How do you understand nature?

Last time, I made the claim that all naturalists share the root metaphor of nature.  But that doesn’t tell us all that much – not yet.  What is nature exactly?  And how can it suggest how we ought to live?

To recap quickly, a root metaphor is a metaphor by which virtually everything else is explained.  According to Loyal Rue (2005), it fuses into one idea what’s real and what matters, so that we understand both how the universe is and how we ought to live.

To address these questions, our metaphor needs to be more specific.  So let’s investigate a few alternatives.



Picabia Machine TurnThe predominant paradigm bequeathed to us by scientific materialism is nature-as-machine.  We have grown used to thinking of matter as inert, dead, stupid stuff that gets knocked around by other matter, like balls on a billiard table.  Modern physics has not improved on this metaphor (witness “quantum mechanics“).

One problem with this metaphor is that machines are tools for our whims.  They do not transcend us, we transcend them.

Another problem is that traditionally matter was complemented by the intelligence of soul as well as by its designer, God.  If you no longer believe in soul or God, then there is nothing but stupid, meaningless stuff all around.  This lays the foundation for the famous quote by physicist Steven Weinberg: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless” (Weinberg, 1993).

The metaphor of machine cannot help us understand who we are or how we ought to live.  At most, it says it is up to us to answer these questions for ourselves.  While that may be true, I think we can do better.



Aion and Tellus (Gaia)Another metaphor in play today is nature-as-person(s).  This is like the God-as-person metaphor of traditional theism, but swap nature for God.  Nature acquires some or all of the human-like traits of God, such as will, intention, personality, wrath, compassion, and so on.  This metaphor shows up in some forms of animism and some Gaian paths (note that the Gaia Hypothesis of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis does not use this metaphor, but posits the planet earth is a self-regulating organism; Lovelock, 1995).

It’s certainly a powerful metaphor, allowing for a high degree of what Robert McCauley calls inferential potential: the capacity to permit one to “utilize a huge range of default inferences that accompany our maturationally natural ontological knowledge” (McCauley, 2011; italics his).  In plain language, he means it let’s us quickly draw a number of conclusions with little but the brain’s natural intuition.  Specifically, it draws on our species’ highly developed social intelligence.

An example will make that a little less arcane-sounding.  The God-as-person metaphor allows one to take an event such as a failure of crops and activate the brain’s module for dealing with persons, leading to a whole suite of new inferences: If all happens by divine will, then a god willed the crops to fail, and it must be because he is angry, so we should offer a gift to appease that anger, and hereafter live in ways conducive to a better relationship with the god.  In this train of thought, the idea of how things happen (cosmology) leads directly to what to do (morality).

The nature-as-person(s) metaphor would seem to allow similar inferences (though without necessarily reaching the same conclusions).  However, the main problem with this metaphor is the same as that of God-as-person: credibility.  It just doesn’t seem plausible for many naturalists today (with the possible exception of certain proposed solutions to the hard problem of consciousness).  Anthropomorphism is not necessarily a bad thing if used consciously and for specific purposes (see my defense of it here).  However, used as a root metaphor, which usually operates unconsciously and at the highest level of generality, it seems inappropriate for naturalists.



Fractal Broccoli

A third metaphor is nature-as-Creativity.  Representatives in this line of thought include Stuart Kauffman, Gordon D. Kaufman, Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Michael Dowd, Connie Barlow, and PaGaian’s Glenys Livingstone.  It may also hark back to Spinoza’s natura naturans.

The idea is that nature is inherently creative, producing marvelous patterns and complexity out of its own self-organizing propensities.  It is not inert stuff, nor is it the tool of some other thing that transcends it.  This grants nature inherent value.  It also gives nature and humans something in common, namely creativity, without going so far as to turn nature into a personality.  Finally, it tells us who we are: part of the great story of unfolding cosmic creativity.

“Creativity” is quite abstract, though, and it’s not very clear how we ought to live as part of this Creativity.  It seems short on inferential potential.  If a crop failure happens due to natural Creativity, then it must have a meaningful place in some emerging pattern.  There is something inspiring in that idea, but it doesn’t seem to suggest much of a role for us in the matter other than perhaps to marvel in tragic awe at the new pattern (or am I missing something?).


Nature-as-Big Self

The Earth seen from Apollo 17Here’s the idea: Nature is so much greater than us, yet we are an integral part of it.  Our tiny conscious ego (small self) is dwarfed by, yet interdependent with, the greater world of being (Big Self).

Alan Watts eloquently expresses the notion:

We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe.  (Watts, 1989)

As does Albert Einstein:

A human being is a part of a whole, called by us ‘universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest… a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

There is inferential potential here: If I am an integral part of nature, however small, then how I live must have an effect.  Since we are nature, we ought to value it as we value ourselves, treat it with care and respect, and live in ever more sustainable ways.  The crop failure would be met by questioning how our own actions have contributed to this (trans)personal crisis, what we might do to heal the wound, and how we might live healthier in the future.

One problem with this metaphor is that it seems to obscure the radical otherness of nature.  But I don’t think it’s a big problem, because contemplation of it leads right into the experience of otherness.  Confronted by the proposition that nature is us, we immediately ask “How can this be?  I’m nothing before the vast depths of nature.”  Nature appears as an Immensity (to use Brendan Myers‘ term).  This plunges us into what Rudolf Otto (1958) calls “creature feeling”: the emotion of being overwhelmed with awe before what transcends our own smallness.  Finally, integration comes when we realize it is not the tiny ego but rather its participation in the greater whole which is meaningful.

An alternative version of this metaphor might be nature-as-body.  If “self” is too psychological of a term, “body” might achieve the same extension of personal identity without suggesting any kind of cosmic consciousness or intelligence.  Those living with the nature-as-body metaphor may see trees as their lungs, and rivers as their blood.



Baby turtle, by JohnLast but not least, the metaphor of nature-as-kin may have something to say today.  By this metaphor, Earth becomes our mother, sky our father, and all creatures our brothers and sisters.

This metaphor has recurred again and again across history in many times and places.  It’s probably not by accident, either: sociobiology suggests we are genetically predisposed to aid our close kin first, since they likely carry identical copies of our genes (this is called inclusive fitness or kin selection; Dawkins, 1989).  If this is so, then viewing nature as kin may activate deep-rooted motivations to treat nature with respect, care, and devotion.

This reverses the original function of the predisposition (widening rather than narrowing the field of aid), but that doesn’t matter – evolution re-purposes things all the time if it makes for greater fitness.  In our age of ecological crisis, whatever best motivates eco-centric behavior will exhibit the greatest fitness.

Another advantage of this metaphor is that it has the virtue of being modestly counterintuitive.  Pascal Boyer  (2001) counts as counterintuitive something that violates our most basic, inborn intuitions about classes of objects.  Children know from a very early age that an owl can’t give birth to a lizard (McCauley, 2011).  So, saying that the earth is our mother is counterintuitive.  This makes it an interesting meme, and therefore more likely to be passed on.  Yet it is not radically counterintuitive – it doesn’t take years of training to grasp, as do science and theology.  Boyer finds the best balance or cognitive optimum is a modestly counterintuitive idea with just one or two violations.  In other words, nature-as-kin is a highly fit meme in the game of cultural selection.

A difficulty, though, might be that it seems all too ready to merge with the nature-as-person metaphor.  Since our kin are normally human, calling the Earth “mother” seems to invite anthropomorphism.  The metaphor would then suffer from the same credibility problem that plagues nature-as-person.


Other metaphors

There are, of course, many other possible nature metaphors.  Michael Cavanaugh suggests Big History as a possible metaphor (Cavanaugh, personal communication).  I’m sure you’ll come up with plenty as well (feel free to share in the comments).

You may be interested in the results of a poll taken of the root metaphors preferred by the Humanistic Pagan community.


Can we really choose our metaphor?

Ultimately we may not be able to choose our root metaphor; we may just find ourselves using it.  But however we identify it, it will determine how we think, act, and forge symbols as we embark on our naturalistic paths.


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Boyer, P.  (2001).  Religion Explained.  New York: Basic Books.

Burkert, W.  (1989).  Greek Religion.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Dawkins, R.  (1989).  The Selfish Gene.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Lovelock, J.  (1995).  Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth.  New York: Oxford University Press.

McCauley, R.  (2011).  Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Myers, B.  (2008).  The Other Side of Virtue.  Hants, UK: O Books.

Otto, R.  (1958).  The Idea of the Holy.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Rue, L.  (1989).  Amythia.  Tuscaloosa,AL: University of Alabama Press.

Rue, L.  (2005).  Religion Is Not About God.  New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Watts, A.  (1989).  The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (Vintage Books Edition).  New York: Random House.

Weinberg, S.  (1993).  The First Three Minutes.  New York: Basic Books.

This article first appeared at Humanistic Paganism.

3 thoughts on “How do you understand nature?”

  1. Wonderful article, B.T. thanks! It seems to me that 'nature as creativity', as 'big-self', and as 'kin' are fairly compatible and interconnectable, perhaps emphasizing different levels and aspects of that big-self.

    You say, "If I am an integral part of nature, however small, then how I live must have an effect."

    While true, I like to caution myself against thinking that 'having an effect' is a focus. As Marcus Aurelius says, "one day you will have forgotten all things and all things will have forgotten you". Rather, I think a more spiritually healthy question might be, "in the light of these realizations, how then ought I live in order to lead 'the *good* life' (in both senses of the word)".

    The realization of our smallness before the vastness of Nature is an ego-busting epiphany that is helpful to escaping the tiny ego and expanding sense of self as interconnected with the whole. That 'big mind' is crucial, I believe, to the release from attachment and fear, which leads to equanimity, empathy, and compassionate action.

    Lastly, although I'm sure you know and agree, for the sake of other readers I always like to stress that when we speak of "Nature" we should be careful not to confuse this with the simple meaning of the word as used for that thing we see when going camping (trees, animals, mountains) and our concerns beyond mere environmentalism. Although it includes that and environmentalism is an important cause, 'Nature' here also includes our city environments, the space shuttle, the human brain/mind, the plastic bag, our relationships with nations and next door neighbors – the core essence of the natural universe operating by rational natural law which underpins the entirety of existence. I don't believe anything you've written denies that – just something I like to add in discussions on Nature.

    What do you and others here think?

  2. Interesting article. I think, though, that the word “metaphor” is used a little too loosely here. Calling Nature a machine or a living being is a metaphor, because it is clearly not either of those in the way we usually use those words. If you called Nature an artist, that would be a metaphor, but saying Nature is creativity is only metaphorical if we use a very limited definition of creativity. Using a broader definition, nature clearly is creative — everything that exists has come into existence due to natural processes. So it would not be a metaphor but statement of fact. Nature as Big Self, may be a metaphor, but I’ve never really seen this used. That we are an integral part of Nature is again a fact, not a metaphor.


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