Why Mike is a Curmudgeon: Note #3 (Natural)

Why is natural better? Or if it isn’t, why do people keep telling me that it is?

Anyone who’s cared to listen to me over the last several years will know that I am highly suspicious of the label ‘natural’ when it comes to food, medicine, or really any type of product or process, and likewise any claims to the effect that natural = better (‘organic’ is also on thin ice, but I’ll keep my rant focused for now.) My first problem is that I simply don’t know what ‘natural’ really means, which then causes one of two typical philosopher responses: a furrowed brow or a blank stare off into the distance. The second problem is more empirical: although (putative) natural things might be better than nothing (except in the case of poisonous plants and animals), on the whole, advances in science and technology (or putative “unnatural” things) have resulted in arguably the single greatest accomplishment of human-kind: the doubling of our lifespan in the last 100 years.

I’m not the first person (or philosopher*) to take issue with the use of ‘natural’, but there is still widespread enthusiasm for natural products (i.e., at least several people I know) – and so I’d like to know why. I suppose this post is really a RFI (request for further information) from you philosophers or readers of philosophical blogs:

• Is there a tenable conceptual distinction to be made?
• Is there any reason to think that there is an important metaphysical difference between natural and unnatural things?
• Is there any reason to suppose that natural = better? Would these reasons not be outweighed (at least as it concerns medicine) by the prima facie empirical evidence (i.e., that unnatural things have doubled our life-expectancy)?
• And if we answer no to these questions, is there some sociological/psychological reason to explain why people think natural = better? And better still, what should a philosopher do when people advocate that natural = better?

I’ve revealed my opinion, or at least profound confusion, on the matter. At a general level, I would expect that what happens to be available in nature is just a hodgepodge of random things that may or may not be useful or good for us. Either way, the process to follow is the same in terms of discovering what works: we guess and test, and let experience teach us. We stop using things that obviously hurt us, we grow, gather, or make things that obviously help us, and we cling to the rest in lieu of something better (to at least leverage the placebo effect.) I think that “unnatural” products are thus getting a bad rap here, and really, in the interest of the economy and our health, we should launch a project to de-vilify unnatural products. Maybe the marketers can help with this, but I’ll give them a head start: “Pharmaceutical grade Vitamin C: unnaturally good.”

*For example, Marc Ereshefsky discusses the possibility of demarcating the natural from unnatural based on human actions in his “Where the wild things are: environmental preservation and human nature”, Biology and Philosophy (2007). He finds such a distinction ultimately untenable. And I apologize for bringing him into this rant 🙂