TED Conversations

Bryan Maloney

Laboratory Coordinator, Texas A&M University Corpus Christi

TEDCRED 30+

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Nature does not care. We need to accept this.

Nature has no wisdom. Nature has no mind. Nature does not care what happens. Nature just is. There is no "balance" that is "maintained" except through the stochastic interplay of opposing forces. So long as we cling to the superstition of a "wisdom" or intent-driven "balance" of nature, we will continue to go down dead ends when it comes to sustaining our existence as a species.

There have been massive extinction events in the past. Each time nature has gone on. Nature doesn't care that the giant dinosaurs are dead. Nature doesn't care that the entire ecosystem of earth was destroyed when the atmosphere became oxygenated (yes, oxygen was an ecological disaster, it killed off the carbon-dioxide ecosystem that went before it).

There is no "proper balance of nature". Plants and non-human animals do nothing active to "maintain a balance". They simply lack the efficiency we have at exploiting the world. Every species will exploit up to the limits of its ability.

We are unusual in that we have the capacity to voluntarily limit our exploitation and intentionally husband our resources. So long as we cling to a childish, superstitious view of "nature" as some kind of "caring" or "thinking" being, we will keep running into dead ends and refuse to step up to the plate and act like "adults" (as a group).

Even the philosophical underpinnings of anti-environmental conservatives take this superstitious view of nature. They subscribe to the "mother nature can bear all burdens" superstition (i.e., the environment will magically "fix" things), the "God will provide" superstition (there will always be some magical "fix" from technology or unforeseen events), or an immanent end times belief (the eschaton is already upon us--nature has a pre-planned "end", so we don't need to think about the future).

Behind both environmentalist and anti-environmentalist still indulge in the same fantasy, that there is a "mind" attached to "nature".

We need to realize otherwise.

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    May 3 2014: well, is nature the sum total of all the entities that compose it? All the humans, animals, plants, rocks, air, and so on? But if some of the entities composing nature do care, say I care that the dinosaurs died, how does that affect your assertions?
    • May 3 2014: No.

      However, since you've proved yourself to not be a dimwit, I shall elaborate. Metaphor is lovely. I adore metaphor. I use metaphor. I have even used metaphor within the context of peer-reviewed scientific papers (and the metaphors passed muster). That being acknowledged, there comes a point at which one must set aside metaphor for specific purposes. If one is a doctor talking to a frightened patient, metaphor can be great comfort to the patient. When one takes off the doctor's coat and puts on the surgeon's scrubs, one sets aside metaphor in order to perform difficult surgery with greater clarity.

      Individual organisms (not just humans) can and do care. They are part of "nature". That does not give "nature", in and of itself, an sort of mind or capacity to care. Indeed, if one starts going down that metaphoric path too far, one becomes beset with all kinds of wacky superstitions, like ascribing emotions to rocks.

      Are you familiar with the concept of emergentism? An emergent model accepts that it may be possible for a composite hierarchical system (NOT a "hierarchy" in the military sense--while the group of animals includes the groups of mammals and reptiles, the group of majors does not include the groups of captains and lieutenants) to have properties at a higher level of organization that are not trivially deduceable from the properties of lower levels. Such properties need not always be "positive" in the sense of acquiring a new trait. They could be "negative" in the sense that a trait found at a lower level is lacking in the system as a whole when taken at a higher level.

      Thus, in an emergent system, something can be simultaneously more than and less than the "sum of its parts". A higher hierarchical level is not just a sum. Thus, while I may weep, no society weeps as a whole--it lacks the capacity. Instead, we only say that "Paris wept" in a metaphorical sense, not in the literal sense of Paris physically weeping.

      Nature is very emergent.
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        May 3 2014: well to me Bryan it seems like we might be talking about two different conceptualizations of nature. One concept might be nature as something different from all the individual bodies that physically exist and comprise nature. The other might be nature as only being the individual physical bodies that comprise it. But what if we saw that the majority of bodies that comprise nature did care, then could we say in general, or in most cases, that nature does care?

        Sorry, I don't understand emergentism as you've explained it, it sounds interesting.
        • May 4 2014: Wrong on all counts. Nature cannot care. It does not have a mind. It just is. It does not matter that COMPONENTS of nature might or might not care, because "nature" as a whole has no mind to care with.
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        May 4 2014: well, bryan, I would tend to think that most times when someone says nature does or doesn't do something, or feels or doesn't feel something, what they mean is that most of the physical entities that comprise nature do it that way, or feel that. For example, if they say Nature seeks the path of least resistance, they mean that most of the physical entities that comprise nature seek the path of least resistance most of the time. It's a little lazy on their part because they know there are exceptions and they should mention the exceptions, but they're interested in just saying what Nature usually does? I suppose in this case it would be smart to pin them down, depending on the situation, and make them acknowledge that there are exceptions to the rule?

        I suppose in some cases they may appear to use the word "nature" to mean that there is some sort of "nature-mind" independent of any individual physical entity, or entities. In this case, depending on the situation, it might be good to pin them down as well, to ascertain what they mean by this "nature-mind," it may be that they think nature often just acts somewhat in groups, and that the members of the group all influence each other, and somewhat think or act cohesively,or harmoniously. Which seems true?
        • May 12 2014: Plants don't have minds. Rocks don't have minds NATURE DOES NOT CARE. Nature has no plan. NATURE HAS NO INNATE BALANCE. Nature just is. There is no "proper balance of nature". The "balance of nature" is whatever situation happens to exist at any given moment. Things die. Sometimes, LOTS of things die and humans have NOTHING to do with it. Did we cause the great extinctions of earlier geological eras? Who did nature punish for them? After all, the superstitious ninnies who natter on about the "balance of nature" also blabber about nature "punishing" us for our misdeeds.

          Nature does not have a balance. Nature does not have a mind. Nature does not punish.
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        May 12 2014: Well, plants probably do respond to external events, though, don't they, Bryan? For instance, if you pump a bunch of air pollution into the air, don't plants become less healthy? Well, I would say with the great extinctions of earlier ages, the creatures affected didn't have the intelligence to change the situation, or they didn't do too much to cause it in the first place. Whereas humans have gotten so good at affecting the environment, and at changing how they affect the environment, that if the environment is bad you can somewhat blame human beings? Blame them for causing it and blame them for not finding a way not to cause it?

        Yeah, I've rarely heard the phrase "balance of nature," but when I did, it seemed kind of vague. It would be good to pin someone down who uses the phrase and see what they mean by it. Maybe they mean something really intelligent, it's possible, isn't it? If you heard a really learned eco-scientist use the phrase "balance of nature," you might wish to know what he or she meant?
        • May 15 2014: THAT STILL DOES NOT MEAN THERE IS SOME KIND OF BEING CALLED "NATURE". That still does not mean that the mystical claptrap about nature "caring" or "feeling" or any of that other silly superstition is actually valid.
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        May 15 2014: I agree, Bryan, there is no kind of being called "nature." I would think when people say "nature cares if you pollute," what they mean is the majority of creatures in nature are adversely affected by pollution, and they don't like being adversely affected. For example, a fish doesn't like being made sick by human pollution in the ocean, even if it couldn't articulate those thoughts, or even realize what is making it sick. I would tend to think that when people seem to be talking about nature as some kind of being, it's only a kind of shorthand, a kind of edited way of speaking, and what they really mean is they are speaking for the reactions of the large majority of creatures in nature, and what they mean by caring, well, some people do believe animals and plants have pretty sophisticated reactions and do care if they get sick, some might use "caring" to mean a simpler reaction, that an animal simply doesn't like being sick, and if it understood what is causing the sickness wouldn't like the cause, either. But there may be people who believe nature is a unified being, I think when you hear someone say something like "nature cares," if it matters to you, you could pin them down as to what they mean.

        By the way, were you saying the milk from a Maasai cow would be healthier than from one that just lies around in a corral all day? (I couldn't reply on the other convo because your comment was at the third level.) Why would that be? I believe I do better on organic milk than "conventional" milk. In California, for a farmer to call his milk organic, the cow has to graze on a real field from real growing grass at least 75% of the year. "conventional" is where they lie around and the hay is dumped for them to eat. About a year ago, I shifted from all conventional to all organic. I immediately noticed that my beard got lighter, which I liked, it made me feel more civilized and less brutish.
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        May 15 2014: I eventually noticed my nose was producing less mucus on the organic, which I also liked because it meant I pick my nose less. I actually shifted to organic for the cows, the organic life sounded better than the conventional one, at least they get to roam around a field. Organic is more expensive.

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