What is the nature of nature: and why does this matter?

By GrahGraham Harris v3am Harris

My OED defines nature as the “physical power causing the phenomena of the material world, these phenomena as a whole”; and also as a “thing’s essential qualities”. So this blog is about how we go about understanding the essential qualities of the material world. This might seem like a pretty arcane subject for a series of blogs about “thinking systems” but, as it turns out, the question goes to the heart of our relationship with the natural world. If we are getting it wrong, this has fundamental consequences. Of course, I am going to argue that in some important respects we are getting it wrong!

Here I draw heavily on two books: Nigel Clark’s (2011) “Inhuman Nature: sociable life on a dynamic planet” and Noel Castree’s (2014) “Making sense of nature”. The literature on this subject is vast; but tends to be split (and here I can be accused of gross over-simplification). On the one hand are the scientists who, as I have written before, are realists and rationalists. Nature is taken to be objectively real and the job of science is to uncover the universal laws of nature, usually in mathematical form. On the other hand are those in the humanities and the social sciences who argue that nature is nothing more than a human construct and that there is no stable definition of nature and no universal laws.

There are many views on what Castree calls “ the process of naming, classifying, characterising, signifying, symbolizing, delimiting and labelling.” Believe me, a lot of work has gone into defining what is the acceptable intellectual stance in the various disciplines and into boundary riding in the borderlands. It is hard to wander freely between the nation states of disciplinary studies: immigration checks at national borders have nothing on what intellectuals demand! Proponents of each of the two broad camps are rarely well read in the literatures of the other. Scorn is the usual currency. This is the basis of C.P. Snow’s famous 1959 lecture about “The two cultures” in which he lamented the gulf between scientists and literary intellectuals. Not much has changed since.

Well, maybe some things are beginning to change.  Beginning back in the 1970s Roy Bashkar developed a framework to bridge the gap between the natural and the social worlds which became known as critical realism (see Andrew Collier, 1994, “Critical realism: an introduction to Roy Bashkar’s philosophy”). This framework postulated that there are universal generative mechanisms in nature that can be revealed and manipulated through experimentation. In the social world the thesis is similar, but critical realism recognizes that the social world is much more fluid and reflexive, such that actions within interactive social structures are highly context sensitive.

Nigel Clark’s (2011) book discusses the practical and philosophical impact of our restless planet on human societies and of our societies’ impact on the planet. He points out that science gets on with studying the generative mechanisms in disciplines such as physics, chemistry, geology and biology – and seeks universal laws and predictive power in an intellectual sphere free of values and of human agency. Science attempts to uncover and manipulate the universal laws of the “world-without-us”.

Sociology and the humanities, however, have a very different view: a view that has been changing in recent years. For decades the postmodern fascination with cultural and linguistic themes led to a focus on representation, discourse and textuality. The newer emerging view in critical theories of nature is that our insights into the ways of nature are better seen through a kind of “relational materiality”. In brief, the agency of things, objects and materials is seen as in some way equivalent and that capacities for world-making are spread equally across all kinds of entities. Human agency is the prism through which nature is viewed: this is, in short, a “world-for-us”.

The brute force of cosmic and other events and our reliance on them has, to a degree, led to the development of new philosophies such as speculative realism. In his 2008 book “After finitude” Quentin Meillassoux criticized Kant for developing the idea that nature-in-itself is inaccessible to human thought and criticized philosophers for focusing exclusively on the relationship between being and thought, to the point where any notion of what the world might be like without a subject is regarded as beyond the pale.

Clark (2011) argued that this now needs to be revised as the human population on this planet has grown. As its resource demands and ecological footprint have also grown, the existential risks of planetary processes and of climate change have begun to impinging ever more strongly on the human species. There is an asymmetry in relations between the human species and the nature because there are entities and forces that at rock bottom are independent of us and upon which we are dependent. The “world-without-us” has always been a source of existential risk for all species and most of the evolution of life on this planet has had nothing to do with us.

Meillassoux’s (2008) account of the brute force of the cosmos is largely expressed in terms of mathematics and physics. His concept of the “world-without-us” really refers the big picture universal laws rather than to the more capricious actions of earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions – let alone climate change or biodiversity loss. Nevertheless there is an attempt underway to reconcile the scientific and social science/humanities worldviews.

But Clark (2011) writes: “No existing discipline is geared up to engage with situations that encompass the transformative capabilities of micro- and macro-biological life, expanding global transport and communication infrastructures, advancing techno-scientific capacities for manipulating living things, changing patterns of urbanization, shifting public understanding and wavering affective states, proliferating institutional arrangements for policing biosecurity, and so on.” We are not well equipped to tackle the kinds of problems we have created and now face (either through building infrastructure systems or meddling with eco-systems – or, especially, interactions between the two).

I see two or three major issues to be addressed. For a start Castree (2014) describes how the “world-for-us” is made for us by people from a wide range of epistemic communities – the world is crowded with epistemic workers each with a particular take events derived from a wide range of epistemologies, beliefs and interests. Every day we are bombarded through the traditional and social media, and in conversation with others, by opinions, beliefs, facts, truths and post-truths. Each community works diligently on its boundary patrols.

As I have written before, all of this is couched in a climate of emotivism. There are no longer any absolute criteria for truth or for ethical behavior: everything is predicated upon “this is good and/or true because I say it is”. (Think the recently elected POTUS.) Emotion and sentiment crowd out logic and reason. The public sphere is increasingly fragmented (as Ulrich Beck predicted in his book “The risk society” back in 1992 in English translation) post-truths and propaganda are rife. As Castree pointedly notes, “nature’s principal public representative is the mass media”. What price democracy and considered decision-making about the environment under these circumstances?

I have spent most of my life working with various groups to bridge the epistemic divides: believe me, it isn’t easy but it can be done with trust and it takes time. The results of combining various voices can be nothing short of astonishing and hugely creative. If we all thought the same it would be a very dull world indeed. I think it was Walter Lippman who observed that the trick in a democracy is not to get everyone to think the same way, but to get folks who think differently to work together.

In my experience with a wide range of institutions over the years this kind of activity – this level of work – is hugely under-represented and badly rewarded (if at all). We are too happy in our silos and all too ready to defend our territories. Given the scale and complexity of the problems it studies, the SMART Infrastructure Facility at the University of Wollongong is making welcome moves to further improve its coordination and management of cross-disciplinary teams.

Secondly, one of the most prevalent current philosophies is one form or another of pragmatism. Pragmatism accepts that there are no absolute standards and no foolproof way to tell if any particular idea, statement or assertion is true or false, fact or fiction – the only criterion of utility seems to be dependent on the use or impact of the said utterance. Pragmatism is a utilitarian philosophy for the age which, when added to neo-liberal greed and individualism, is a recipe for licensed pillage and exploitation of people, resources and nature.

There is much on this planet that is intrinsically valuable. Capricious and indifferent it may be, but it is the only life support system we have. When the risks are systemic and existential there are absolute values: beginning with prudence.

Lastly, as I have previously discussed, life is different from physics: life has an emergent and reflexive complexity even though it is fundamentally constrained by the mechanisms of physics and chemistry. Life is characterized by distributed robustness; the ability to have multiple ways of doing the same thing, to be adaptive and to persist. In such systems (as Stuart Kauffman has written) “no laws entail”. Life is complex and adaptive, equifinal and evolving.

If life is such then the planet on which we live – this “world-without-us” is not only “queerer than we suppose, but queerer that we can suppose” (JBS Haldane, 1927). Because of the pervasive presence of life and equifinality we will constantly be presented with fundamentally undecidable propositions: propositions that really can be simultaneously true and false to different entities and epistemic groups, and not because they are post-truths either.

In life no laws entail, so we can never use universal laws to decide what is true or false, or to predict. Life gets around this problem not by the use of evidence and prediction but by distributed robustness, by optioneering, by always having a myriad of alternative solutions – evolution merely selects the one that works. This is not an optimal world and it is brutal: extinctions occur, things may change abruptly but life persists. The nature of nature is not what we usually suppose.

The “world-without-us” is totally indifferent to our survival: it was here before we evolved and it will still be here when we are gone. If we decimate the planet (ourselves included) after about 10 million years global biodiversity will have recovered – as it has always done after each great extinction event – but life will be different and no recognizable descendant of ours will be around to observe the fact. While we focus on evidence, scientific management, utilitarian philosophies and entertain political post-truth arguments about aspects of the “world-for-us”; the “world-without-us”, will persist.

The existential risk of systemic risks and issues like climate change is not to the planet; it is to us. Surprises will occur, evidence will be lacking. The fundamental question therefore is moral. How do we live? We can only have recourse to ethical principles.

We are left with the old things that modern life denies or devalues: hope, beauty, goodness, truth, love, compassion, charity and community. We can profitably work together to bridge the epistemic and emotivist political divides. We can use reason whenever we can, whilst recognising that interests and emotions move people just as effectively – if not more so. We can work together more effectively to build trust and hope.

Like the rest of life on this planet – the third rock from the sun – totally dependent on nature of nature. Nature is indifferent to us. In the face of that indifference we are but bald social apes – we have but ourselves and all the other denizens of this planet for company and comfort in the darkest nights.

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