108-Philosophy of Nature with Martin Bunzl


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Nature. What is it? Where does Nature end and Human-made begin? Where do we draw the line? Why would we draw the line? Questions like this keep Philosopher Dr. Martin Bunzl busy. Martin says the point of philosophy is to get us to question our assumptions. By questioning our assumptions, we are able to re-imagine our reality and dig deeper into the truth. By challenging our most fundamental pre-conceived notions of nature, and our relationship with it, we might discover a deeper meaning, and perhaps some answers to our most challenging questions.

Your Forest Podcast by Matthew Kristoff

Philosophy of Nature with Martin Bunzl

Episode highlight

Martin Bunzl, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Rutgers University and author of several books including the latest, Thinking While Walking - Reflections on the Pacific Crest Trail, explores philosophical arguments around the ‘naturalness’ of nature and the role of humans in it.


Martin’s website: https://sites.google.com/site/mbunzl/

Martin’s book ‘Thinking While Walking - Reflections on the Pacific Crest Trail’: https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-while-Walking-Reflections-Pacific/dp/0578882221/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1628459781&sr=1-3

Judith Jarvis Thomson: A Defense of Abortion: https://spot.colorado.edu/~heathwoo/Phil160,Fall02/thomson.htm


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8.37 - 8.44: “The goal of philosophy is the substitution of articulate hesitation for inarticulate certainty.” - Bertrand Russell

12.03 - 12.23: “I want discourse to be informed by a level of mutual uncertainty which I think can allow us to arrive at a more productive consensus about the policy questions we face and again, nowhere is that more true than when it comes to climate change.”

21.44 - 22.17: “We have a romantic view of forests and trees and we have a condemnatory view of technological developments like engineered crops or mechanical efforts to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and I think this kind of binary between what we think of as the natural or the good versus the man-made and the bad distorts the way we think about the challenges we face today, not only with regard to climate but with regard to the natural world in general.”

43.34 - 43.52: “The calculus of what we can do when we think about climate change from the point of view of privilege in which we have excess wealth distorts the choice that faces 6.5 billion people in the world out of 7.8 billion who don’t have excess wealth.”

47.29 - 47.40: “The more we are individuals and alienated from our communities, the harder it is to... engage in behaviour that is not selfish.”


Hesitate to be certain (4.57)

After completing his Ph.D. in the philosophy of science at the University of Minnesota, Martin taught philosophy for 40 years at Rutgers University. He has been attempting to analyze the catastrophic risk of climate change since 2008. His book intends to make readers question their assumptions and the things they take for granted with respect to climate change and ecology.

To stroll or to hike, that is the question (14.07)

Martin makes a distinction in the book between strolling, which is conducive to creative thinking, and hiking, which “to some extent, dulls the mind”. Each chapter is a meditation on a certain section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Hiking the PCT would not have lent him the same focus and opportunity to engage with nature as strolling did.

Natural, good; human-made; bad? (19.09)

Martin laments that the philosophy of nature is a neglected subject since nature is too wide and complex for modern analytic philosophers to articulate on and our relationship with nature is overlaid with assumptions of what is natural. He traces the historical roots of the binary discourse on natural vs. human-made and how that informs our understanding of the subject.

“This idea of freezing nature is profoundly unnatural” (23.09)

Martin explains that environmental science considers humans a part of nature, including the plastic pollution we create. A pure image of nature excludes human lives from it, as evidenced by John Muir’s displacement of indigenous people to create Yosemite National Park, an artificially curated experience of nature.

Romanticizing the ‘natural’ (25.41)

Martin acknowledges that our concept of nature is shaped by the experiences we grew up in. He speaks about the extinction of large mammals due to overhunting and the burning of forests in North America even before the arrival of Columbus. Most plants in Hawaii are what would be considered ‘invasive’ today and have floated across the ocean to it.

Are there ‘shoulds’ in nature? (31.20)

Martin challenges the concept of a ‘duty to nature’ as an anthropocentric moral discourse, and claims that nature does not have an interest in existing and warns against ascribing ethical standing to all components of nature if they cannot be given the same rights as humans. He believes that overpopulation is inversely related to economic and environmental wellbeing.

The curse of magical thinking (40.01)

Martin blames Al Gore for deceiving the public about having a risk-free, no-cost alternative by stating in 2008 that if we tried, we could be a fossil-free economy in 8 years. This “first world discourse that frames debates about climate” ignores the limitations of those in poverty. Only when people collectively demand that politicians address climate change will progress occur.

Generational gratification (46.47)

Martin highlights the intergenerational connection in forest management, where trees planted by one person will only be available after two generations to the population that continues to live there. “Self-interest with high-blown discussions” ignores the processes of nature. He encourages respect and humility to lead to treading carefully in nature.

The zen notion of nature (53.39)

Martin encourages thinking about life as one organism of which we are spatially separated but interconnected parts, which began when life began in the universe and will end when all life goes extinct. This may help in reducing generalizations and self-interest by extending the definition of self to all of nature.

If you were a chair… (56.52)

Martin discusses the source of value of an organism and the right value to assign it, a philosophically difficult problem to solve. A human-centered analysis outlines some values that promote the maximum collective wellbeing of all organisms that have moral standing, determined by their sentience.

The jiu-jitsu move (1.01.41)

Martin explains that philosophy plays a process role in questioning the assumptions two parties take for granted before indulging in discourse, which can also help in arriving at the exact opposite conclusion as one’s opponent. However, philosophy can settle an argument too, by invalidating two inconsistent statements.

Climate change is like nuclear destruction (1.05.07)

For events without a history, it is difficult to calculate the risk or probability of a catastrophic outcome, Martin notes. Taking a stand from an individual as well as a public policy perspective calls for conceptual and mathematical thinking. The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere today could spell doom if it increased every year.

Step back just enough (1.10.17)

Martin calls for examining the notion of ‘protecting nature’ and the way in which it is done. Humans cannot know the consequences of customizing nature and therefore, “the best course of action for us is to leave the world no worse off than we find it”. However, we needn’t live by the ‘precautionary principle’ of inaction either.

Did you rationalize an emotion and call it a fact? (1.14.18)

Martin points out that we are under the illusion that our conscious brain is in control of ourselves. He cites Jonathan Haidt’s research mapping the areas of the brain that are involved in responding to visuals, showing that the crude parts of the brain kick in before cognitive functioning does.

Nature is better understood as a cultural project (1.17.23)

Humans also deny the social development of our cognitive content. Individualistic cultures are at risk of acting destructively in nature. However, Martin is of the opinion that “human beings are an inventive species” and investing in the technical approaches to solve nature’s problems can bring hope for a solution.

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