Based on several discussions I’ve had lately, I wanted to discuss the foundational views of nature and how those views profoundly influence the way we live. These presuppositions influence our view of things like COVID-19 and cancer. While this is NOT an article about either COVID-19 or cancer, I can use them as examples of how each world view would address them. I will try my best to be concise.
First, I must define nature as it carries many connotations. Basically what I mean by nature is the material. This includes the physical things that you can detect with your senses. But it also includes things that you can’t see such as energy, gravity, and those things that are undetectable but real. So, certainly it is more than the forests, animals, streams, and etc, which people often associate with the term nature.
Atheists are not a monolithic group, all thinking the same way and that’s why I chose the word “views.” But to be consistent, atheism must hold there is no God, no creative force, no plan, or intention. Some atheists cheat at this juncture and try to put meaning into nature such as “I guess that was the universe’s plan for us.” The word “plan” is a personal word with a connotation that there is an intelligent life behind that plan.
When I’ve had this conversation with atheists, sometimes I give them the wrong impression that I’m being critical. Christians are often critical of atheists. I’m not because I came close to being an atheist once and understand why many people reach that point. I like being around atheists too, because they are often more honest and certainly less captious than others.
When I say that atheists cannot have meaning, or a “based meaning,” it is a philosophical statement. They can inject arbitrary meaning such as, “our purpose is to be happy, to better the world, or to help the human species survive.” But this meaning is not absolute. In some ways, the world would be better off without humans. An absolute meaning implies intention. Intention comes only with a personal creator. “To help the human species survive because this is God’s plan,” is an example of such intention.
Regarding the view of nature by the atheists, I see two schools. One school is that the universe if full of order but nature is flawed. The other is that order is only a perception, and again nature is flawed.
Atheistic View 1: Orderly but Flawed Nature
I suspect that most atheists consider themselves of this school. Here is where they observe the real order of nature. For example, in the world of big things (Newton’s laws) you can see this order in things such as the Fibonacci Sequence.
While atheists must omit absolute meaning, they can certainly explain order by atheistic terms (however, you can debate this explanation). These terms can start with the Big Bang (out of nothing everything came into being including the laws defined by Newton and Einstein). However, some theoretical physicists believe the String Theory can have a different explanation of the start of the universe than the Big Bang. But that is another story.
While this school can see nature as mostly good, they cannot see nature as perfect. According to this view, through the process of evolution, nature is constantly being fine tuned . . . but without perfecting it. There are plenty of theists too who believe in evolution as a process that God uses. However, evolution cannot perfect nature for three reasons.
Reason that Evolution Cannot Perfect Nature #1: Evolution can on improve on nature only during the period of fertility. Simply, if a species has a flaw that harms them or kills them during their fertile period, then fewer offspring will be produced. Over time, those most vulnerable to the flaw cease to exist. In that way evolution can rid a species of bad traits.
However, if the flaw only appears after the period of fertility has expired, then it cannot be eradicated by evolution. Cancer, which affects people in their post fertile years, persist within a species. This is why humans will never evolve beyond the flaw of Multiple Myeloma (my kind of cancer) because it affects mostly people well past their fertile years. This is true of most cancers. Many cancers do have a minority representation in children and those in their fertile years, but the mainstay (eg. leukemia) is still in older populations.
Evolution could eradicate childhood illnesses or any illness that negatively influences the opportunity to reproduce. However, it does’t for the next two reasons.
Reason that Evolution Cannot Perfect Nature # 2: Our environment is constantly changing. Climate change is just one example of this. A species has to adapt to the new climate, and as soon as it does, presto, there are more changes. So it is trying to hit a moving target and therefore can never reach a state of perfection.
Reason that Evolution Cannot Perfect Nature # 3: The last reason is due to new challenges, such as viruses constantly mutating and appearing on the scene. The most obvious example is the COVID-19 virus, which mutated allowing it to attack humans. Now, it is is true that in time we could evolve beyond COVID-19, or develop a herd immunity, but at a great cost.
To evolve beyond COVID-19 it may take thousands of years of suffering and death, where over time only those people with natural resistance (not immunity) survive. But the problem with this approach is by the time we evolve to be resistant to COVID-19, many more novel viruses will appear on the scene, so it is a loosing proposition. For true herd immunity, this suffering has to be experienced with each new generation, just like smallpox played out, until we found a vaccine, a way to induce the same immunity but without the death and suffering.
I heard one lecture about COVID-19 from a physician who made the case that viruses was nature’s way of reprogramming our DNA to make us better. He called it a software upgrade. He implied that by resisting COVID-19 (mask wearing, vaccinations) is fighting against nature and doing us more harm than good.
His first erroneous premise is that nature is perfect (I will address this more below under the Christian ideologies). If nature was perfect, the we would fully trust it, that whatever it throws at us, a virus or a hurricane, should be welcomed with opened arms, because it is for our good . . . as nature is perfect (and it certainly is not).
But this physician, in my humble opinion, presented this view because he can personally benefit from his theory by his books and supplements, which he sells. There is nothing wrong in earning money from selling books and supplements, unless the ideas you use to promote are false and you know they are false. The idea that nature is perfect and only has our best interest at heart is the stuff of ferry-tales. But that narrative is profoundly attractive and can make you rich and a star among those who want to hear such things.
One example of this physician’s false statements is that he says all (or most) of our DNA was programmed by nature using viruses. That is simply not true and he should know better. My son can correct me, but I believe it is around 8% of our DNA has been the product of virus reprogramming. Some of these “updates” may have made us a better species. However, viruses have also causes all life forms tremendous suffering and death. After all, viruses are parasites. They live and reproduce at our expense, not by doing us any favors. Would you go into a hungry lion’s den thinking the lions will only eat me if it is for my benefit? Same thinking.
I will now look at our view of nature from a Christian perspective, because that has been the dominate perspective of the west for most of the past 2000 years. But, in my opinion, some of these view have been toxic.
Christian View #1: Nature is Bad
The Bible clearly warned the early church not to incorporate secular philosophies into Christian doctrines . . . but they did anyway. One of the most powerful secular moments that penetrated the church at its onset, and left its mark up until the modern times, is Gnostic Dualism, which was related to oriental non-Christian mysticism (e.g. Zoroastrianism, Jewish mystic cults) and some of the Greek philosophers (e.g. Plato).
To summarize this view of nature, is to say that it was at least inferior to a much better non-material “spiritual,” world, but often this view holds nature as evil, dirty, and hopefully will be destroyed. Much of American Christian eschatology (view of the end times) is built around this model, where the nasty earth is destroyed in the end.
On a very practical level, this is also why the American evangelical church doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the environment or saving the planet. In their view, the planet is nasty and not worth saving. I will say once again, the the “Dark Ages” were the result of the church in Europe adopting this erroneous view of the material (including science and the arts). Within this view, the human relationship to nature is to dominate and control it for our own pleasure.
The Christian church wrestled with this view for most of its 2000 years. Yes, you will find examples in history of monks, priests, church leaders, who took a different view. I have read that the Celtic church rejected this view of nature. But has a whole, the church has made this big mistake for most of its existence and it is not a Biblical position at all.
Christian View of Nature #2, The Biblical View, Nature is Great, but Not Perfect:
If you were to read the Bible without any influence from human Christian traditions or extra Biblical philosophies, you would see that God created nature and said it was good. He also describes how it is not perfect. While it was meant to be perfect, there was “the Fall” or that goodness became corrupted. In that model, humans are given the role as stewards and gardeners to help restore nature, not to dominate it. In that case, to fight cancer is to fight the ills of nature and to attempt it restore it to its intended perfection.
Western View of Nature #3, Nature is Perfect:
I wish I could tell this whole story here because it is fascinating, but this is getting long. I will oversimplify this by saying one man (there were several involved with this story), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (born June 28, 1712) rejected this negative view of nature as taught by people in the Calvinist Geneva, where he grew up. He came up with the basic view that nature was perfect, when left alone. That is was human interference in nature that harmed it. This was almost the opposite of the thinking of the time (Christian View # 1).
His philosophy became very popular in France because of the oppression of the aristocracy (King and Church). The belief became, based on Rousseau’s teaching, that if you could rid yourself of human authorities, then people would resort to their more natural and perfect state. This was the philosophical foundation to the French Revolution.
To make a long complex story short, this view did not work out so well after the French cast off their authority but chaos and suffering continued until Napoleon Bonaparte imposed a new authority over the people. Yet, the Rousseauian philosophy caught on and became very popular. This became the foundation of our present philosophy that nature is perfect.
Walk into any grocery store and count how many times you see the word nature or natural? Those words have such a positive connotation because of this view, that nature is perfect always intends our very best and anything “artificial” (touched by humans) is bad.
This is my major gripe with alternative medicine. While they have a lot of good things to offer, often things that western medicine has failed to do, they start with the premise that in our natural state we are healthy. They then, based on Rousseauian philosophy, believe that all illness is caused by human intervention. They preach how horrible medications are, but promote some “natural” supplements which are dangerous to ingest. There are real problems with western medicine (evidence based medicine) but that’s not it.
I gave the example here of seeking a massage therapist after having my bone marrow transplant. While I’m convinced that massage therapist, chiropractors, naturopaths have many things to offer, good things, it is this premise that is the mistake. This massage therapist, once she found out I had cancer, asked me if I had been seeing a naturopath before I had cancer because. . .”you don’t get cancer for no reason.”
She was implying that my cancer was my fault because I wasn’t doing something right. Really? I was exercising like crazy. I was almost a vegetarian. I took supplements. But her statement was based on her philosophical view that nature is perfect and if we live naturally, we will never be harmed.
I had a friend who her and her husband were both naturopaths and they went around Seattle preaching this message, until her husband succumbed to leukemia at age 37. Their whole world view was turned on its head. Crap can happen to anyone at any age and it usually isn’t their fault. We live within the realms of an imperfect nature. It isn’t a ferry-tale.
But my point, think about this underlying concept of nature the next time you consider these things. Is is perfect? Is it bad? Is it great, but imperfect?
I wish I had time to explore the views of Islam (which are similar to the Christian #1 view) and pantheism. Pantheism has been re-imagine in so many ways it would be hard to define it in these terms. I could talk about a precise view of the Buddha or Hinduism but for time’s sake, I will not.