Tuesday 26 February 2013

The enduring dualism of nature; A new concept of nature

Levi has some kind words for some of my previous posts on the subject of nature and naturalism.  I don’t always agree with Levi’s thinking – I don’t share his enthusiasm for Lacan, for one thing – but I find myself agreeing with him more often than not and I certainly end up blogging a lot more when he’s in a productive mood.

I’m still somewhat ambivalent about nature and naturalism as concepts but they interest me deeply.  I think they constitute, at present, more of a challenge than something positive.  However, I’ve been re-reading Lucretius and this has definitely revivified my interest in naturalism at its roots.  The problem, perhaps ironically, is less with the concept of nature as per its classical origins and more with how the term has been used in modernity.  Particularly problematic is the theological relationship that, I think, still structures the discourse today.

One thing about ‘nature’ in modernity is that it's invariably been defined in opposition to something else.  In particular, the natural was contrasted to the supernatural – with most modern philosophers taking the latter no less seriously than the former.  The interesting thing in this (broadly Christian) version is that Man, possessing an immortal soul, was both natural and supernatural at the same time.  Hence, human beings were immersed in the Sturm und Drang of natural life but, unlike the animal 'automata' so derided by Malebranche, etc., also breathed the rarefied air of worlds beyond the laws and dirt of mere nature.  Humans, unique among beings, belonged at once in the finite and the infinite.  Being made ‘in God’s image’ gave a very serious and definite meaning to the ‘bifurcation of nature’ – humans were not taken to be ‘other than nature’ for reasons of epistemology, critique, dialectic, linguistics or mere conceptual convenience but because this was a meaningful division in reality itself.

Although he was not alone in demonstrating that the supernatural was a superfluous hypothesis (e.g. Laplace with his famous “Sire, I did not need that hypothesis”) Darwin did more than anyone to demolish the dualist metaphysic, in its natural terms.  Nietzsche may have declared God dead vis-à-vis morals but it was Darwin who struck the mortal blow for God’s role in nature.  Humans were revealed to emerge from the same self-sufficient natural processes as any other living thing.  There was no remainder, no caveat – God was not critiqued so much as ignored.

The notion that nature is the Other of the human is, today, scarcely credible in scientific terms.  And yet this very opposition continues to structure almost everything anyone says about the subject, even among scientists.  Even though nature can no longer be contrasted to super-nature (and therefore soul-endowed humans can no longer be transcendently contrasted to soulless natural automata) we still use ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ in basically the same ways as before.  In everyday language we talk about going camping, say, as ‘going back to nature’ (even though there are few, if any, true wildernesses left on the planet, let alone in carefully managed national parks).  ‘Natural’ is still contrasted to ‘artificial’ in everything from art theory to soft drink commercials.  All kinds of taboo behaviour are denigrated as ‘unnatural,’ in contrast to some ideal of scripted, dictated harmony.

Even though God has been ‘dead’ for over a century the concept of nature is still bifurcated almost everywhere.  What’s worse, few seem to notice the absurdity of dualist naturalism in a godless world.  Many people who would unquestioningly concur with the proposition that humans are just one natural species among others nevertheless insist just as fervently that the natural and material ‘worlds’ must belong to a strictly separate dialectical and analytical category to the human, social or artificial. Even those who agree with and celebrate the disappearance of super-nature still cling to its consequences vis-à-vis Nature as Man’s Other.

Of course one could argue that, although super-nature is gone, nature as other than the human still makes sense if it’s defined in opposition to human capacities.  In the German Ideology Marx writes that “Men ... begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.”  This is, effectively, the historical materialist response (I’ve heard basically the same argument restated in other terms often enough).  Man diverges from Nature through the progress of History, which is initiated when Men self-consciously produce the means of their own subsistence rather than reactively ‘living off the land’ (assuming that such a world ever really existed).  The fact that humans can now control their own genetics, for example, can be brushed off as an historical development within the becoming of Man as a techno-scientific being.  Nature still exists, they can say – humans still don’t control gravity; they don’t make the tide come in; humanity still has an other; nature is still ‘out there.’

However, a nature defined as ‘that which is beyond the human,’ however ‘dialectically related’ the two things are, is inherently anthropocentric and consequently self-defeating because, by this definition, nature shrinks as human capacities expand – the very concept of ‘nature’ therefore presupposes and is defined by the human and its creeping empire.  Not only are these two things mutually defining in a mundane sense, as any binary opposition is, but ‘human’ is the primary term from which ‘nature’ derives; nature reacts to human advancement by shrinking, shirking, backing away meekly.  In truth it has no real definition of its own, it’s just the non-descript, frictionless ‘outside’ – a bookend to something more important.

So, the point I’m trying to make is that many supposed and even self-declared ‘naturalists’ maintain structuring oppositions that, I think, derive from the shadow of the supernatural.  So long as nature is thought to be anything other than wholly inclusive of humans and all their trials, tribulations and trinkets, naturalism remains haunted by the ghost of super-nature.

Wherever someone justifies animal cruelty by arguing that only humans have souls and animals are just natural brutes (or words to this effect), the theologically structured concept of nature is alive and well.  However, the same is true of whenever mountains, valleys, plains and deserts are taken to be nothing more than a collection of natural resources, simply lying there mute and disused, begging human intervention.  Wherever ‘nature’ is marked out as other to humanity, marked by lacking something – something that humans, to their great distinction, do not lack – this dualist naturalism is at work.

The challenge, then, is to produce a new concept of nature; to define nature as it exists in itself, not in opposition to anything supernatural or human.  Philosophically this necessitates realism since we should not use the phrase ‘in itself’ lightly.  Sociologically this necessitates materialism since only thus can we understand how human natures are tightly interwoven with other elements of nature.  However it also requires recognition of the politics of nature and how this concept is bound up in fierce ideological conflicts – that between the secular and the religious but also between the capitalist and the ecologist.

What is needed is not a dogmatic reassertion of scientific truths, simply because they are known by a possessed, possessing, possessive science.  Naturalism must be more than a litany of the prevailing facts of the day and, although natural sciences have an utterly pivotal and indispensable role to play, the new concept of nature must not simply be an abstract summary of popular science – nor must it be xenophobic when it comes to other truth regimes or traditions of wisdom.

The new concept of nature must be generated through a sophisticated, wide-ranging, synthetic project of philosophy that richly describes and thinks through what it is to live in a fully natural world without any outside or remainder.

Happily, it seems that such a project is already underway, though I could not yet comment on its success.