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.