Does Nature Exist?

I get the strangest reactions when I talk about nature. When I tell people I care about the environment but I don’t believe in nature, I get odd looks. When I tell people that humans must overcome “nature,” I am thought of as an industrialist or futurist. When I claim we must overcome our own “nature” I am considered a fuddy-duddy or a Jeremiah. Despite the labels we might accrue for doing so, we should be questioning the idea of nature. The concepts of nature, human nature, really the nature of anything, must be regarded skeptically so we can address environmental and interpersonal issues more effectively and stand on firmer philosophical ground while doing so.

Nature often refers simply to the phenomena that exist, but just as often it means the inherent qualities certain things possess. Either way, we are on shaky ground when we consider something in toto or try to identify Gestalt-level essences. Humans are very good at atomizing, compartmentalizing, categorizing. But we are not very proficient at understanding the “big picture” because we’re built for details. We are like the cavemen in a Gary Larson Far Side cartoon who examine a mammoth with a gigantic microscope. “It’s a mammoth,” one caveman says anticlimactically, thinking he’s discovered something through his method. Maybe there’s a reason why we are this way, but that would be to speculate on our nature and that’s a no-no.

The philosophical chasm between nature and human nature doesn’t go as far back as those cavemen but it is old. Plato was one of the first to take up the mantle of nature in philosophy when he disagreed with the Sophists who held that human nature is no different from the natural world we see around us or the nature of animals. Plato championed reason and order and cleaved us from the animals and the environment. Aristotle succeeded him and carried on his ideas but wasn’t much more progressive. (He wrote, in Politics, “(T)he lower sort are by nature slaves, and it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master.”) And so it remained for centuries, dominated by neo-Platonists and Christians who tried to understand the nature of God’s creation of rational humans and irrational nature.

Then along came the panentheist philosopher Baruch Spinoza who tried to fuse everything back together into one giant, purposeless substance (not the gooey foodstuff one might find at a potluck, but the fundamental unit of existence). He believed that there can be no other substance but God, and therefore that God was nature. The implications of this were huge, both for him (he was ostracized by his community) and for the world. “(A)ny thing whatsoever, whether it be more perfect or less perfect, will always be able to persist in existing with that same force whereby it begins to exist, so that in this respect all things are equal,” he wrote in Part IV of The Ethics. It is not hard to see how his lionization of equality would contribute to the marketplace of ideas; not much later, Enlightenment political philosophers would be heralding natural rights and revolutionaries would be marching for equality. The Declaration of Independence talks about nature’s laws and nature’s God. In many ways, Spinoza laid the groundwork for our modern world.

Yet anything, however equal and subsumed in a universal substance, is not really even a thing to Spinoza, but a mode or an attribute in which the permanent, infinite substance is expressed. And this is where some of the sense in using the term nature for anything breaks down.

For practical purposes we refer to ourselves as people, the giant place we live in as nature (or the world) and all other things that live in nature as things. I suppose if a tree could cognize, it would consider all non-trees to be nature too. We also casually describe the quintessential qualities of ourselves and others, living and non-living. But if we are to take seriously the philosophy of Spinoza, not to mention the findings and theories of modern physics, it makes no sense to ultimately think about ourselves as anything near consistent enough to even be describable in essence, although it does make sense to describe our characteristics. Indeed, because all things, including humans, are only coherent as individual units on the most extremely compressed scales of time and space and even then are only transformations of substance according to Spinoza, it makes no sense to say that anything has any essential nature whatsoever. Everything’s most consistent characteristic (though there is nothing essential to it) is that it appears for a brief instance and then disappears through entropy.

With these thoughts in mind, it also makes no sense to believe in an Other. This is what allows the Chinese Tiantai Buddhist school––well before Spinoza––to claim that there is buddha nature and devil nature in all things, that all things are essentially equal and that therefore essence is void. Such thinking ascribes a provisionality and mutability to all that exists and should make us care more about preserving the living things around us because we know how fragile they are. Hence, environmentalism and compassionate human interaction would rise in importance without our current ideas of a simplified thing called nature outside of us and a simple nature to us.

Spinoza examined nature in a way that divested the Church’s authority to proclaim that nature was made with an express religious purpose. Today many seem comfortable enough with accepting nature as something that operates under certain mathematical laws, and some would try to simplify those laws into a single theory. Going forward we must de-sacralize nature a step beyond Spinoza’s move––in order to save it. We must see nature as a collection of things that just are, not even as a single entity, and really not even as a collection. We cannot expect that all of our laws will hold, even entropy. The Tibetan philosopher Tarthang Tulku writes that, “(N)o single reality can ever communicate itself forward identically from one moment to the next.” He also writes, “We also need to challenge the presupposition of a highly ordered world as the independent and containing background for all things, meanings and observations.” Denying thinghood to the universe just as we did to ourselves is not only symmetrical and consistent; it forces us to examine phenomena on a case-by-case basis and appreciate each thing that exists for what it is. This can help us motivate people to care for all of the diverse living denizens of the world instead of our current calls to aid a gigantic, amorphous state called nature. You can’t help nature; you can help the atmosphere, animals and forests. If we use our “natural” tendency toward scrutiny, zooming in can also help us treat each other better. According to psychologist Patricia Devine, stereotypes are brought up even when they are not believed when we are using peripheral processing, which is based on quickly linking things that share common characteristics instead of thinking them through. The less we sort ourselves and others too easily into groups that exist in our minds for our convenience, the less we will fall into these traps.

Questioning the existence of nature allows us to hold onto modern philosophy’s refashioning of our once-solid belief in our individual existence––we are not actually discrete things, but intersubsumptive beings––while losing Spinoza’s insistence that there is a real top-level substance that imbues us through our adequate participation in it. Shattering the notions of nature as something unified, finished and teleological (either outside of us or within us) could help us question our conviction that we are just as we need to be in relation to ourselves, others and the environment and expedite our slow trod toward progress. It could spur us on a quest for further uncovering and disclosure. We can explore not so much what the world has in store for us, but what we can offer our living, breathing hulk of being.

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