Is the nature/artifact distinction meaningful?

Here’s a response to Professor Katz’s nature/artifact dualism.  It comes from Steven Vogel, who published an article called “The Nature of Artifacts.”  He points out that there is little left in the world that humans have not interfered with.

What we call nature generally turns out to be already humanized in one way or another, and so already in part “artificial.”

But more importantly, he asks why we place the nature/artifact distinction between the human world and the non-human world.

Why, after Darwin, do we treat this particular species, which after all evolved naturally in the same unplanned way as any other, as something outside of nature?

The upshot for restorations is that:

If we reject the dualism, and acknowledge that humans are natural, and that nature is often already human, then ecological restorations might no longer look like forgeries or lies, and certainly not like attempts to destroy nature.

Vogel tries to poke holes in Katz’s view of artifacts.  He says that an artifact might be used differently from its intended use.  The artifact’s use may change over time, it might turn out to be useful in other ways than its creator had in mind, etc.

It does so because every artifact is real, and not simply an idea in someone’s head: it’s not (merely) an intention but rather the realization of an intention, and that makes a difference, for as every engineer, every gardener, and indeed every human being knows, to make something real is precisely to see it enter a realm beyond intention.

Ready for the punchline?  I have to admit, it kinda knocked me off my feet when I first read it:

…[W]e would not be far off if we named this excess, this reality that all artifacts possess: nature.

Bringing an artifact into reality.   Photo by Randy Oostdyk.
From idea to reality
Photo by Randy Oostdyk.

So Vogel seems to be saying that all artifacts have a “nature” or wild side to them.  He also asks whether humans can produce objects that are designed to be autonomous.  Can we intend to create an object that transcends our intentions?

While Katz is right that there’s a human intention behind restoration activity, he doesn’t see that that intention might be the coming into being of an area in which non-intentional processes would be allowed to occur without hindrance.

Vogel suggests a third category, “consisting of objections intentionally produced by humans beings that are neither natural nor artifacts.”

The items mentioned as belonging to his category seem like attractive ones from the point of view of intrinsic value: friendships, children, etc.  Artworks might belong here too.

Might restoring an ecosystem have more in common with bearing and raising a child than with forging an artwork or otherwise faking nature?

He also distinguishes between independence from humans now and in the past. A restored landscape lacks a continuous history of human non-intervention, but once the restoration is complete, it would thereafter be independent.

To produce a wild artifact might mean to put natural forces into action and then to let them go, in ways that are fundamentally unpredictable and outside of our control.

…[W]e might come to realize that the point of restoration is not the reproduction of a particular thing, but rather the putting play of natural processes – of wildness – that we then allow to operate, unpredictably and unimaginably in ways that are outside our ability to control.

Vogel extends this beyond restorations, to all artifacts.

[T]his moment of wildness arises in every artifact, not just in restorations.

There is a gap, in the construction of every artifact, between the intention with which the builders act and the consequences of their acts, a gap that is ineliminable and indeed constitutive of what it is to construct something: and we could call this gap “nature” – the nature in every artifact.

The "gap" between intention and reality.
The “gap” between intention and reality.

Instead of distinguishing between nature and artifact, Vogel suggests that we refer to “the environment.”  Doing so may lead us to live more virtuously.  He identifies two virtues that he thinks are important for environmentalism: knowledge and humility.

Yet I’m not sure I understand what kind of knowledge he means.  He says that we should know “the extent to which the human serpent is everywhere.”  I think Katz would agree.  What I thought Vogel would say is that we should know the wildness in our artifacts.  But how would that lead to virtue?  If we were to recognize our artifacts’ wild nature, would we be morally responsible to them?

Vogel seems to say “no” in chapter five of his latest book, Thinking Like a Mall.

To see that the world of artifacts that surrounds us – what I have been calling our “environment” – is something we have built, and that we have done so together (socially), is not to find it intrinsically valuable or even morally considerable.

But he says:

The environment itself is an artifact that we make through our practices, and hence one for which we are responsible and about which we ought to care.

I’m confused because Vogel bases our responsibility for the environment on our role in creating the environment.  But I thought his insight was that artifacts contain a certain wild nature…a degree of autonomy, beyond the control of our intentions and designs.  Shouldn’t that be the basis for our “ought to care”?  By extending wildness to artifacts, shouldn’t Vogel follow through and say that if we owe our artifacts anything, it’s because of their independent nature?  Yet instead he roots responsibility in the very opposite – our role in creating them, our successful bridging of “the gap.”

The second virtue is humility.  Vogel thinks we acquire humility by looking at the environment without the lens of nature/artifact dualism.

To understand that nature is in our artifacts, all of them, is to understand that all of our plans depend upon nature and never escape from it, that out intentions are never fully achieved, that the full consequences of our actions can never be predicted and indeed can never be entirely known.

But why do we need to collapse the distinction between nature and artifact to recognize that our plans do not always work out, that our designs may fail?  Can’t that same humility be present in Katz’s world of nature v. artifacts?

I wonder whether Vogel and Katz are aiming toward the same thing.  Vogel writes that:

Really, to pay attention to the nature of artifacts, I want to suggest, would lead us rather to acknowledge the limitations in our abilities, and in our technologies as well.


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