Part of Nature

Throughout recorded human history, we have again and again found ourselves as less important than we previously imagined. We once believed we were at the center of the universe, but through observation of the night sky, we realized we live on a planet that orbits a star. Then, as we continued our scientific endeavors, we realized that the star we orbit is not the center of the universe either. In reality it is part of a galaxy full of stars. Going even further, our galaxy, the Milky Way, isn’t the center of the universe either, but simply one of billions of galaxies. Similarly, Darwin’s formulation of evolution made humanity realize that we are no different from any other life form, and that we were all related. The more we look at our place in the universe and work to understand our surroundings, the more we realize that we are not special, but one in the same as everything else in the universe. 

Shaviro discusses this idea of Nature in his “Twenty-Two Theses on Nature”. While I found this to be an interesting read, it seems to be trying to make one simple point. We, as humans, are not separate from Nature. We simply take in information through our senses, and act based on this information we collect. While our bodies do counter the natural flow of entropy, our overall dissipation of energy into the systems around us more than make up for our lack of internal entropy. This is the same as any other lifeform on the planet. 

By realizing that we are truly one in the same with Nature, we can gain a deeper respect for our surroundings. The natural world and our planet is not something to be used and conquered by us, but rather a system in which we are a part. In order to sustainably live, we must not attack the cycle of nature for our own benefit, because doing so means attacking the very system that we are a part of.

My Head Hurts

This week’s reading did not resonate with me. Not because I disagreed with it or sensed malice, but purely because I could not understand what the author was saying. Of the 22 points in Shaviro’s 22 Theses on Nature, I can confidently say I fully understood 2. These points were about Nature being everything around us (point 1) and that the laws of thermodynamics have an impact (point 13). I do not know what the other 20 points were trying to say. I have some vague guesses, but I truly couldn’t understand most of it. It was only around point 10 that I realized just how little of the information on the paper was actually being processed. At first, I thought I was just tired or misreading something, but after many attempts to parse what was being said, I was still coming up short. There were even sentences like, “All-encompassing Nature is traversed by potentials and powers, or by energy gradients and inherent tendencies” made me think that I was genuinely having a brain issue. I read this sentence probably a dozen or so times before I concluded that I have no idea what the author was trying to say here. I think I’m going to lie down now.  

Shaviro, 22 Theses On Nature

Sentient Thermometers?

This reading of the 22 Theses on nature is an interesting dive into the topic of what nature means in the context of the Anthropocene. One of the most interesting aspects of these arguments was the later section on sentience and consciousness. The biggest shock to me while reading this was the statement that even a thermostat, which is affected by temperature leading to a change, could in theory be sentient. Especially in a world where we are striving for “sentient artificial intelligence” (well some people are at least). But based off of their definitions, what is actually being worked towards is CONSCIOUS artificial intelligence.

I think their assertion that nature can no longer be viewed as “other” is interesting, because we have been manipulating nature for thousands of years. But what they do point out is that now we are not only manipulating nature, we are building it, changing it, and even changing the course of the world through these actions in cascading events which affect each other. Through things as genetic engineering, geoengineering, us humans are somewhat playing God. We are trying to control our own fates in a world where the definition of the world doesn’t really allow it.

Nature’s consciousness

One of the most interesting things of all of our readings so far this week is the fact that many, if not all, of them have argued and shown that humanity’s perception of nature is skewed. The 22 Theses on Nature is no exception, it talks about how nature is composed of many parts from consciousness vs sentience, to how past thinkers have tried to interpret nature, to continual flows of energy. For me the part that stuck out the most was the differences between consciousness vs sentience. 

Putting nature aside, I think that the question of which is which, regarding consciousness and sentience, is fun to think about. In the reading, the author makes the connection that the definition of sentience could mean that a thermostat is sentient, which initially to me sounded absurd. But taking a second to think about it fully, I could actually make sense of it. When I initially read it I was very confused but when I re-read the paragraph, the idea that because the thermostat is an information processor means that it is sentient, like a tree.

Going to nature: From the reading I had a thought that maybe because sentience is far more widespread than consciousness and that sentience is a “lower” level of information processing, it leads to humans thinking that they are superior to sentient things. While this, probably, isn’t a revolutionary idea the passage helped me visualize this. The fact that trees only process information and change accordingly means that they are only sentient, but a dog is, to a degree, self-conscious puts them at a higher value in the eyes of some. 

Because people have thought about these differences, they’ve concluded that the harm of polluting, for example, has a less negative effect because it doesn’t impact humans. It is a very “out of sight, out of mind” way of thinking but because it doesn’t have instant feedback, like the bark of a dog, many people have minimized the impacts of climate change. 

The Ever Changing Nature of Nature

Aside from this week’s reading by Steven Shaviro “Twenty-two Theses on Nature”, not many other works of writing are in the style of separate, but related theses; except for one of the most famous pieces of reformational writing: Ninety-five Theses by Martin Luther. Shaviro seems to have taken inspiration from the change Luther’s writing brought about to reflect on the change that needs to happen surrounding humanity’s relationship with nature. 

Shaviro addresses multiple facets of how humans think about nature, from the very broad, to very specific, especially in the sense of hard sciences such as physics, or informatics. He encourages his audience to move away from the school of thought that nature is an entirely separate entity from nature. It is not humans and nature it is humans IN nature, also drawing attention to the idea that what we tend to think of as nature is not actually nature, the trees, or the grass, or the animals are just in it.

While Shaviro’s arguments contain many scientific elements that add credibility to his article, he approaches the overall idea much more philosophically or psychologically, trying to instead change the ways of thinking of his audience with the information he provides instead of simply presenting the information. The psychological nature of his writing is apparent in his use of certain terms, such as individuation, the emergence of a stable state of being, contrasted with his use of the term meta-stable, which infers that a system (nature) is in a state of equilibrium, but can also move to a state of higher equilibrium. The individuation of nature is constantly happening as processes occur, leading to metastability in the environment because of the constant gain and dissipation of energy, but could be more stable if the processes simply ceased. 

Changing the way we think about nature is a very important step in fixing the current issues surrounding it, but this might also lead to the thought process that issues such as climate change are simply just more processes that will bring nature to a higher state of equilibrium. Nature is ever changing, so adaptation should be considered a strategy for combating climate change, not just stopping it.

Ever-Changing earth

The reading summarizes 22 different theses about nature and how we should conceptualize nature. Although each thesis varies from one to another, the general theme is that nature is constantly changing. There is also a general opinion among the theses that humans are not superior to nature. It is that very belief – that nature is made to serve humans – that has gotten us to this debate over how to save our world. One interesting take in this reading was that we must recreate nature in a way that is not in our own image – we are part of nature, but we are not nature. This is a hard point to argue because although the intention is pure, I am afraid humans have left such a deep mark on the world that we cannot wipe away our mistakes, and we are responsible to care for them in a way that best serves the interest of nature, not our interests. There are many people that are willing to do this, but those with money and power will most likely continue to serve their own interests. For example, many high profile people that travel to climate summits fly in their own private jets — this only shows that they don’t actually care about the climate, but about their image and their own interests. 

An interesting term was presented in this reading; individuation. The definition of individuation is the development structure of a person associated with their social environment. Individuation relates to nature in the means of its energy and informatics. These ideas only further reinforce that nature is continually changing and has no end. As we know that nature is always changing, we have to consider what we as humans do to influence that change and whether our influence will be good or bad for Earth. 

Points of Perception

The view humanity holds towards nature has a bumpy record, full of superiority and misinformation. Nature, as is now clear, is not a separate section of the world or on the other side of some human-made line. Our human actions have a direct impact on nature, but nature’s activities are not dependent on humans. In other words, nature includes humanity but is also other things and is not reducible to only humanity. It’s made up of all life, including life that may not be categorized as alive in most people’s mind. The reading from this week brought up some interesting and valuable points about humans’ perception of nature and the differences between sentience and consciousness.

It’s interesting to think about what we’ve learned about from all of the readings so far in this class and the common theme that humanity has a skewed view of nature. This outlook on our environment can be deemed as the root of our current environmental crisis. In all these readings it has been asserted that nature is everything, and though we’re included in its bubble, we don’t really matter to it in the long run. This is an intriguing argument to think about, because despite the claim that we don’t matter to nature, we still have an immense effect on it. Humans are the ones that have caused this current crisis, so couldn’t it be said that we are indeed important to nature? Although some claim that humanity’s impact will eventually be washed away by the force of the environment, humans are also the only ones who can turn around the climate crisis in the present moment, in a manner which wouldn’t take a millennium to complete.

The points made about sentience versus consciousness were also thought provoking. Some things which most people wouldn’t consider alive are sentient, which is a word that most people would relate to life. This reading, however, explains that sentience is something that is widely seen in nature, with some organisms requiring perception to survive, and perception in turn requiring some degree of sentience. Consciousness, on the other hand, is seen much less in nature, and is usually only in those things which most people would consider alive.

Inside a Box 📦

There’s an recurring theme across all of the materials we’ve gone through this term, and it’s not just the discussion on the anthropocene. Rather, it’s the debate over humanity’s position in the world, and whether the anthropocene is a fair and accurate description of that position. Many contemporary criticisms have put the blame on top of humanity. Our aggressive push towards industrialization and progressive technologies has led to an incredible amount of damage to the environment, but the discussion always seems to create this dichotomy of humans and nature. Humans have destroyed nature. It is a separation that makes us as a species seem distant and detached from nature. But what is nature exactly? And are humans not part of nature as well? Are we not made of the same materials, created out of a similar process, and exist in this world alonside every other living and nonliving thing? The debate we should be having is not if humans are damaging their environment or not. They most absolutely are, and there is very little room left to deny it. The debate should instead be focused on humanity’s role within nature itself.

Humans seem to find joy in categorizing. We love to organize everything we see into neat boxes of “this” and “that.” The entirety of history can be summarized to groups of humans creating a separation, be it arbitrarily or from a genuine difference, and reacting to that separation in an intense way. From wars to slavery to democracy to globalization, the boundaries we have made for ourselves have shaped the world. These boundaries are sometimes good, and sometimes bad. But ignoring these boundaries entirely is not a wise decision, as is forgetting that they are ultimately defined by our perception of reality. Nature, as argued by Steven Shaviro, is at such a fundamental base level in the universe, that to think of humanity as an equal counterpart overvalues our existence and also undervalues nature’s existence. He believes that we must cease to define nature using humanity’s informatic and anthropocentric sensibilities.

In many ways, I agree with Shaviro. I find it so strange to hear people argue over dominance over nature. Do we really find nature to be so powerless that a single species within its realm can overcome it? Humans are not that omnipotent, and nature is not that weak. I am reminded by a quote from C.S. Lewis in his book The Abolition of Man, in which he analyzes this topic to some degree. “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” It’s like attempting to win a duel against yourself. It’s a paradox, it makes no sense. We are a part of nature, and it a part of us. But at the same time, I fear that this mindset takes away from the damage we have caused to the envrionment. Perhaps this damage is only a risk to us, not to nature, but it is a risk nonetheless, and this idea makes it far too easy to disregard these concerns. And while humanity is surely a part of nature, it is important to recognize that we are still apart from it in at least some capacity. We are not only conscious, but sentient. We are aware of our existence, and somehow that gives us an influence over our existence in a way nothing else in existence really can. So, what is nature? And are humans a part of it? As in most things, the answer is complicated.

The elusive definition of nature

I always find it peculiar when people say “I need to get out in nature.” This common wording that many Americans use propagates the false belief that human beings are separate from Nature. I find it interesting that those who use this wording are often passionate about the planet, and yet, they may not fully understand the relationship humans have with Nature. Of course, no one really understands that relationship; it is far too complex. But although we may not understand our place in Nature, we do know that there is one.
In Steven Shaviro’s “Twenty-Two Theses on Nature,” he argues that “Human beings and their productions are not separate from Nature; they are just as much, or as little, “natural” as everything else” (216). Throughout his article, Sharviro creates a dialog in an attempt to quantify and define Nature. Shaviro defines Nature as “metastable.” Nature’s metastability is disrupted by individualization, which is the creation of an individual from less individualistic parts. Shapiro argues that “The most minute imbalance, or the most fleeting encounter, can be enough to set things into motion. And there is generally more to the effect than there is to the cause” (218). What Shapiro is arguing here is a type of butterfly effect scenario, where one event, so matter the scale, sets infinite events into motion. This chain of events is unfathomable to predict by the limited human mind.
Humans have had huge impacts on our environments. Yet, I am careful to say that we have had the largest impact out of any species. Fungi, for example, live under every step we take outside. It is unfathomable the amount of mycelium that traverses the forest floor. Without fungi, a forest cannot exist. Mycelium passes nutrients and information to every plant, which is crucial for the survival of saplings who are shaded by their elders. Perhaps we could say that humans have had the largest negative impact on Nature. However, there are fungi, like the parasitic Honey Mushroom, which can destroy a forest in less than a decade. However, it is possible that the destruction of the forest by a fungus is beneficial can start new growth.

The difference with humans is our anthropocentric view; the earth was made for us and, therefore, we can exploit it as much as needed. Changing our understanding of Nature and our place in it is crucial to combat climate change. Shaviro’s article explains the complexities of Nature, including the energies and information exchanged that create this complexity. Nature is impossible for humans to fathom because it is infinite, but also not at the same time; it does not have an infinite amount of trees for us to cut. To conclude, Shaviro offers up a definition of Nature, yet I do not know if I agree with it. However, I do not know how I would define Nature myself, other than perhaps having the omnipotence and vast infinity that Christians view their God to have.