Can we stop ascribing sentience to Mother Nature?
A few years ago I was reading Endangered Minds: Why our kids don’t think and what we can do about it (an interesting read about learning, brain wiring, and childhood development). The book is Dedicated to Mother Nature and the gift – and responsibility – of neural plasticity. This struck me as strange. Who is this “Mother Nature” and why are we thanking her? The same woman is repeatedly thanked in the excellent series Life and, of course, many other places, for her wonderful creativity and fascinating beauty and creativity as evident in the world she’s responsible for.
Physicalism/materialism, as I understand them, have as their basic tenet that life, diversity of species, consciousness, etc are the result of mindless, undirected biological processes. We are here as the result of a purposeless process that happened to end (thus far) in humans as we know them.
I’m comfortable with the “Mother Nature” being blamed for rainstorms, pollen, aging, etc. A tweet I saw today from a softball team said Well, Mother Nature wins. We won’t be playing today. which really means “the weather didn’t work out for us today.” But that’s not the sense I get from many others. Time and time again, the products of nature are hailed, praised, and [somewhat] venerated by the same people who remind us of the limits of the game. As Francis Crick, co-disoverer of DNA, noted Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved.
In my opinion, we certainly have no responsibility to any law or process for our neural processes, and it’s certainly not something I would consider a gift.
I’m a little confused because I’m not sure why anyone should appreciate the results of a mindless process. Who do you appreciate? It seems strange to thank Mother Nature for her gift of sunsets, neural plasticity, or the color-change ability of the chameleon while denying she can think at all. Thanking Mother Nature for the majesty of an eagle or the migratory pattern of butterflies or for the wonder of the Grand Canyon seems to miss the point. Could we more truthfully say something like “My eyes are producing a predictable sensation in the area of my brain that finds this extensive result of complex biological progressions appealing”?
I am, admittedly, a theist which undoubtedly colors my views. While I certainly believe materialism is a possibility, I wish its proponents would not use veiled language of purpose or intentionality when describing the laws that govern the process. Is this special pleading, or a genuine discontinuity?
Update: While finishing these scattered thoughts, I found Don Miller’s blog post where he wonders, similarly, if Mother Nature is a crutch.