Sunday, 18 September 2011

On Nature: A Musing

The forest is not merely an expression or representation of sacredness, nor a place to invoke the sacred; the forest is sacredness itself. Nature is not merely created by God, nature is God. Whoever moves within the forest can partake directly of sacredness, experience sacredness with his entire body, breathe sacredness and contain it within himself, drink the sacred water as a living communion, bury his feet in sacredness, open his eyes and witness the burning beauty of sacredness."

- Richard Nelson

I'm not too happy with the notion of nature as God or divine, which seems to be very popular in modern culture. It seems that the implications are glossed over, the internal contradictions of that position, and while it sounds poetic, are we being deceived by the language, which portrays a picture of harmony, and attunement with the nature as divine. If so, we must surely ask what kind of divinity? What must the concept encompass if we press it hard? Or is the idea rather light and fluffy, and much in tune with the New Age thinking of our times, so much so that it is accepted uncritically?

Nature includes many phenomena far more horrible in our eyes than simple predation.

I suspect nothing evokes greater disgust in most of us than slow destruction of a host by an internal parasite - gradual ingestion, bit by bit, from the inside.  As Stephen Jay Gould noted:

"The ichneumon, like most wasps, generally live freely as adults but pass their larva life as parasites feeding on the bodies of other animals, almost invariably members of their own phylum, the Arthropoda. The most common victims are caterpillars (butterfly and moth larvae), but some ichneumons prefer aphids and other attack spiders...The free-flying females locate an appropriate host and then convert it into a food factory for their own young. Since a dead and decaying caterpillar will do the wasp larvae no good, it eats in a pattern that cannot help but recall, in our inappropriate anthropocentric interpretation, the ancient English penalty for treason - drawing and quartering, with its explicit object of extracting as much torment as possible by keeping the victim alive and sentient. As the king's executioner drew out and burned his client's entrails, so does the ichneumon larvae eat fat bodies and digestive organs first, keeping the caterpillar alive by preserving intact the essential heart and central nervous system. Finally, the larvae completes its work and kills its victim, leaving behind the caterpillar's empty shell."

That's nature for you, and we can of course, take "nature as God" as amoral. But is an amoral and indifferent God something to be treated as sacred? For the Victorians, this was a problem, reconciling the idea of a good God, with a non-moral nature, and this is still a problem - David Attenborough writes:

 "People write to me and say: "You show us birds and orchids and wonderful, beautiful things - why don't you feel you should give credit to He who created those things?" My reply is: what about a parasitic worm that's boring through the eye of a four-year-old child on the bank of an African river? It confuses me that I should believe in a god who cares individually for each and every one of us and could allow that to happen."

But to take "nature as God" doesn't really solve this problem. Either nature is non-moral, in which case, as in the example of the wasp or the parasitic worm, it is clearly not something we would treat as sacred, or we take it as sacred in some sense, in which case, how do we accommodate the nastier aspects of nature?

"Nature is God" or "God is nature" is the Pantheist position, but - as I've shown above - that raises a lot of problems about what God is like - if indifferent, then why worthy of treating as sacred, if not indifferent, then how are the wasp / worm examples given benign? Or are we too say that what is natural is divine and good, and define nature as good, and ourselves as trying to constrain it with human values. There's a larger "good" in nature that we can't see, because the divinity is more than our conceptions.

I still think that runs into David Attenborough's question: where is the divine quality in a parasitic worm that's boring through the eye of a four-year-old child on the bank of an African river? That may well be natural, but once we start saying that is divine, we are buying into a strange idea of divinity. In other words, while nature is non-moral, there is no problem with that, but once we imbue it with moral qualities, then we run into problems. Of course, we could say that divine qualities need not be moral, but if they are indifferent or hostile to us, what is the quality that makes them divine?

There are several different approaches that address this problem, and I'd like to present a few.

One is the approach advocated by Isaac Luria, and taken up by John V Taylor and Jonathan Sacks - the mythology which tells as a story in which we can understand nature as we perceive it now - there was a  cosmic "shattering of the vessels", after which shards of light were scattered everywhere, so that our task is to help to "heal a fractured world". It has both the realism (the creation is shattered, not perfect) and the optimism (it will be healed, and we can help, indeed that is part of our responsibility to do so where we can by our actions and compassion). That's a theological approach, and note that it can quite easily mesh with ideas of evolution and cosmology.

An evolutionary approach is found prominently in Stephen Jay Gould, that nature is non-moral, and we must not try to impose ideas of morality on it; it is just what happens. But by the same token, it is not good or bad, or divine, it is, simply indifferent. We are projecting our own ideas, including that of divinity and purpose, on nature. Gould wrote:

Since ichneumons are a detail, and since natural selection is a law regulating details, the answer to the ancient dilemma of why such cruelty (in our terms) exists in nature can only be that there isn't any answer - and that framing the question "in our terms" is thoroughly inappropriate in a natural world neither made for us nor ruled by us. It just plain happens. It is a strategy that works for ichneumons and that natural selection has programmed into their behavioral repertoire. Caterpillars are not suffering to teach us something; they have simply been outmaneuvered, for now, in the evolutionary game. Perhaps they will evolve a set of adequate defenses sometime in the future, thus sealing the fate of ichneumons. And perhaps, indeed probably, they will not.

Another Huxley, Thomas's grandson Julian, spoke for this position, using as an example - yes, you guessed it - the ubiquitous ichneumons:

Natural selection, in fact, though like the mills of God in grinding slowly and grinding small, has few other attributes that a civilized religion would call divine. . . . Its products are just as likely to be aesthetically, morally, or intellectually repulsive to us as they are to be attractive. We need only think of the ugliness of Sacculina or a bladder-worm, the stupidity of a rhinoceros or a stegosaur, the horror of a female mantis devouring its mate or a brood of ichneumon flies slowly eating out a caterpillar.

And with the philosophical tradition, Karl Popper, in "The Open Society and Its Enemies" notes that just because something may be natural, that is no reason to take it as good. It is the split between "is" and "ought", and he warns that conflating the two can lead to justifications of all kinds of evils "because they are natural". Once you start taking nature as "divine", what's to stop those ideas taking root?

Popper was of course, writing this work at the time when the Nazi ideology was full of the "natural" eugenic ideas of race and survival of the fittest, but the conflation goes back to Plato who used it to justify slavery:

Plato, and his disciple Aristotle, advanced the theory of biological and moral inequality of man. Greeks and barbarians are unequal by nature; the opposition between them corresponds to that between natural masters and natural slaves. The natural inequality of men is one of the reasons for their living together, for their natural gifts are complementary. Social life begins with natural inequality, and it must continue upon that foundation.

It is one of the characteristics of the magical attitude of a primitive tribal or 'closed' society that it lives in a charmed circle of unchanging taboos, of laws and customs which are felt to be as inevitable as the rising of the sun, or the cycle of the seasons, or similar obvious regularities of nature. And it is only after this magical 'closed society' has actually broken down that a theoretical understanding of the difference between 'nature' and 'society' can develop.

An analysis of this development requires, I believe, a clear grasp of an important distinction. It is the distinction between (a) natural laws, or laws of nature, such as the laws describing the movements of the sun, the moon, and the planets, the succession of the seasons, etc., or the law of gravity or, say, the laws of thermodynamics, and, on the other hand, (b) normative laws, or norms, or prohibitions and commandments, i.e. such rules as forbid or demand certain modes of conduct; examples are the Ten Commandments or the legal rules regulating the procedure of the election of Members of Parliament, or the laws that constitute the Athenian Constitution"

Nature is, so why imbue it with ideas of divinity? And if it is a divinity that is so alien from humankind as to tolerate the parasitic worm, then is that a divinity we want? H.P. Lovecraft wrote fictional stuff about "elder gods", but those are creatures wholly alien to us, and wholly indifferent to our circumstances.

Cthulhu was one of the "elder gods" in HP Lovecraft's mythology - "The Call of Cthulhu", and not hostile, or evil, just a creature indifferent to, and vastly more powerful than mankind. Although fiction, and written by an atheist, Lovecraft's ideas about lost alien civilisations formed the seedbed of authors like Von Daniken (Chariots of the Gods). The best serious study of his influence is probably "The Cult of Alien Gods: HP Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture" by Jason Colavito; it's wider than you might think.

Lovecraft's elder gods were very much an indifferent nature - "their powers, though vast, are ruled by natural law; they are no more concerned with the affairs of men than men are with those of mice, and they have no more compunction about destroying men who get in the way than men have about slaying mice". In brief, they function for Lovecraft as very much a metaphor for the nature - and man's insignificance in it, and can be taken as he certainly intended in part, as a critique of notions of deity, including pantheism. As an atheist, Lovecraft deliberately wanted to show how alien nature really was, and how far removed ideas of divinity are from nature.

Nature certainly evolves, but there is nothing intrinsically harmonious about evolution, and the great mass extinctions of the past show that if you leave nature alone, you are just as likely to be wiped out by random events sooner or later. The dinosaurs didn't intervene or meddle, and they've gone, a sequence of events initiated by a hit by an asteroid.

If random events wiping out species is considered harmonious, I'd have to ask: what would be considered disharmonious? Or to create an analogy: if I play a well known tune, that is considered harmonious, but if I just clunk the keyboard in any order, if we call that harmonious, aren't we expanding the scope of the word to (a) do injustice to the common meaning (b) be virtually meaningless, the death of a thousand qualifications?

Non-Moral Nature, Stephen Jay Gould
The Cult of Alien Gods: H. P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture by Jason Colavito
The Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl Popper


Anonymous said...

Brilliant Tony! Would like to repost this on my blog with a link to yours with your permission - Sarah

TonyTheProf said...

yes of course

Anonymous said...

Here you go Tony, hope it is fine and u are okay with it