Saturday, November 28, 2015

What Can We Learn from Nature?

It's striking to me that people who believe in a creator God rarely seem to have a contemplative orientation for God's creation.  Maybe they appreciate nature in some way.  Maybe they enjoy camping or canoeing.  But in my experience, few people, especially religious people, approach the natural world with a strong desire to understand it's underlying principles.  And fewer yet seek to reflect on the implications of those principles on religion and spirituality.

Primitive religions were always inextricably bound to the observable natural world.  But we've continually removed ourselves from nature, into a world of our own fashioning, at least superficially.  And our religions have made that journey with us.  Nature for us exists for aesthetic appreciation or scientific observation.  Aside from some eccentric poets, new agers, and hippies, the natural world does not invoke our deep spiritual sense of wonder and reverence.

Religious people look to scripture and sermon to understand God.  But if you believe in a creator God, whether personified or not, then you believe in a god who is the God of Nature.  So it seems to me that you can learn more about the God of Nature by observing the natural world than by reading some translation of something that someone said that someone else said that God said thousands of years ago.

Eastern religions respect nature a lot more than Western religions do.  But I think the average Easterner is just as disconnected as we in the West.  Even new age enthusiasts, and Wiccans, and the like who intentionally use the vocabulary of the natural world rarely reflect on the sheer chaos of existence.  For them, Gaea is a loving, benevolent Mother.  They ignore ruthless violence caused by predators, parasites, and natural disasters.

We are moral creatures.  And to behave immorally we either compartmentalize or  rationalize our behavior.   Morality is so fundamental to our experience that even non-religious people struggle when contemplating the amorality of the natural world.

Jonathan Haidt defined the two universal dimensions of morality as compassion and fairness.  But there are essentially no universal manifestations of these values in nature.  How do we reconcile that?  One way is separate our selves from nature.  This is the story of creation in Western religions.  In Genesis 1, humans were created as categorically separate from and superior to the natural world.  And in Genesis 2, humans begin as part of nature, but are exiled from their 'natural' place upon eating the fruit of knowledge.  The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is singled out from all others trees in Eden.  The implication is that the concepts of good and evil don't belong in the natural world.  And as soon as humans stepped into the realm of duality, we no longer belonged in the natural world.

But if you don't want to avoid contemplating the natural world, what do we find?

  • Nothing is permanent.  The world is in constant motion, rotating and revolving.  Erosion and plate tectonics change the landscape.  Living things come into being, grow, and then die.
  • Sometimes change is dramatic and quick.  Other times change occurs so subtly or gradually it is imperceptible, and might only be observed in retrospect.
  • Life is not sacred (well to be fair, the concept of sanctity doesn't really have any applicability to nature).  To quote Carlin, "If everything that ever lived is dead, and everything alive is going to die, then where does the sacred part come in?"
  • If you assume that life (generally speaking) has purpose, its purpose appears to be the perpetuation and expansion of life.
  • There is diversity everywhere that there is activity.  The inorganic world is made up of thousands of different materials.  And the organic world displays unending variation.
  • Actions have consequences.  Whether mechanical or biological, effects have causes, and causes have effects.  Nothing arises without preconditions.
  • We can observe the interconnectedness of everything.  Just think of how an entire ecosystem can collapse if a key element is removed or altered.
  • Natural systems progress in the direction of equilibrium.  
  • Real equilibrium is rarely seen because natural systems are almost never self-contained.
  • When disequilibrium occurs in a natural system, correction may take thousands of years.  And the manner of the correction may not be beneficial, depending on your perspective.  A system never 'returns' to equilibrium.  Instead it always moves toward a new equilibrium.
  • We can discern patterns in nature.  The patterns suggest that natural systems are governed by laws which can be discerned, at least in fragments.  And by understanding the patterns, we can make general predictions with high accuracy, and specific predictions with a useful amount of accuracy.
  • Because natural systems are complex and dynamic, and because they are never self-contained and isolated, they prohibit a comprehensive understanding.  That is to say, we cannot predict anything in nature with high specificity and with complete certainty.  That is to say, even if you understand the math, there are too many variables to allow a practical comprehensive calculation.
  • When observing life, as with everything else in nature, we see a conspicuous lack of any moral or ethical order.  Parasites and predators devour their prey with no remorse, and no respect for any sort of ethical code.  Some creatures give birth to hundreds of offspring at a time, only to have a one or two survive past infancy.  Some creatures seem to exist only to suffer and to be victimized.  Others (think parasites) seem to exist only to cause pain and suffering, and to procreate, causing yet more pain and suffering.  And mutations, which are the very mechanism for evolution, are more often harmful than helpful.

So what can we learn from all of this?  That's a question of interpretation.  But it's question that is not being asked frequently enough.

Here are some of my interpretations.  There is no eternal "Truth" to be found.  No matter how much we (especially as individuals) can perceive, and learn, and know, and theorize, it is always only a small fraction of what can be understood.  Morality and ethics do not come from God or some natural law, but come from us and our own interests. We should not only respect diversity, but recognize it's inherent value.  We should exercise caution when we act, because actions always have consequences beyond what is intended.  We should take extraordinary care when we create imbalance in a natural system that has been stable for a long time.  And we should try to never disrupt natural systems that have value and benefit to us.

I invite you to contemplate these questions and come to your own conclusions.  But be mindful not to rely solely on your own personal observations.  All of our senses are both limited and flawed.  So it is important to include scientific research in our 'observation' of nature.

Thank you for reading.  Use the comment tool to post any thoughts or questions.  And please share my blog with others who might find value in it.  May you be well and happy.

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