When Does The Natural Become Artificial?

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

I’ve run into this problem in the past, most recently here on Mak’s blog (where all the good, thought-provoking questions get asked). To paraphrase the topic, it questioned whether people are born free. If you read the comments, a lot of answers depended upon how people define things. Perspective, in this and many cases, determines what happens afterwards.

I offered my two cents, and the questions I got in return were good ones. But they all hinted at another issue entirely. What is natural, and what is artificial?

You can see this problem when talking about government. Since it’s built upon social hierarchies found in primitive human societies, one can say that it’s an offshoot of a natural phenomenon. But nature doesn’t produce such convoluted organizations. Ants, lions, primates, and canines form social groups. They don’t elect each other (or steal elections). In that sense, governments are artificial.

I disingenuously characterized natural things as being about the possible versus impossible. It’s not that accurate. If it were the case, anything possible is natural, no matter how much thought and work went into doing it. Radio waves exist in nature, but they do not carry human voices on them without understanding other parts of the natural world.

Here I am, stuck in this mental limbo, wondering at what point a natural thing, like radio, can be said to be artificial. Does it start with building a radio tower? Adding broadcast equipment? Recording content? Airing the content?

Is the distinction meaningless? Should we start thinking of everything as natural to some degree? Or should we start thinking of more things as products of artifice?

An answer to this question is worth investigating, I think. Ethics, government, social norms, worldviews, all of these big things rely on knowing whether something occurs naturally, or if it’s something we’ve just created ourselves. Nature cannot be changed (just manipulated by other natural forces). Artifice has no objective set of rules.

Think of it this way. Suppose someone hands you a hammer. You cannot use it as a screwdriver. You can use it to nail boards together or break a window. The former is a natural characteristic. The latter describes artificial characteristics. Knowing the difference means you don’t have to get disappointed when you’re trying to put furniture together.

That thought expands all the way to the big stuff. Maybe ethics has natural limitations. Maybe government has natural characteristics we’re ignoring, so that’s why we’re garbage at it. Understanding this means future generations of people won’t have to make the same mistake we are.

They get to make brand new ones.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Image is in the Public Domain.

3 thoughts on “When Does The Natural Become Artificial?

  1. This always came up while I was teaching chemistry. Something is artificial when it is created through artifice, that is through the arts of a human being. People are quite confused about this. Natural means … well it means damned little now because advertisers have decided that calling any of their products “natural” is a good thing, so it has been slapped on damned near everything. I generally think of “natural” as being of or from nature. So, butter? Artificial. It is made through various arts and is not available out in nature. Spaghetti is artificial. There are no spaghetti trees. Part of the problem is almost all of the foodstuffs we get “from nature” have been hybridized up the yinyang and are, in effect, artificial. (Artichokes used to be thistles, I am told and this didn’t happen without human intervention.)

    So, if human arts were used in the creation of a thing … it is artificial. If it is produced by nature without intervention by humans, it is natural.

    That’s my take anyway.

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    • I don’t think what you’re saying is controversial. However, wouldn’t some other species qualify as capable of creating artificial things? Bees and wasps erect complicated living areas from materials gathered elsewhere and modified for purpose. Ant species sometimes keep other insects for livestock. Does this make these species more special, or does it make our species less special?


  2. As someone on the autism spectrum, how words are used matter a lot, and I understand that few words don’t have some shades of meaning, often beyond my ability to understand.

    Some shades are glaringly obvious. For example how one describes parts of edible plants as either fruit or vegetable. Is one describing what it is, or how it is used. The context decides which is relevant.

    As far as natural versus artificial goes, I don’t see them necessarily as antonyms. Turf on a sports-field is a living organic organic structure, even if it is regularly replaced by rolls of turf grown on a turf farm. The turf on the field is natural even though the process to get it there is artificial. On the other hand artificial turf is a non-organic product manufactured to give the appearance of natural turf. In this case there is little ambiguity between what is natural and artificial.

    But how about artificial limbs? We usually think of an artificial limb as a an artificial body part or prosthesis, but surely a walking stick or crutch are just as much artificial limbs in that they perform a roll of replacing or supplementing a limb. The earliest walking sticks or crutches were probably no more than naturally formed sticks or branches – entirely natural. The object was entirely natural, but it’s artificial in the way it is used. And from my perspective, whether or not it is used this way by humans only or other species as well is irrelevant.

    How about tools, once believed to be uniquely human in origin? We now know many animals use objects as tools. Some animals can even form tools, although primitive in design compared to modern humans. At what point does forming tools move from being natural to being artificial? As I see it, it’s an arbitrary point, which will vary by time, place and culture. In a way, the distinction between natural and artificial is in itself artificial.

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