Are we human beings part of nature or separate from it in some unique way? While this may sound a rather abstract question, the answer to it has significant implications for moral reasoning. We have all heard acts decried and labeled as immoral because they were “unnatural.” In the current debate on genetic engineering and biological manufacturing, opposition to forays into these areas are often protested on the grounds of inappropriate (unnatural) interference with the processes of nature. Opponents of everything from same-sex marriage, to stem cell research, to cloning and beyond, are repelled by what they regard as the unnaturalness of it all. They warn us aphoristically not to “mess with Mother Nature.”
For many, whether theists or secular humanists, any hint that an act is unnatural is synonymous with saying that it is immoral–or at least of highly questionable moral status. Therefore, it makes a great deal of difference what we include in our conception of what is within and without the bounds of nature (or the natural).
Certainly, naturalness, or the lack thereof, is only one of the many ways to think about morality; but, it is a very common one and one often turned to in order arouse public sentiment either for or against a certain course of scientific inquiry or social practice.
My thesis is a simple but, I think, important one: everything which exists on this planet or anywhere else in the cosmos is a part of nature. Put another way, nature is that which is and what “goes on” in nature consists entirely of natural processes or occurrences.
Human beings are therefore part of nature and the things that human beings do and think are also part of that nature. For example, the use of the human mind to address problems of life and human health is an entirely natural thing. Thinking, creating, building, fixing, adapting etc. etc. are entirely natural things as are cell division, natural selection, mutation, volcanic eruptions and beavers building dams.
That said morality is still of the highest importance. Human acts can still be judged moral and immoral, prudent and imprudent as well as beneficial or harmful but they can not and consequently should not be judged on the basis of whether they are natural or not: there is nothing which is or happens which is not natural.
The question of needing to distinguish the natural from the unnatural arises from the supposition or belief that the natural is a product of a force outside of the natural known as the supernatural and particularly the work of a divine entity existing in a dimension outside of nature. The supernatural, it is argued, designed and created nature and its processes. The supernatural, in this conception, is interested in its creation conforming to the original design and set of processes.
The whole notion of something being unnatural presupposes a supernatural which has defined what falls within the bounds of nature. Actions that violate the original supernatural design are unnatural because they violate the supernatural designer’s intent and are ipso facto immoral.
This view of supernatural intentional creation has, in the Western Tradition, normally also made the claim that human beings have a foot, so to speak, in both the supernatural and natural domains. The Christian tradition even claims that the supernatural created human beings in its own “image and likeness” and that there is a component of a human being called the soul which is spiritual and in that sense supernatural–outside of nature and both immortal and incorporeal.
Further, in this view, the supernatural creator has retained certain prerogatives vis-a-vis the creation. For example, the actual creation of life and maintaining the basic integrity of the original design are the prerogative of the supernatural alone. Human beings, although “ensouled,” are not to violate these fundamental rules without dire consequences for themselves and the creation as a whole. They should not do anything “unnatural;” i.e., arrogate to themselves any supernatural prerogatives. In this way, the unnatural and the immoral have become almost covalent terms in the popular mind.
Additionally, only humans seem to be capable of doing unnatural acts. One never hears of cats, birds, gold fish, or bacteria performing unnatural acts. We assume that since they are part of nature what they do is simply natural and neither moral or immoral–what ethicists sometimes call pre-moral. Natural organisms are thought to follow their instincts and not really exercise any choice other than pragmatic ones like which prey to attack. We would never imagine a non-human animal doing or even intending to do anything like Victor in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein did— that would be unnatural.
At this point, it should be clear that the existence of the unnatural presupposes the existence of the supernatural. Without the supernatural, all is natural including what we experience as freedom, curiosity, love, hope and creativity. With the supernatural, freedom is curtailed, curiosity limited and creativity shackled. With the supernatural, the “image and likeness” to the supernatural claimed for humans is no longer remotely perceptible as humans are reduced to rule keepers or rule breakers–left in a place of persistent delinquency.
Most dictionaries define the supernatural something like: a proposed force outside of nature and beyond scientific understanding. In that sense, the existence of the supernatural is a matter of faith: i.e., a strong belief grounded in spiritual apprehension rather than proof.
Personally, I would prefer not to be left in a state of persistent delinquency grounded on an idea (the supernatural) for which there is not and cannot be any evidence. I would rather embrace and be embraced by what is and can be known to be and like the crew of the Starship Enterprise “boldly (and I might add prudently) go where no person has gone before.” That is what comes naturally to me.