Saturday, February 18, 2017

Ralph Waldo Emerson

In his essay "Nature" (1836) Ralph Waldo Emerson observes "Nature, in the common sense, refers to essences untouched by man; space, the air, the river, the leaf. Art is applied to the mixture of his will with the same things, as in a house, a canal, a statue, a picture." Given the line of reasoning that I have been developing, this is an interesting observation for two reasons. First, this dichotomy is much older than I originally thought. And second, according to Emerson, the artificial must be intentional as he requires "the mixture of will". This is interesting because, if we follow Emerson, epiphenomena or side effects don't count. This makes the dichotomy a trichotomy: the natural, the artificial, and the epiphenomena.

Here is a link to the essay Nature  The quote is in red in the last paragraph in the introduction.  

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Is Intent the Problem? How about scope?

As we scramble to find ways to distinguish artifacts that other forms of life create such as beaver damns or anthills, we search frantically for distinctions so we can say "Well, there's the difference!" This is actually a feeble minded attempt to maintain one's un-examined worldview rather than a serious attempt to understand the underlying issue. Nonetheless, it does crop up. So we must deal with it. 

We might try to forgive the creation of artifacts in nature by saying that even though things are created in nature that impact the environment of the species that created them, any bad things that happen were not intentional. The were just by products of the species' attempt to survive. So, for example, when a mutating virus creates a virile new copy of itself that wipes out a population, we might say that it didn't really mean any harm. Or when a beaver builds a dam that floods a field near the dam, they didn't do it just to be mean.

 But, if intent is the distinction, then it doesn't get us anywhere. When the automobile was invented, for example, nobody said "let's invent and then mass produce an internal combustion engine that uses fossil fuels and see if we can heat up the planet". I feel fairly confident, that this outcome never occurred to anyone. And, nobody is saying now, "let's burn as much fossil fuel as we can and see how hot we can make it". Granted that there are some unfortunate side effects of the things we do. But, to suggest intent is to way overstate the case.

Even the characterization of "unfortunate" is a matter of perspective. If you were part of the next species waiting to dominate the planet once the humans had driven themselves into extinction, your might find some of these side effects to be very promising. And, as you saw repeated attempts by humans to prevent or postpone their extinction, you might think - "How selfish!"

If intent doesn't get us anywhere in making distinctions between the things that humans do which we call artificial and the similar things that other life forms do, then maybe we can think of it as a difference in scale rather than a difference in kind. After all, a beaver damn is not going to flood the planet or cause the sea levels to rise. And an anthill is unlikely to destroy other species. But, is it really true that only humans can do real damage? Aren't don't locust plagues create devastation on a very large scale. How about army ants that eat everything in their path. Or what about mutating viruses, such as the flu, which routinely (in geological time) wipe out other species.

Let's say that the planet heats up causing the sea levels to rise until it creates a massive extinction event. What happens next? Well, new species will arise and life will go on just as it has done in any number similar events of varying magnitude to life on this planet since life first came to the planet. Granted there might be a few less humans.  And their beach front properties aren't worth a dime any more. But, in the cosmological scheme of things, it is business as usual. So, even the attribute of scale will not give us a meaningful distinction.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Are Anthills Artificial?

After challenging notions of what is natural, let's turn around and look at it another way and ask - what is artificial? Most people would be comfortable saying that cars, airplanes, factories, cities and the like are artificial. When questioned as to why, they would probably mutter something like - they are man made. They don't occur in nature. We already have a problem with that, though, because it is very unclear what nature is, let alone what occurs in it. But, for the sake of argument, let's assume that we all know what nature is and what occurs in it.

Is this a fair assumption? If we got rid of cars, airplanes, factories, cities and so forth, would the world be free free from artifacts? Don't animals create artifacts as well? What about anthills, beaver dams, bird nests, bee hives, hornet nests, termite mounds and so on? Aren't they artifacts as well? And don't they occur in nature?

As one scrambles for a defense on this point, they might try to make a distinction between human and animal artifacts by saying that these examples are all of animals creating homes and their creation of homes is not dangerous to the environments in which they live. But, this does not hold up under inspection. Beaver dams, for example, can cause flooding. And insects are inclined to defend their homes with may cause damage to intruders. To be fair, one must recognize that there is a difference of scale in the impacts of human and animal artifacts. But, a difference in scale is not a difference in kind. 

Pushing this point a little further, it isn't just animals creating homes that we need to worry about. Animals, indeed all life forms, create new copies of themselves. And those new copies may introduce new problems. Mutating viruses, for example, provide a constant threat of a pandemic. And, further up the complexity chain, all animals are in a constant state of evolution. As they make new copies of themselves with new evolutionary advantages, these new creations present increasingly greater threats to the environments in which they live.

So, this notion that artifacts do not occur in nature is misguided and simple minded. We need to look further than the natural vs. artificial distinction to get to the root of the problem.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Are Mindfulness and Meditation Natural?

Mindfulness and Meditation are becoming increasingly more popular these days as people look for ways to cope in a world that is becoming increasingly more chaotic and stressful. Some feel that meditation is best in a natural setting that provides a backdrop of natural beauty and tranquility. We have already discussed whether or not these natural settings really are natural. So we don't need to go down that path. But, it does bear asking whether or not meditation in particular or mindfulness in general is natural or artificial.

People meditate for a variety of reasons. Some meditate because their friends do. Some meditate because it is an affirmation of their world view. Some meditate because it lowers their stress levels or their blood pressure. Some meditate because it makes them more effective at other things that they need or want to do. It is not up to me to judge whether any of these reasons are good or bad. But, I wanted to allow for the fact that there are many reasons for meditation and I am going to focus on just one.

Many people who meditate do so because it helps quiet their minds. We are constantly bombarded with thoughts that create stress or make us fearful or unhappy.This is sometimes referred to as "Monkey Mind" but it is an experience that most people experience. Thoughts pop into your head, sometimes in rapid fire, that cause you concern and stress. "My boss gave me a funny look this morning. Am I going to loose my job?", "My car made a funny noise. I hope it isn't going to be something expensive.", "That's a funny bump on my arm. Is it a bug bite, or melanoma? If its melanoma, did I catch it in time?", "We are going out with a new couple tonight. I hope they aren't judgemental. I really don't like judgemental people", and so on, and so on.

Why does this happen? Evolutionary biologists explain this in a way that is making great headway into the mindfulness community. First, we evolved an advanced neo-cortex which allows us to model the world in which we live and make predictions. This ability to anticipate rather than participate saved a lot of our hominid ancestors from predators and thus created an evolutionary advantage.In addition, our brain generates scenarios and lobs them into our conscious mind for consideration. "Is that grayish brown blog a lion or a rock?"

Unfortunately, our minds have gotten really good at generating scenarios as we have gotten really bad at distinguishing between a remote scenario and one that is worthy of consideration and we suffer from the emotional impact of too many negative although very unlikely scenarios. So, we have to calm our minds and meditation is a great way to do that. But, if meditation is an attempt to overcome millennia of natural evolution, can it really be considered natural? I would strongly argue that it isn't. Meditation is technique developed by humans to overcome negative aspects of our natural evolution. Meditation is artificial and it is a good thing.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Is "Act Naturally" an Oxymoron?

We think we like people who "act naturally". In fact, we have derogatory terms for people who do not act naturally. We call them phonies. We call them insincere. But, upon inspection, we will see that we really don't want people to "act naturally" and that the world would simply not work if people were not insincere.

What is "natural" behavior? Well, if we follow our evolving definition of what it means to be natural, we can see that natural behavior is behavior that has not been influence by mankind. If we did, indeed, act naturally, we would act like wild animals. We would kill, steal, fight over mates and territory, and would certainly not feel obligated in any way to observe social amenities. Instead of voting, we would have politicians fight it out with each other. If one was hungry, you would just steal food from a weaker member of society. If your neighbor's house was nicer, you would just take it over and kick them out as long as you were physically superior. No, we don't really want people to go around acting naturally.

In place of acting naturally, we have thousands of years of evolving norms that we adopt, centuries of cultural development, decades of things that are fashionable, and years of current fads that we follow. Not only do we have these constructs, but they are conveyed in stories, laws, and TV shows. "Correct behavior" could not be further from natural. It is entirely an artificial construct (such as manners), reinforced by other artificial constructs (such as media).

Imagine encountering someone and asking how they are. And, in response, they actually tell you. You would wonder what is wrong with that person. Imagine meeting somebody new and instead of saying "nice to meet you", they say, "I really don't like meeting new people, so don't bother to tell me your name." No, natural behavior is not what we are looking for. And we really do want people to be insincere. So, clearly, something other than the natural/artificial dichotomy is going on.But, what is it?

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Is Natural Food Really Natural?

You hear a lot these days about eating natural food while avoiding artificial foods such as genetically modified organisms or GMOs. I am not sure that this is a meaningful dichotomy and would argue that there is no such thing as "natural" food.

I made the distinction in a previous post between natural and artificial saying that something is natural if it is a product of nature while we can think of it as artificial if it is caused or created by humans. Is the food we eat today, a product of nature? Honestly, I don't see how anyone can claim that anything we eat today is natural.

Around 10,000 years ago humans gave up their hunting and gathering lifestyle in order to settle down and stay in one place. In order to feed themselves they had to start farming and raising animals for food. I realize that I have hazed over the complexity of this transition. But the transition is not part of the argument I am making. The argument I am making is that humans have not eaten any natural food for over ten thousand years.

As people settled down, they began planting seeds in specific locations rather than gathering the grains from where ever they naturally grew. Over time they began selecting seeds from more desirable plants. Eventually, they started getting scientific about crop production and eventually got down to the DNA level with GMOs. The point here is that GMOs are not a different kind of thing from natural plants. They are merely the latest human innovation in attempting to improve the food supply. If you really want natural food, you need to go out to a pristine field somewhere and gather it in its natural state hoping that there are no human finger prints on it.

A similar argument can be made for animals which were fed and bred to produce more desirable results. The animals, as well as the plants, were not only selectively bred but they were protected against diseases by antibiotics and any number of other interventions. So, if you want a natural steak, you would have to go out to that pristine field and hope to find a woolly mammoth, hoping further that it hasn't eaten all your natural grain.

Natural vs. artificial is not the distinction we are looking for. But, if it isn't, what are we concerned about?

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Caused vs Created

I said, in the last post, "Something is natural if it is caused or created by nature and not caused or created by mankind. Something is artificial if it is caused or created by mankind" I acknowledged that this may have to change and already I am beginning to doubt if this definition will work.

What is the difference between something that is caused and something that is created? Let's take some extreme examples. If lightning strikes your house and causes a fire, we would be fairly comfortable claiming that the lightning "caused" the fire but not very comfortable claiming that the lightning created the fire. On the other hand, if the person who lives in the house make a marble statue to honor the god of lightning in order to protect the house, we would be fairly comfortable in saying that the homeowner created the statue, while uncomfortable saying that the homeowner caused the statue. This is not as obvious as it sounds because if we view this activity in terms of Aristotle's Four Causes, one would have to acknowledge that the homeowner did cause the statue, although we don't look at things that way anymore.

To explore this line of reasoning, let's say that A causes B if B is an outcome, side product, or epi-phenomenon of A.  Alternatively, A creates B if the production of B is an intentional activity of A.This still does not quite work. If the homeowner threw gasoline on the house and then lit it, we would say that the homeowner caused the fire but might be reluctant to say that the homeowner created the fire. On the other hand the homeowner definitely created the statue and it would seem silly to say the homeowner caused the statue. So, in order to create we need not only intentional activity, but we need the thing created to be unique and brought into existence by the creator and not likely to be brought into existence any other way.

This may feel a little tedious, but we cannot make clear value judgements about things unless we clearly know what those things are. In addition we need to know what the consequences of those things are in order to assess their value. That also requires clear definitions. We could go on with the hair splitting of meanings but will drop it for now and come back to it later. Next we will look at some things and attempt to determine, using our current definitions, whether or not they are natural.