But is it?
What many of us do not realize is that the nature of nature is far from a settled question. We think it is settled because we live in a time dominated by the physical sciences, which are commonly attended with certain mechanistic assumptions about the natural world which we imbibe by osmosis from our educational and cultural surroundings. We catch them, to use the words of Samuel Johnson, like we catch the common cold: by contagion. We are unfamiliar with how these assumptions came to be and with the ideas they replaced. We know little about the reasons the older assumptions were abandoned or why the new ones took their place. In fact, the older view of nature has, among most of us, been completely forgotten.
Did the understanding of nature change because the new idea was better, or because it better fit with the cultural presuppositions of the time? Was the old idea of nature refuted or did it simply fall out of fashion?
2 Senses of the Word Nature
The early 20th century British philosopher R. G. Collingwood pointed out in his book, The Idea of Nature, that there are two senses of the word ‘nature.’ The meaning of the word with which we are most familiar is that which signifies the cosmos or the external world: the sum total or aggregate of natural things. The other, older meaning is that which originates with the Ionian Greek philosophers—Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximines—which signifies the essence or intrinsic principle of a thing. It is the intrinsic source of behavior. Alexander Pope writes,
Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night; God said, 'Let Newton be' and all was light.Here Pope is using this newer sense of the word 'nature.' Then we have the anonymous author of a nursery rhyme, who advises:
Dogs delight to bark and bite …In this case, the word 'nature' is being used in its older sense. The older sense of the word—nature as essence—started with the Greeks, who considered it the primary sense of the word:
for ‘tis their nature to.
This [intrinsic principle of nature] is the only sense it ever bears in the earlier Greek authors, and remains throughout the history of Greek literature its normal sense. But very rarely, and relatively late, it also bears the secondary sense … (Collingwood, The Idea of Nature, p. 44)And even when the sense of nature as cosmos came into use, the earlier sense informed their notion of it. We might call the older sense of the word the philosophical sense, and the newer, the scientific sense. This older, classical view of nature tended not so much to ask how nature worked so much as it asked why nature worked the way it did.
What has happened in modern times is the philosophical sense has been subordinated to the scientific sense—if not eliminated entirely. The shift in terminology—and in world view—is easily visible in the hindsight of history.
What is the Classical View of Nature?
Every belief operates on the basis of some basic metaphor or analogy. For the Greeks the analogy by which they viewed nature was the analogy of an organism: a living whole with a purpose, each of whose parts contained within it a purpose of its own. Things in nature, whether they were living or not, were like a heart, or a kidney, or a set of lungs: they all served some purpose in the whole, and functioned in a way commensurate with that purpose.
Motion, for example, was the result of something intrinsic to a thing making it move; it was never imposed from without. It was natural motion. When a thing was dropped, it fell to the earth—not because of any "law of nature" (a phrase characterizing the modern view of nature), but because it was the nature (used in the older sense of essence) of the thing to fall downward, and it would continue to move that way unless and until something blocked its natural tendency.
Furthermore, this purpose in nature was like a mind. In fact, nature was permeated by Mind, which was evident through its regularity and orderliness. The repetitions in nature were not the effects of the dead clockwork which the modern mechanistic view articulated through its "laws of nature," but of some seemingly living personality.
Behind nature was not a law, but a will.
The Four Causes
When questions were asked about nature, they were viewed in the light of four questions, the answers to which were called the “four causes.” The four questions were:
- What kind of thing is it? (the “formal” cause)
- What is it made of? (the “material” cause)
- What brought it about? (the “efficient” cause)
- What is it for? (the “final” cause)
If you could answer these four questions, then you knew what something was.
Some people are old enough to remember their mother sewing their clothes. My mother would buy a pattern. She would lay it on top of the cloth, and cut the cloth out in the shape of the pattern to produce the dress or the shirt she was making so that I or my sister would be properly clothed.
We can see the four causes working in this process: the pattern is what determines what kind of thing it is—it is the formal cause; the cloth, being what the dress or shirt is made of, is the material cause—what it is made of; the efficient cause—what brought it about—was my mother; and the final cause—what the dress or shirt was for—was to clothe me and my sister.
The things of nature are viewed much the same way in the classical view. Each thing has an eternal pattern, and it is made of something, by something, and for something. The chief difference, however, between the process of making a piece of clothing—or any other human artifact—and God making the universe is that when my mother made the garment, the only thing intrinsic in the garment was the cloth. Everything else was imposed on the cloth from without. The formal cause—the pattern, the efficient cause—the maker, and the final cause—the purpose, were outside the garment. They were extrinsic to it. But when God created the world, according to this older view, he was able to place all of these things in the world itself.
Unlike my mother, who can only impose these things extrinsically, God can put the eternal patterns of things into them. He can also put a bit of himself into them—he is immanent in them, a theologian would say. Finally, he can put the purpose of a thing into the thing itself.
Aristotle used the example of a shipbuilder. A human shipbuilder imposes his design on the ship from without. The material of the human-designed ship has no inherent desire to be part of the ship: the wood bends into the form of the ship because someone (the designer outside the ship) forces it to. The wood itself has rather the opposite tendency; left to its own ways, it decays as wood does and returns to the earth. It doesn't maintain itself as, say, a tree does, but requires a craftsman to repair it by constantly reimposing the form of the ship on the wood.
An ancient Greek story tells of the construction of the Argo, the ship that would convey Jason and the Argonauts on their quest for the golden fleece. It was made of wood, but its keel was fashioned by Pallas Athene from the Singing Oak of Dodona, whose song, it was said, related the prophecies of Zeus. The Greek poet Apollonius Rhodius says of the launching of the Argo, as its sails caught the first burst of wind:
Impatient Argo the glad signal took,What if, like the prophecies of Zeus, the design of the shipbuilder could itself be put into the ship? What if, asked Aristotle, the wood was not just fashioned from without? What if the design of the shipbuilder could actually be put into the very wood itself, which willingly conformed itself to the purpose of the shipbuilder? What if, in some sense, the shipbuilder was in the ship?
While from her vocal keel loud murmurs broke;
Her keel of sacred oak divinely wrought
Itonian Pallas from Didona brought
It is within this pre-modern philosophical framework that Christian theologians once talked about God being both transcendent and immanent—both outside the world, as Creator, and in it, since he put his very purpose and design into it.
But the modern mechanistic view of nature sees this process very differently. Instead of seeing nature through the analogy of an organism, the modern view sees it in terms of a machine. In this mechanistic world view, there are only two causes, and even one of these must be redefined. Only the material and efficient causes—what a thing is made of and what brought it about, survive the onslaught of secular scientism in the 17th and 18th centuries. Formal and final causes are rejected completely, and even efficient causes changed to such an extent that it bears no resemblance to what Aristotle conceived.
The design of nature’s ship is not in the ship itself.
The fault lines between the classical and modern mechanistic views of nature can be seen in three questions to which these two views give completely different answers. The older, classical view asked three important questions: “What is nature?” “How is nature metaphysically ordered?” And, perhaps most importantly, “What is nature for?” The first two questions have to do with a things formal cause, it pattern, its ontology; and the third with its final cause, its purpose, its teleology.
What is Nature?
In regard to the first question—"What is nature?"—the classical view assumed first that things had natures or essences. A man had a human nature, and a dog a dog nature, and trees had tree natures, and so on. In the thought that derived from Plato, the things in this world—men and dogs and trees, for example—were replicas or imitations of natures or essences, the perfect forms of which existed in heaven. Here in this world there were men and dogs and trees, but in heaven was manness, and dogness, and treeness. The forms in heaven were the perfect models of all the imperfect replicas of them here on earth.
In later, Aristotelian thought, the natures, or essences, were not in some heavenly realm but existed in the things themselves. Human nature was in every human, dog nature was in every dog, and tree nature was in every tree. For both Plato and Aristotle, if every human were to die and none were left, there would still exist a human nature, like an eternal pattern, timeless and immaterial.
The modern mechanistic view rejects this idea. Modern thought is nominalistic: it rejects the idea of eternal natures or essences. When a classical thinker says, “Man is a creature of God,” he is referring to all the individual incarnations of humanity—the beings who have been infused with a human nature that is common to all men. When a modern mechanistic thinker refers to men, he is simply referring to all featherless bipeds, those vertebrate creatures who happen to share certain characteristics, like having two arms and two legs, ten fingers and toes, two eyes, a nose, and a mouth, and whose cranial capacity enables them to outthink their mammalian rivals—and who, anyway, are on their way developmentally to being something else.
Many of our modern debates find their origin in this modern rejection of natures and essences. When debates arise over abortion or cloning, for example, the issue inevitably settles on the question of whether the unborn child or the cloned human is a human person. This is simply the old debate about the classical, or “realist” view about natures, and the newer, nominalistic view in another guise. What one is really asking is, “Does the fetus—or the cloned baby—have a human nature?” But the argument takes place between people whose views of nature are worlds apart, and so the opponents argue completely past each other.
How is Nature Ordered?
In regard to the second question—“How is nature metaphysically ordered?”—the classical belief was that nature is hierarchical: there were some things that were more important than other things in terms of their metaphysical significance. Minerals were at the bottom, then plants, then animals, and then, at the top of the natural hierarchy, was man.
In Leon Kass’s book, The Beginning of Wisdom, he points out that the creation story—whatever you may believe about what it says concerning the temporal order of the creation—says something very definite about the metaphysical order of nature. “The order of the cosmos is not only supremely intelligible,” says Kass, “it also appears to be hierarchic.” It is not the biology of events that is important to the classical view (since it is philosophical rather than “scientific"), but their cosmology: “In the cosmology of Genesis,” says Kass, “human beings clearly stand at the peak of creation.”
This view was universally accepted by the Greeks. “Numberless are the world’s wonders,” says the Greek playwright Sophocles, “but none more wonderful than man.”
The idea of metaphysical order is a hard one for some people to comprehend. I once announced to one of my classes that the earth was the center of the universe. The declaration was met with indignant guffaws. How, my students asked, could I make such an ignorant statement? Copernicus had shown, hadn’t he, that the earth revolved around the sun? And hadn’t later scientists proved that the earth is just one astronomical body among billions in an endless cosmos? On what grounds could I hold that the earth was the center of the universe?
“It’s simple,” I said. “The earth is the center of the universe because …” (I paused for dramatic effect) “because that’s where everybody is.”
This caused quite a commotion. When I said that the earth was the center of the cosmos, I was making a metaphysical, not a scientific, statement. I was saying that the most important place—the place where dwelt those creatures created in the image of the eternal God—was earth. My students, on the other hand, thought I was making a “scientific” statement—which is unanswerable after Einstein’s dismissal of absolute space anyway.
The idea that there are certain things that are more metaphysically significant than others runs into trouble under the modern view. The only way one thing can be discriminated from another is its material composition—that and the arrangement of its components. But since everything is made from fundamentally the same sorts of things—those things on the periodic table of elements, for example—there is no basis upon which we can say that one thing is “higher” or “lower” than another.
Charles Darwin once scrawled in the margin of one of his notebooks, “Never say ‘higher’ or ‘lower.’” Why? Because to Darwin, a modern mechanistic thinker, the only difference between the creatures referred to as “higher,” like humans, and “lower,” like ants, is their level of biological complexity. The trouble is that once you accept the idea that the only distinction between biological creatures is their physical complexity, you completely undercut any basis for human rights. Why should we value one creature more than another simply because it is more complex? What is there in the idea of complexity that confers any value at all?
The irony is that, while we talk more and more about things like human rights, we cling more and more to a world view in which human rights makes no sense. In his book, The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis remarks:
[W]e continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible….In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function … We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful…
What is Nature For?
The third, or teleological question—“What is nature (and what are natural things) for?”—has to do with the purpose of the universe and the things that make it up—a thing’s final cause. In the classical view, things not only have a purpose, but a purpose intrinsic to them. It is not imposed from without, but infirms each thing. The intrinsic purpose of an acorn is to become an oak tree. The intrinsic purpose of a puppy is to become a full grown dog. The intrinsic purpose of an infant—or a fetus—is to become an adult human being.
But the modern mechanistic view rejects this too. Things have no inherent purpose. The crucial blow struck against final cause came during the Enlightenment, when early scientists such as Galileo, Kepler, and Newton became party to the expulsion of final causes from things themselves. Instead of purpose residing in things, it was instead placed in the hands of some outside intelligence.
Early in the scientific revolution, when the scientists were still self-consciously Christian, this outside purpose was seen to derive from God Himself. This is why the Enlightenment saw the rise of Deism which, in effect, saw God as the divine mechanic. He set the machine of nature in motion, and might even occasionally tweak it. The purpose of an acorn to become an oak tree was no longer in the acorn; the purpose of a dog was no longer in the dog; the purpose of the man was no longer in the man—but was imposed from without by God.
The second blow falls with Darwin. Still operating generally within the mechanistic view, Darwin places an emphasis on process. The purpose now is even taken out of God’s hands. There is no purpose in a thing, and there is no purpose imparted by God. The only “purpose” is the process itself. There is no purpose for Darwin outside natural selection. Natural selection provides its own purpose. As the evolutionary scientist Kenneth Miller says, “the design is the process.” But such a “purpose” is very different from the purpose of the old view. Purpose in the old view was an intelligent purpose, buried in nature, but originating in a mind—for the Christian, the personal intelligence of God himself. The purpose of Darwinism does not come from an intelligence—much less a personal intelligence.
The rejection of purpose, like the rejection of essences in nature and of the metaphysical ordering of nature, has ramifications. Under the classical view of nature, a thing could be judged according to whether it accomplished its purpose. If an acorn failed to fully accomplish the purpose of an oak—for shade or for wood or for simply propagating other oaks—it was judged deficient in being an oak. If a puppy failed to fully accomplish the purpose of a dog—to herd, to protect, or to provide companionship—it was judged deficient in being a dog. If a human never accomplished his purpose—say, to glorify God—it was deficient in being a human.
Under the modern view however, the only purpose a thing has is the one we individual humans give it. The prow of our ship no longer sings, but is now silent, and we are set adrift in a world devoid of meaning and purpose.
Or are we?
The irony is that the modern view grew out of the older, classical view. The advances in science which grew out of the Renaissance would have been impossible outside of the view of the world as inherently meaningful, orderly, and purposive. The modern view in this regard is like an ungrateful and rebellious child—denying his ancestry and taking sole credit for all his successes.
And, in fact, not much has changed. The modern view, in denying is origins, undermines even itself.
The historical rejection of the classical view was, said the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, “through and through an anti-intellectualist movement.” As Edward Feser points out in his book The Last Superstition:
Indeed one comes to realize that the very possibility of reason and morality is deeply problematic at best on a modern naturalistic conception of the world, but perfectly intelligible on the classical philosophical worldview and the religious vision it sustains.
Abandoning this older view, says Feser, “was the single greatest mistake in the history of Western thought.” And he may be right.