On the Meaning of “Natural”

August 14, 2012

I was at the grocery store and found that a popular charcoal company has introduced a new line of “100% all natural competition briquettes”.  This raises a question for me.  Why would this charcoal, as opposed to the regular charcoal from the same company, be considered “natural”?  (As an aside, ordinary charcoal briquettes have chemical fillers in them that hold them together, in addition to charcoal made from carbonizing wood.)  Even the chemical fillers in the regular charcoal are “natural” in the sense that they exist in nature (they are not “supernatural”).  Why do consumers find the adjective “natural” so impressive in commercial products?

People seem to harbor the idea that “natural” means “before we humans messed with it,” as though humans tend to mess things up.  Honey is considered “natural” even though bees make it, so I don’t think “natural” as the word is used here simply means “something that was not made through the activity of some other organism.”  Humans are the targeted organism.  Things that humans make are not considered “natural” even if they are made from natural elements (as in the elements on the periodic table in chemistry class) with implements made from natural elements.  What is different about human production of food products as opposed to the honey production of a bee?

Could it be that we all know, at some intuitive level, that humans deliberate and make free choices, and those choices are subject to flaws?  Perhaps we also know that human choices in particular are more prone to error than the instinctual activity of a honey-making bee because humans have a tainted will, and they make choices they know are wrong for personal gain?

To believe that, of course, one must believe in free will, if not also a fallen nature and the concept of “wrong” or “selfish” choices, right?  Can one avoid the implied presence of some supernatural quality in humans?  Can atheists have any philosophical justification for using the term “natural” on charcoal bags and the like?

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