There is a misunderstood and unfortunate dichotomy between the natural and the artificial that has created a lot of paranoia about eating genetically modified organisms or a day in the future when robots take over mankind and enslave us. While there are issues to be addressed, these paranoid ravings are not at all productive in addressing them. Over the next few posts I want to explore the meanings of natural and artificial, and see if we can get down to the real concerns, and hopefully address a few of them.
What is the difference between natural and artificial? And is the artificial, whether it be intelligence or some other creation a threat to humanity or is it merely the realization of mankind's destiny? What is the role of nature in our lives and what is the role of the artificial? And when we refer to the natural are we always referring to something good? What threats and benefits do we derive from the natural and the artificial. and what can we do to have more of the benefits and less of threats?
These are big questions and cannot be addressed directly without developing some foundation. So, let's begin with the question - what is the difference between natural and artificial. 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. We may have to modify this definition later as we further explore the topic. But, this is a workable definition for now.
Most people would agree that a primeval wilderness forest is natural and a robot is artificial as these two examples are at opposite ends of the spectrum. But, if the forest is going to be considered natural then nothing about its current state can be caused or created by mankind. So, if anything was done to influence the ecology of the forest such as laws or barriers to protect it from the surrounding environment, then it is no longer natural. If any effort was made to influence the flora or fauna in any way then it is no longer natural. Sometimes people with wonderfully good intentions do things in any attempt to protect nature. But, the very act of protecting reduces the naturalness that they are trying to protect. Given the extent to which mankind has come to dominate the globe, it would be very difficult to find anything on the planet that is truly natural. And any attempt to remedy this situation would further reduce the existence of anything truly natural on the planet.
We may try to back off a little and say that something is still natural if it has not been "intentionally" caused or created by mankind. The allows us to keep the robot in the artificial category while allowing aspects of nature that have only suffered side effects of mankind to still be in the natural category. But, further inspection shows that this doesn't work either. Mankind did not intentionally create global warming. So, global warming and climate change would have to be considered natural.
Further, the robot may not be excluded from the category of natural because it is not clear if the robot was "intentionally" caused by mankind or just the outcome of mankind's curiosity and natural tendency to make tools of varying levels of sophistication. When a lion attacks a zebra and causes its death, we see that as just part of nature because the lion is just following its natural tendencies. When a human creates a tool, why isn't that just an expression of the human's natural tendencies.
Already the dichotomy has become a little murky and we need to explore it a little further and in a little more depth.