Nature-based Spirituality and Our Sense of Value

by Thomas Schenk.


Most formulations of Nature-based spirituality either state or infer that Nature has special value.  Yet many adherents of these forms of spirituality express ideas about Nature that do not allow for Nature to have real value.  In the logic behind many interpretations of naturalism, the only place for value is as a subjective assertion.  But if this is the case, than the value of Nature is merely “a matter of personal taste.”   I would like to discuss here what is required of a philosophy of value that would allow it to provide more than such a subjective basis for the value of Nature.

Western thinking has a strong tendency toward either/or distinctions.  Based on this tendency, if value is not objective it must be subjective.  This, I argue, is a mistake.  Questions of value are always experienced by a sentient being (i.e. subjectively) but generally involve perceptions of “objects” outside of that being.  Thus there is both a subjective and objective aspect to the experience of a value.  As a very simple example, I value my car because it can take me from one place to another quickly.   This valuation involves both my subjective desire for speed and that a car can in fact travel at the speeds that I desire.  If the car ceases to run, it loses it value.  If I cease to desire to get from one place to another in a hurry, the car also loses its value.  The valuation rests neither on the subjective or the objective aspect, but exists in the dynamic interaction of the two – what I want and the object’s ability to deliver.

One might argue that aesthetic or spiritual value* is different from economic value, but I think it can be demonstrated that all questions of value have this aspect of dynamic interaction in common.  I listen to music in the hope that it will bring me some delight and also ease my tensions; the music either delivers or it doesn’t.  For a musical composition to satisfy what I desire, it must have enough complexity to hold my attention and even surprise me, and yet be orderly and predictable enough that I find it soothing (J.S. Bach anyone?). When I was young, I often desired music that would stimulate and “rock” me, which required a rather different type of music (the Rolling Stones, for instance).  Again, the desire belongs to me as a subject, but the satisfaction of that desire requires intrinsic qualities of the object, in this case the actual music.

Auto engineers and musical composers consciously and intentionally attempt to make objects that will be found valuable by people.  But what about Nature?  Theists, of course, believe that the world was “designed” by a cosmic engineer, a being of pure value.  Many forms of physicalism assert that the degree of organization apparent in the world is merely an accident; there is no ultimate reason for it.  Is there room for a position between these extremes?

The Universe contains intricate organization at every level from the atom to the galaxy. The biosphere of our earth contains countless organized entitites, and every day there is something new under the sun. From the womb of Nature has come sentient creatures who care, who value.  Around these creatures is this rich world capable of meeting needs and desires.  Is all this an accident, per the physicalist or the result of design, per the theist, or the result of something quite different than those polar positions have imagined?

Although lacking a theory of everything, 21st century science has a pretty good idea of the ingredients that comprise Nature and how these ingredients interact.  But to the question of why these ingredients give rise to complex organization and seemingly endless novelty the answer is simply unknown, it is a mystery.

Whatever “value” is, it arises from and is a part of Nature’s ability to self-organize and to create complexity, including conscious, intentional, and valuing beings such as our selves.   Ultimately, Nature** is responsible for creating both the being that values and the things that satisfy the wants and desires of this being.  From this fact, we can deduce that this “creative” activity of Nature is the progenitor of all value.   Nature is the origin of value – and thus finding value in Nature is not merely a matter of taste, but a matter of fact.


* For the purpose here I do not make a distinction between “spiritual” and “aesthetic” value, though in other contexts I believe there is an important distinction to be made between them.

** At the point, the word “Nature” refers both to the empirical world studied by science and the mystery referred to in the paragraph above.  The mystery of the origin of Nature’s “creativity” should not be mistaken for the notion of “a gap” that has sometimes been used to describe specific mysteries in the world, such as how life first arose.   The mystery of the origin is not a gap but an abyss, and as such is capable of containing things beyond our comprehension.