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Nature In The Third Millennium

Clearly, the idea of nature is semantically and conceptually conflicted. If we think of nature as meaningful across multiple temporal and spatial scales, from the cosmic to the subatomic, then we can also understand that our dysfunctional relations are due in part to our lack of either the ability or the commitment to integrate knowledge of nature across scales. Contemporary thinkers argue that the hold of ancient dreams, especially the return to the Garden, must be put behind. And the failed idea of nature inherited from classical science must be replaced by alternative ways of conceptualizing nature and our place therein.

Some of these emerging ideas were first broached in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by alternative voices such Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold, and then more vigorously in the latter part of the twentieth century by Ilya Prigogine and Edward O. Wilson. Thoreau argued that the best humankind could hope for was a sympathy with the intelligence of nature rather than sure and certain knowledge. Leopold, observing the destruction of nature at an unprecedented scale, argued that humans should think of themselves as citizens of the land community rather than as the conquerors of nature. Near the end of the century Prigogine argued that humankind must, for the first time in its history, engage the evolved complexity of the natural world in dialogue, as a conversational partner. And Wilson made clear that humankind's actions over the first few decades of the new millennium would have profound consequences for the future of life.

As a linguistically reflexive, naturally evolved yet culturally self-conscious species, we might yet find our way into more tenable and less destructive notions of nature. But the challenge is enormous. How might we break free of the notion that we are the dominators of a brute, blind, material world of nature into an idea that leads us to restore some sense of ourselves as natural creatures, living in harmony with nature, while also retaining our distinctive cultural identity? There is no ready answer. Perhaps we will come to know the idea of nature more fully when we have come more fully to realize the enormity of time and our own historicity. There are reasons to think, as we enter the twenty-first century, that humankind might come to embrace an idea of nature that includes ourselves as cognizing subjects within it while not reducing ourselves to it.


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Max Oelschlaeger

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Mysticism to Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotideNature - Nature Before Literacy, Nature In Antiquity, Pre-socratic Ideas Of Nature, Nature In Greek Rationalism