Embracing the “Unnatural”

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Imagine telling someone that human beings could use large flying machines to travel across oceans or use small talking machines to speak to anyone in the world as if they were standing nearby. Imagine telling someone that the universe is composed of unseen particles or that emotions ranging from joy to rage can be influenced by minute quantities of chemicals in the brain.

Anyone hearing these facts today would understand and say, “Of course!” But six centuries ago, quite in contrast to today, you would have likely been regarded as a lunatic (or hanged) for harboring such beliefs. Over the course of human history, the seemingly impossible has been made real by science and technology, resulting in previously unimaginable improvements to human life.

The frontiers of science and technology continue to promise us even greater benefits. Quantum physics allows us to harness the energy of atoms in nuclear reactors to power our cities, hospitals, and electronics. Research into the regenerative power of stem cells has shown their capacity to fight malignant tumors, grow organs, and perhaps extend our lifespan by decades. Cybernetics has allowed amputees, the blind, and the deaf to enjoy fuller lives with artificial limbs, yes, and hearing aids. These achievements only hint at what more is possible in the future.

But despite the success of science in improving human life, there exists a long history of opposition to scientific innovation. New discoveries have often met with resistance and resentment. In 1163, Pope Alexander III banned the study of physics, directing that those who disobeyed “be avoided by all and excommunicated.” A 19th century group known as the Luddites denounced the Industrial Revolution, physically attacking inventors and destroying efficiency-improving machines. In the early 20th century, resistance to the new theory of evolution culminated in the Scopes Monkey Trial, which convicted a man of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which forbade any educator from denying the Biblical account of creation.

A mistrust of science still persists today. Groups like Greenpeace and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service advocate restricting or outlawing genetic engineering and nuclear technology, despite the many existing and potential benefits thereof. Interest in homeopathic medicine is widely popular, with adherents expressing an automatic trust of anything “natural” and regarding man-made pharmaceutical remedies with categorical skepticism or suspicion. Inventions like microwave ovens, mobile phones, and disease-preventing fluoride water treatment have all been attacked with baseless claims of their alleged dangers.

This is a curious contradiction: on the one hand, the many benefits of science seem obvious; on the other, many people harbor a level of distrust towards science and technology, some going so far as to advocate the halt of some areas of scientific inquiry altogether.  Why?

Religion is one source of this view. Consider, for example, the Catholic Church’s longstanding opposition to birth control, grounded in its view that sex is for procreation and never for pleasure alone. For the same reason, the Church warns scientists “not to play God” by cloning human embryos—because they also believe procreation should only occur through sex.  Birth control and genetic cloning are seen as unnatural interventions in God’s plan.

The same attitude can be seen in other religions. From tribal Africans regarding electricity as the work of demons, to Hollywood scientologists rejecting psychiatric medicine in favor of mystic rebalancing, religion often characterizes nature as beyond our intellectual grasp and necessarily out of our control. Morally, we’re told to follow a nonscientific path—whether by drinking the potion of a shaman or following the holy edicts of Deuteronomy.  Practices like genetic engineering, on this view, are presumptuous deviations of a species that should recognize its need for divine subservience.

Religion is not the only obstacle with which scientists find themselves confronted; secular ideas also contribute to the mistrust of new sciences or technologies.  Consider the seemingly science-friendly environmentalists who warn that when we cut down a forest to make paper, or drill a well to extract oil for fuel, or modify the DNA of plants to make them grow more robustly, we violate the “natural order” of how things ought to be. In doing so, they argue, we destroy a natural thing and create something unnatural, placing us at war with nature. Instead, we’re told to minimize our “footprint” on our surroundings, to seek “natural” solutions for all our needs, and to view scientific marvels like plastic bags and gasoline-fueled cars as undesirable blemishes on the planet’s surface.

Both the religious and secular versions of scientific mistrust share a common premise: that human life should be subordinated to a “higher order”, despite the benefits to be gained by going beyond the naturally given and creating something that never before existed. The Church opposes the manipulation of our genetic code despite the fact that doing so could eliminate fatal hereditary diseases. The secular counterpart fares no better—many environmentalists oppose genetic engineering of crops despite the millions fed by such agricultural improvements.  Both viewpoints agree that human beings’ place in the universe is to be subservient to a higher power—that we must leave the forests and the fish and nuclear particles alone because we are not equipped to understand and control the world in which we live. Any vain attempts to the contrary will result in punishment from a higher power, be it God or Mother Earth.

But the fact is that human life demands certain things for survival and healthy, happy lives. Unlike other animals which rely on their instincts to find food and shelter, we as human beings require something much greater: knowledge.  Everything that we need to make life possible comes from something we know, whether it is how to plant a seed and cook a meal, or how to build a hospital and perform a surgery.  Neither God nor nature provides for our biological needs, like reliable sources of food, energy, and shelter, or uniquely human needs like communication infrastructure, education, and entertainment. It is only through science and technology that we create these values to address our needs, both material and spiritual.

Human life demands these values be produced, making our nature that of a creative being. Our invention of technology—our rearranging of the world to suit the purposes of our lives—is as natural and good for us as a dam is to a beaver, or a nest is to a bird. We are rational animals, capable of using our minds to find solutions to the problems facing us, to engage in the task of discovering the workings of the world and use that knowledge in service of our needs—whether that means building a skyscraper or creating entirely new organisms in the lab. Through scientific study, we acquire the knowledge necessary to create; through technological productivity, we apply that knowledge to the needs of life.  Every product of scientific discovery or practical innovation is evidence of the fact that we are creative beings whose basic nature is to apply our minds, invent technology, and further our lives beyond our alleged “natural limits.”

Contrary to those who mistrust science and its products, human beings are not incapable of the sometimes daunting task of knowing and then manipulating nature.  The human mind is capable of independently achieving success—health, wealth, convenience, peace, happiness. We are not passively dependent on a supernatural God or the planet to provide us with the guidance to solve our problems, nor should we limit ourselves to follow the arbitrary laws derived from them.

Fundamentally, the conflicted feelings many have about scientific and technological progress comes down, not to a conflict between the scientific and the unscientific, but to a conflict between two views of human progress: either we should act and innovate in pursuit of our material well-being and happiness, or we should subvert that ability in an attempt to live meekly in service to a nonexistent higher power or purpose. Either we seek to create a new, previously unknown world with our knowledge, or we submissively accept the world in front of us as one where no improvement is necessary or possible.

Science and technology have demonstrated their value to human life on earth, here and now. If our goal as human beings is to flourish, we should be eager to enrich our lives as much as we possibly can. To this end, we should celebrate the process of scientific discovery and technological innovation, and pursue them confidently. This doesn’t mean assuming every scientific or technological innovation comes free of risk or unintended consequences, but we must reject the superstition that technology as such is a threat, and realize the irrational nature of such opposition. To those who insist that we should restrict ourselves to the given, to the “natural,” let us answer: embrace the “unnatural.”

Daniel Casper is a fiction and nonfiction writer living in Dallas, Texas.

Posted by on August 18, 2010. Filed under Science & Technology, Summer 2010. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
  • Fred Seiler

    I’ve never heard about Pope Alexander III banning the study of physics. Could you supply a reference for this?

  • Daniel Casper

    Mr. Seiler,

    I’d be glad to.

    White, Andrew D. “History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.” New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1901.

    The full text on page 386 reads:

    “It was entirely natural, then, that in 1163 Pope Alexander III, in connection with the Council of Tours, forbade the study of physics to all ecclesiastics, which, of course, in that age meant prohibition of all such scientific studies to the only persons likely to make them. What the Pope then expressly forbade was, in the words of the papal bull, “the study of physics or the laws of the world,” and it was added that any person violating this rule “shall be avoided by all and excommunicated.”

    For White’s original source, see “Acta Conciliorum (ed. Harduin), tom. vi, pars ii, p. 1598, Canon viii.”

  • Pete

    The writers are kids…

  • Jaiet Nakta

    I’ve always had issue with this philosophic nomenclature of natural and unnatural–but I think that, ultimately, no good answer may be found in advocating “embrace the unnatural”; instead, such a strategy may engender artificial (I know–pardon the pun) rebellion that only sanctions the original error: we grant the contrary (and false) view its very premise–that human activity qua human activity is unnatural. I would characterize Rand’s approach–from the essay in the philosophy of history “For the New Intellectual” (my initial awareness of the approach) to “The Objectivist Ethics” outward–as one that any applied rational process (including its most consistent and complete representative, her philosophy) is, in fact, strikingly natural (from which latter essay posits the objective theory as derivative of biological roots–which, further, may have even pointed to a philosophically rational underpinning of the future field of Evolutionary Biology).

    I’ve always considered a vast volume of environmentalist literature, for instance, as operating under the implicit assumption that that anything man-made (or any variant therefrom) as unnatural by definition–this has never made sense to me (I see it all the time in the health food industry, too). So to then suggest that we “embrace the unnatural” is, in this sense, a potentially grave error that plays directly into enemy hands.

    I’m interested, of course, in any comments on this issue, because I’ve yet to see it addressed in print (or any indications of where I might find it addressed).

  • Daniel Casper

    Jaiet,

    I am using the quotes around the word “unnatural” to indicate that it is a mistake.

    I’ll quote from my own article,

    “Human life demands these values be produced, making our nature that of a creative being. Our invention of technology—our rearranging of the world to suit the purposes of our lives—is as natural and good for us as a dam is to a beaver, or a nest is to a bird.”

    I agree with you that all man’s creative abilities and the resulting technology are natural. Yet to arrive at this conclusion requires a complex understanding of the definition of natural, and the nature of man (which is outside the scope of my article).

    Natural in this context means all that exists, and therefore anything and everything that exists is natural. Whether it’s rocks, animals, or oil rigs, they all can be found in nature (existence). Science, too, has contributed to our understanding by showing us that everything that exists is a complex arrangement of the same basic materials (atomic particles).

    Why is man’s arrangement of these particles natural and not unnatural?

    Man is a naturally occurring animal; he was not created by a deity or popped into the world from nothing. Since man is a naturally occurring animal, so are all of his attributes – including his consciousness. This is why all products of man are natural. The products of man are caused by a natural entity (man), using his naturally given attributes (a body and rational consciousness), to achieve an effect that can only be consistent with natural law (such as the necessity to obey the laws of electromagnetism in order to have a working circuit).

    As a corollary, since the natural in this context means everything that exists, there can be nothing unnatural. Even if a man tries to act or create something that is unnatural, the immutable laws of nature override his attempts, just as how any attempt to make a circuit out of mud will not make it work. Anything that is “unnatural” necessarily implies it doesn’t exist (like a god, a miracle, or some floating cosmic consciousness).

    It is still important to distinguish the difference between the metaphysical given and the man-made, as you have also indicated. The metaphysically given – what is outside of man’s choices, such as gravity or his own nature – is what many people mistakenly say is only the natural. Everything else, they hold, is unnatural. The man-made – what man chooses to create – is, however, equally natural. The fact we see man’s existence and products means that both are natural.

    What makes the man-made different from the metaphysically given is that the man-made did not have to be. It was a choice to make something, and that something must be judged good or bad for a man (whether or not it is compatible with his specific nature). One cannot, however, judge the metaphysically given since it is outside the choice of man. Just as a man cannot be angry at the sun for burning due to the nature of atoms, a man should not passively accept a dictatorship when he can choose to be free.

    All choices need to be judged by a rational standard. Is the choice non-contradictory with the facts of reality? Man’s nature? Is it logical? Is the man benefiting from his choice or is it harming him? Is it harming someone else? This is why, at my conclusion, I state, “This doesn’t mean assuming every scientific or technological innovation comes free of risk or unintended consequences.” If the nature of what man creates is bad for him, he should not create it. This is why it is important to judge the man-made. Choosing between making a super virus in an insecure lab and creating a vaccine in a controlled environment hold very different consequences for your life, and you need to be able to rationally evaluate which one is best for you.

    My purpose in this article was to morally defend the creation and use of technology and science. All the values man creates that improves his life is, in some way, technology. From a bow and arrow to a nuclear reactor, man shapes nature to his purpose. Rather than hold this as a mortal sin, it should be celebrated as the virtue which achieves life.

    Best,
    Daniel

  • Gary Flood

    My secular mistrust of science is not rooted in belief in a higher order. It is not really a mistrust of science at all but rather of false claims. You alluded to this in your final paragraph, but I believe it deserves more attention in order to place mistrust into perspective.

    Rejecting the “unnatural” is not necessarily a rejection of science.

    Scientific creations are not always what they are claimed to be. It is part of the scientific process for a product or discovery to be reviewed openly under full disclosure. A creation of science must be judged on the basis of its merits, not its origin. If its true nature has been obscured by unscrupulous humans, we are left damaged not by science, but by human folly. In this respect a skeptical view of the claims of modern science is warranted.

    By that I mean a healthy, science-based skepticism of each claim. It is not science that I discount, but the human institutions that propagate unsubstantiated claims.

    In medicine, pharmaceutical deception is well documented. GM foods have been blessed by corrupt government agencies, their long term effects having never been studied or in some cases covered up.

    Businesses are great at focusing on solving a problem. Each solution comes with a price that is not declared: some risks are assumed rather than evaluated, and full disclosure would shake confidence in the “solution.” Profit is not made with full knowledge but with managed risks. By using each new science-based product we each are taking some of those same risks. If we become convinced that the risks are too high, that does not necessarily mean we have rejected science. Rather, it can also mean that the scientific process has been averted or subverted.

    I would not go so far as to embrace the “unnatural” because I know that such a category contains serious error or omission.

    I would rather, with confidence in human ability to use science to improve our lives, embrace a healthy skepticism of the human claims to it.

    Gary Flood

  • Michael Philip

    Why single out modern science for attention? All claims are in this boat: the arbitrary and the unsubstantiated are not to be given credence. There is the poor state of journalism and reporting to deal with, too, though. You need to talk to objective philosophers-of-science and of-journalism on this matter