by Yohan J. John
I've always had a problem with the word 'nature'. It seems to serve as a label for multiple, mutually inconsistent notions. This in itself is not a reason to dislike a word — we seem to have little problem with most words that have multiple meanings. (Surely “right” as in “right versus wrong”, is easy to separate from “right” as in “right versus left”? Surely it isn't semantic confusion that causes left-handed people and leftists to be accused of being wrong, and even unnatural?) What seems to make the concept of “naturalness” especially problematic is the way it is used to justify particular situations or courses of action.
So what are the multiple senses of the concept of nature? I think we can discern at least three, which can be best described in terms of dichotomies. We have:
- Nature versus the Supernatural
- Nature versus Nurture
- Nature versus Culture
Let's examine them one by one, and then see what they imply for 'human nature'.
1. The Way It Is: Nature versus the Supernatural
One of the earliest notions of 'nature' was as 'character' or 'essence'. The nature of a thing is its way, its tao. The word itself stems ultimately from the Latin word “natus“, which means “born”. Since the late 14th century it has connoted creation — all that has been born — and is therefore synonymous with the universe and everything in it. In other words, it's Mother Nature.
So nature is what science aims to understand. Oddly, it is also a word used to label that understanding itself. To uncover the nature of a thing or a process is to situate it in the web of causality. Understanding an object's nature involves finding out where it comes from, how it is made or formed, and the various properties it exhibits in different circumstances. Understand a natural process involves systematically diminishing its potential to surprise us: even quantum mechanical 'weirdness' obeys laws, albeit probabilistic ones.