NATURE DOES NOT EXIST
For Question Time recently, I was with David Dimbleby's panel in Norwich.
We were asked about floods, global warming and carbon-dioxide emissions. I
said I could offer no more than a hunch: that a change in the pattern of
our weather might be under way, but, if it were, then we probably knew
less than we claimed about its nature or cause. I was unsure, I said, how
important a part mankind played in climate change. I thought the
contribution might be marginal.
The audience's reaction astonished me. 'A sharp intake of breath'
understates. From the whole studio came a sort of low whistling sound - a
sucking-in of air through clenched teeth. It was as though we were back in
the Middle Ages and I had denied the Virgin Birth. The response said more
than 'We disagree.' It said 'You have blasphemed.' Which I had.
And, no, I am not about to say that science has taken the place of religion.
That implies that there was once religion but now there is science; as
though at some point religion stopped and 'science' took over. But science
was always supreme. In the end there is only science and there only ever
was, for science is the pursuit of knowledge. All that changes is the
agreed facts, and a deity was once one of these. Science is not the new
religion. Religion was the old science. The new science, which must manage
without God, has found 'nature'. We must not (it whispers) disturb
Well, count me among the new atheists. I don't believe in nature. I
seen a tree but I have never seen nature. I don't believe in a nature's
way or nature's balance. The history of the planet offers no more reason
to believe in a natural balance than the history of mankind offers reason
to believe in a beneficent God.
Mankind has pursued knowledge since first we began fumbling for a
systematic understanding of our universe, but we seem to be impelled, too,
to proceed from an 'is' to an 'ought', to perceive, in what we find, a
design from which lessons may be learnt for our own behaviour. This
ordering of the universe once placed at its apex a deity. The deity was
part of science, the primary scientific fact. The deity's laws, like
Newton's, were immutable. Its works, commands, signs and tokens were in
the universe and as real (we thought) as the mountains, winds and tides;
as real as the child who stands outside her doll's house, arranging
So we studied as best we could this deity, responsible (as we supposed)
for the arrangement of things. Many of our scientists then were called
priests and all legitimate science was conducted under the aegis of the
Church. God was mysterious indeed, but mysterious because, like the ends
of the universe, partly unknown. Acts of worship and adoration, acts of
repentance and penitence, were not irrational or even non-rational, but
practical responses to the biggest Thing about.
If a tree came crashing down, you jumped - or it would squash you. If
God's judgment came crashing down, you deferred to it - or He would squash
you. To study and so far as possible know God was only common sense: the
most practical thing in this world and the only practical route to the
Prominent in this study was the search for messages: signs in the natural
world, signs by which the deity was indicating its approval or
disapproval, its wishes, and its plans.
Here is my mediaeval namesake, Matthew Paris, writing in 1247: In this
same year, on the Ides of February, that is on the eve of St Valentine's
day, an earthquake was felt at various places in England, especially at
London and above all on the banks of the River Thames. It shook many
buildings and was extremely damaging and terrible. It was thought to be
significant because earthquakes are unusual and unnatural in these western
countries since the solid mass of England lacks those underground caverns
and deep cavities in which, according to philosophers, they are usually
generated, nor could any reason for it be discovered. It was therefore
expected that the end of the ageing world was at hand according to the
threats of the gospel....
Matthew, a monk of St Albans, was the foremost chronicler of his time.
There were no historians then, only reporters, but their accounts were
ambitious. The first volume of Brother Matthew's record reported the
history of the world from the Creation, through the Flood, to 1188. The
next covers the period from 1189 to 1253. A tabloid monk, Matthew was much
taken with what he saw as perturbations in the natural world. His
equivalent today would be writing of 'diabolical' conditions on the A1 to
St Albans. Matthew's account goes on: A long spell of bad weather
followed: unseasonable, wintry, stormy, cold and wet, so that both
gardeners and farmers complained that spring had been transformed into
winter by a backward movement.... This disturbed weather lasted
continuously up to the feast of the translation of St Benedict.
Matthew's calling was to the service of the primary fact of his epoch:
God, displayed and explained in the Testaments Old and New. He needed to
believe - and his Church needed its ultimate paymasters, the laity, to
believe - that these great textbooks, to which the Church held the key,
were the door to knowledge. The Church's role in explaining and exploring
could be divided into two parts. One was to interpret its data. The other
was to maintain the laity's fearful respect for the Church's science: its
theory of the universe. That fear was a monk's lever of power. It was
ordinary people's belief that specialists like Matthew could read and then
advise on God's plan, which gave him his status and gave his Church its
means of social control.
To do so, Matthew was not the first scientist, and has not proved the
last, to exploit the human animal's inborn fear of an ungovernable
universe. Nor was he first or last to play upon the suspicion that gnaws
at the innards of every age: that we are not living as we ought. Find a
way of linking these two secret disquiets and you have an unshakable grip
on the popular imagination.
Here's how: place at the apex of your order of creation a fiction. If
are born in the Middle Ages, call it God. If you live now, call it the
Ecological Balance. Identify a perturbation in nature, then interpret it
as a warning that we are living wrongly and should change our ways.
Finally, earn yourself status, a pulpit, a Commons cheer, a living, or a
research grant by elaborating on the perturbation and enumerating the ways
we should change.
As Michael Hanlon demonstrated in a scorching Spectator article last
the weather is, for all sorts of reasons, fertile ground for those who
would sow such terrors. Averages are compiled from extremes, but no
extreme is average. Those who can claim a specialist insight denied the
masses have never been slow to find in extreme weather events proof that
these are God's, or nature's, way of telling us to do as they say.
Ever since the Flood, floods were interpreted as divine punishments.
fire and brimstone that rained on Sodom and Gomorrah were among the most
spectacularly extreme weather events in legend; but the 'acid rain' that
we believe to harm lakes and trees is ascribed to human wickedness just as
were Sodom's troubles: our lust, in this case, for electricity.
Plagues and poxes offer another pulpit for finger-pointing and bossing
around. For millennia, sexually transmitted diseases have been God's way
of telling other people not to cheat on their spouses. Drug-resistant
viruses tell us, apparently, to stop being pill-poppers; lowered
resistance to illness tells us to stop mollycoddling our children and
centrally-heating our homes.
Note that in every case the voice crying 'I told you so' has an ulterior
motive. Science is wheeled on just as God was once wheeled on, as
corroborating evidence (from a superior source) for something upon which
the voice of moral reproof wanted to insist anyway. Many and loud have
been the voices crying that Aids was God's way of punishing an unnatural
practice. One day, perhaps, an inoculation against HIV may be discovered.
A bottle of champagne, then, for whoever cites me evidence of one of those
voices crying that the breakthrough is God's way of telling us to bugger
Droughts, too, have been believed to be ordained. Innumerable religions
ascribe to their leaders the power to break drought through propitiation
of their gods. To this day the King of Swaziland bolsters temporal
authority with his annual rainmaking ceremony: the barbarian version, if
you like, of John Prescott's pilgrimage to the Kyoto summit to promote an
abatement in greedy carbon emissions so that the oceans will cease to
rise. King Mswati III has witch doctors at his court; the deputy prime
minister has scientists at the Department of the Environment, Transport
and the Regions. Both teams - one in leather skirts, the other in grey
suits - work to boost their chief's authority through doubtful claims to a
power of intercession with the gods of weather. It is in the interests of
both chief and witch doctors to encourage the public to treat any
questioning of such powers and insights as heresy.
Other disorders of nature are seized upon in the same way. Notice how
Matthew Paris appeals to the science of his day by quoting the received
wisdom that 'natural' earthquakes are caused by cavities underground, and
that these are lacking in England. This was believed then, but it is
wrong; and even if it were true, nobody at the time was in a position to
be certain that there were no deep cavities underground. The argument for
divine intervention by earthquake is thus predicated upon a mixture of
mistaken science and incomplete knowledge, and then linked (by reasoning
unexplained) to unseasonal weather. But Matthew's writing is steeped in
the conviction that all sorts of people were behaving in very wrongful
ways - so what could they expect? Many centuries later, the great
earthquake of Lisbon brought its own generation of Matthews speculating on
what God was trying to say - speculation which Voltaire so tellingly
Before you mutter that our age has not forgotten Voltaire's wisdom,
global warming. This may or may not be occurring. If it is, it may or may
not be part of a huge shift of indefinite duration (it may equally be a
limited blip). If part of a huge shift, it may or may not be driven mostly
by the burning of fossil fuels by humans. And if so driven, it may or may
not prove reversible by the self-denying ordinances of some of the
That is a long chain of ifs. It seems reasonable to think that there
be excuse for one or two doubters to quit somewhere between its beginning
and end. Why, then, does doubt meet the sheer anger I met in Norwich? Why
did an emotional outburst from a girl in the audience, who said the lesson
was that we must all stop being greedy and driving around in cars, get
such warm applause? The difference is not explained by the greater
plausibility of her science, but by its appeal to our rooted suspicion
that we are living wickedly and must mend our ways. Deny her science, and
you align yourself with the wicked. I had.
If you doubt it, imagine that a group of scientists found evidence for
belief, say, that, because burning fossil fuels stimulates plant growth
(as carbon dioxide does), which boosts the conversion of CO2 into oxygen
(as plants do), the greenhouse effect may eventually limit itself. The not
implausible suggestion would be that, though fluctuating within broad
margins, the earth's atmosphere may be self-stabilising. One might
reasonably suppose that the news would be greeted with relief.
Would it? You know the answer. It would be received with fury and a
determined effort to discredit the research. The reason is twofold. First,
we do not wish to be told that our profligacy has no evil consequences.
Second, our modern priesthood of politicians, scientists, single-issue
campaigners and faculties of earth-science at countless universities now
have so deep-rooted a financial and career-interest in crying 'Woe unto
the world!' that the message that nothing needs to be done is profoundly
Some news runs against the grain of popular feeling. Remember the claim
recently that organic food was no better for us than the alternative?
Nobody wanted to hear it. The view is now common in saloon bars that
feeding animals to animals is 'unnatural' and 'nature' has punished us
with BSE. But how long have we been feeding fishmeal to chickens? And
(before Brussels) was the practice of feeding human swill to pigs not as
old as swine husbandry? It may well be that feeding animal protein to cows
was what caused BSE, but the associated argument that this somehow 'serves
us right' is pure Matthew Paris. Yet everywhere one hears it.
After the second world war it became common to remark that 'science',
increasingly dominant, was worryingly amoral: able to tell us the what but
unable to tell us the why; unwilling to argue through to the moral
consequences of its discoveries.
I wish that were true. For instead I believe that science, losing any
focused belief in a God who had at least the merit of amounting to a
testable claim, has found a new faith: a great, cloudy thing called
'nature', too nebulous even to prod, too sloppy properly to test. Science
and its priesthood are herding us towards their pillar of cloud with no
less an inclination than Moses had to tell us how to live virtuously.
Matthew Parris is parliamentary sketchwriter and a columnist of the
© 2000 The Spectator.co.uk