The HPedia: Nature

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This often taken-for-granted term is by no means easy to define.  Yet, since it fills a crucial role in naturalism by designating the realm of the natural, over and against the ream of the supernatural, it demands articulation.

Generally speaking, the myriad popular definitions of nature can be broken down into three broad categories:

  1. that which is (perceived to be) beyond human influence; i.e. the non-artificial
  2. that which is other than the realm of God or gods; i.e. the non-supernatural
  3. all that is; i.e. the cosmos in its entirety

This poor and unsatisfactory formulation provides at least a starting point for making sense of the uses of “nature.”

Mainstream science, as well as naturalism, generally follows the third definition, but with an explicit exclusion of supernatural causes related to the second definition.  Western religions (mainly Abrahamic) generally follow the second definition.

However, this split doesn’t do justice to common Pagan conceptions of nature (of which there are many, but for the moment we’ll focus on a highly typical view).  Pagans commonly consider deities entirely natural, even if outsiders might call them supernatural.  For example, see the position of Star Foster (who no longer identifies with the “Pagan” label, but did at the time of her writing).  An exploration of the complications of this position on nature is available here. Parallel with the question of deities is that of magic, which Pagans may also consider natural, though not yet discovered by science (for example, see Bonewits).

The disagreement may result from the legacy of traditional Abrahamic mythologies, in which a transcendent God creates nature and remains distinct from it (supernatural).  Mainstream Western science and naturalism historically emerged from within an Abrahamic paradigm and still bears that mark, even though it no longer invokes supernatural causes such as a transcendent Creator.  Pagan mythologies, by contrast, generally portray nature as self-existing, with the gods emerging from it.  Thus, the gods, coming from nature, would seem to be natural.  Magic, too, is portrayed as within nature.  Yet the result is a nature populated by beings and energies which a) appear in many respects similar to those commonly considered supernatural through an Abrahamic lens as well as through a mainstream scientific one; b) have not been verified or falsified by scientific investigation; and c) may in principle be incapable of verification or falsification by science.

This suggests the key difference between common Pagan and mainstream scientific concepts of nature may be a question of method: must a thing be open, in principle, to scientific investigation for it to be considered natural?  If evidence for it comes instead from some kind of mystical or magical intuition, or from claimed direct experience which is not verifiable by a third party, is it therefore supernatural?  The question is all the more complicated since it may pose difficulties for some phenomena which most philosophers of science would probably like to be included in nature, such as consciousness, that have not yet acquired a scientific explanation which satisfies a consensus (see hard problem of consciousness).

Despite these complications, this cannot be considered a case of equally-likely competing theories.  The mainstream scientific view can base its claims in systematic investigation among a wide array of experts with multiple avenues of evidence mutually converging on a picture of the world that tends toward consilience across disciplines; and though scientists are as fallible as any humans, a system of rigorous peer critique endeavors to reduce human bias as much as humanly possible.  The common Pagan view of deities and magic, by contrast, is generally supported by claims of direct experience and anecdotal evidence, with (to my knowledge) no systematic means of verification or falsification as of yet, and no systematic means of reducing bias as far as possible (while there is no dogma against rigorously critiquing another’s beliefs or magical claims, neither is it necessarily welcomed).  Thus, it would appear the probable truth-content deriving from the mainstream scientific view and the common Pagan view is unlikely to be the same.

In any case, naturalistic Pagans tend toward a position consistent with mainstream science rather than the common Pagan position outlined above.  Indeed, this is one of the defining features that set naturalistic Pagans apart from many other kinds of Pagans.

The ancient Greeks conceived of nature as physis, from which we derive our words “physics” and “physical.”  For the Greeks, physis referred to a thing’s origin and development over time.

Nature can be an object of naturalistic transcendence, insofar as it is greater than the individual in both degree and kind, even as the individual participates in it.  In this case, the reference is not to transcendence of nature, but rather to transcendence as nature, i.e. the individual’s realization of his or her full participation in the natural world.  Nature is one of the “Three Transcendents”, along with community and mind.

See also “Deity”, “Supernatural”, “Three Transcendents”, and “Transcendence.”

Check out other entries in our HPedia.

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6 Comments on “The HPedia: Nature

  1. I don’t think the gods have to be susceptible to scientific investigation in order to be taken seriously by naturalistic Pagans. I think the scientific method by its very nature excludes some things from investigation, specifically those phenomena which are subjective. I think the gods fall into this category. It’s not the experience of the gods that troubles me as a naturalistic Pagan; it’s the interpretation of the experience by many Pagans that often bothers me. Specifically, when the subjective experience of the gods, which cannot be measured by science, is described in terms analogous to things that can be measured by science. For example, when the gods are described as (mostly) invisible personal beings which exist objectively, i.e., independently of the person experiencing them. Another example is when magic is described as a form of “energy”.

    • I should have said “our subjective experience of phenomena” instead of “those phenomena which are subjective”.

  2. Just to add another level of confusion to the word “Nature”: it is a word and thus part of a language. Languages are constructs of culture, and thus “Nature” is a also a cultural construct. The word, of course, is supposed to point to something that is outside of culture, but can it actually do so?

    Our idea of this thing that the word “Nature” is supposed to refer to is highly shaped by human history. We can put a particular emphasis on how science has shaped our thinking about Nature, and how the romantic reaction to science has also shaped our thinking, and particularly how we have come to value Nature.

    Nature utterly unshaped by the human mind is a mythic being. This isn’t to say it doesn’t exist, it some sense or other it obviously does, but we cannot access it through our ideas. Since the object of a certain breed of physical science is nature unshaped by the human mind, it follows that the world presented by this science is also mythical in this sense.

    This is just another example of the paradox that the mind is in the world and the world is in the mind.

    • > The word, of course, is supposed to point to something that is outside of culture, but can it actually do so?

      There’s a tragic beauty to that. 🙂

      >Since the object of a certain breed of physical science is nature unshaped by the human mind, it follows that the world presented by this science is also mythical in this sense.

      True. Hopefully less “mythic” than other attempts to described unshaped nature, but true nonetheless.

  3. Perhaps it’s worth noting that many (but not all) Pagans and Naturalists reverence Nature as sacred, which further confuses matter. I’m inclined to regard that reverence for Nature as a supreme value, perhaps even trumping Naturalism.

    I found this article quite lucid.

  4. Re Thomas Schenk’s point about nature and culture: Yes, our concept of nature is part of our culture. On the other hand, if the paleontologists are right about Earth’s history, nature itself (as distinct from its name) was there long before our human cultures got started. It is, so to speak, the bedrock on which our cultural constructions are built.

    The article mentioned the Greek word “physis”. I think this word and its associations could be explored further, likewise the Latin equivalent “natura”.

    One of the dictionary meanings of “physis” is “birth”. And Latin “natura” is from the verb “nascor”, “be born”. In the Sanskrit language, too, one of the words for “nature” is “sahaja”, from the verb “jan”, which also means “be born”, and the prefix “saha”, meaning “with”.

    What all this suggests to me, is that “nature” originally meant the character which someone or something was born with: as in the phrase “the nature of the beast”. As still today, “nature” is often spoken of as distinct from “nurture”, in relation to human psychology.

    Perhaps the more global senses of nature are a generalization of that meaning? When “nature” refers to “the cosmos in its entirety”, there is still (it seems to me) a sense that the cosmos has a character of its own, a character which it had from the beginning and will never lose.

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