What does nature mean? If this seems like an odd question to ask, consider an alternative: does nature as a whole, or do the individual entities that constitute the natural world, signify anything? Does nature point to anything beyond itself, or do natural things not mean anything at all, in which case they just are, without acting as signs of something else?

Once upon a time, the natural world was thought to overflow with meaning. Consider the following excerpt from An Antidote Against Atheism, a 1655 treatise by the Cambridge Platonist Henry More (1614-1687). In it, More describes one of the numerous ways in which nature was understood to convey meaning:

[S]everal herbs are marked with some mark or sign that intimates their vertue, what they are good for … For it is like the inscriptions upon apothecaries boxes that the master of the shope sets on, that the apprentice may read them; nay, it is better, for here is in herbs inscribed the very nature and use of them, not the meer name.

According to the doctrine of signatures, God has designed certain herbs in such a way that human beings can discern their pharmaceutical benefits from how those herbs look. Balm leaves and anthora roots, for example, look like the human heart, and so they are thought to possess “cardiacal” benefits. Quinces become covered with a soft downy fur before reaching full maturity, and are believed to be useful for recovering hair for those who have lost theirs. More believes that the human ability to understand the medicinal power of herbs from how they look is clear evidence of divine design, because the correspondence between the two could only have been set up in the first place by someone or something that knows both of them intimately: “Thus did divine providence by natural hieroglyphicks read short physick lectures to the rude wit of man.”

More’s delineation of the medical meaning of plants on the basis of their shape is but one moment in a long and venerable history of discerning meaning in nature. This history appears to be well and truly over, however, and doubtless many do not lament its passing. Not only are contemporary westerners who take the doctrine of signatures seriously rather thin on the ground, it is rare for natural objects to be thought of as possessing signifying power of any, let alone existential or religious importance. Artifacts are daily manufactured and invested with signifying power—stop signs, to take a simple example, are more than the matter of which they consist because of the crucial message that they convey to road users. Yet the question about nature’s significance with which we began sounds strange because it is usually taken for granted that natural objects are utterly devoid of meaning for human beings. There are no stop signs in nature.

Skepticism about meaning in nature has been linked to a broader sense of meaninglessness purportedly brought on by modern science. In the epilogue to his book The First Three Minutes, the American physicist Steven Weinberg observes that we human beings have a quaint tendency to imagine ourselves to be at the center of things, and to think that we possess a special relation to the world. The problem with this, according to Weinberg, is that time after time science has shown not only that things are not as they seem, but that the way things really are is much less uplifting than we had imagined. Contemporary cosmology, for example, has taught us that our hospitable earth is anomalous in an otherwise hostile universe, and it postulates that the cosmos will terminate in a final moment of extreme heat or cold. Far from being special like we thought, science has shown us that we are in fact utterly insignificant. Now that we have been shown our true place in the universe and can see the fate that awaits us, we must accept that there is no real meaning to life. Neither is there any meaning inherent to the universe as a whole, let alone the individual objects that constitute it: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”[1] The only fragments of meaning that arise within the farcical comedy of life come from the pursuit of knowledge itself, and from the scientific meaning extracted from the data that we collect.

Weinberg sees the pointlessness that science has allegedly uncovered as posing a direct challenge to any and all meaning-full conceptions of life and of nature, and he regards recent history as a story of the gradual yet ineluctable victory—if a pyrrhic one—of science over such conceptions. Chief among such superstitions that science either has already toppled, or is currently in the process of toppling, is religion. Not content to comfort ourselves with “tales of gods and giants,” human beings have used the “telescopes and satellites and accelerators” that we have developed not only to learn about nature, but also to discredit religious ideas.[2] Science and technology have taught us a great deal about how the natural world works, and in doing so they has rescued us from those enchantments that had captivated us. All that remains is the cold, hard reality of meaninglessness.

The conviction that science eliminates religion and that nature and in life will be overcome by meaninglessness may seem plausible, if only because similar views have been repeated regularly in certain circles in recent years. A close look at some relevant history, however, complicates these ideas in at least two interesting ways. First, recent scholarship suggests that science of the kind that Weinberg practices only emerged after earlier conceptions of nature’s meaningfulness had been challenged on religious, rather than scientific, grounds. The fact that modern science was at least in part made possible by, rather than being the cause of, revisions in the perception of nature’s meaning suggests that forces other than science can strongly influence perceptions about meaning in nature. And second, one can quite readily find examples of people in the past who, like Weinberg, insist upon naturalistic explanations for phenomena and yet who simultaneously think that some kind of meaning can be conveyed through nature. That science—at least in the form of purely natural explanations for phenomena—and meaning in nature have been able to coexist suggests that the connection between science and meaninglessness is far from inevitable.

 

The study of nature in the pre-modern European world was bound up with the interpretation of written texts.

 

The study of nature in the pre-modern European world was bound up with the interpretation of written texts. Nature was typically not accessed directly through empirical study, but was instead mediated through texts. The rediscovery and translation of pre-Christian texts, such as many of the works of Aristotle, in the medieval period increased the number of texts about nature with which scholars engaged. The primary written source that shaped the pre-modern European imagination about the natural world, however, was the Bible. The great adventure of human life, according to the Christian scriptures, takes place in a world created, ordered, and ultimately redeemed by God. Nature’s meaning is therefore largely a function of its role as the context within which the drama of human life before God unfolds.

One approach to the reading of scripture was particularly impactful for how pre-modern figures read and interpreted nature. This approach, known as allegorical interpretation, assumes that the immediate or plain sense of a text—its literal sense—is not the only level or layer of meaning conveyed by a given string of words. A medieval Latin verse recounts the multiple levels of meaning thought to be present in most biblical passages:

Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria,

Moralis quid agas, quid speres angogai.

            The letter teaches the deed, the allegory what you believe,

            The moral what you should do, the anagogue what you should strive for.

The richness of meaning that allegory facilitates allowed pre-modern persons to see natural objects as carrying numerous layers of meaning. Consider the night-owl mentioned in Psalm 102 (“I am like the night-owl in its dwelling-place”) and the strata of significance ascribed to it in the Aberdeen Bestiary, an illuminated manuscript originating from the thirteenth century:

The night-owl is a bird that loves the darkness of the night. …

In a mystic sense, the night-owl signifies Christ. Christ loves the darkness of night because he does not want sinners—who are represented by darkness—to die but to be converted and live. For God the father so loved the world that he gave his son to death for the redemption of the world. … Christ shuns the light in the sense that he detests and hates vainglory. For when he cared for a leper, in order to give us a lesson in humility, he said to the leper: “See thou tell no man.” … The night-owl flies at night in search of food, as Christ converts sinners into the body of the Church by preaching.

In a moral sense … the night-owl signifies to us not just any righteous man, but rather one who lives among other men yet hides from their view as much as possible. He flees from the light, in the sense that he does not look for the glory of human praise. It is said of this light: “Will the light of the wicked not be put out, and the spark of his fire not shine?” “Light” here signifies the prosperity of present life. The light of the wicked is extinguished, in the sense that the prosperity of our fleeting life ends with life itself. … The night-owl keeps watch in the night, as when the righteous man, alert to the darkness of sinners, avoids their errors. It lives in the cracks of walls, in the sense that he considers the weakness of the world and awaits its downfall. It seeks food by night, as when he reflects upon the life of sinners and uses their example to nourish the mind of the righteous.

Though this passage proposes only two additional layers of meaning beyond the literal sense rather than three, the message is clear: the night-owl is an animal of profound theological significance. Given the extent to which allegory can make objects be much more than what appears to the senses, historian Peter Harrison is surely right when he asserts that the “things of nature, in their physical manifestations, were … so burdened with spiritual meanings that they themselves tended to become completely transparent.”[3] Under the weight of so much meaning, there is little space genuinely to attend to the objects in themselves. Considerations of the bird’s physiological function, for example, or questions about the mechanisms causing its flight, would have paled in comparison with attention to what the creature meant.

In the early modern period the idea that natural objects convey meaning like this was challenged on numerous fronts. According to Harrison, at least five different factors weakened the practice of allegorical interpretation of scripture and nature: (i) textual criticism, which sought to identify the earliest and most accurate version of a text; (ii) more direct engagement with nature by actually adopting the methods of study of nature that ancient authorities had used to study nature; (iii) the discovery of plentiful new kinds of natural objects through sea voyages to far-flung lands; (iv) a growing preference for literal rather than allegorical understandings of scripture in order to resolve religious disagreements more straightforwardly; and (v) theological developments that saw reason and faith as separable rather than cohering.[4] Harrison regards the insistence upon the literal sense among Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther (1483-1545), John Calvin (1509-1564), and others as having an especially profound effect on the interpretation of nature. By denying natural objects the capacity to act as signs of something else, space was opened for other ways of thinking about the meaning of objects and their relations to each other. In this way those approaches that today we think of as scientific could take center stage: the “book of nature, for its early modern interpreters, will now be understood as a book that derives its intelligibility from a mathematical or a taxonomic order, and its religious significance will be reduced to the single theological principle of design.” [5]

If Harrison is right, then sciences of the modern sort—the kind practiced by people like Weinberg—became genuinely possible only after this earlier way of interpreting nature’s meaning was dismantled as a result of religious disagreement. Rather than revolutionary science of the early modern period discrediting those stories of the gods and rendering meaning in nature impossible, it was new ways of reading the Bible among theologians and within religious communities that opened up room for scientific ways of relating natural objects to each other to emerge and grow in prominence.

 

Even though it may be hard to imagine nature as bearing meaning in today’s science-saturated society, history suggests that science and meaning need not be seen as mutually exclusive.

 

That recognizably modern science developed at a time when views of nature’s meaning were undergoing significant modification prompts an important question: when mathematical, causal, or other ways of relating objects in nature to each other take precedence, can meaning still be conveyed through nature, or does a scientific understanding of nature exhaustively account for its significance? Even though it may be hard to imagine nature as bearing meaning in today’s science-saturated society, history suggests that science and meaning need not be seen as mutually exclusive.

Returning to the early modern period, a helpful person with whom to think about these issues is the English scholar Thomas Burnet (1635-1715). Burnet was among the first to try to reconcile the supposedly historical description of the formation of the earth, the deluge (Noah’s flood) that soon engulfed it, and subsequent events narrated in the Bible with scientific principles of explanation and understanding. Successfully doing so, Burnet thought, would demonstrate the harmony between theology and natural philosophy. The fruit of Burnet’s effort is his Theory of the Earth, which first appeared in the 1680s.

Burnet’s approach to explaining the causal processes behind the early history of the earth is informed by what he thinks is the Bible’s commitment to using natural causes to explain phenomena. It is biblical to appeal to natural causes, says Burnet, because Moses (who at that time was thought to have written the first five books of the Bible) purportedly believed that the flood could be explained without resorting to miracles. Given his goal of providing a detailed scientific account of the earth’s history that comports with the description provided in the Bible, Burnet was convinced that the assumptions that he adopted about how events are to be explained should match those of the Bible. In his view, those who too quickly appeal to the “naked arm of omnipotency” to explain the causes of major events like the flood fundamentally misunderstand the Bible’s naturalistic thrust.

Although Burnet thinks that he can account for the earth’s history with far fewer miracles than others, he does not eliminate God from the picture altogether. He instead asserts that God is providentially at work in the world at all times, keeping a close eye over everything that takes place. This conviction that God is guiding everything that occurs in the world and in one’s life is a view that Burnet’s readers would have understood and agreed with. Furthermore, because of God’s intimate involvement in the world, it was widely believed that one could discern God’s purposes, and God’s attitude toward human beings, from the experiences that one has in the world. Nature, according to this view, functions as a communicative medium through which God can speak to us, meting out punishment or bestowing largesse as a function of God’s stance toward us. Noah’s flood is just such a providential event: it accomplishes God’s purposes by communicating God’s judgment against sinful human beings in the form of a harsh punishment.

Burnet’s insistence that natural causes should account for as much as they possibly can, might seem to be at odds with a commitment to providence and to God’s use of nature to convey meaning. Burnet reconciles the two simply by arguing that God’s purposes are in fact carried out through events that have completely natural causes. God’s sovereignty and providence, and nature’s communicative activity, need not be brought into question even if an event like the flood is the result of nature’s regularity. The key here is God’s foresight:

[I]t is no detraction from divine providence, that the course of nature is exact and regular, and that even in its greatest changes and revolutions it should still conspire and be prepared to answer the ends and purposes of the divine will in reference to the moral world. This seems to me to be the great art of divine providence, so to adjust the two worlds, humane and natural, material and intellectual, as seeing through the possibilities and futuritions of each, according to the first state and circumstances he puts them under, they should all along correspond and fit one another, and especially in their great crises and periods.

Naturally caused events can function as providentially significant, meaning-filled occurrences because God can see into the future and know how human beings will act. By setting the initial conditions of nature just right, natural causes unfold over time in such a way that nature can act as God’s providential instrument to punish or reward human beings without God having to act directly to bring about those occurrences miraculously. Advance planning allows God to imbue completely natural events with meaning without that meaning interfering with a scientific explanation for what happens.

***

It is altogether too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that a particular account of the relations between science and meaning like Weinberg’s is obvious or natural because one is not aware of other ways of looking at things. By encountering figures like Burnet, whose convictions differ greatly from those prevailing in our own day, one can begin to see that accounts like Weinberg’s are not the only possibility. People in the past have adopted an incredibly diverse and interesting array of views on all manner of topics, and many of them remain instructive and worth considering.

After due consideration, one may of course decide that those views are indeed best left in the past. In the case we have been looking at, few may be willing to adopt, or even take seriously, the kind of meaning in nature that Burnet proposes. Even though it persisted for a long time and remains in various forms a feature of modern Christian thought, the belief that God is providentially governing and guiding the world to its intended goal is far from universal. Burnet’s views about providence—that God foresees everything that takes place, and communicates something of God’s outlook on human beings through the natural world—are also unlikely to make sense to an atheist. They may even be difficult for some religious persons to stomach, either because of the picture of God that they assume, or because of the ease with which suffering is given redemptive purpose, or for other reasons.

Yet if one decides that the views of people like Burnet and More are best left in the past, it is far better to have made a conscious decision to leave them there because one favors a more recent alternative than to default to one’s preferred position through ignorance of other possibilities. At a minimum, exposure to past habits of thought will help to correct our preferred historical narratives and provincialize our cherished convictions. On occasion, genuine openness to this kind of de-familiarization may lead to startling insights, and thereby open up new ways of inhabiting a world that we thought we knew so well.


Peter Jordan is research coordinator at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on the relationship between science and religion in the medieval and early modern eras.

[1] Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe (London: Flamingo, 1993),149.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Peter Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 31.

[4] Harrison, Bible, 70.

[5] Peter Harrison, “The Bible and the Emergence of Natural Science,” Science and Christian Belief 18 (2006): 124.

Image of a Perindens Tree from the Aberdeen Bestiary via Wikipedia.

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