Friday, October 21, 2005

natural versus….versus what?

artificial: Made by humans; produced rather than natural. (

I believe the above definition is scientifically bunk. Simply, humans are natural, therefore, the things we produce, whether thoughts, genes, or algorithms are 100% natural. There is no real barrier between the two. The distinguishing is merely a conversational convenience that scientists must avoid to be credible. useful at dinner, useless in scientific inquiry.

Recently, I’ve been reading about folks (mathematicians) and their observations about the stock market and prices in the stock market. During these readings I have come across an issue that seems to lead many into amazement--that human created systems behave similar to natural systems. In this case, the similarities of market movement to turbulence in water or Brownian motion in particles. I feel this is terribly misguided…to separate out things man does as something that is NOT natural when something that occurs that man does not create is natural. the fact is that all of these systems are natural and the fact that a bunch of natural systems can be simulated with other effective models of natural systems is not as amazing as one makes it seem to be.

This has an interesting implication when it comes to silicon products, or software for that matter. At a high level people gaze in amazement at the artifact as if it is artificial..but in reality it is entirely natural and the barrier between the two is imposed by humans as they attempt to categorize and structure the world, not a priori by the world itself. Therefore, a machine, CPU, disk, etc. etc. broken down is created by a set of components that are entirely natural. Artificial flavors are created from natural systems. Genetic engineering is producing natural organisms by an entirely natural process of humans intervening in the ecosystem, just like a bear does when he hunts or when elks select their mates in the woods by genetic engineering (called natural selection but its really an exercise in genetic engineering)…there is no such thing to my knowledge that actually deserves to be called artificial that exists or has been created by humans. we are natural...synthetic fabrics are created by material DUG FROM DEEP IN THE EARTH…..if that is not natural than what is? are you saying because you manipulate it, bend it, stretch it, infuse it that it at some point takes on a different form, that it transitions from natural to artificial? and if so, where in that cycle did this transition occur? or is this one of those porn propositions, “you’ll know it when you see it.” as soon as man manipulates it perhaps? as soon as he takes the natural thing, uses a tree branch as a walking stick, it ceases its naturalness? do you see the flaws in this reasoning?

it matters because it effects perception. we are hung up on an error as a civilization, the distinguishing between things that exist without our intervention and things that exist only after our intervention. Relieving ourselves of this notion relieves us from the guilt of manipulation of our surroundings that engulfs huge swathes of humanity as they raise up in unison against things that are not pure. its not about that. take again the example of flavorings in food. now, it is perfectly reasonable to say ‘this stuff is too far from the tree for my little tummy to process appropriately and too weird for my body and may cause a mutation (which…by the way…is also an entirely natural occurrence). but it is not okay to say ‘this is artificial’. what we do when we actualize ourselves and manipulate the universe is following a natural course, there is nothing artificial about it.

again, I don’t debate the value of the word for conversation, I debate its usefulness in scientific dialog. a scientist cannot say something is artificial any more than a technology can be called inherently good or bad.


Riana said...

Have you seen the movie Pi? Its plot is based on a proposal very similar to your stated conviction here:

"1. Mathematics is the language of nature. 2. Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers. 3. If you graph the numbers of any system, patterns emerge. Therefore: There are patterns everywhere in nature. ...So what about the stock market? The universe of numbers that represents the global economy, millions of human hands at work, billions of minds, a vast network screaming with life. An organism, a natural organism. My hypothesis: within the stock market there is a pattern behind the numbers..."

Anonymous said...

Interesting rant :-)

For further contemplation, though, consider this: you're arguing about whether or not the definition of artificial is meaningful. However, if someone showed you an object (unless their intent was specifically to try to trick you), almost 100% of the time you could correctly say whether the object was made by man or not, right? Hence the definition of artificial is a pretty good one in that it assigns a term to that classification.

Also, you state indirectly that the theory of macro evolution is a fact. It certainly is not and it technically can't even be called "scientific" because it doesn't employ the scientific method (observe, hypothesize, predict, experiment, test and adjust hypothesis, repeat) because the experiment phase is never done (for micro evolution it is, but not for macro evolution).

In case you weren't sure, this note is artificial (i.e. created by a human :-) ).

adam lake said...


first paragraph: yes, i agree.

2nd paragraph: i am not certain how i got caught up in this mistake. macro-evolution remains a faith based argument. therefore, i would not try to say such a thing. while i don't agree it couldn't be proven, i do agree it has not yet been proven. could you elaborate in how i got caught up in this so i may clarify.

KimPallister said...

I agree that the 'natural' vs 'artificial' terms, esp when applied to food, medicine, etc, are grossly misunderstood, and marketeers have taken advantage of this.

For what it's worth, there's a legal definition ( that the FDA applies, it *does* mean something. However, note that while listing "natural flavor" on the package ingredients mean something, listing "all-natural oatmeal" on the box cover as a descriptor of the product itself means nothing.

Schlosser gives a good example in Fast Food Nation, of a flavoring (I beleive it was almond?) who's 'naturally' produced version contains some toxins, but the 'artificially produced' one is toxin free. Still, the natural one sells for more because of perceived value.

Through all of this, only one thing remains certain: I like stuff with more artificial flavor. Twinkies. Hohos. Bring it on.

adam lake said...
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adam lake said...

well...based on riana's post above...i just watched pi again today (well...its yesterday now that it's 4am now).

watching it the first time i really wasn't able to follow the dialog...i was captivated by the cinematography (the first use of a new camera technique that he used again in requiem for a dream). i was also distracted by the way they obsessed with pi and its connection to the 217 digit number which seemed kinda hockey (or something i wasn't aware of in mathematics which is very likely), and the use of all the old school computers with the 'chip' and stuff like that all wired together.

this time i wasn't distracted by this and could pay more attention to the dialog and appreciated the intent of the movie alot more.

thanks for the pointer! its a great movie.

there's another along a similar vein called Primer which i need to watch again as well.