The Third Error: There Are No Such Things as Natures

From the Bring Back Reason series.

On the two meanings of “nature”

Here is yet again another one of those words that can be used to mean different things: “matter,” “substance,” and now “nature.” And as before the meanings of the word “nature” are related and there is quite a bit “below the surface” of how this important word is used.

On the most basic level, the word “nature” refers to the natural world around us. When people think of nature they think of mostly living things, like trees, flowers, birds, mammals, and so on. The word also conjures images of the earth, the soil, as well as mountains, rivers, and oceans. This use of the word “nature” is contrasted with the word “artificial.” Artificial things are made by humans; the natural world is a given and has its own rhythms and order. Artificial things are often mechanical, involving specific parts sometimes arranged in ingenious ways to result in specific functions. Of course, artificial things are made out of materials taken from nature. And the use of these materials must respect the specific characteristics of the materials. Even so, the materials used to construct advanced technological gadgets are arranged for functions that are not typically related to the way these materials exist in nature.

Another meaning of the word “nature” is that something has a given set of characteristics that are rooted in what it is rather than what use the thing is being put to. Thus people speak of “human nature” to refer to the way humans are, the way people tend to behave irrespective of their particular culture or circumstances. Someone might say that it is simply part of “human nature” for a mother to want what is best for her child. Or cats tend “by nature” to hunt mice; it is “natural” for cats to do so. Along these lines Aristotle famously defined nature as “a principle and a cause of being moved and of being at rest in the thing to which it belongs primarily and in virtue of that thing and not incidentally.” This sense of the word “nature” conveys moral connotations as well. We may say that it is “unnatural” and wrong for a boy to torture his pet frog. Or that it goes against “nature” for a manufacturer to excessively pollute a river. Granted, these examples both present as “unnatural” direct attacks on nature. But people also speak of human acts like stealing as violating the natural order, in as much as people have a right to some private property. Thus it could be said that it is natural for parents to want to establish a home where they can support their family.

From a classical realist perspective the two meanings of the word “nature” highlighted above are strongly connected. A realist sees the natural world as full of creatures with particular natures, creatures that behave according to what they are. There is an appreciation for what has been called “formal and final causality,” the principles by which a particular thing is the type of thing it is (formal causality) and is directed toward particular ends (final causality). Formal causality can be defined as the principle through which a thing comes to be and final causality as that for which a thing comes to be. On an even more fundamental level the nature or essence of a thing receives the esse, the act of existence, and determines this act in a specific manner. The metaphysical structure of being is governed by esse and essence, with each thing “having” esse as its most fundamental and constitutive act, an act relating to its essence as to a real potency, that which can receive its act of existence and determine it in a particular way.

Taking “ought” from “is”:  it’s only natural!

The resulting overall natural order is discernible by human reason and should be a source of human values that can guide our lives. In other words, from the realist perspective there is a profound unity between the natural world around us – the environment – and the natural order that should exist in our lives. Along these lines the classical tradition speaks of the “natural law,” a concept that may have fallen out of favor for some, since it implies a restriction of human freedom for self-determination. But a softer version of the ideal of connectivity between the world of nature and human values is still quite prominent. It is not uncommon to hear someone talk about “simplifying one’s life by getting back to nature.” While the various environmental movements of our times are certainly complex political and ideological realities, it is nonetheless the case that a common unifying aspect is recognition that the natural world has an order and goodness that we should respect, that nature is violated by subjecting it to unlimited human domination.

Even so, today the connection between nature as the natural world around us and the more metaphysical meaning of a thing having a particular nature is more tenuous than in times past. The fact that a “movement” is needed to help people see again the value of respecting the natural environment points toward this fact. The historical origins of this problem are complex and much of the story is closely connected to the rise of certain strains of modern philosophy. David Hume should receive particular mention, specifically his assertion that we cannot derive an “ought” from an “is.” If taken to its logical extreme, this view would sunder any possible connection between the natural world and human values. Applied specifically to understanding the word “nature,” Hume’s position radically denies the possibility that we can view the natural world around us as a source for human values at all. It raises the question of whether nature is even relevant to how we structure human society.

But are we completely free to disregard the givens of the natural world around us as we structure human society around other self-determined principles? And are we really free to establish an order based on principles that we invent rather than receive? Even if a few forgers of a new cultural order succeed in such a project, the net result will not be the liberation of humankind from nature but rather the triumph of this elite group over the masses. It would be the triumph of a small group at one time in history over their peers and some future generations as well. And nature will not be abolished but rather used as a tool of dominance by those in charge of the new world order. The rise of the genera of dystopian literature shows that this is a concern that many recognize as a possibility on the horizon. Various popular dystopias such as Orwell’s 1984, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, or Huxley’s Brave New World, though different in many respects, all present visions of a world order engineered by an elite group who has imposed a new form of dominion over the masses, a dominion that is rooted in values detached from the natural order.

So it does seem like there is a real philosophical problem: the problem of denying that things have natures that we should try to understand and respect. No sane person wants to live in a dystopian world and, if taking the ideas of David Hume and others to their logical conclusions leads there, we should avoid heading down that path.

Michael Moynihan

About the author:

Michael Moynihan


A native of Rochester, NY, Michael Moynihan earned B.A. degrees in history and science pre-professional studies with a concentration in the Honors Program from the University of Notre Dame. He graduated Summa Cum Laude and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. After teaching for one year and earning a master’s degree in theology from The Catholic University of America, he joined the faculty of The Heights School in 1995. He has taught chemistry, Advanced Placement chemistry, eighth grade science, ethics, math and religion, has coached The Heights’ cross-country team and founded The Heights Mountaineers program. Michael was named Head of the Upper School in 2002. He and his wife, Angela, have eleven children, with four sons here at the School.

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