The term “nature” has different meanings for us. Conveniently, we use a simple noun to describe the entire physical and biological world. When we begin to reflect on this term, however, we quickly realize its complexity. “Nature” is not just a shortcut to the sum of what we know about the biological world, it is also a reference to what we don’t know. “Nature” is the familiar term that masks a dark reality, a reality that is not easy to grasp, not anthropocentric, and potentially unknowable. Nature is also the realm of the unspeakable, where language and comprehension breaks down. This “edge” manifests in encounters with nature that can be spectacular, or terrifying, and occasionally the encounter with nature even leads to mystical experiences.
Nature poses a challenge: For us humans, the goal is not only to survive, but to master nature. Civilization attempts this by creating technology. Our scientific efforts aim to anticipate nature’s movements. The study of nature has a purpose, and it leads to the development of technologically driven societies. “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed” (Francis Bacon).
What are some of the meanings of the term “nature”?
- Nature as horizon. In this sense, “nature” refers to the background of our systems of culture. The term “nature” does not have a plural, because there is only one nature. Every tree, fish, or bird is nature, but together, they are also nature. As an abstract philosophical concept, the term allows us to reflect on our relationship to nature as a whole. This in turn creates the question: what kind of creature is the human being, that it is capable to reflect on its own existence vis-à-vis nature? In order to ask these questions, the human being must have left nature in some regard.
- Nature is material and dynamic. It has a material character. It consists of natural things, concrete entities, bacteria, animals, plants, ecosystems, rivers, oceans, planets, suns, and so on. But it is not just what is there right now, it also consists of forces, laws, and interactions between things. Every moment encompasses the history and future of everything. We capture this aspect of biological nature with the term “evolution”, which means that nature is in constant flux, it is profoundly dynamic.
- Nature as origin. It also means the origin of everything, an original or unaltered state. This has two aspects: nature can refer to the essence of something (see the next point), or to the historical origin. The dynamic character of nature means that everything that exists has a trajectory that leads back to some original moment of creation. The universe as a whole seems to have originated in an event that we call the “Big Bang.” For this understanding of nature, there exists a polarity between creation and nothingness, and the question becomes: How can it be that there is something rather than nothing? Did nature create itself, is it its own origin, or did it require some external principle or force, or even a divine intervention? If the latter is true, then nature has two limits: nothingness, and the supra-natural realm.
- Nature as essence. Sometimes we say that something is “natural,” and we mean the essence of a natural being or a human trait. In this sense, nature is a baseline for what something is or how it functions. “Nature” then refers to the way something is created. In traditional Western philosophy, we call the form that determines what something is, its “essence.” If we understand the nature of something, we understand what it is. In Platonic philosophy, this was the eternal idea of the natural entity, and in the Aristotelian thinking, it is the natural form. Whether the essence of something is an idea or a natural form, what both philosophers emphasize is that there must be something that supersedes the individual thing, and that determines what it should be, and simultaneously renders it intelligible. From this point of view, nature also has an inherent ethical dimension, because something is good when it functions in accordance with its nature. Explanations of nature in Western philosophy before the emergence of modern science were speculative, vague, and deeply anthropocentric. At the same time, this kind of thinking is almost impossible to avoid: How would the world be if it had no “nature?’ If nothing were natural? If we would see everything only as a product of its own history, without reference to an inherent purpose?
- Nature as purpose. The natural form in which something exists also gives it its purpose. The idea of a natural form includes the natural function and goal of the entity. From this we derive the concept of “normality.” If nature is origin, then it is also meaningful to say that nature gives us a purpose for everything that exists. In this sense, we think of “nature” as the place to which everything that exists wants to go, or maybe wants to return. In many religions, we find the idea of transformed nature as a final resting place: If nature could be liberated from destruction and death, it could become paradise again.
- Nature and Culture. If reality is the all-encompassing term that has no outside, then nature can be used as the term that distinguishes unaltered reality from the totality of human creations. The cultural process, based on human labor, utilizes nature in order to create a social sphere that is different from nature. We are still trying to determine how this relationship should work, because it seems that in the course of human history, we have made many turns against external or internal nature. In our attempts to control natural processes, we become very destructive, to the point of creating mass-extinctions, or even the threat of collective self-annihilation. Roughly speaking, we pay for the creation of culture with the partial destruction of nature. There are, however, also many examples where the relationship between humans and nature succeeds in amazing ways, for instance when we create gardens.
- The nature of the human being. Humans are nature too, but they are different from anything else that exists, at least on this planet. What do we learn about nature when we look at ourselves? We recognize the nature within us in the form of urges, instincts, or drives. It is hard to resist these “calls from nature,” for instance the sexual drive. The relationship between human beings and their own nature is very complicated. To some degree, humans can determine their own nature – it is easier to say that they “have” a nature, rather than “they are nature.” Cultural systems differ in the way in which they hold people accountable for their level of control over natural impulses originating from within. Cultural achievements that are based on the repression and denial of internal natural impulses create enormous psychological, social, and political tensions. These tensions need to be offset by the gains that result from the efforts to master our nature. Ultimately, the relationship to nature cannot function when it is only driven by the impulse for power and control. We cannot overcome the antagonism with nature with more power, even though this is still the dominant dream of our culture: when science and technology merges with biology and genetics, when machines have become biological, then our domination of nature is complete, and reconciliation is achieved. Many people now think that the dream of immortality is now achievable. But I think nature wants us to take another course: By reflecting on the relationship between human achievements and nature, we begin to discover the wish to see nature as what it is, and not just as the material that supports our self-creation. There has always been a desire for reconciliation, and the way forward is actually the path of a science that listens to nature differently. Or, in the words of George Spencer-Brown, we are so different because within us, nature wants to see and recognize itself. This idea does not elevate us above nature, but leads us deeper into it.