A few years ago, I took a continuing adult education class on astronomy. I thought it was a real, accredited college class, but no, it wasn't. This was in the days before I was an atheist. If anything, I would have called those months a time when I was a pantheist. I entered the class ready to be bombarded with facts, new discoveries, and difficult tests that would justify complaining to people that I had to study. It wasn't that kind of class. Don't misunderstand me. It was very good for an adult with an interest in astronomy, but not a passion; Someone that read about the stars incessantly.

The first question the teacher asked, once we had all found our seats, was “When we look at the sky, what do we see?” There were the usual: stars, planets, comets, meteors, and nebulae. I'm an idiot so I said, “Clouds, airplanes, and UFO's. After the snickering died down, the teacher commented on the airplane and UFO part by saying that she was asking for natural phenomena. I sat back and wondered.

What is a natural phenomenon? I asked the opinion of several people I worked with and they seemed to all agree that a cloud was natural, but an airplane and UFO were not. Why is this? “Because an airplane is man made.” It seems that if a man or alien make something, it is not natural, but if an animal or nature does it, it is natural. I asked about a bird nest: Natural. A house: not natural, man made. So began the argument.

I should back up and give some context. A few days before the class, I bought a bottle of juice from a vending machine at work. I still have the bottle somewhere because it tied in nicely with this whole issue. On the label was the guarantee that this product was, “Naturally flavored with other natural flavors.” My co-workers didn't see the humor I did in reading this and didn't follow what I was saying about that statement. What were the alternatives? Unnaturally flavored with natural flavors? Naturally flavored with unnatural flavors? How do you flavor something naturally? Don't things have a natural flavor anyway? If you have to do the flavoring yourself, is that unnatural? Anyway, this was running through my head on the back burner when the teacher rebuffed me for mentioning UFO's and airplanes.

Why was something that man made unnatural, and everything else is natural? The consensus at work was if a man makes it, it is artificial. Everything else was natural. I countered by saying that if it is natural, and humans are part of nature, then it must be natural if humans do it. We went back and forth for a few days along these lines. They would propose that humans use tools to make things so that is therefore, artificial. I pointed out that animals also use tools and that was natural. If there was an alien civilization, then no matter how advanced, they got that way by using natural steps, achieving whatever stupendous things they can hypothetically do.

I finally came up with a solution to the question, “What is natural?” Something is natural if it follows the laws of nature. Therefore, everything is natural. My co-workers didn't like this answer and the discussion faded away. I could not convince anyone that if humans do it, it is still natural. Therefore, back to the class above. When I answered by saying airplanes and UFO's are seen in the sky, I don't see how that would not be a natural phenomenon. If you want to define unnatural as something man does that takes multiple steps with many people collaborating on a common goal, this seems more a difference in degree, not a difference in kind.

I think I am still remembering this incident all these years later because I could not convince anyone and I could be wrong. Or maybe this issue is one of the instances where humans have made an English word to separate us from other animals. A meme that makes people think we are somehow different than the natural world. Perhaps a bias toward humans that makes the definition of what we do, not the same thing as an animal does. A dichotomy between humans and nature built right into the language. Or maybe I am just naturally curious. :)

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Comment by Eli on October 2, 2008 at 11:45am
once again I think we're up against definition vs. common usage. natural in common usage is often thought of as something "not man made" (I guess intelligent extraterrestrials would also qualify). Of course there could be varying degrees, and people love to pick nits. I like Dennett's take on the artifacts produced by animals, the airplane, the spider's web, the beaver's damn, these are all fruits on the tree of life.
Comment by TJMorgan on October 2, 2008 at 9:27am
This is a good topic to ponder, and I have pondered it before. My conclusion was the same as yours but I put it in slightly different words.

If something exist, then "it" is natural. Anything that exist MUST be natural. Once one understands this, it can be used in an argument against the "supernatural." like god is claimed to be. The argument goes as follows... If something exist, then it is natural. The supernatural cannot exist because if it did it would not be supernatural, it would be by definition, natural. God is claimed to exist yet be supernatural. So there is a contradiction. It must be that either god doesn't exist, or if god did, then god must be natural. If god is natural, then god should be examinable by science.

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