Changing How the World Thinks

An online magazine of big ideas


On the cusp of the unnatural

Making sense of our essence

20 11 11.lawson.ata

The distinction between the natural and unnatural is beset with paradox.  We are neither natural nor unnatural. Instead we should overcome the opposition and find a new place to be, writes Hilary Lawson

Problematic and depraved, dark and threatening, these are the characteristics traditionally associated with the unnatural. Morally offensive, even devilish, undermining what it is to be properly human. The natural in contrast has typically had the moral high ground. To behave naturally has been to act in accordance with our true instinct, to be at one with our nature.

Yet this distinction, between the natural and unnatural, so prevalent in our vocabulary, is beset by paradox. To be at one with our nature is also to be at one with our animal spirit, one might even say the bestial. And is it not there that many have claimed to find not the natural but the profoundly unnatural?

Moreover, the contemporary zeitgeist is sceptical of the moral assumptions to be found in the opposition of natural and unnatural. Acts formerly described as unnatural, homosexuality, transvestism, sadomasochism are now widely regarded as part of the diversity of human sexuality, and the claim that these are unnatural acts itself a malign prejudice. Far from holding the moral high ground those who once made such claims are castigated as blinkered bigots.

We might imagine therefore that we have escaped the simple moralisms embedded in the distinction between the natural and the unnatural. They are however very much still with us.

Yet we are at once part of the natural world, and a product of that world. How could we be unnatural?

Nature is true and good and honest. Perhaps in some sense it has even become the contemporary god. But it is also other than us: we, fallen humans, are in this sense unnatural and a threat to the purity of nature. Against the undefiled, pure natural world, humans are self-interested and destructive. Echoing the fallen sinners of a Christian theology, humankind sees itself once again as the evil stalking the land.

Yet we are at once part of the natural world, and a product of that world. How could we be unnatural? Whatever our behaviour, and however critical we might wish to be, our actions are the actions of a species that alongside others on our planet evolved through a relentless process of selection. We stand alongside them on the fragile girdle of earth and sea that forms the surface of our planet. We are surely as natural as they, and as much a part of nature as the land, hills and sky that surround us.

How are we then to make sense of this strange opposition of natural and unnatural? Is it simply a coded morality? A means to give weight to our arguments, and a vehicle to vilify those with whom we disagree? Or is there some deeper reality to which the natural and unnatural point?

Nature, when applied to a thing, object or person, usually seeks to identify the essence, and echoes its Latin origins in 'natura' or essential quality. To identify the true nature of an individual is to have uncovered their core, their essence. To claim that something or person has a true nature is at once to assume that there is an essence to things, and that we can uncover it. And it is in this assumption that the puzzles about the natural and unnatural originate.

To suppose that there is an essence to ourselves or any thing is no small supposition. It is to imagine that for everything that we can identify in the world there is a set of characteristics that are fundamental, so that the world is not only divided into individual entities, but that each of those entities has a definitive character.

To some this idea has had a comforting quality - as if, with a large enough list, we could uncover the character of everything. All in its place, all known and correct.

The Victorian classification and categorisation of the natural world no doubt had such a motivation. It gives us the sense of creating an ever-growing body of knowledge about ourselves and the world.

But this notion of essence is an illusion. It owes, as Wittgenstein identified, more to our language than to the world. In language we divide the world into things, and give them characteristics. It is another matter to propose that we have thereby uncovered the world itself.

Many have claimed that there are essential characteristics to our being human, that there is a true nature to humankind. Some have claimed that we are essentially self-interested. Others that humans are empathetic and altruistic. Some have argued that humans are essentially machines. Others that humans are precisely not machines.

The contradictory claims, and the seeming relentlessness of the arguments without any plausible hope that they could be resolved, should give us pause to question whether the error is not found in any individual claim but in the very idea of an essence, or natural or defining characteristic. For we can find no core characteristic, or essence, of any individual, or species, or object, that can be agreed without challenge. What is the essence of the land or the sea, the mountain or the valley? The compilers of dictionaries propose an agreed core meaning for the terms. As if language can be held to a strict set of rules. But these meanings are imperfect, and any number of dictionaries that could be written for a given language, or meaning given for a single word.

Essences are illusions. They are human attempts to make sense of the world through the imposition of categories that we think will help us understand the world.

One plausible definition of 'window' might be 'an opening fitted with glass'. But it is not difficult to find examples where glass does not seem essential. It could be another material, perspex for example. Perhaps then the essence of window is simply an opening. This would better make sense of the phrase: 'I have a window in my diary this afternoon'. But then an open door would not be a window. We imagine there is an essence to things and to the meaning of words, but the harder we look, the more they slip through our fingers. Perhaps this is what Derrida meant by deconstruction and the denial of the fixity of meaning. Our inability to precisely define the meaning of words, set definitive rules for their use, or uncover the essence of things, applies just as much to the material stuff of the world as it does to everyday concepts. Once we imagined that the essence of 'atom' was an indivisible particle that constituted material reality. Some might now seek to define its essence in terms of protons, neutrons and electrons, or then again as quarks and leptons perhaps. But none of these definitions or attempts to uncover essence suffice. What about the forces within the atom, what about the gaps between the particles, where is the edge of an atom to be found?

Essences are illusions. They are human attempts to make sense of the world through the imposition of categories that we think will help us understand the world, or control or change it. And so it is with nature and the natural. The function of identifying the natural is not to describe the essential character of things, though it is often imagined to be so both by advocates and detractors, but to propose that we hold an individual, or humans and the world as a whole, in a given light. To declare that humans are essentially violent is to encourage others to hold humans in that light and to operate according to that idea. It is a declaration that has consequences for the way we should see human interaction, and for how we might modify or control it. Its proponents often maintain that they are describing the true nature of humanity in order to encourage others to see humans in this light. But there is no such true nature or essence.

The idea of an essence is itself the potential cause of conflict. To claim an essence to things is not simply to talk about the world in a certain way, but to assert that this is the correct and only way to speak about it. It is not offered as a shared alternative, or as a way of operating, or a possible approach. Instead it insists on its overcoming all others. It is for this reason that to insist on the natural way of doing things, or even to distinguish a natural mode of behaviour, is at once to adopt an authoritarian stance. And reason to be at least suspicious of anyone making such a claim.

One reason we are so attached to the idea of there being an essence to things, a natural order of the world, is the puzzle of how to understand ourselves and the world if there is no essence, or true nature, to be found. What is the alternative? A good case can be made that this has implicitly been the central question of western philosophy for the last few hundred years, post Kant. For Kant himself the issue was how to refer to a world that we were unable to describe or have access to. His solution was to abandon description and identify it as 'the noumenal'. Things in themselves could not be described or known. Others have sought to find ways to reference the ultimate character of the world without proposing that we can capture the essence of things. Hegel's 'spirit' is ineffable and at the same time everywhere. Heidegger is always-on-the-way to uncovering 'being' but can never arrive. The later Wittgenstein is at play in the language game. Derrida is in continual deconstruction to undermine any notion of a natural order, or essence of things, or meaning, including the very idea of the present moment - of there being some-thing at all.

From an everyday perspective these philosophical manoeuvrings to avoid saying how things are, seem unnecessary and unduly complicated. Can we not be more down to earth? Wouldn't we be better to assume there is a natural order to things; it is just that he have so far been unable to uncover it? There is a whole strain of no nonsense philosophy that adopts just this 'commonsense' position. The danger of such an approach is that it risks mistaking the platitudes of current convention as the underlying state affairs.

One solution perhaps is that we could see the world and ourselves as unnatural. For the unnatural is that which has no essence. The unnatural is in this sense other. In looking for the essence of ourselves, in looking for the natural, we uncover only the inessential. In seeking the core characteristics of things we only uncover our inability to define them. Should we not conclude therefore that there is no true nature, but only the unnatural?

The puzzle however with placing the unnatural at the centre of an account of ourselves and the world, is that there is a risk that we have reintroduced the natural. For identifying things as unnatural, have we not at once described their essential character? We have discovered their true nature after all, it is to have no essential character, to be unnatural. This reflexive paradox makes a simple move to the unnatural problematic. We cannot privilege the unnatural without reintroducing the natural by the back door.

So we stand on the cusp of the natural and unnatural. We assume things and ourselves have essential characteristics, in order to make sense of the world and ourselves. As we explore these characteristics they break down the closer we examine them. This does not need to be as perplexing as it might first seem. The proposal of the natural should not be taken to imply that we have uncovered the essence of things or even that the essence of things could in principle be uncovered. Instead, it is a strategy to enable intervention and change. The natural order is not the discovery of how things are. Instead it is a proposal of how we should look at the world. It is as if we have said 'hold the world like this and you will better understand how to make sense of things and be better placed to intervene'. The reason we cannot agree about the nature of any thing or individual is because there are an unlimited number of ways that we can hold the world and ourselves, each of which offers different ways to intervene, and different ways to communicate and act.

In looking for the essence of ourselves, in looking for the natural, we uncover only the inessential.

Things, the world and ourselves are neither natural or unnatural. We reside on the cusp. On the one hand we need to identify essences in order to have things at all. We need to hold things as something in particular, as having a character that distinguishes itself from others. We necessarily suppose there is an essence of 'window' to distinguish it from the wall or the door. We suppose the possibility of defining a word even if we are in practice unable to provide such a definition. Similarly, we assume there is a nature of things in order to communicate, and in order to explore and investigate the world. We imagine there is such a thing as an 'atom' and in doing so have the capacity to explore in what it consists. Yet in the same way that meanings elude us when we seek to define them, so as we explore the atom we uncover our inability to identify its true nature and essential character. Once we imagined it was an infinitely small bit of stuff that was the same all the way through. It was the very idea of an essence. The nature of the atom was simply itself. But as we investigated so its nature became more obscure. The contemporary story, the so-called Standard Model, has the atoms as quarks and leptons, held together by bosons. But the nature of the atom is no longer evident. Is it particles or fields, does it have a centre or an edge, is it one thing or many, indeed is it a thing at all?

Those who wish for stability and a fixed and known space can dream of a natural order, a way of holding the world that is simply correct. We can predict that such an outlook will always fail. Investigation will always uncover the flaws in the proposed natural order and its implied essence of things. Like conservative political structures it has the value of stability, and safety, where everyone and everything has their place. It also though has their downsides, of constraint and limitation, of prejudice and hierarchy.

We do not need to be nervous of abandoning the possibility of uncovering true nature, of things or ourselves. Nor should we be troubled that any proposed natural order, or essential characteristics, will necessarily have flaws. The identification of the unnatural is also a means of uncovering new ways to hold the state of things that offers the promise of being able to create a better state of affairs, a better of way of intervening, an alternative to the current structure. And do we not all feel safer in having alternatives than to have no way out?

The unnatural though does not hold all the cards. Too many alternatives, too many options, risks having no credible options at all. And the new alternatives may offer much but turn out to deliver little.

So it is that we find ourselves on the cusp of the natural and unnatural. We require the natural to make sense of where we are, to provide a framework of temporary understanding. We need the unnatural to enable change. Without the unnatural we would be trapped in a prison of rules. Without the natural we would have no self and no world. Being on the cusp of the natural and unnatural, we can have safety and potential; we can have understanding and mystery; the world can be known and be unlimited; it can be secure and allow change. Unlike the stasis of the natural, or the chaos of the unnatural, the cusp, is alive and breathing.













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Hugh Manbeing 7 November 2020

There are people who claim they live without any sense of essence, and that they can show what this is like - but for some reason these aren't invited to IAI, they go to Science and Non-duality festivals instead.

Hugh Manbeing 7 November 2020

"But this notion of essence is an illusion. It owes, as Wittgenstein identified, more to our language than to the world. In language we divide the world into things, and give them characteristics. It is another matter to propose that we have thereby uncovered the world itself."

Assuming language isn't an aspect of nature. What if it is ?