Nature as a Source of Moral Guidance

How Compassion Fruits’ (Oil painting on canvas by Alan Rayner, 2008) Life, love and suffering spring from the same source of receptive space that is present within, throughout and beyond the earth, air, fire and water of inspiring and expiring natural flow-forms as energetic configurations. These natural figures dynamically balance receptive negative influence and responsive positive influence through the zero-point core of their self-identity.

The idea that Nature is at best amoral and at worst totally immoral — an indiscriminate rag bag of good and bad, or cesspit of bad behaviour — has long been embedded in the human psyche. It is epitomized by this comment made by Richard Dawkins: “If you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals co-operate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.”

In this essay I will suggest that the converse is true: an awareness of how we naturally are as needful, living human beings in the world as it actually is, full of life, is a source of moral guidance that enables us to value honesty, reasonableness and kindness as vital qualities of loving care for self and neighbourhood. What causes us, on the other hand, to be selfishly deceitful, unreasonable and cruel is the product of a profound misconception of reality, which isolates or conflates human identity from or with the remainder of Nature. I will show that a deepened understanding of human nature as being inescapably sourced and immersed in the natural world as it actually is — not as we might presume it to be — enables us to live more sustainably, lovingly, peaceably and happily than many of us in modern culture currently can.

What, then, does Nature’s moral guidance have to say to us?

The Golden Rule of Nature

The ‘Golden Rule of Nature’ is to live, love and be loved in accordance with how you naturally are in the world as it actually is. This can also be framed as ‘love your natural neighbours and neighbourhood as you love your self’, or, even more simply as ‘Love other(s) as you love your self’.

I contrast this with the pursuit of hegemonic or coercive power — through the ideological abstraction or conflation of human self-identity from or with Nature — as a source of needless psychological, social and environmental harm and conflict.

Which begs the question:-

What is Nature?

What comes into your mind when you hear me speak of ‘Nature’. Perhaps a tranquil rural idyll? Maybe a riot of sex and violence? Somewhere you yearn to be or want to ‘connect’ with? Somewhere you want to escape from or avoid like the plague?

If you look ‘Nature’ up in a dictionary you’ll find any number of definitions and shades of meaning. These depend upon whether and where Nature is thought to begin and end and whether human beings and artefacts are included or excluded.

What I personally have in mind when I speak of Nature is all actual occurrence (see

Notice that this three-word description has no physical limits in extent or duration and includes both tangible substance and intangible space and energy. As an occurrence it comprises more dynamically than what is present instantaneously and more spatially than exists within local material boundaries. Hence Nature is envisaged to be truly continuous and non-definable, encompassing all transient material form and eternal void space.

In these terms it is inconceivable that anywhere or anyone separate from Nature can actually exist other than in the human imagination, and neither can the human imagination itself. Yes, material bodies can be distinguished from one another and their surroundings as dynamically distinct identities but they cannot be defined as separate entities within discrete boundary limits that isolate them from one another and space.

Calls to ‘connect’, ‘reconnect’ and ‘work with Nature’ are all indicative of thinking that Nature is a separate entity from human self- and group-identity, instead of recognising that human identity is a local dynamic inclusion and expression of Nature. By the same token, claims that ‘We are all One’ or ‘Part of Nature as a Unified Whole’ implies thinking of Nature either as formless or as a definable object in which our individual uniqueness is either denied or subordinated.

When understood as all actual occurrence, both tangible and intangible, it is clear, however, that Nature is inherently self-organising, not a discrete whole object or ‘box-frame’ created and controlled by external or internal executive force. How can we recognise and accept this understanding and what it implies for how we naturally are as human beings in the world as it actually is?

Recognising and Accepting Our Self-Identity as a Natural Inclusion of Neighbourhood

To see our self-identities as local dynamic inclusions and expressions — not exceptions or removals from, or conflations with — Nature, does not require advanced knowledge, technology or intelligence. All it requires is the kind of awareness, curiosity and imagination that many, if not all of us have as children. Here’s how:-

Imagine yourself as if newly born into this world, with no prior knowledge or schooling. You become aware, by moving around, of two distinctive kinds of natural presence, one of which resists and the other of which permits your bodily movement: ‘substance’ and ‘space’.

You might also become aware, for example when exposed to sunlight, listening to music or eating or drinking something nutritious, of yet a third kind of presence, ‘energy’, both within your body and outside it. This can illuminate, colour, warm and enliven your own and other bodies but is in itself invisible and not graspable in the same way that substance is.

Now try to imagine the existence of any one of these three kinds of presence without the others.

What would space alone, without substance or energy be like? Where would it end? How could you be aware of it? Wouldn’t it be endless, frictionless, invisible, formless, motionless void — an intangible (i.e. not graspable) presence everywhere?

What would substance or energy be like in the absence of space? To put it another way, where would you be without space? Wouldn’t you be utterly without shape or size (i.e. dimensionless) and hence nowhere discernible? You’d have to recognise, wouldn’t you, that your body, like all material bodies, both includes and is included in space: i.e. substance and space are distinct from one another, yet mutually inclusive. How could that possibly be so? That question might tax your imagination a bit.

It might help you to understand what’s going on to take a plain sheet of paper to represent ‘space’ and a pencil to represent what’s needed to produce any kind of shape or form on the paper. Notice that only if you move the pencil around is it possible to generate a shape that both includes and is included in space.

Try using a geometrician’s compass to circulate the pencil around a centre-point of space. How does it feel inwardly as you do this? Do you feel yourself focusing your attention around some receptive point in your body at the same time as you focus your attention around the receptive point (the ‘hole’ made by the needle-point) in the paper?

Do you suddenly realize that this is how tangible material form can only come into being dynamically, through some kind of movement around a receptive still-point that attracts but cannot persistently be inhabited by the movement. Maybe you might recall the blurry circular form produced by whirling a weight on a string around your hand or watching water swirl around a plug-hole or a tornado forming from a storm cloud?


You have just discovered for yourself the basic principle of ‘natural inclusion’! Matter cannot exist instantaneously — i.e. in no time. Matter can only exist currently — i.e. as a dynamic inclusion of space somewhere, within space everywhere.

In summary:- In Nature, space occurs everywhere while material form occurs only somewhere. Hence space and form are distinct but mutually inclusive occurrences. Space both includes and is dynamically included in material form. We need to acknowledge this reality if we are to live in accord with how we naturally are in the world as it actually is. Not to do so causes psychological, social and environmental harm

Abstraction, Distraction and Perceptions of ‘Success’ and ‘Failure’

So, how and why could the reality of our human self-inclusion as distinct but not isolated identities in Nature escape our notice — and indeed be disputed — for so long? What could have persuaded us to separate or conflate ourselves from or with the remainder of Nature?

The story goes back a long way, at least as far back as the time of Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece. It arises from a way of seeing that abstracts the observer from the observed, much as — before the advent of ‘selfies’ — a photographer was not included in the photograph (s)he took of what was seen from inside outwards but not from outside inwards. What is seen from this distanced perspective, especially through our primate’s binocular vision, is a set of sharply bounded objects separated from one another and ourselves by gaps of empty space.

The basis for what has become known as ‘dualism’ — the view that immaterial space and material substance are mutually exclusive — is easy to understand in this context. So too is the idea that the observer is somehow ‘superior’, as an ‘overlooker’ of what is observed. Whereupon, the feeling of being ‘overlooked’ in turn by a yet more superior observer can also be understood, resulting in a ‘top-down’ hierarchical ‘great Chain of Being’ with a judgemental ‘God’ at the top overlording Man, then Woman, then progressively less sentient creatures, plants, fungi, bacteria, viruses and inanimate matter.

With all attention focused from this lofty view upon material objects, and distracted from the space in which they are immersed, the progressive mental subdivision of what is seen into smaller and smaller particulate units readily follows. This ‘reductionism’ culminates in ‘atoms’ as the indivisible ‘hard, massy, fundamental particles’ or ‘building blocks’ from which ‘Nature’ is assembled. We are seemingly both ‘made’ from and ‘disintegrated’ into ‘dust’ as we come to life and die.

Gone from this ‘objective’ view is any any experiential, first-person awareness of how it actually feels to inhabit a living body within space as an omnipresent, frictionless void receptive to movement. In its place is a ‘science-fictional’ world of isolated numerical figures in a ‘box-frame’ of ‘perfect’, static, three-dimensional structure created and controlled by executive force.

In this way, the abstract geometry of Euclid and forceful mechanics of Newton became imposed upon natural flow-geometry and self-organisation as an idealised rationalistic-mathematical-scientific ‘Model Nature’ that has constricted human understanding and flourishing to the present day. With it come unrealistic expectations and damaging misconceptions of life as a competitive, perfectionist, Darwinian ‘struggle for existence’, in which ‘selfishness’ is rewarded and ‘caring’ is punished. Those of us who don’t ‘succeed’ in this struggle are then made to feel like ‘losers’ and ‘failures’ for being as we naturally are.

On the other hand, altruistic non-dualism, the denial or subordination of individuality within a formless or group existence is just as fictional — in this case ‘romantic fictional’ — as individualistic isolationism. Ultimately it is a denial of individual self-sustenance through the assimilation of energy from neighbourhood, and an associated unrealistic expectation of virtuous or ‘selfless’ behaviour that is impossible for any living being to fulfil.

In this case, ‘failure’ to live up to expectation is a cause of guilt, blame and shame for emotions felt and actions taken to serve self-needs. Natural fear of pain and deprivation, associated with cowardly and aggressive behaviour are condemned as moral ‘weakness’, along with natural bodily functions associated with ingestion, digestion and reproduction. Ultimately a ‘desire-free’ serenity through self-effacement may be sought as life is placed in the suspended animation of meditative trance that is helpful neither to self nor others when all hell may be breaking out in one’s vicinity.

From Rigid Rule to Intangible Guidelines — the evolutionary flow-geometry of natural space and boundaries

The abstract geometry of definitive points, lines, surfaces and solids is a product of the imaginary exclusion of space from matter. It cannot make natural sense because material form cannot exist without volume. To put it another way, matter devoid of space would be formless. As explained earlier, material form and space are distinct but mutually inclusive occurrences in Nature. The boundaries of material bodies are both freely permeable to space and formed dynamically by continuous energetic motion.

Nonetheless, this ‘hard-line geometry’ has become culturally deeply entrenched in our human ways of life. It is embedded in the foundations of orthodox religion, mathematics, science, economics and hierarchical governance. It is taught as ‘hard fact’ in our educational institutions, and inscribed in the nouns and verbs of conventional language. We make rigid rules of ‘Law & Order’ for ourselves to follow and punish any deviations from them. We make either/or judgements of good or bad and seek to banish natural uncertainty through ‘drawing the line’ and imposing ‘closure’.

In short, we have taught ourselves to behave in ways that are profoundly anti-natural, thereby causing profound psychological, social and environmental harm. We go against the grain of how we naturally are in the world as it actually is, and in so doing cause needless friction and turbulence.

To escape this self-imposed box-geometry of stasis requires a radical but simple transformation from fixed to fluid frames of reference. This can be done readily through recognising the reality that in Nature, space and material form are distinct but mutually inclusive occurrences. There is even a place in this reformulation for the Euclidean geometry of dimensionless points, breadth-less lines, depthless planes and straight-sided solids, not as material structure imposed on space, but as intangible receptive influences or ‘attractors’ that induce responsive energy flow into formation around and between them.


….Points, polygons and polyhedrons represent the instantaneous, static geometry of intangible spatial stillness (Void).

….Straight lines represent the dynamical geometry or trajectories of intangible energetic motion (Flux) between different localities

….Curved interfaces arise from the receptive-responsive relationship between static and dynamical geometry from which all tangible material form is sourced as ‘flow-form’, as is signified by the ‘irrational numbers’, pi and phi.

Natural Needfulness

No sooner do we accept that natural material bodies, including our own human bodies, are formed dynamically, through the circulation of energy around and between receptive centres and axes of space, then we recognise how and why our living self-identities cannot be isolated from our energetic and spatial neighbourhood. We cannot thrive without sustenance. If we are deprived of sustenance, we perish. This means that, like all biological life forms we are naturally needful, not necessarily selfish and necessarily not altruistic.

Truly to understand biological life forms and how they relate to their habitat and neighbours, we have to appreciate how they fulfil their needs for sustenance and respond to deprivation respectively by receptively opening up and protectively closing down their dynamic bodily boundaries in times of plenty and shortage. Such understanding brings honesty, reasonableness and compassion. We cannot expect ourselves or others to behave in ways that conflict with their natural needs. To do so is dishonest, unreasonable and cruel. Yes, it is true that our needs are not necessarily compatible with those of others, and that rivalries and suffering are commonplace in Nature. But that does not make life a competitive struggle for existence in which ‘winner takes all’ and ‘loser’ is devastated. That notion is a product of human abstraction from and psychological projection onto Nature, which we could all live more happily without.

If you wish, as I do to contribute generously and compassionately to the common good, you can expect little help from human ideologies of self-enrichment or altruism. We need to teach ourselves what it means to be natural, because we are born needful.

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Alan Rayner is an evolutionary ecologist, writer and artist, who is pioneering the philosophy of natural inclusion

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