Is Our World Natural?
At first glance, the headline sounds absurd: is our world natural? Of course the world is natural. Nature is natural, isn’t it? Often, though, we picture what humans do as unnatural – oil spills, landfills, pollution, nuclear waste, crime, war. But if humans are a part of nature, then whatever they do is natural. Some recent articles show that the definition of natural requires some reflection.
- Gulf oil spill: The gulf oil spill, the worst environmental disaster the United States has ever faced, is finally in the cleanup stages. To consider the impact on wildlife, jobs, and the economy is heart wrenching. Who could not be moved by those news photos of pelicans drenched in oil, black goo infesting delicate wetlands, tarballs on white beaches? It seems so unnatural. Images of man-made machinery, complicated drill rigs and capping devices add to the contrast between natural and unnatural. Few seem to be commenting on the fact that the oil is coming out of the earth. If the earth is natural, any substance it exudes must also be natural. “Natural” oil seeps have leaked crude into the gulf long before man decided to tap into the subsurface reservoirs (see BBC News, “Seepages near the leaking BP oil well ‘may be natural’”). What’s more, bacteria are expected to break down the oil over time, and bacteria are natural. Defining unnatural in this instance, therefore, needs to include situations of natural substances undergoing possibly unnatural processes, or concentrating in unnatural amounts where they are not usually found. But if unnatural includes those situations, it also includes numerous unusual concentrations of natural substances (lava, radioactive elements, smoke, algal blooms) that had nothing to do with man’s intervention.
- Forest fires: Fire season is coming to the western United States again. One can only hope that the devastation of last year’s record fires will not be repeated. For many years, the public learned from Smokey Bear that “Only you can prevent forest fires.” Fire lookout towers were installed in vulnerable areas, and any puff of smoke in a national park or wilderness area set off a monumental effort at fire suppression, even if no structures were threatened– smoke jumpers dropped into the burn zone, water-dropping aircraft dropping water and flame retardant, firebreaks quickly carved through the wilderness.
A paradigm change occurred in the 1970s, however, as more park superintendents and ecologists considered the role of “natural” wildfires to the health of the forest. Botanists realized many forest trees and herbaceous plants actually rely on fire for their propagation. Fires began to be incorporated as a normal, “natural” part of the forest life cycle. Parks adopted a “let burn” policy for wildfires set by lightning, even if the smoke drifted into Yosemite Valley and set the tourists coughing. Only fires that threatened buildings were suppressed.
The 1988 Yellowstone fires, though, set by a backpacker’s campfire, set the ecologists talking about canopy fires – those exceptionally hot fires that burned not only the undergrowth but the tops of the trees, leaving a whole area devastated, unable to sustain wildlife and unable to restrict the damage of erosion. Now, it seemed a new dividing line was being erected between natural and unnatural. It’s doubtful, however, that the 1988 catastrophe was the first one. How many were set in past centuries by lightning in exceptionally dry, hot years? Perhaps the 1988 fire could be called unnatural because it was human caused. But again, if humans are part of nature, like any other mammal, anything they do could arguably called natural.
Maybe a distinction could be drawn between human-caused fires that are intentional instead of accidental. Arson fires have caused untold grief and loss, especially in Southern California where each year most of the worst brush fires are set by arsonists. If anything seems unnatural, arson would surely qualify; but then is the firefighters’ response to be considered natural? Perhaps self-preservation is natural, but self-destruction is unnatural. PhysOrg says that prevention of human-caused wildfires pays big dividends. Which action is natural, and which is not?
According to evolutionists, human ancestors first learned to use fire 800,000 years ago, and some of our ancestors set wildfires for hunting or warfare. Such wildfires may have caused the extinction of other species. At what point did hominid activities cross an imaginary line between natural behavior and unnatural behavior?
- Global warming: One would have to be a Rip Van Winkle to miss all the talk about human-caused climate change. Every week we are hearing about current and future threats to the planet if global warming is not mitigated: for instance, National Geographic warns that 2010 may be the hottest on record; PhysOrg says global warming will cause more smog in Los Angeles; Science Daily says climate change is making marmots fatter; and another National Geographic article claims that global warming will increase Mexican immigration. The debate centers over what is natural climate change and what is unnatural—i.e., man-caused. Nature announced on June 4 that not all of a glacier’s wane may be human-caused, but may be due to “natural climate variability.” But if man is a part of nature, such distinctions are academic.
- Natural disasters: TV programs about natural disasters always grab attention. Every year the news fills our homes with images of tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, floods, and other tragedies. PhysOrg discussed ways a scientist at Tel Aviv University is seeking to avoid the train wrecks caused by such events. “Thousands of people around the world have died in train wrecks caused by natural disasters,” the article began; “In 2004, the tsunami in Southeast Asia derailed a Sri Lankan train, killing 1,700 people.” That event pales in comparison to the 230,000 people who perished in the Haiti earthquake last January.
We call them natural disasters, but something in us cries out that things should not be this way; they seem somehow unnatural. Unnatural in this sense might refer to events falling outside an expected or usual range. We can’t blame humans for these events, except to the point where they failed to plan ahead, such as building a house on the sand instead of on a rock. The death toll in Haiti might have been far less if people had not built unreinforced houses on slopes; but it would not have been zero. And if a large meteor from space were to land on Manhattan, no amount of prevention would avoid monumental loss of life from that kind of “natural” disaster.
As long as one avoids natural disasters, spending time in “nature” is good for human health, announced PhysOrg. A doctor in Finland said that most people “feel relaxed and good when they are out in nature. But not many of us know that there is also scientific evidence about the healing effects of nature.” But if humans are part of nature, aren’t they out in nature all the time? He was thinking of forests and green settings, obviously, in contrast to being stuck in a cubicle or traffic jam. But it might be healthier to be in a high-rise building than a forest when a natural disaster like a wildfire, lightning storm or flash flood strikes.
We often hear about man’s devastation of the Amazon rain forests. But “nature” can pack a lot of devastation on its own. This month, Nature News talked about a “once-in-a century drought” that struck the Amazon in 2005, reducing rainfall by 60-75% in some areas. But that same year, according to Live Science, a storm ripped through the rain forest, toppling half a billion trees without the help of human chainsaws. In some hard-hit areas, 80% of the trees were killed by the storm.
These and other examples show that defining natural is complex and problematic. Yet the word is important in origins debates. Evolutionists, whether atheistic or theistic, often demand that science restrict its explanations to natural phenomena subject to natural laws. Yet by using their human reason and intellect, they are, in a sense, acting “outside” nature by casting judgment on what nature entails and how it is to be understood. Explanation by its very “nature” is not a natural phenomenon subject to natural laws. And why is it that human beings are the only intelligent creatures on the planet thinking about these questions?
It shouldn’t be surprising, therefore, that this article began with a headline, “Is our world natural?” Sean Carroll, a Caltech cosmologist, asked that question of the whole universe (see 05/11/2006).
Materialists can’t have it both ways. They cannot argue that only particles and natural laws exist, then turn around and blame humans for global warming, pollution, war, acid rain, extinction, or anything else. Nature is what nature does. If humans are a part of nature, whatever they do is only natural. It’s doubtful that even Richard Dawkins could stomach calling his worst political nightmare, whatever he would pick (creationism? religion? Margaret Thatcher?) “natural.” It’s also doubtful he would want the arguments in his books discounted as mere particles responding to natural laws.
The only perspective that permits natural/unnatural distinctions is the Judeo-Christian world view. Sin is unnatural, because God is holy. Death and disasters are unnatural, because God created a perfect world that was cursed because of sin. Human beings stand between the natural and the supernatural by having the image of God implanted in their nonphysical souls. These foundations allow for politics, economics, criminal law, and all the institutions that engage us, including science.
Materialists need to be challenged when they blindly refer to nature, natural, or unnatural. They also need to be challenged when they disparage the “super”-natural. “Super” is a prefix that means above. But it doesn’t matter if something is above (super-), below (sub-), beyond (epi-), around (peri-), opposed (anti-), or not (non-, un-). If it is outside the natural box, it is unnatural or super-natural by definition. Naturalism wants to subsume everything in its definition of the universe. If a naturalist wants to categorize anything as unnatural, whether creationism, pseudoscience, or conservative politics, he unmasks himself as a supernaturalist in spite of himself.
Christians may want to refer to a document at this site to learn how to unmask pseudo-naturalism, entitled, Naturalism and Supernaturalism: A False Dichotomy. In addition to exploring the many meanings of natural, it exposes the impossibility of pure materialism. If no one can avoid being a supernaturalist (and the materialist must be one to engage in argumentation using symbolic language, reason and logic), it changes the nature of the debate on origins.