Naturally natural

One thing that really bothers me is the use of the word “natural” in arguments for… well anything. What does it really mean? From what I’ve seen the meaning is quite arbitrary.

Definition

Linguistically words of course have several meanings, but let’s ask the oxford dictionary for the meaning of ‘natural’:

“Existing in or derived from nature; not made or caused by humankind”

And:

“Having had a minimum of processing or preservative treatment” – Oxford Dictionary (accessed: 03/01/2016)

Usually referring to food in the latter case.

Let’s start with the first meaning. For the first part, “Existing in or derived from nature”, I would say that this is true for virtually everything in the observable universe. How can something not exist in nature? Unless with “nature” one means the nature as in trees, lakes and beavers disregarding human beings. Which seems to be the meaning of ‘nature’ in oxford dictionary:

“The phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations“ – Oxford Dictionary (accessed: 03/01/2016)

This is of course hinted by the meaning of the second part of the definition of ‘natural’. So, basically the word ‘natural’ means anything that doesn’t have to do with humans in any way. Strictly that would exclude speech, all food prepared by humans, computers and even fecal matter as unnatural.

The second case is probably the meaning of the word that companies use in advertisement for food etc. A carrot that is cooked is by that definition less natural than a raw carrot. However, if a human cooked the carrot then it would be unnatural by the first definition of the word. A chimp cooking a carrot would probably render the carrot to be intermediately natural since it has been processed by cooking, but a non-human individual has performed the task.

I know, this is merely a semantic discussion, but I think it’s needed to see what the people using the word is actually meaning, even though I think it’s quite a bad way of arguing.

Appeal to nature

 When people use the word ‘natural’ or the opposite ‘unnatural’ to make a point, one is implying that natural is ‘good’ and ‘unnatural’ is ‘bad’ or undesirable. This is a classic fallacy of appeal to nature. I think that people use the meaning of both definitions discussed above, but maybe more frequently the first.

Is the nature a better place than the ‘unnatural’ world humans live in? Is the wild nature a good guide to moral philosophy and generally way of living? Well, probably not. Wild animals kill and rape each other, strict hierarchies exists with alpha males leading packs. That should be enough to disqualify the use of ‘natural’ in any moral justification ever. One could probably find justification for basically any of the most despicable human traits there is by looking at ‘nature’ or pre-historical humans. I for one do not want that.

Secondly, that food or medicine is ‘natural’, is also a way of saying that ‘natural’ is good. Artificial, human made, modern or unnatural is bad. Humans has never been so healthy nor has humans ever lived this long. Thanks to modern medicine we have eradicated diseases that have killed millions of people. Life expectancy in most countries is increasing over time. During most human history (Paleolithic – 1900s) the global average life expectancy has been around 30 years (“Life expectancy,” n.d.).

I’d strongly disagree that natural means good. But despite this, I can still see meaningful and useful uses of the word ‘natural’. One that I commonly use is to differentiate lab conditions from conditions in the wild. My beef is not with that, it’s with the use of natural in arguments built on attaching value to the word ‘natural’ in moral discussions, medical discussions (as in opposing to alternative medicine claims) or advertisements.

Source

Life expectancy. (n.d.). Retrieved January 3, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_expectancy

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