When the natural elements wreak their havoc on us, which in the High Desert these days are heavy winds, we are reminded that human power can extend only so far. Yet our submission to "the laws of nature and of nature's God" is more a cause for celebration than despair.
Many people, educated and uneducated, seem to assume that nature is something outside us, forgetting that mankind is part of creation or the cosmos, and indisputably a powerful force within it. Some deplore and some rejoice that we seem to be the masters of all we see.
But, I believe, the truth is somewhere in between the extremes of minimizing and maximizing our position in "the great chain of being." We are not mere beasts and certainly not gods, for we have a nature no less all other things in the world. Thus, there is freedom in but also limits to our power. We are the "in-between being" who partakes of both the bestial and the divine.
Some speak of creation or the cosmos rather than nature, for they understand that nature does not name all that exists but is a term of distinction for all things. That is, every thing has a nature, which is constituted by its form and characterized by its purpose.
For example, birds are designed to fly, possessing the wings, shape and feathers that equip them for this purpose. This definition also serves to distinguish them from other two-legged creatures and animals with other appendages. They do more than fly, of course, but we are speaking here of what is distinctive. Some insects fly too, but no one confuses them with birds.
Mankind is a warm-blooded upright animal with the capacity for thinking, visibly manifested in speech but also demonstrated in tool-making. Some birds make sounds similar to speech but there is no inward meaning in them. Many animals build but they do not articulate a design or make blueprints.
Man's rationality is the basis for his capacity to choose, not only among alternatives that present themselves in everyday life but to make plans for the future; to determine what is immediately pleasant or beneficial but also to discern what is good for families and nations. Nothing is more distinctively human than contemplating the purpose for our lives.
What has distinguished mankind in our time is technology. Through an industrial revolution, human beings generated greater power and demonstrated more productivity than ever in our history. As fundamental as this was to our higher living standards, it almost seems quaint compared to what has come about since in electronics, computers, and space and medical technology.
These remarkable advances have not and cannot change our fundamental nature as rational animals. I am far from minimizing the enormity and the value of technological progress, but we are still mortal and subject to the domination of passion as well as reason. In a world of brilliant scientists there are "ethically challenged" ones who need to be governed by the laws and customs of our humane civilization.
Just now our greatest danger is the passion for limitless experimentation and the urge to commandeer the whole world's resources. Ironically, it comes in the guise of concern for mankind's well-being, whether that is the eradication of disease or the amelioration of our fears.
What could be more desirable, some believe, than utilizing the seemingly limitless possibilities of embryonic stem cells to combat diseases? Why should the loss of allegedly less than truly human blastocysts stand in the way?
And who wants to be incinerated in the zone of green house gases that are said to be threatening to dry up the world? Who wants to see the ice and snow melt and inundate the earth with water while turning the fertile portions of the earth into gigantic deserts?
These horrible scenarios depend for their credibility on the almost divine claims being made for modern science. Its practitioners believe that they can eliminate all human ills even as they accuse their fellows of making the world uninhabitable by past scientific progress! Their hubris (overweening arrogance) consists in overestimating man's powers and ignoring the limitations of his nature.
We human beings are builders and thinkers but we are not gods. We are not free of nature. We are part of it. We cannot "save" mankind or the world. We can only live in accordance with our natures and the natural elements.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of " Taking Journalism Seriously: 'Objectivity' as a Partisan Cause" (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.