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I have heard that in the scientific community there is a debate on whether humanity is part of nature or not. It seems to be driven by the fact that humans can do so much damage to nature that it’s hard to believe we are part of it. We don’t seem to live in harmony with the system of nature and therefore we can’t be a part of the system. I find this debate interesting because it only makes sense within a theistic world view. In a totally materialistic universe, the question cannot even be asked.

Within a Christian worldview there are two sides to reality: the natural and the supernatural, the material and the spiritual. God is pure spirit and is part of the supernatural universe. Rocks, for instance, are purely material and are part of the natural universe.

Where does man fit in? We are the only being that is a hybrid of the two. We have both a supernatural and a natural element. Our bodies are material and thus part of nature, but our souls are immaterial, part of the supernatural dimension. Thus we can ask, “Is man a part of nature?” and answer “Yes and No.” We were designed to be part of nature, living in harmony with it, and yet at the same time we are apart from nature and thus can affect it in very negative ways. I will come back to this at the end of this essay.

But let us now look at the universe from a completely materialistic or naturalistic point of view. Within this worldview there is no God, there is no supernatural, no angels, no demons, no spirits, no souls. The only thing that exists is nature. Therefore, when we ask the question, “Is man a part of nature?”, there is only one possible answer: “Yes.” Nature is all that there is and therefore the only thing that man can be is nature.

Now let us look at the implications of this worldview for how humans relate to rest of the planet. Is pollution bad? No. Pollution is just part of nature. Humans are part of nature, Humans make pollution. Pollution is therefore natural. If it is replied that pollution seems to be harmful to plants and animals, we could note that nature does things there are harmful to plants and animals all the time, such as forest fires, tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, ice ages, lightening, floods, etc. The fact that something harms some parts of nature does not make it unnatural. Pollution is not something we should worry about. It is just part of nature. We don’t have to expend resources in trying to solve this problem. It’s not a problem.

What about extinctions of species? There is no reason for us to worry about it either. If we cause species to go extinct, we are only doing what come natural to us. In studying the history of the earth, one finds out that millions upon millions of species have gone extinct before humans ever come onto the scene. What caused these mass extinctions? Nature, of course. The only thing that exists is nature. It had to do it. There are no other possibilities. If humans are causing extinctions now, it is just nature doing what it has done many times in the past. It is not wrong or bad. It’s natural. We don’t have to expend resources in trying to solve this problem. It’s not a problem.

One begins to see the pattern. If the universe is a closed natural system, mankind is simply a part of that system and can do nothing to harm it. Humans can do nothing wrong to the planet. If is observed that humans seemed to be doing things that harm themselves and the survival of the human species, again we can note that nature has eliminated species many times before. Our survival is not more important in the big scheme of natural history than any of the other extinct species that have gone before us. If we go extinct, it’s just part of the natural process.

Besides, pollution, extinction of species, etc don’t mean humans will go extinct. These are just new conditions produced by nature that we must adapt too. That is what evolution is all about. Those that survive are those that adapt. Pollution and like conditions are not bad or evil or something we need to change. They are just new environments to adapt too.

However, if humanity is also a spiritual being made in the image of God to rule over and care for the planet, efforts to save humanity and the planet make perfect sense. God put the animals here for us to care for, and we are responsible to him if we lose any one of the species. We were put here to care for the planet, not destroy it. We are stewards of God’s world. If we harm it through pollution, then we have to answer to him. Is it important to save the human race? Yes, for we are made in God’s image and have worth and value because of it. We are not just another random offshoot off the evolutionary tree to be discarded by nature as it has millions of species before us. To fight for and care for our fellow human beings is one of our chief purposes. We honor God when we care for those made in his image.

The whole notion of environmentalism only makes sense within a Christian worldview. If there is no God, we can do nothing wrong to the planet. Everything we do is part of the natural process. If we are royal beings made in God’s image to care for this creation, we will have to answer for our wanton destruction of his world.

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5 thoughts on “Is Man Part of Nature?

  1. Environmentalism does make sense outside of a theistic worldview though, for a couple reasons. For a system of morality focused on caring for all things or living simply it is self-evidently bad.

    For the probably more common purely naturalistic worldview, you even say in your post why environmentalism matters – because we might go extinct otherwise!

    Pollution (and the resulting climate change and species extinction that comes with it) is bad not because it ‘harms the planet’ – as you say, the planet is going to be fine in the million year timescale of geology – but because it threatens the flourishing of humanity, which certainly can be a goal or morality in and of itself.

    Humanity doesn’t want to bring about its own extinction, and in that way we are definitely unique in nature (even if you have a naturalistic worldview) – we alone can conceive of, cause or (maybe) prevent our extinction.

  2. Brian, thanks for commenting. You have excellent thoughts and will keep me on my toes.

    First, I want to say that I am glad non theist care of the planet. I think that reflects that fact that they are made in the image of God and are doing what God created us for. This can be the beginning point of sharing the gospel with them. I am just arguing that intellectually Christian theism provides a better basis for that ethical value.

    2ndly, as to your second point, in similar vein, I am glad non theists care for humanity for the same reasons I listed above. But my question is, does a non theistic world view give us good reason to save humanity? A study of natural history shows nature has eliminated millions upon millions of species on its own in several mass extinctions before man ever existed. Looking a natural history it is not self evident that we should continue to exist. In fact, its self evident that we will perish as a species. If we are eliminating ourselves, since we are just part of nature, we are just doing what comes natural. Nature does not endow any particular significance to one species over another, including humanity. We might as well go extinct just as well as any other. Our self suicide may be nature’s way of doing us in. If there is no God, this is just a normal natural process. Our existence has no eternal meaning that demands its survival.

    If a person responds that they care about our species and want to save it, I would respond, that’s fine if you want to do that.. That is your individual preference, but that’s all it is. There is no moral imperative that demands I or anybody else follow you. So stop being a environmental fundamentalist and trying to run my life. Stop acting like there are transcendent values and that man has worth and value when there are none and we have none. Within a naturalistic worldview there is just as much justification for doing nothing to care for the environment. Since all is nature, our self destruction through pollution is just a natural process. So lets stop spending our resources on trying to stop something that is normal. And certainly stop acting like your position is morally superior mine when by reason, it is not. Stop acting like God exists.

    Again, I am glad there are many non-theist that care for the environment. That is what I think they should do within a Christian worldview.. I am showing within a naturalistic worldview, there are no compelling reasons (certainly no moral ones) for them to do so. My post is an invitation for them to respond to the moral order God placed within them and to see that the gospel is true. Their hunger to save the planet and or humanity are the imprints of the Creator.

    As to your point we are unique in nature in being able to conceive, cause and prevent our extinction, it goes to my last point. If we are so different, isn’t that evidence we are made in the image of God? But without God, I don’t know that our self consciousness counts for anything. First, it may well be that certain species have caused their own extinction in various ways throughout natural history. We would just fall within that category of animal in nature that destroys itself. Secondly, I don’t see the evolution of self consciousness means we have to do anything about it. It does not create objective morality that applies to all. It means we can see our extinction is happening, but it also means we can see the death of our species is normal and does not have to be opposed on purely natural/rationalistic grounds.

    Let me know where I am off base.

    Curt

  3. Brian, it also occurred to me that you may be coming at this question from a different direction from me. You may be thinking at how can be reach out to non-theist to convince them to work with us in a common cause. I am dealing with the question of ultimate reality about who we are in relation to God and how our relationship with creation can reveal that. That could account for our different takes.

  4. I definitely agree that Christianity provides (or should provide) a much stronger and more universal appeal to environmentalism than any moral framework constructed in the absence of God and Creation.

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