I don’t believe it separates us from the rest of the natural world in any way.

    For starters, many other animals exhibit complex play behaviors that could be compared to organized sports. In fact, some ants engage in team sports similar to soccer whereby one group of ants attempts to role a seed past another group of ants and into a hole. The seed is then removed from the hole and the next round of the game begins.

    Geese mate for life and show strong signs of romantic love. In fact, there are many cases of geese dying from grief when their mates are killed by hunters.

    And although the human mind has allowed us to develop the technology to use microwaves to communicate long distances with each other, whales and other animals have developed biological characteristics which allow them to communicate around the world using ultra sonic waves.

    I know of no human characteristics that cannot be shown to exist in at least some other animals and know of no good reason to exclude humans from the realm of nature or natural processes. While many modern humans need no longer fear being eaten by lions, survival of the fittest is still at work with our species. And by survival of the fittest, I don’t mean the strongest or the smartest. I mean those who have the most offspring who survive to reproductive age. In American culture, where the least educated people tend to have the most offspring and the most educated people have developed a system for keeping people alive longer, survival of the fittest may mean that our species is getting dumber.

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    • I’ll extend here on what I was saying in my blogpost.

      I’d argue that there are far more incidences if competition in nature than we give credit to when looking at the natural world around us. Sure there are plenty of examples of intra-species cooperation, and more than we probably know. In no way am I implying that the chaos and competition we see in nature is ALL that there is. There are even brilliant examples of inter-species cooperation that we see around us, like the small fish that clean the teeth of larger fish.

      But I think it’s folly to say that there is more cooperation than competition. Look at the plant world, and in particular, in a rainforest environment. There are so many plants in that environment all striving for light and competing against one another directly for sunlight and nutrients. The mosses are not cooperating with the giant forest trees, merely they are getting by on what they can get in the darkness below, and adaptations over time have allowed them to get what they can from their situations. The snail and the lettuce leaf are not in cooperation, and the wasp that steals the pupae to lay eggs in are not cooperating.

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    • cooperation is MUCH more prevalent than you give it credit for. You don’t have to look any farther than your own body. A full 90% of the cells in your body are non-human. Think about that. Only about 1 out of ever 10 cells in your body contains your DNA. The rest of the cells are bacteria, fungi, and other microbes and they live on you and inside you and the vast majority of them are either beneficial or indifferent to your survival. A small percentage of course are pathogens that make you sick. Life literally would not exist without cooperation.

      I’m not trying to minimize the necessity or existence of competition, I’m just trying to point out that cooperation is far more prevalent than you might imagine and it is far more important too.

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    • OK OK, as usual, guilty as charged, I tent to over-emphasise things in order to make a point. I will grant you this, sorry hadn’t thought it through properly. I guess I tend to think of the organism as a single entity, and while I am aware of the many other “lifeforms” involved in the human (dog, goat, bird, whatever) organism, I did overlook that.

      Yes there is a huge amount of co-operation within organisms. And yes it is highly important in an ecosystem, agreed. And glad you picked me up on this.

      It doesn’t really change my point from the blogpost though, does it? The universe is NOT in balance, in fact all things are at the mercy of the greater forces of weather, geology, gravity, radiation, and at any point the “balance” so often cited as proof for the existence of a god can be teetered one way or the other.

      Yes, even in a “cooperative” organism such as a human being.

      You are a great thinker, and a mighty debater Mr Tweed!

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    • “It doesn’t really change my point from the blogpost though, does it? The universe is NOT in balance, in fact all things are at the mercy of the greater forces of weather, geology, gravity, radiation, and at any point the “balance” so often cited as proof for the existence of a god can be teetered one way or the other.”

      Of course it is in balance. If the universe were not in balance, it wouldn’t exist. Competition and cooperation are a zero sum proposition. Too much competition, and organisms die. Too much cooperation among a group of organisms and that increases competition and other organisms die. The earth is in a state of precarious balance. Every other planet is either too hot or too cold to support life. In fact, parts of the earth are either too hot or too cold to support life. Of course, the temperature isn’t the only issue, there are plenty of other factors on the quantum level, atomic level, local, world-wide, solar system-wide, galactic, and universal levels that must be in a precarious state of balance for life to exist on the planet earth.

      Don’t be afraid to embrace this. It’s simply the truth. Yes, this balance has recently become the theologian’s favorite argument. I suggest that this is THE only argument based in real world facts that the theologian has in their repertoire. Of course the theologian misrepresents the importance of as well as the probability of this balance. Some balance is easier to account for than others. There are an estimated 10^24 stars in the universe. Stars form planets, we know this because we’ve spotted extra-solar planets already. It just stands to logic that if there were even a tiny fraction of these stars that could form planets like ours and if even a tiny fraction of those planets could form life, and if even a tiny fraction of the life could become intelligent life, then we would expect to see billions and billions of examples of life throughout the universe and hundreds or thousands of examples in the milky way alone. Some examples of balance are much more difficult to explain like the cosmological constant. No current theory of physics can account for the cosmological constant. Quantum mechanics suggests that it must unimaginably larger than it is (The constant is 10^-120 times smaller than predicted by quantum mechanics). Even up and coming ideas in physics can’t account for it, supersymmetry requires the constant to be exactly 0. Moreover, even a mind-bogglingly small change in the cosmological constant would drastically change the nature of the universe entirely (I can’t locate the exact figures ATM).

      What am I getting at? Embrace the truth no matter what it is. The truth is all we have. Do not be afraid to follow it no matter where it leads you because it will very likely lead you somewhere that none of us expects. Yes, the universe exhibits a very strange and in some cases a very precise balance. It is a non-sequitur to suggest this balance is evidence for any God. With more information, maybe we’ll conclude that there is no other explanation than God. So be it. What creationists would have us do is to stop asking questions at every perplexing problem. Sometimes in response rationalists tend to suggest that what we see isn’t really what we see and therefore the creationists are wrong. My suggestion is that both of these ways of dealing with the information we have is not ideal.

      You are a great thinker, and a mighty debater Mr Tweed!

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    • I meant to put a little thank you at the very end of that response of mine. Thanks for the kind words.

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      • Ok point taken. Maybe balance is not the word I’m looking for. Will get back to you.

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    • “The earth is in a state of precarious balance.”

      Precarious, yes, this helps me.

      I propose that the universe is *not* in balance, but rather in a constant journey *towards* true balance, i.e. equilibrium. Examples such as a sun devouring a planet, for example, is not balance, but rather the relationship between these 2 bodies has reached a tipping point and caused an imbalance that is tending *towards* a state of balance. If we follow the principle of the 2nd law of thermodynamics, doesn’t this say that rather than balance, we actually have a constant degradation toward an entropic state?

      This is what I’m getting at. Does this make sense to you?

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    • Yup. Now I think you’re on the right track.

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      • Maybe I should have just said that in the first instance.

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  10. Harris, I’d be interested in your thoughts on this post:

    http://atheistclimber.wordpress.com/2010/05/26/alone_in_the_universe/

    It’s kinda the sequel to the post above.

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  11. I really enjoyed reading your blog, and the comments from all parties, both here and at Think Atheist. Busy at work, I had no chance to check the site again until today.

    To clarify, I agree with your main point if your main point is: “Just because something is “artificial” or man-made, does this make it any less natural? I’d like to say no, it doesn’t.”

    I also agree that the cosmos is not in balance. The Laws of Thermodynamics and the principle of entropy tell us that there is a one way directional flow of energy in the universe, unless I am simply unaware of a balancing factor that contradicts the Laws of Thermodynamics. All flows of heat are from hot to cold.

    I just wanted to point out that while competition makes good TV it ain’t what I see most outside my window.

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