Can You Love Nature?

Painting by Elmer Wachtel, Credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum

We humans often love other humans.  We love our family members and our friends.  And we often have more abstract kinds of love, like love for our communities and our countries.  We might have love for non-human animals like cats and dogs.  Humans also often love things that aren’t even alive, like food or power or money.  We love activities like running or painting.  And we can even love abstract ideals like truth and justice.  But can we love nature?  And can nature love us?  We need to think about love.

When it comes to love, philosophers often distinguish between two kinds of love: extrinsic love and intrinsic love.  Extrinsic love is the love you have for somebody or some thing because it’s useful for you, that is, because of its utility for you.  Its love you have for something in relation to your own interests and needs.  This love is based on its extrinsic value for you, that is, its utility for you. Sexual love, linked as it is with biological reproduction, is extrinsic.  Our love of our parents, children, and other biological relations, is also extrinsic.  Our love of food, money, power, and so on, is extrinsic.  We love food because of its biological usefulness, that is, because we need it to live.  Likewise money and status and power are useful for meeting our animal needs.  Extrinsic love is also linked closely with pleasure: the things we love extrinsically give us pleasure.  Many types of abstract love, such as our love of art or music, or our love of truth and justice, are forms of extrinsic love.  Beauty, truth, and justice are useful.

The other kind of love is intrinsic.  This love is sometimes referred to as agapic (or agape) love.  Intrinsic love is the love you have for somebody or something because of its intrinsic value, that is, its value in itself, regardless of its usefulness for you.  Agape love isn’t necessarily purer or more perfect or better than extrinsic love.  But it is different.  You can have agape love for something that isn’t helpful to you, for something that is indifferent to you, or even for something that hurts you or causes you pain.  Agape love doesn’t depend on your interests or needs.  It only depends on the qualities of the loved object.  More abstract kinds of love, such as love of beauty, truth, and justice, are close to agape.

It’s likely that agape love is rare.  When you love your family members or friends, it’s very hard to get beyond their utility.  In particular, when we love our sexual partners, biological forces are really doing powerful work.  We might think our love for our spouse is purely for their intrinsic value, the value they have in themselves, but that’s probably false.  Still, it’s likely that we can get a glimpse or insight into agape love through our love for our partners.  And when we love political leaders for embodying justice or positive ideals, that love might come close to agape love as well.  But agape love is hard to find in human relations.  We are animals, and our lives depend on each other too much.  Agape love is disinterested love.  Nevertheless, it’s something that most people understand, that is, loving somebody for who they are, independent of their relation to you.  Extrinsic love can certainly motivate agape love.  Given that extrinsic love is essential for survival, our awareness of extrinsic love probably comes first, and agape love later.

We can obviously have extrinsic love for nature.  Nature includes humans, and our biological love for them is clearly part of nature.  We love other humans because of evolution by natural selection.  Humans who didn’t love others didn’t reproduce, didn’t raise children.  Evolution selects for extrinsic love, especially love based on reproduction. Likewise we have extrinsic love for the parts of nature that we eat, that is, for plants and animals that provide us with food.  That’s biological love.  Likewise our love for our pets and for other human-adjacent animals.  Humans bonded with dogs and cats (and they bonded with us) purely because of biological utility.  We might have agape love for these parts of nature.  Agape love is easier to understand and experience at more abstract levels, so we might start to get a glimpse of it as we marvel at the ways humans and animals cooperate with each other.  These point to justice, which, as an ideal, we can love for itself.  We sometimes get a glimpse of agape love in altruistic sacrifice, when some animal sacrifices its own live to protect another.  And agape love shines forth in acts of unmotivated giving, acts of gifting which are not performed with the expectation of getting something useful in return, that is, acts of grace.  Grace arouses gratitude.

When we talk about love for nature, we often (unfortunately) just think of nature as a domesticated temperate zone forest, filled with charming mammals.  This is nature as a source of rest and relaxation, as entertainment.  But nature includes animals that will be more than happy to kill us and eat us.  Nature includes the viruses and bacteria that infect us, the parasites that make us sick.  Nature doesn’t exist for the sake of making humans happy or healthy.  Nature is sometimes helpful (and worthy of extrinsic love), but it’s just as often hurtful or harmful (and worthy of extrinsic hatred).  If a tornado destroys your house and kills your family, you’d be right to have extrinsic hatred for it.  We do lots of work to protect ourselves against nature.  We build houses.  Romantic views of nature, as a source of positive values for humans, are just misguided and wrong.

It’s equally wrong to say that nature is indifferent to humans.  In this context, nature includes the whole evolutionary history of earth, perhaps even the universe.  This evolutionary history has been far from indifferent to humans.  As extremely complex natural things, humans are extremely improbable.  Evolution certainly did not aim at or intend for humans to exist.  We are not its goal.  But there’s every reason to believe that evolution is maximizing complexity, that the complexities of the most complex things have been steadily increasing over cosmic time.  Evolution has an arrow of complexity, an arrow which parallels the arrow of time, and probably emerges from very deep thermodynamic and information-theoretic laws of physics.  This arrow of complexity is not accidental.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that it’s intentional.  Evolution is mindless.  But mindless algorithms can produce increasingly complex things in non-accidental ways, that is, in ways that are lawful, regular, and mathematically patterned.

Evolution does not wander randomly through the library of possibilities.  It climbs Mount Improbable, to use a phrase from Dawkins.  And, if you dig down into the basic laws of physics, those laws are finely tuned for the evolution of greater complexity.  Again, fine-tuning doesn’t imply the existence of any cosmic intelligence.  Evolution can finely tune itself.  Evolution is far from blind.  It has fantastic eyes, eyes focused on extremely abstract purely mathematical features of an extremely high-dimensional space of possibilities.  In computational terms, evolution is a recursive optimization algorithm.  It slowly piles up complexity.  This applies to the evolution of atoms, molecules, and organisms.  As a recursive optimization algorithm, evolution produces greater complexity.  Greater complexity brings with it greater values of all kinds: beauty, life, intelligence, rationality, morality, and so on.  Evolution is a value-producing computational engine.

As a value-producing computational engine, evolution is both providential and benevolent.  Again, this doesn’t mean it cares about humans.  It does not care about humans.  Its benevolence is not diminished by the fact that it will happily wipe us out, and that the very same forces that brought humans into being on earth will drive the sun to expand until it incinerates our planet and kills all life.  Benevolence requires producing greater value, but it doesn’t require caring about humans.  Evolution doesn’t care.  The same evolutionary forces that made your life possible will make you age, sicken, and die.  They will kill everybody you love, and destroy every structure you value.  All this means is that evolution isn’t a proper object of extrinsic love.  You can love parts of it for their utility, and hate parts of it for their disutility.  But you can’t have extrinsic love for evolution itself.  From an extrinsic perspective, it is indeed indifferent to you, or better, it’s ambivalent.   Of course, the extrinsic perspective is not the only perspective.

Considered intrinsically, the benevolence and providence of evolution are worthy of agape love.  Agape love is paradoxical in the sense that it doesn’t follow the rules of extrinsic love.  You can have agape love for evolution even as it makes you age and die, kills your family and wipes out all life on earth.  You can have agape love for powers that hurt and harm and destroy.  Utility and disutility are irrelevant for agape love.  To have agape love for evolution is to love something eternal in nature.  It is to love the algorithmic and computational patterning in the laws of physics, abstract mathematical patterning that brings ever-greater complexity into existence.  The ancient pagan Platonists saw this mathematical patterning as evidence for a power that directs all things towards what they called the Good.  Again, this does not mean what is useful for humans.  The power that aims at the Good will destroy humanity, it will destroy all life on earth, and our whole solar system.  Eventually, as all complexity is devoured by black holes, and as all complexity collapses into thermodynamic heat death, the power that drives all things towards the Good will incinerate all the complexity and value in our whole universe.

Nevertheless, the power that aims at the Good remains absolutely and perfectly benevolent.  Its benevolence transcends all human interests, transcends all human-centered or even life-centered values.  Its transcendence of all utility and disutility entails that its benevolence is not contaminated or polluted with the interests of any particular beings or kinds of being.  Free from such pollution, its benevolence is pure, and that purity is holy. Only something that is pure in this way, that is holy in this way, is worthy of agape love.  The ancient pagan Platonists referred to this holy power, which aims at the Good, as the One.  The One is not a thing, not some being among beings.  The One is the power of being-itself.  So the One, which deserves our gratitude for freely giving us existence, also deserves our love.  But the only appropriate love for the One is agape love.  The fact that the One transcends all human interests also implies that it disregards those interests.  The One does not have an extrinsic love for you.  It is not some heavenly caring parent.  As an entirely mindless power, the One doesn’t know you exist.  It will destroy you, destroy your planet, destroy your universe.  From the wreckage of that destruction, it will bring new forms of complexity into existence.  According to the concept of agape love, which here is pure love, the One is probably the only proper object of agape love.  But this love is very hard.

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4 thoughts on “Can You Love Nature?”

  1. How is acting according to the physical laws of nature an act of benevolence? An act of kindness? System behaviors are in accordance to the laws that govern the behavior of the system, or are emergent from the systems evolution. Nothing more or less. They are not acts of kindness. The universe could wipe us out, true enough, but would it “happily” wipe us out. That would be assigning a human value laden emotion to the operation of the universe. The Universe would simply do it because of the fundamentals that govern it’s design and operation. Throughout this piece there is a assignment of emotional, human, value laden concepts to nature that simply do not exist or least there isn’t any evidence that they exist. The Universe IS, it is neither good nor bad. It is neither kind nor unkind, those are simply human value judgments that are not operating conditions of the universe. It does what it does because it can.
    We are part of nature, we do not stand apart from it. We are “of it” in every sense , what we do to nature we do to ourselves. Do we love ourselves? Do we have qualities in ourselves that might not be worthy of love, I think so, yet love persists. Love, the emotion, is an adaptive biological condition that evolved because it allowed human groups to be more successful. It has it’s limits, as do all adaptations. I respect nature, I honor nature, but I only love certain aspects of nature, others aspect I fear. I have not arrived at a place of total love of nature, the buddha within has not been taped deeply enough for total Agape love of nature to exist within me. I accept nature and am at peace with her. I do not, however, believe that the Anthropomorphism of the universe is the spiritual path for naturalism. Goodness, holiness, benevolence may be preconditions for your Agape love of nature, if this is true, your love may be misplaced. Nature the creator, nature the destroyer, it’s purity is in following it’s iron clad physical laws which are not benevolent. They simply ARE. We must make peace with that.

    • We exist solely because of the grand process of Nature. If we love our life, it makes sense to love Nature as the source and sustainer of that life. If we hate our life, it makes sense to hate Nature, but in that case we should appreciate that Nature allows us an escape clause.

  2. Eric, interesting article. There is much I agree with. One thing I don’t agree with is dividing love into the either/or of intrinsic and extrinsic. I think that anything worthy of the term love is a mixture of both. There is a continuum of more or less intrinsic or extrinsic, but no love is purely one or the other.


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