Nature Never Sucks

When my kids were taking high school biology, their (brilliant) teacher’s jocular mantra was, “Nature never sucks.” It meant, first, that Nature is wonderful, beautiful, and so forth – worthy of admiration, study, awe. Second, it was a nod and a prod in the direction of Ockham’s Razor, urging his pupils to adduce no more factors of natural phenomena than are absolutely necessary. But third, and more salient to his honest reductive Ockhamist pedagogical purposes, and most of all, it meant that Nature is not teleological: it neither seeks nor is pulled toward goal states, but rather pushes itself toward certain equilibria, not intentionally, but on the contrary chaotically. The idea is that these equilibria are not themselves somehow attractive, but rather are simply the most stable way that things can be arranged, so that when things happen to blunder into those stable configurations completely by accident, they then tend to stay there until something disturbs them. Things are never falling into place, but are rather only, always, merely falling.

The notion is not new. It goes back to the first Greek atomists, Lucretius and Democritus.

It is Dawkins’ notion that what perdures is only what has not yet failed to perdure: “there are lots more ways to fall apart than to hang together.” It’s true, but as tautological is uninformative.

There are other problems with it.

In the first place, it begs the question it presumes to answer. Equilibria are not explained by reference to the most stable way that things can be arranged, because “the most stable way that things can be arranged” is just a cumbersome way of saying “equilibrium.” What is it that makes equilibria stable? Are they truly stable, or is that just an appearance? If it is only an appearance – if, that is to say, the stability and regularity of Nature are a specious illusion – then there is no matter of science, nothing there that the scientific intellect might possibly grasp.

In the second, if there are no other sorts of causes operating in Nature than efficient causes, it is impossible to explain anything. If things don’t anyhow tend, there is no way we can specify the forms toward which they tend; so that they cannot then be formed at all, but must rather be formless: utterly chaotic. One thing slams into another, and that’s all you can say about it.

In the third, the equilibria in question are not in fact idle. Bodies don’t just fall. They fall *toward* each other, in ordered ways, forming aggregations that don’t then disaggregate all by themselves. If lumping were not attractive, then no lumps would ever form. Matter would fly apart as often as it flies together; there would be no gravity, or (therefore) any cosmos.

Thus it is just wrong to suggest that there is nothing in nature that attracts it to some states of affairs more than others. If that idea were true, bodies would not fall toward each other. Their falling would on the contrary be completely uncoordinated; which is to say, disordered.

In the fourth, the regularities of Nature – the conservation laws, for example, or the charge of various electron shells about a nucleus, or g, or c or any of their transforms, or the fact that those transforms are mathematically formalizable in the first place – are themselves equilibria. Nature tends toward state equilibria in regular ways, and those ways are themselves equilibria: there are infinitely many paths from state A to state B; only a few are lawful; and Nature takes just them. Why?

As a way of understanding Nature, then, “Nature never sucks” has its problems. At the very best, it encourages methodological rigor. At worst, it forestalls method as such.

Nevertheless it is correct.

But not in the way that materialists think. Nature is indeed teleological, and teloi are not superfluous entities subject to excision by Ockham’s Razor, but rather are indispensable to any adequate explanation of natural phenomena: it is logically impossible to account for the fact that things tend if you are going to rule out tendency per se and ab initio.

Nevertheless, it is not Nature herself that sucks Nature into her natural order, but something exogenous to her. It is, i.e., not Nature that is doing the sucking.

Take state A, already achieved, and state B, toward which it tends, and which in due course then comes to pass. As A finishes its procedure of becoming, it is actual, but B is not, yet. From the perspective of A, B is potential. It might come about, but perhaps not; perhaps B’ might come to pass instead, or B’’ or B’’’. Only when B does in fact come about – when it finishes becoming, so that observers can then observe that A gave rise to B – can we say that A has generated B.

A and B can’t have any relations at all, causal or otherwise, until both of them are real.

Now, what is not actual cannot act. Until it actually exists, B can’t do a thing. After all, until B is over and done with, it isn’t yet an actual part of the world. So until it has come to pass, B can’t allure A toward itself. It cannot influence A. It can’t do a blessed thing, because it doesn’t yet actually exist.

So we see that it is not an already achieved state that is attractive to Nature – such states are past, and as such cannot be regained (e.g., there’s no longer any way to get to a state of affairs in which Waterloo has not yet happened) – but rather a state that has not yet ever been achieved. Things want to fall into a configuration that they have not yet achieved. They seek their equilibria; but the particular instance of equilibrium that they seek (as apposite to just exactly their unique circumstances (as opposed to those of other, prior states of affairs)) has never yet appeared in Nature. That configuration is not yet available to them as a datum within the system of Nature: it is not yet an actual thing, that can cause other things. It is something altogether new. It is a potential thing. And potential things are not located in the system of Nature. They are located in the system of Supernature, that includes the system of Nature as a subdomain.

So the materialists are right when they say that Nature never sucks. It doesn’t. Supernature is the allure of Natural becoming, and the source of all novel forms. If it were not for the infinite fecundity of Supernature, Nature would be stuck on one moment, one state of affairs. There would be no becoming, and so there would be no homeostases about any equilibria. There would be, rather, only stasis; or, chaos.

12 thoughts on “Nature Never Sucks

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  3. Nicely put. The modern non- or rather anti-teleological physics is, however, even more radical than its ancient anticipations. Epicurus, although he strove mightily to overturn the Platonic (later the Ptolemaic) view of the universe, retained two features of that view. Plato’s “Forms” are eternal; not subject to decay. So are Epicurus’ atoms. Plato’s “Forms” are intelligible only, remaining inaccessible to the senses. So are and so do Epicurus’ atoms.

    Epicureanism, unlike modern physical reductionism, has numerous admirable moral features. In its Lucretian version, for example, it is explicitly anti-sacrificial; it rejects religion, which it calls superstition, because it sees religion generically as sacrificial. Thus despite not being a minded universe, the Lucretian universe somehow manages to assert a moral demand on the followers of the doctrine: Never participate in sacrifices, including animal sacrifices, because these are not morally justifiable – they violate the order of being – and they inflict enormous pain and injustice on the innocent victims.

    Lucretius’ great poem On the Nature of Things contains the earliest rebuke of gladiation. The Epicurean case against gladiation is even stronger than the occasional Stoic case against gladiation, which, in any event, is subsequent to the Epicurean case. One of the earliest pleas on behalf of slaves comes in a picaresque by Petronius, a thorough-going Epicurean.

    There is a great mystery concerning Epicureanism, which was likely the most widely espoused philosophical creed among the upper classes in the First and Second Centuries of the Roman Empire. By the end of the Third Century, the Epicureans seem to have vanished almost completely. The most likely explanation of this disappearance was put forward by Walter Pater in his novel Marius the Epicurean: The Epicureans, despite their materialism, had much in common with Christians and were early mass converts to the faith. Their path to conversion began in an aesthetic conviction: That the universe was sublime and beautiful even though it was not the result of poesis, as in Plato.

    • When I was at greatest risk of apostasy, at the apogee of my Ockhamism, it was beauty that prevented me at the last from seriously entertaining the notion that there might be nothing to Christianity after all. I could not bring myself to suppose that a cult which had produced Chartres and Palestrina, Bach and Ely, might be false. You just can’t mine that much beauty from falsehood.

      • “can’t mine that much beauty from falsehood”, i wouldn’t entirely be sure of what you mean by falsehood here, but, in any case, why not? Would you not agree that, even by the most conservative standards, some pagan (i.e. “false”, I would presume) art, inspired by polytheistic and naturalistic notions, could be considered beautiful? I’m mostly thinking antiquity here.

        I sympathize with your tendency to equate beauty with truth, but I can’t imagine that constituting a strong argument. It only relies on vague intuition, and intuition is not even considered important among theologians! (e.g. http://edwardfeser.blogspot.co.uk/2015/08/unintuitive-metaphysics.html)

        Overall, my main concerns and worries over the validity of any theological concept such as this or any of your others made in the Orthosphere, Kristor, is echoed by sci-fi/fantasy author, author of the Blind Brain Theory of Consciousness (https://www.academia.edu/1502945/The_Last_Magic_Show_A_Blind_Brain_Theory_of_the_Appearance_of_Consciousness), eliminative materialist and anti-humanist R. Scott Bakker (though, mind you, he aims at denouncing all metaphysics, not just theology) “Anyone who posits some form of efficacy or constraint outside the natural order on the basis of some kind of interpretation of ‘experience’ has the same argumentative burden to discharge: How do you know? What justifies such an extraordinary (supernatural) posit?…What makes the question so pressing now is that their instrument, reflection, has finally found itself on the coroner’s table [he is referencing the findings of neuroscience here, which have in a consistent manner pointed out all our cognitive blindness/blinkering, and our biases which bathe us in illusory concepts about ourselves and our environment]. Science in this day and age is moving unprecedentedly fast and is cutting extremely deep at what it means to be human. Human meaning just isn’t what we thought it was–why should any one be surprised by that? Nothing has turned out to be what we thought it was. So the question, then, becomes, ‘What is it?’ Science is answering these questions in a ramshackle but profoundly actionable way, and they are transforming every element of society in the course of doing this. There is no point in arguing that ‘Science doesn’t know everything!’

        The problem is that science does monopolize actionable theoretical cognition on what is. That’s the *problem,* the thing that may very well cut our throat”

      • Certainly there is much beauty generated by cultures that get important things wrong – and that are to that extent false. Such as our own. But a society that was altogether false could not perdure from one moment to the next, or therefore produce anything at all, let alone something of beauty. I take it that essentially all societies seek the good, are thus somehow and to some degree themselves good; that likewise they seek the truth, so that their doctrines approximate thereto; that, finally, they likewise seek beauty, so that their productions are therefore and to that extent beautiful.

        Beauty in artifacts then is an index of truth in the culture that produced them, and in the cult that informed that culture. The truth is in there somewhere.

        The Gothic cathedral is unquestionably an unmatched pinnacle of human artifice. Nothing we have made is as beautiful along so many dimensions of beauty. The cathedrals embody truths we do not now understand – not just of, say, theology or gematrialogy, but even of mechanical engineering. Some of those churches should not be able to stand up, so far as we now know. I for one cannot contemplate any of the great cathedrals and honestly gainsay the impression that their builders were Onto Something.

        It’s not that beauty just is truth, simpliciter. Truth is however beautiful; and when we encounter something beautiful, part of its beauty lies in its evocation of important or significant truths. We never encounter truth except in company with beauty, and vice versa. We evaluate both as good. So men have ever concluded that they both terminate upon the Good, as aspects thereof. Lo, it turns out that when we encounter the good in life, we feel it is beautiful, and correct: a true way to be, mutatis mutandis.

        Bakker writes:

        Anyone who posits some form of efficacy or constraint outside the natural order on the basis of some kind of interpretation of ‘experience’ has the same argumentative burden to discharge: How do you know? What justifies such an extraordinary (supernatural) posit?…

        In the first place, adducing a supernatural influence upon worldly events can seem extraordinary to begin with only under a presupposition of naturalism. This seeming, and the presupposition it bewrays, beg the question under consideration, of whether there is any such supernatural influence.

        In the second, Bakker here misconstrues supernatural influence upon the natural order. It is not efficacious, but formal and final.

        In the third, to reject metaphysics is to propose a hypothesis in metaphysics. You can’t get away from metaphysics; every statement whatever implicitly presupposes some metaphysic or other. If we can’t do without metaphysics, it behooves us then to do it right.

        Doing it right, we discover that efficacy is not the only sort of cause out there; that, e.g., in addition to mere force, we need a definition of force (a formal cause) and a law of force (a final cause) if the world is to be either ordered or intelligible to itself (i.e., to us).

        Bakker worries that the reflection of metaphysicians finds itself now on the dissecting table of science. But so does the reflection of Bakker and his ilk. If these reflections are really nothing more than the aimless hurrying of dead pebbles, then … they are not really reflections at all, but rather only the aimless hurrying of dead pebbles. They are devoid of meaning. This verdict of meaninglessness applies with equal force to the reflection that reflections are aimless hurryings of dead pebbles. Eliminative materialism eliminates eliminative materialism.

  4. This is remarkably useful, because it really pads my understanding of what Julius Evola meant when he said that essentially no direction in transformation and change occurs in the visible world, without being rooted in the realities of the invisible world. Everything we observe to be physical is subject to laws of trend and significance that go beyond what can be measured with crude equipment. They are expressions of higher goings-on.

    Would it be accurate to refer to all ‘Supernature’ as the Divine Realm? Or is this to give too much grandiosity to things as simple as the tendency of rivers to do certain things?

    • Thanks, Mark, glad you found it helpful.

      While not all supernatural things are divine, the Supernature referred to in the post is, I think – not in itself (there is nothing godlike about e.g., 5, or sphericity), but insofar as all possible configurations of properties in actual things exist eternally as Ideas in the mind of God. Their nexus constitutes a Realm, not because it is a world (with causal relations) but as an abstract configuration space (with purely logical relations) – which in itself has no actual existence, but rather exists virtually – in virtue, that is, of God’s eternal contemplation of his Logos, and as an aspect thereof.

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  7. Teleology is a difficult problem. I.e. whether it is something real, or it is more just a short-cut model, a simplified explanation of things. So whether it is in the map or the terrain.

    The function of the lung is to supply the body with oxygen. Is it its goal, its telos? I don’t think there is an easy answer to that. We can say without a lung, most terrestrial animals would die, rather, they cannot even be born alive, if they lack a lung. Only those birds or mammals that have lung are able to pass on their genes, so the gene for having lungs will there in the generations to come. If X cannot exist or function without Y, and it is a fact, does this also follow that it is Y’s goal or telos to keep X alive or functioning? I think such broadly it would certainly not be true. Eating the meat of a wild boar certainly helps in keeping me alive, but it would be difficult to say that the telos of wild animals is to feed humans. In other words, if Y is used for X, even if Y MUST be used for X or else it is game over for X, it does not really follow it is the goal or telos of Y to serve X.

    So how could we tell teleology from mere utility? How can I tell if something merely happens to help us, vs. having it its telos to help us? Mere necessity isn’t enough, the telos of the athmosphere is not to keep us breathing.

    Is it perhaps a question of parts and wholes, if Y has utility for X, is it its telos only if Y is part of X? Especially if Y also dies if X dies, so by serving X, Y serves itself?

    Or what are the conditions for utility to turn into a telos?

    I think the null hypothesis should always be: if you are not sure it is in the terrain, assume it is the map. Perhaps teleology is just a handy way to describe some utilities. And it IS handy. Software developers use language like that all the time. “This satellite navigation software is trying to find you the shortest or quickest route”. But it is just a short-hand way of speaking. It is not actually trying anything. It is merely executing programmed instructions. It is the programmer who is trying to write a useful software, there is no trying or goals below his level, just instructions that have no goal, just effect. Teleology in such artificial matters stops at the mind, the rest is just effect.

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