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December 20th, 2019
If you are unfamiliar with the concept of a Rivalnym, it is something developed by Tinkered Thinking to address a certain class of words and concepts that fall in a strange place between Synonyms and Antonyms. A rivalnym is a word, or rather, a pair of words that are somewhat synonymous in literal meaning, but opposite in terms of the emotional valence we ascribe to the thing being described.
An easy example is the pair of words cooperation/conspiracy. Both describe a group of people who are working together to bring about a commonly desired goal.
But cooperation is generally positive and conspiracy is generally negative.
This episode seeks to explore a pair of concepts that are a bit more complicated than the usual rivalnyms that have popped up on Tinkered Thinking before.
First, enter one of the most ambiguous and difficult to define words in the entire English language:
Ask 10 different people what Natural means and you’ll get 10 different answers with a vague trend of similarity. You’ll also get a few perplexed pauses.
One inevitable answer is that natural is whatever occurs in nature. This seems reasonable enough, but the construction ‘in nature’ contains a fair amount of problem.
For example, can we say that human society is natural? The aim here isn’t to answer it outright but simply to point out that ‘in nature’ implies somewhere else: the woods, where wild animals outnumber humans, and the ocean which might as well be totally unavailable to the average human – aside from what we haul out of it to eat.
Human society seems to be somewhat separate from nature given the way that we use these words. And of course there are countless people who believe that we should ‘return’ to more natural ways. The existence of this perspective is perhaps the best evidence to underscore the separateness that we’ve managed to squeeze between society and nature.
The problem with this dichotomy is easy to unravel and it requires only a simple question:
Where did human society come from?
Some might simply say ‘humans’, but where did humans come from? Well if Darwin has anything to say about it, we arose from the “natural” world.
The fact that human society ultimately arose from the natural world is unavoidable. In fact, without human society and culture, the concept of ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ wouldn’t even exist. They are things we created.
The interesting thing about this dichotomy which makes it begin to look like a Rivalnym is that we can say the exact same thing about the word ‘society’. Without human culture and society the concept of ‘society’ wouldn’t exist. We can take it to one more level of paradox and point out that ‘society' as a concept and as a real functioning thing, wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for…. ‘nature’.
Both ‘society’ and what is ‘natural’ are describing a process that we see on earth.
The most functional definition of what is ‘natural’ is simply what is physically possible.
This means that it’s natural for animals to eat each other alive, which happens everyday.
It also means plastic is natural and space travel, and of course, society.
But of course some of these things we feel good about and others we don’t feel good about and it’s because of this deep human trend to categorize things in such ways that we split things into different words.
Is it a conspiracy?
Or cooperation between people?
All depends on if you approve of their goal.
Nature is a sort of master category which subsumes all other categories. To claim that we are separate from it, or straying from it is to completely miss the larger picture.
Mother nature curiously created humans, and she’s clearly interested about where we are going to go and what we are going to do.