The Core Problem with Natural Science: ‘Nature’ is Not ‘Natural’


The core issue with natural science, in the sense it has been understood since the 17th century, is simple, and devastatingly so.  What natural science intends by the term ‘natural’ is simultaneously what makes ‘nature’ appear comprehensible via empirical method.  However, ‘nature’ for the most part is not ‘natural’ in the requisite sense.  Interestingly, the term ‘nature’ originally referred to those things that directly had to do with man, thus what was adopted as the term for reality independent of man was even in the beginning an inversion – natural, in its original sense, meant ‘artificial’ in the modern sense.

If we drop the term ‘nature’ for a moment, since it’s a heavily overdetermined word in multiple ways, and begin with ‘reality’, and then compare the two, we can see the problem more clearly.  Reality at its simplest, which is the subject matter primarily of physics, for the most part behaves as if its behaviour were necessary.  Modern physics of course has to treat this necessity as both local and statistical, which curtails the ‘necessary’ character of its description of reality in a significant way (most importantly, it cannot be taken as a description of reality ‘as a whole’, which makes the idea of a universe itself in addition to a universal cosmology problematic), but for the most part local, statistical ‘necessity’ can still be treated as necessity (interestingly, where quantum mechanics does treat ‘reality’ in a way that differs from science’s theological basis is that reality can ‘cheat’ God, viewed as the observer that records the registration of the real, i.e. quasi-real, not fully constituted ‘things’ can have real effects on fully constituted real things, i.e. things that not only are, but are registered by an observer.

In most ways chemistry can treat its matter in the same way, which makes it amenable to empirical study.  There are of course certain things that both have to avoid trying to contain within their xplanations, although neither makes their reasons for doing so explicit.   The search for invariance, i.e. behaviour that is necessary and not simply contingent in a given particular in classical physics and chemistry, although the necessity is ‘merely’ local and statistical, has not changed in its basic character.  For the most part the behaviours it studies, those of simple motion and aggregation, behave closely enough to the ‘laws’ of classical physics, though, that only at extremes does physics and chemistry have to admit the limitations they have.

Going back to ‘nature’, the reality found on the planet Mars for instance – a rocky landscape with a thin atmosphere consisting mainly of carbon dioxide with possible traces of methane, while definitely part of ‘nature’ in the sense that science intends, is not  at all what is brought to mind by the term ‘nature’ in common sense usage.  When prodded for an initial description of ‘nature’ common sense is more likely to bring to mind forests, grassy plains, oceans teeming with life from algae to whales, etc.  Natural science wants to look at those things, too, through biology and zoology, as ‘natural’, i.e. necessary and not contingent.  That it can do so is not as obviously the case as many have thought.

Ironically, the myth of Darwin is that the man himself and his theories of nature are natural science at its apogee.  Darwin’s vision of nature as historical, though, is anything but natural in the sense of necessary.  Instead it is a historically contingent interplay of historically contingent beings and an environment which those beings create, adapt, and adapt to.  As such it is teleological to its core – Darwin uncovered one means by which teleology functions in the history of nature.  The myth that he dispensed with teleology is just that.

Teleology and contingency relate in that the telos determines the being, which could therefore be completely otherwise than it is.  Even within the most naively mechanistic of zoologies one telos remains and appears to be impossible to remove, the telos of survival, however Darwin’s work cannot be reduced to a survivalist teleology.  Put in the common phrase, ‘survival of the fittest’ can’t account for what ‘fit’ is ‘fit for’, since the environment is not simply given, but arises from the same history of nature that the being deemed fit or not arises from.

The fatal assumption of the natural sciences, present and detrimental to all of them, but most noticeable where the matter under study is most complex, is that ‘environment’ is treated as if it were necessary.  The obvious contingencies in nature are ascribed as a conformation to that environmental necessity.  However environment, consisting as it does for the most part of contingent beings and their contingent effects, is as radically contingent as the beings that, by separating themselves from it, first make it an environment at all.

Very little of the environment of the Earth is necessary even in the limited sense of local and statistical necessity. The oxygen in the atmosphere and water, indeed even the water itself that makes up two thirds of the planet’s surface, are effects of prior living beings.  As such the environment, historically, is as contingent as the beings within it, and the result is a result of a historical interplay between an innumerable variety of contingent living beings.  Survival is of course one telos that remains, but the historical increase in diversity and complexity, precisely those things that make natural history evolutionary, rather than simply different or even devolutionary, are also teleological in the extreme.  The problem with the view of natural science can be seen expressly in neo-Darwinism: precisely what makes evolution evolutionary is not even asked, much less answered.  It cannot be asked, in fact, without removing the invalid asusmptions of simple mechanical causality and the necessity of the environment on which it is based.

Herbert Simon, in studying economics, administration and other aspects of human life raised the question of a ‘science of the artificial’.  The importance of this question, both whether ‘science’, as empirical science, is possible in terms of the artificial, and if so how, is more general than he realized. What is intended by the term ‘artificial’ is not simply the technical, that created by artifice, as Simon assumed.  His assumption arose from the notion that only what man creates is teleological.  A ‘science of the artificial’, then, in Simon’s terms would include any science of nature, since even at the simplest levels, those studied in physics and chemistry, a tendency to increased complexity can be observed.  Simultaneously the difficulty increases in the sense that the teleology of nature cannot then be thought in technical terms, since nature does not in fact arise via techne but via phusis.

The further irony is that the technical view of reality held by natural science is itself limited to things created via techne, the intentionally artificial doings of man.  Precisely where natural science wants to find necessity, it a priori posits contingency, and that it does so is itself historically contingent on modern science arising in a milieu of a very specific theology.  The necessity of the contingent, when reality is thought technically, resides in a non-human, aware intentionality – that of a creator-being.  Only where such a being is assumed can reality as technical, i.e. contingent, be questioned for invariant laws, for necessity, when causality is simultaneously thought only as temporally sequenced efficient and material causality.  Natural law, in the way it is thought by natural science, requires divine law.  Law always implies a lawmaker, as those studying science as a human endeavour have begun to point out.

The key in going about creating a science of reality, rather than science based on creationist fantasy, lies in the notion of schemas of recurrence and their probability within a context of retroactive causality.  It requires a more complex understanding of causality than simple cause and effect, an understanding that has to first become possible via a re-appropriation of the complexity of temporality itself, a misunderstanding of which allowed ontological priority to appear different, even opposite in many cases, to temporal priority.  They can appear as opposed, and teleology therefore inherently paradoxical, precisely because temporal priority has itself been misunderstood ontologically.

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