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Separation from Nature is a Useful Trick of the Mind
by   Richard   Rieben
First posted January, 2004. Submitted to the Shell/Economist Essay Contest in August, 2003. The theme of the contest was: "Do we need nature? What are the difficult choices that need to be made in politics, economics, society and public policy? And who is right...? Those whose actions (or inactions) seek to increase man's control over nature, or those who seek to reduce man's control? Those who seek to bypass nature, or those who hope to work with it? Those who put a higher value on human development, or those who value the preservation, even the reconstitution of nature?"
When we look outward, individually, we perceive the world (and everything in it) as external to us.

This is also the perception contained in the question, "Do we need nature?" Nature is seen as something external to us, independent of our existence, and changeable by our will and ingenuity. This is also the perspective of superstition, magic, and modern technology. It is not entirely incorrect, but its implications are mostly misunderstood.

I think we need to start by asking "what is nature?"

Does it have something to do with the epidermis of our skin, the cells of our blood, the shape of our hands, the beat of our hearts, and the neural wiring in our brains?

Or is it all "out there"?

There is a popular thesis that we are, in some manner, separate from nature. That we are "above" it, or distinct from it. That we, because of our minds or souls, are alien to the physical, natural universe; mere visitors from another, ethereal universe.

This is rather wistful thinking. By this thinking, we intend to absolve ourselves from responsibility over our bodies and over our actions (that is, our affects upon nature). We like to take credit when we have a good affect in "conquering" or "mastering" nature. But we also like to evade culpability, pleading ignorance, when we cause affects that, in time, bite us, our neighbors, or our descendants in the butt.

The essential base of this "separation" thesis is a metaphysical dualism that Plato dreamed up in his Theory of Forms. Dualism has been refined and perpetuated by philosophers ever since. It is popularly known as the "mind-body" dichotomy; that is, a separation between the mental/spiritual world and the physical/organic world..

The actual source of this apparent dichotomy is an epistemological trick in the design of human consciousness. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that studies our minds – their construction and the processes of acquiring and using knowledge. This science forms the base for educational theories.

Epistemology is also influenced by, and in turn influences, our metaphysics. Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that studies our relationship to the universe (i.e., "nature"), based upon our own understandings of ourselves and of our environment. It is from metaphysics that we get our perception of a dichotomized relationship between ourselves and nature.

This metaphysical view comes directly from the way we use our minds – it comes from our perception, and, literally, it comes from our individual sense of ourselves as separate beings. Separate, not just from one another, but from every other aspect of the natural world – regardless of our organic composition and regardless of our organic context.

I would like to forego the philosophical base, and pretend that we can address the issue in more tangible terms – scientifically, politically, economically, socially and in regard to public policy.

Indeed, these are relevant issues, however the basic issue is a philosophical one – a matter of perception and interpretation.

When we begin to address these more tangible issues, we bump into the next branch of philosophy: Ethics. It is here that we consider the question, "who is right?" The answer to this depends upon our earlier premises in the branches of epistemology and metaphysics. That's why we start with the questions "what is nature?" and "are we separate from nature or integral with it?" Only with an understanding of these two issues, can we coherently consider "right and wrong."

The epistemological trick of our mental wiring is that we, as individuals, will always perceive ourselves as separate. However, we, as organic beings, will always be integral with the rest of the natural, organic universe – both physically and spiritually.

The tempo, rhythm and aura of nature affects us physically, emotionally and spiritually. It may do this subtlely and without our noticing it, or it may "grab" us up with a thunderstorm that shatters, enhances, depresses or exhilarates – and plays us like a violin.

To take one small step in the direction of how to deal with nature when we are designed to perceive a separation that does not actually exist, we need only see that our mental wiring does benefit us, most of the time.

With this perception of separation, we are able to identify and separate the other aspects of the natural world into categories, to acquire knowledge about the natural world, and to live, healthily and happily, in the natural world. This perception is a very useful tool for understanding, improving and enjoying our existence.

With this perception of separation, we can use our senses, not merely to run away from pain, to but understand the source of pain, disease, or sickness. Also to find cures for things in nature that cause disease, and to find solutions when elements (lions, floods, or locusts) threaten our life, sustenance or comfort.

Perceiving the world as distinct from ourselves is a very useful trick of the mind. It enables us to interact with the world and with one another, clearly, intelligently, and to the benefit of our well-being.

However, when we forget that this ability to perceive ourselves separately from nature is a trick of the mind, a design-feature in our epistemological wiring, and come to believe that we are, indeed, separate, nonorganic, distinct, and unrelated to the natural world, then we pit ourselves against our own best interests.

Human "development" that comes at the cost of degradation of the natural environment is not to our benefit. It is an illusion, based on the useful but illusory perception that we are separate from nature. This illusion allows us to deceive ourselves that we can ignore consequences that damage our environment.

When we befoul the air, or otherwise pollute the environment, it is our own health that we are affecting. When we eat chemicals and put toxins in our water supplies, it is our own bodies that we are polluting.

This is not "development" by any human measure or standard. It may appear as development to a robot, or to some alien being who is not organically integrated to this environment. But to a human being, it is suicidal.

The many benefits of our perception of separation accrue without harm, damage or suffering, as long as we remember the law of non-contradiction: that we cannot eat our cake and still have it – that we cannot destroy the health of our natural environment (upon which we are organically dependent in ways that we do not even begin to understand), and still retain our health and well-being.

Our scientific understanding shows us that our health is degraded when the natural environment is degraded. Technology, however, is geared to profit and power, and it appeals to our desire to enjoy things without considering the consequences on the environment – and, by extension, on our future well-being.

The issue of being responsible and of doing no harm – to oneself, to others, or to our common, natural base – is an ethical choice. To have impact or value socially, we need to recognize our culpability as a species, as a society, and individually. But to become public policy, this requires common agreement. Moreover, it is a philosophical agreement, and one that is based upon a common understanding of "how things work."

In considering political, moral or social issues, we have no need to constrain science or technology, except at those points where it causes tangible damage or pollution. At the point where a given technology is discovered and proven to be damaging to nature, we must, if we are to be responsible for our own well-being, cease and desist in regard to that particular piece of technology, regardless of its apparent benefits – and regardless of our personal, social or corporate vested-interests in such "benefits."

At the cost of our health and our organic well-being, the other benefits are minor – and they are not lasting. The degradation of our environment, and our health, is lasting and will affect our descendants. Temporary "benefits," regardless of how entrenched or widespread, need to be evaluated against this standard: the future well-being of the species, not just our present ease, comfort or enjoyment (while it lasts).

The common agreement to public policy in regard to ethical, responsible behavior is very hard-won in the present time, due to the influence of the popular theories of a mind-body dichotomy or of a dualistic "real/unreal" world.

The most potent source of these views comes from the academic and the religious realms, where common sense is discounted for dubious theoretical balancing acts. These fancy theories are, then, compounded by technologists and politicians who believe they can profit, personally, from this misunderstanding – and, in the short term, accrue wealth and power, regardless of the long term affects upon nature and the well-being of all of us.

Through the media, the corporations and politicians advance their profitable agenda by emphasizing the mind-body dichotomy. They can very easily play upon people's individual experience of perceiving the natural world as separate, for that is how we all do perceive it.

What is left out of the advertising and the public hoopla, is the small print of common sense: yes, this is our common experience, but, no, it does not describe an actual separation from nature; it only describes how our minds work.

To find the common agreement necessary to effect responsible evaluation and monitoring over our technological, industrial exploits (not all of which are bad, by any means), we may be wise to ignore the counsel of the tricky academics, industrialists, politicians, and media illusionists, who either profit directly or conspire with profiteers to our – and their own – detriment.

Whether we will do this depends upon our philosophical premises, which affect our epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics. These, in turn, affect our social and political capacity to act responsibly and effectively, in a manner that will allow us to benefit from our remarkable ability to perceive a separation between ourselves and nature, without undercutting the reality that we depend upon nature for our health, our vitality, and our well-being.

This social responsibility could easily come to pass. It just requires some common sense.

And that quantity is native to the species. We are hard-wired for it. Epistemologically.


copyright © 2005 by Richard G. Rieben