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Philosophy of Nature: Rethinking Naturalness.

Svein Anders Noer Lie

Philosophy of Nature: Rethinking Naturalness

London and New York: Routledge, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-138-79288-3 (HB) $160.00. xx + 220pp; index.

Although much of the recent literature in environmental ethics concerns an analysis of specific policy choices, Svein Anders Lie's Philosophy of Nature: Rethinking Naturalness embarks on a project to return to the deeper metaphysical issues regarding humanity and nature. Lie's book is an argument about the ontology of nature. It contains virtually no 'environmental ethics' as traditionally conceived. Yet the book should be read by any philosopher in the field of environmental ethics and philosophy, for Lie argues that we have to get the ontology right before we can begin to understand our ethical options.

The book has six chapters. In Chapter 1, Lie introduces the problem of the ontology of nature by surveying both the semantic complexities of the terms 'nature' and 'natural' and his motivations for undertaking this project. Two motivations are especially cogent: (1) a belief in the reality of nature provides limits to human manipulation and utilisation of the natural world, and (2) environmentalism presupposes the ideas of nature and naturalness to make sense of the entire gamut of environmental policies: sustainability, pollution, biodiversity, etc. (pp. 6-11). Lie surveys the meanings of nature and naturalness that are used by scientists, environmentalists, and ordinary people (pp. 11-18) but he claims this is not his goal. 'The primary aim in this book is not first and foremost to identify the right concept of naturalness, but to defend the philosophical viability of the concept' (p. 5; in all quotations, original emphasis). The first chapter ends with a summary of three categories of ontological theories (pp. 29-36): (1) 'passivism'--the idea that the behaviour of entities is determined by an external contingent force; included within this broad category are forms of essentialism, reductionism and social constructivism; (2) the Aristotelian teleological view of the behaviour of entities as being goal-directed; and (3) relational dispositionality, which Lie defends, in which entities have real dispositions to act in certain non-contingent ways, so that 'all being of nature [are] active... without requiring that "active" means ... goal directed' (p. 36). Lie wants to show that an ontology of this third type is better than the dominant passivism ontologies of contemporary science and philosophy, or the Aristotelianism that has been discarded by science but yet still infuses the environmentalist worldview.

Chapter 2 contains a historical exegesis. After a discussion of the rejection of a teleological ontology descended from Aristotle (pp. 45-50), Lie focuses on Locke and Hume as 'the main sources of passivism' (p. 53). Locke's essentialism leads to reductionism, the ontology of contemporary science: 'What constitutes a thing is an inner constitution of parts that is independent of any other thing, and from which the properties (qualities and powers) that we experience empirically flow' (p. 53). Hume is blamed for the complete contingency and lack of connection ('distinctness') of all beings; his view leads to a denial of the existence of nature through nominalism or social constructivism: 'Humeanism is typically a nominalist position. The nominalist can claim, together with the Humean, that the world has no real order, and that any such claim will be a claim that really has to do with needs that are specifically human and social' (pp. 61-62). This chapter concludes with a discussion of scientific experimentation. For knowledge claims discovered in the lab to be valid externally, science requires a Lockean essentialism, so that contingent parts on a lower level of reality necessarily cause observed behaviour at a higher level (pp. 70-73). For Lie this type of reasoning--prevalent in all science --is a mistake of ex post facto reasoning. Sorrow is not the production of specific brain cells and synapses--it cannot be predicted in advance by looking at the scientific data (p. 73). The problem with essentialist reductionism is that it denies the existence of any nature comprised of wholes--only parts at a lower level really exist as nature. And since these parts--under our current technologically dominated regime--can be infinitely manipulated, we get the result that 'naturalness' cannot exist (pp. 76-77).

Lie's argument for a proper ontology--relational dispositionalism--that can account for a viable concept of nature and naturalness comprises Chapters 3-5. I will not summarise the argument here because I have no expertise concerning contemporary debates in ontology. Lie is trying to situate his view within a current debate, but I am not sure that Lie thinks that environmental philosophers and ethicists will be able to sort out all of this metaphysics. At one point he confesses: 'This might seem to be a dull local debate within one of the many corners of philosophy' (p. 109). Perhaps. Yet the arguments are clearly relevant to the search for a viable concept of naturalness to be used as a normative limit on human activity.

Lie claims that his dispositional ontology means 'the different levels that exist in nature [e.g., atoms, organs, organisms, ecosystems] have been created by enduring manifesting dispositions. Nature consists of many layers of enduring manifesting dispositions that have been created over the course of time. The universe has a history' (p. 144). So although the objects of nature could in theory be potentially anything, the fact is that certain dispositions are known not to exist: I cannot shoot fire from my nostrils. This ontology 'makes possible arguments that support the reality of things like stones, hens, humans, trees and perhaps even landscapes'. Moreover, 'if these things are real, then we need to treat them and comport ourselves in relation to them as though they were real also' (p. 149). We need to recognise the 'historically evolved dispositional facts' of entities as natural, and this will provide a guide to appropriate action.

Lie eschews a discussion of ethics. 'I am not discussing the ethics of naturalness. I am discussing the possibility of naturalness, and what changes "naturalness" would be able to bring about in how we theorize and understand the relation between humans and non-humans' (p. 174). His ontological theory provides 'pragmatically speaking... a stronger general "defence of nature" than do proponents of a traditional "intrinsic values ethics" account' (p. 175). The reason is that we do not have to 'pre-establish the intrinsic value' of an entity (p. 176). In the final chapter, the reader might have expected to see the ethics and policy implications of the ontology worked out, but instead we have Lie's reading of the history of ecology. Lie demonstrates the ontological commitments that are connected to ecological theories--such as the 'balance of nature' or functionalism. His ontology, with its emphasis on historically evolved dispositional facts, avoids problems of essentialism or reductionism. 'To protect the naturalness of certain areas does not mean protecting a state in undisturbed balance, but protecting the specific processes, organisms, populations and adaptive-dynamic relations that we find in a given ecosystem' (p. 206). This idea of naturalness can serve as a 'benchmark, a point of reference that is not socially constructed' (p. 211).

For me, the appeal of Lie's argument is the idea that the dispositional history of an entity is a mark of its naturalness. As opposed to social constructivists who claim that nature only exists as a category of human social thought, Lie's grounding of naturalness in an ontological reality offers a yardstick for measuring proper interventions and uses of the natural world. As opposed to scientific reductionists who claim that nature is infinitely malleable and manageable by our advanced technology, his ontology offers a reason to limit the pervasive reach of a 'managerial ethos' (p. 212). The naturalness of natural entities is real and is known by understanding evolutionary history. Thus, for Lie, 'my undertaking has been to steal naturalness from the ethicists, who in any case do not know what to do with it, and hand it over to science where it really belongs' (p. 168).


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Author:Katz, Eric
Publication:Environmental Values
Article Type:Book review
Date:Feb 1, 2017
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