If I had a “random musings” category, this post would qualify, although I will instead be attempting to justify it as an educational piece on philosophy and science. The other morning, I was making a slice of toast for breakfast, and I noticed on the package that it proclaimed, “no artificial preservatives” (yes, we still buy bread from the store sometimes, despite my facility with homemade sourdough). That prompted me to think “hm, does that mean there are natural preservatives? And what really is the difference between something that is natural and something that is artificial?” Thus, this post about the natural, the unnatural, and the miraculous.
A normal person, meaning someone who doesn’t spend preposterous amounts of time thinking about things that no one else would be bothered to think about for a few minutes, would likely dismiss this as a question with an obvious answer. The definitions of the words make it clear: something is natural if it comes from the environment, while something is artificial if it is manmade. Simple and straightforward, at least until you start to really think about it.
Take the aforementioned loaf of bread. Even better, take one of those homemade sourdough loaves that I mentioned earlier. I combine one hundred grams of my sourdough starter on Friday night with about three hundred grams of white flour, two hundred grams of whole wheat flour, a gram of salt, and three hundred and fifty grams of water. That mixture rests overnight, with maybe a folding or two before I go to bed to help develop the gluten. Sometime the next morning, when the resulting dough has risen adequately, I use wet hands to turn it out onto a floured board, where I give it a brief kneading, form it into a ball, and plop it into a banneton to proof for another few hours. When those few hours of passed, I heat the oven to five hundred degrees (or as hot as I can get it), with a pan of boiling water in the bottom, and I keep a cast iron pan heating along with the oven. When the oven has been up to temperature for maybe twenty minutes, I transfer my proofed loaf onto a cornmealed peel, brush the surface with water, slash the top of the dough, and push it into the oven. A few turnings and mistings later, along with about a half hour of cooking and a painfully long few hours of cooling, I have bread.
Is that bread artificial? Is it natural? On the one hand, everything that went into making that bread came from nature. It is about as pure a leavened bread as you can have: just flour, water, and salt. The sourdough starter is just water and flour that has attracted wild yeast. On the other hand, this product would not exist without the involvement of a human hand. The chances of all of these components coming together to form a finished loaf of bread that will sit singing on the counter without a human or other deliberate actor involved are astronomically slim. So, is such a loaf of bread a natural product, or an artificial one?
If we say that it’s a natural product, where then is the line? Is the plastic packaging on that store-bought loaf artificial, or is it natural? Just like the bread, everything that goes into making plastic is a natural ingredient that we process in various ways to form different polymers, from hard plastic bins to plastic cling wrap. On the other hand, if we say that it’s an artificial product, then what would qualify as natural? Are the raw flour and water natural products? The water probably passed through purification and filtration processes, and the flour definitely was processed from its original grain (and even in its original form, the wheat is the product of millennia of genetic engineering through selective breeding, and quite unlike the barely digestible, tiny, unproductive wheat plant from which modern wheat is derived). Can we even say that raw fruits and vegetables are natural, when they, too, have experienced such genetic manipulation, and at the very least are probably washed before we eat them? That’s a form of processing, too.
There is an extreme to which you can take these ideas, which is that the only natural products are products upon which humans have had no effect over the millions of years of our existence. Yet that extreme forces you to beg the question: are not humans themselves a part of nature? No one bred us, invented us, manipulated us into being (we will ignore the supernatural and discussions of intelligent design for the moment) – we evolved as the result of selective pressures that favored the development and survival of a creature capable of adapting its environment to itself rather than itself to its environment. If the process of the environment changing its inhabitants is unnatural, then nothing at all can be considered natural.
To approach this question from a more scientific direction, rather than a philosophical one, consider particle physics. According to most theories of particle physics, one fundamental particle is completely indistinguishable from any other fundamental particle of the same type with the same properties – in effect, it is the exact same particle. This underpins the entire concept of quantum teleportation, not to mention most of the standard model of particle physics, but quantum teleportation is probably a subject for another post. Instead, let’s look at atoms, which most people are a little more comfortable with, and if you need a refresher, check out this post on nuclear fusion.
Particle accelerators and related technologies have enabled humans to create elements that we have never observed in nature (and that many physicists will assert do not exist in nature, although I consider this something of a failure of imagination and not a little scientific hubris). Most of the elements with atomic numbers higher than uranium have only been observed in laboratory environments, created by human processes, and they are so unstable that they only exist for a handful of nanoseconds (if that) before they decay to more stable forms. Are such atoms, then, artificial?
Say that you’re a physicist in such a laboratory, and you’ve created oganesson-294 by bombarding californium-249 with calcium-48. You’ll get oganesson-294 with a half-life of 0.00089 seconds, along with three extra neutrons (it will take you about 1080 hours of bombardment with 16,000,000,000,000,000,000 calcium ions to generate just three atoms of oganesson-294, which in just 0.00089 seconds will decay into livermorium-290, but that’s beside the point). The point is that you have just created an element. That seems like, according to our above definitions, it would be an artificial product, that we would call those atoms artificial.
Now, imagine that you are also a physicist, and using atomic spectroscopy to observe the remnants of a hypernova you manage to discern a trace signal for oganesson-294. Aside from probably winning a Nobel prize, you manage to isolate the exact properties of the component fundamental particles that compose this distant, “natural” atom of oganesson-294: every quark’s, every gluon’s, every electron’s spin, handedness, color, chirality, charge, position, and so forth. Interestingly, you notice that those properties exactly match those of one of the atoms of oganesson-294 that you created in your laboratory.
According to the standard model of particle physics, and most schools of scientific thought (philosophy has things to say on this matter that will definitely not fit in this post), those atoms are not just identical – they are the same atom. At a subatomic, fundamental particle level, they are absolutely indistinguishable, and they are therefore the same atom. Not just identical examples of a type – the same atom. I’m repeating that because it took me a very long time to understand it, and even longer to come to terms with its implications (by which I mean that I still haven’t fully come to terms with the quantum weirdness associated with the assertion). So we have one atom that, by our above definitions, we would call absolutely artificial, and another atom that we would call absolutely natural, and they are absolutely indistinguishable, one and the same atom. If we brought them together, we couldn’t even say “that’s atom number one, and that’s atom number two.” All we would be able to say is that there are two atoms of oganesson-294 with such-and-such properties.
I recognize that this is an extreme case, but when pondering a question like this I find it useful to examine edge cases and try to break whatever assumptions, definitions, and premises I happen to be utilizing, so I ask you to consider it on its own merits. Here we have two of the same atoms, but one we are calling artificial, and one we are calling natural. But there’s nothing at all to distinguish between the two, nothing that marks one as having been the product of an artificial process versus a natural process, nothing to indicate that one was manufactured in a laboratory and that the other one was forged in the heart of a dying star. If there’s no difference in substance, if the only difference lies in the process, then does the difference in origins matter at all, or is it just an incidental fact that we as humans cannot quite expunge because of innate deficiencies in the way we think?
By the way, there is a further discussion to be had from here about the nature of information that relates to concepts like entropy, black holes, and the very nature of reality and the universe in which we live, but that is a topic for another post.
Consider, then, the idea of miracles, which might seem unrelated but is actually subject to the same kind of thought process. A miracle is defined in the Oxford dictionary as being “a surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency.” In other words, a miracle is an artificial product of an entity not bound by natural constraints, perhaps the ultimate artificial product, and based on our previous discussion possibly the only artificial product. Yet this definition leaves room for miracles that are decidedly non-miraculous. All the definition requires for a miracle is a poor understanding of physics or a lack of information. If we instead define a miracle as something that is not allowable by the basic mechanisms of the universe, whether or not we fully understand them, then we have a) rendered miracles truly dependent on supernatural entities or sources derived external to our universe, and b) made miracles completely unimaginable to the human brain. No miracle ever recorded in all of the annals of history, myth, and legend could not be duplicated by sufficiently advanced technology or explained by physics that we do not yet understand, regardless of the original mover of such events.
My assertion, therefore, is that anything and everything that has or can result from processes that comply with the physical parameters and behaviors fundamental to the universe is natural, whether made by humans, chimpanzees, tardigrades, or amorphous jellyfish-aliens floating in the atmosphere of TOI-2109 b, and whether or not we understand and can articulate the physical laws involved, is natural, and that the only unnatural things or events are those that are the result of, or themselves are, miracles, in the sense that we established above, wherein a miracle is something that is not allowable by the basic, fundamental mechanisms of the universe, but nonetheless occurs by some mechanism entirely opaque to the human imagination.
This whole exercise is really an academic one, as I have no expectation that people will adopt my definitions of these terms in day-to-day existence, and even I intend to continue to use the terms according to their colloquial connotations in my writing when it suits my purposes. However, I find it interesting to perform these sorts of thought experiments, as they force me to question basic assumptions and exercise my brain in a different way from other forms of thought. I also don’t claim to have ultimate answers on these questions, so I would be happy to discuss further with you in the comments below. In the meantime, I should probably go think about something more productive, like how to transport and store energy for NASA on the Moon.