Nature Is Just Like A Person
“The trick, as Nature has discovered, is not to introduce too much error at any one time and to edge further rather than bluster into new territory. Bluster is almost certainly disease; cautiously successful edging is evolution.”
- Peter Atkins
Personification is a common literary tool. It’s when authors give a thing, an animal or even a concept the attributes of a person. They do this to make their writing more interesting and imbue the thing being described with a sense of life, intellect or purpose that it doesn’t actually possess. It makes otherwise mundane reading come to life.
Most scientists would readily say that rocks don’t decide to come to life, that cells don’t plan to divide, that organisms don’t conspire to become complex and that laws of nature don’t desire to enable or solve anything. Yet many scientists personify nature with purpose and intellect in their lectures and writings. They act like nature is a person. Here are a few examples.
Chemist Peter Atkins – Peter Atkins repeatedly personified nature in his book On Being. To him, nature has discovered, adopted, found, and achieved. Nature even finds certain things to be expedient, solves problems and has strategies. He ascribed awareness, intelligence, intent, decision-making, caution and achievement to nature. He even addressed nature with the personal pronoun “she.”
Biologist Richard Dawkins – Richard Dawkins also personifies nature. He says he does so as a figure of speech. Yet the intelligence and intent he attributes to nature are striking. He ascribes selfish emotion, programming skills and intellectual intent to genes and he ascribes purpose, favor and success to natural selection. Here’s an example:
The most obvious way in which genes ensure their own ‘selfish’ survival relative to other genes is by programming individual organisms to be selfish.
Peter Atkins and Richard Dawkins were both Oxford University professors and are very vocal atheists. They don’t actually believe nature is a person, but they can’t seem to help themselves in personifying it. Why is that?
Why is nature personified?
One reason we personify things is because – though they are not people – they display the attributes of personhood. They display intelligence, memory, reason, intent, consciousness, language, creativity, causation or complex design that only a person would be capable of producing. Of itself, that should give us reason to pause and ponder, how that can be. In fact, there is a long list of things to ponder about nature’s apparent personal attributes. Here are just a few:
- Laws – The laws of physics aren’t just descriptions of what is; they’re also parameters for how the Universe behaves. This is a big deal. Fixed laws seem more like a decision than an accident – particularly when they are so congenial to life. That’s what Harvard astronomer, Owen Gingerich, thought.
- Intelligibility – If the Universe was completely random, we wouldn’t be able to understand it. This is also a big deal. Science would be impossible. The intelligibility of the universe even amazed Albert Einstein.
- Natural language – Mathematics is a natural language. So, 1+1=2 or the Pythagorean Theorem are descriptive. They aren’t really invented by mathematicians. As Cambridge analyst G.H. Hardy observed, they’re discovered.
- Biological language – DNA also contains a language. The DNA in each cell includes a four-character language, a database of structured purposeful information, an operating system and programs that accomplish coordinated complex tasks. These programs build and then operate 11 different integrated systems in your body. Did life program itself?
- Purpose – Biological processes do things to support life. They do things to reproduce. They even do things to protect life. Even at a purely biological level, there is purpose. At least, that’s what Jacques Monod observed.
- Progress – If Richard Dawkins is correct in saying evolution is a one-way street to complexity, one must ask, why? (Wouldn’t the second law of thermodynamics suggest the opposite?) Physics also displays progression from the big bang to the development of atoms and complex chemistry. Is the universe programmed to produce complexity?
- Consciousness – People possess a first-person point-of-view, self-awareness, emotion, opinions, decision-making, planning, inventing and other attributes very different from the lifeless realm of physics and chemistry. Colin McGinn observes that with consciousness, it appears something entirely different was injected into the fabric of the universe. Yet who did the injecting?
- Beauty – The universe didn’t have to be beautiful. Yet it is. The stars, sunsets over the ocean, forests, bugs, puppies and people are beautiful. If everything in existence is an accident, why is it all so beautiful? And, how is it that we recognize its beauty?
The universe displays laws, intelligibility, language, information, programs, purpose, progress, consciousness and beauty. This truly is remarkable.
Nature displays “mind”
Modern philosophers are wrestling with the apparent intelligence and intent in the cosmos. David Chalmers suggests that consciousness might be a basic building block of nature. He suggests it may be as fundamental as matter and energy. Thomas Nagel advances the idea that perhaps consciousness is inherent in matter.  This is particularly noteworthy, since neither of them believe in God.
Philosophers aren’t alone. Many physicists agree. Freeman Dyson, saw the idea of mind as being consistent with the architecture of the universe. Roger Penrose, a Nobel Prize winner, suggested the way evolution works with the laws of physics appears to display “intelligent groping” toward a future purpose.
The bottom line is – the universe seems to display mind.
Why does this matter?
The universe displays compelling evidence of intelligence and intent. However, we have to ask what this means. Is this just an accidental attribute of nature or is it fundamental to nature? And, can the universe display “mind” without a preexisting intelligent source?
John Polkinghorne, a quantum physicist at Cambridge observed, “…the rational transparency and beauty of the universe are surely too remarkable to be treated as happy accidents.” He concluded the “signs of mind” evident in the universe are the work of the mind of a Creator.
Howard Van Till, a professor of physics and astronomy, seems to agree:
“Perhaps the awesome nature of the universe is best seen as evidence for a Mind more creative than we could imagine. Perhaps the giftedness of the universe is best seen as evidence for a Giver of Being more generous than we humans could ever envision.”
The ultimate choice we seem to be faced with is either nature, for absolutely no reason, really does possess person-like intellect and intent or there is a person behind the workings of nature.  We might call that “person” God.
About Peter Atkins:
Peter Atkins earned a PhD in Chemistry at the University of Leicester in England. He taught chemistry at UCLA and at Oxford University. He has written add co-written several textbooks, including Physical Chemistry, Inorganic Chemistry and Molecular Quantum Mechanics. He retired in 2007 and is an advocate of an atheist worldview.
Copyright 2021 by Patrick Prill.
Photo purchased from istockphoto.com.
 Peter Atkins, On Being (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2011), 49.  Peter Atkins, On Being, 49, 51, 52, 55, 57, 60.  IBID, 55.  IBID, 159.  Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene – Thirtieth Anniversary Edition (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2006), 2, 3, 235, 239, 246  Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (New York, NY: Mariner Books, 2008), 247.  Physicist Roger Penrose states that even the big bang demonstrated precise organization. See: Roger Penrose, The Emperor’s New Mind (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2016), 446.  Owen Gingerich, God’s Universe, (Cambridge MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), 39, 68, 96.  Albert Einstein, Physics and Reality (Daedalus, Fall 2003, Vol. 132, No. 4, On Science) 23-24. Einstein stated, “the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.” And, “The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle.”  John Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 128.  Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity, (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971), 21-22.  Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 169.  Roger Penrose, Cycles of Time (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2012), 14. The second law of thermodynamics “tells us that things are getting more and more disorganized as time progresses,” according to Roger Penrose.  Colin McGinn, The Mysterious Flame, (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1999), 13.  David Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1996), 128. Thomas Nagel, Mind & Cosmos – Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly Wrong, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012), 16, 20-22. Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe, (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1979), 251.  Roger Penrose, The Emperor’s New Mind, 538.  John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale, Questions of Truth (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 12.  Howard Van Till, Why Does the Universe Work?, What Happened before the Big Bang?, in the collection edited by Russell Stannard, God For The 21st Century, (Radnor, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2000), 12.