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The 1+1=1 fallacy

June 10, 2009

“If humans are a product of nature, then it follows that everything which humans produce is also a product of nature, and therefore natural.”

This is a statement which, in varying forms, I’ve seen for years.  I have always disagreed with its conclusion, but I’ve never really questioned the validity of it because I felt that there was something to it.  I’ve come to realize, however, that it’s completely false.

Of course, someone could raise a valid objection by pointing out that the labeling of something as natural or unnatural depends on how you define the words.  So that’s what I’ll do first.

I think the way I’d define the word natural is completely compatible with most dictionary definitions,  but put in my own words, it is this: anything that occurs in nature, without the direct intervention of some intelligent species, is natural.  By this definition a sharp stick, whether used as a tool or not, would be natural, as it is something you could come across at any times on a walk in the woods.  However, a mud hut, even though it is constructed wholly of natural materials, is not.  By this same notion something like a beaver dam would also be unnatural.  Even though it is natural for a beaver to build a dam, by doing so they alter their surroundings from their natural state.  It then follows that:  plastic is not natural, as its creation requires intervention; automobiles are not natural; coal mines and coal plants, even though the burning of coal may be a natural process, are not natural; factories are not natural; agriculture is not not natural.  I could go on.

The basic premise presented is completely invalid.  It states that everything produced by one entity, in this case humanity, will be equal to that original entity—if humans are natural, everything they create is natural.  It’s absurd.

Assembly line robots are mechanized, therefore everything they create will be mechanized.

See?  Robots might create other robots, or automobiles, or cranes or excavators—or they might create nuts and bolts, steel beams, or plastic junk.  The combination of two different things to make something else is the very basis of creating something new.  Two animals fornicating and a baby coming from their union, at the surface, seems like two like things creating another like thing, but really this is not what’s happening at all.  Really a sperm cell and an egg cell combine and through a process more complicated and intricate than I care to summarize, offspring are formed.

While we can create things that do naturally occur, like a sharp stick for instance, thoses things are not actually natural because they didn’t naturaully occur.  But even though we can create things that are natural, we create quite a large number of things that are not.  An automobile would never occur naturally.  The metals needed to build a car can naturally melt and shape into different things, but they would never, without human intervention, form a car.  Ever.  The end.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. motyroud permalink
    July 7, 2009 3:21 pm

    Hi Tony,

    That’s really nice to find out the subject of artificial vs. natural is actually being debated.
    It’s even nicer to read your firm opinion and find it completely opposite to mine.

    Maybe it’s because I’m a physicist that I beg to differ.
    I see the world as self operating, that is, no foreign, out-of-this-world intervention. As such, I can’t separate humans and human actions from the total picture of existence.
    In my humble opinion, any attempt at drawing a line between artificial and natural is doomed to failure due to the simple reason, that all of us natural beings (including humans) adhere to the basic rules of physics (and chemistry, and biology, etc.) and thus are incapable of eluding nature.
    We humans are a direct product of natural selection.

    The true fallacy here is the human system of thought, which separates good from evil, clean from polluting, and natural from artificial. Each of these concepts is relative and needs humans to put it into context.

    For example, a butterfly is considered beautiful and good, unless it’s inside your pudding, then it’s a pest.

    Natural is everything that’s governed by the laws of nature.
    Artificial is everything that humans make or cause, which is also natural.

    In conclusion, artificial is a sub group of natural.

    In hope of sparking a response,

    • July 8, 2009 1:01 pm

      Actually, I’m not so sure we’re actually in disagreement at all. When I made this post I wasn’t trying to start a semantics argument, although I can see how it might be taken that way.

      I agree that the natural realm is all we have. I guess we were coming at the statement from a different way. In a purely scientific manner, yes, we are natural beings living in accordance with natural laws, and thus everything that occurs within the natural realm would also have to abide by natural laws making everything “natural.” I guess I don’t know what the correct wording would be to convey my idea. If you want to use artificial, we can use artificial: If a human (a natural, non-artificial being free of outside influence) takes natural materials (that are natural and that came to be free of outside influence) and creates something, that something may be natural—as in still within the natural realm, etc.—but it is created from an outside influence, thereby making it artificial. So we have two natural things producing something artificial. I think I agree that artificial is a sub-category of natural, but it’s not “nature” in its purest sense.

      My motivation for this post and my main idea can be explained as follows: Most of the people I hear/read saying “humans are natural, so everything they create is also natural” say it in a way that implies that humans can do no wrong. Maybe by making this post I picked at the wrong part of that argument. My idea remains, however. I’m almost certain that you’d agree that under no circumstances could an automobile be formed without human intervention.

      The true fallacy here is the human system of thought, which separates good from evil, clean from polluting, and natural from artificial. Each of these concepts is relative and needs humans to put it into context.

      On this we also agree.

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