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The Concept of Nature

2000 to 2001
University of Aberdeen

From The Concept of Nature, pp. xi–xii:

Chapter 1 explores the multiple meanings of the word ‘nature’, traces some of their origins, and classifies them broadly under three main heads—nature as referring to the essential characteristics of a thing, nature as a force which makes things what they are, and nature as a description of everything that is. Under each of these headings there are further questions to be asked about what is given in the way things are, and what is socially constructed.

Chapter 2 centres on the use of the word in the natural sciences, and questions the assumptions underlying a purely naturalistic approach to the description of reality. A god-like perspective on the world of nature as a whole is not available to us.

Chapter 3 considers environmental issues. Given the extent to which human beings have always shaped their environment, is there a ‘natural world’ to be conserved or a ‘balance of nature’ to be respected? And is there a convincing intellectual basis for environmentalism?

Chapter 4 takes up the much-disputed theme of whether there is a natural moral law of universal application. It is suggested that while there may not be universal laws, there may be universal values to which appeal can be made. The frequent reference to what is deemed to be ‘natural’ in the context of sexuality is used as a test case of whether the concept has any clear meaning in the field of morality.

Chapter 5 describes how human beings have constantly tried to improve nature, whether by artistry as in landscaping, or for more utilitarian purposes as in breeding programmes, and asks how far our massively increased powers of manipulation, mainly nowadays through genetics, require new ethical constraints.

Chapter 6 draws together these various themes around the ideas of givenness and potentiality, and relates them to traditional beliefs about God. The book concludes with a discussion of nature and grace, and suggests that, far from being in antithesis to one another, nature may have incarnational significance as a means through which the grace of God can be discerned and received.

Contributor(s)
  • Jon Cameron, University of Aberdeen