Tooth Fairies

We tell children that the tooth fairies take their teeth away, but are we being any more realistic in believing that nature gave us teeth in the first place – that nature is the place where everything comes from – because everything has to come from something and belong somewhere, because we know for sure that this is how things work, because everything is traceable to something else which acts as its cause, because it all comes down to nature and because natural events can properly explain ourselves and existence at large? In fact, despite ‘its’ apparent prepotency, there is no thing called ‘nature’ that exists apart from the events that happen, which means that there is no cause called ‘nature’ to precede those events and explain them. ‘Natural causes’ are a myth of explanation, not because they can’t be seen to exist, but because they don’t provide us with an explanation. Our ideas of nature are in need of a Copernican revolution.

The funny thing about our knowledge of nature is that we are immersed in an abundance of factual events showing us what it is like, yet we know nothing about what ‘it’ really is. Indeed, the identification of nature as the essential origin of everything amounts to no more than a creation myth, whilst our concept of ‘natural facts’ amount to no more than an approbation of our ignorance. Nor can we account for the evolving state of reality by calling it ‘natural’ or ‘evolved’. Meanwhile, our certainty about what we know underlines the fact of our ignorance by what it prevents us from acknowledging above the line – for if we can be certain that we know nature for what it is, thereby to account for things as ‘natural’, then what else might we be certain about in our ignorance?

Consider our knowledge of the evolution of teeth and what this says about the ‘nature of nature’. There is no doubt why certain species of animals needed to evolve teeth, because if they can’t eat they soon perish. But still we don’t know why some animals, namely ourselves, acquired perishable teeth. And even though we now have the resourcefulness to outlive our teeth by artificial means, evolution isn’t assuaged by the fact that we might be able to ‘intervene’ in such ways – it simply adds another turning point to the process, as also happened when our ancestors took to wearing furs. Seemingly, we can’t escape ‘nature’ – we remain in the throws of a constant evolutionary pressure to change; nonetheless, the shift in reality is now marked by the fact of its artificiality – an artificiality now existing as a part of nature. So, as things change, we find that not everything is explicable ‘naturally’, unless we are prepared to broaden our definition of nature. But do we know what we are doing?

Ultimately, it is our ignorance of what is to come that proves to be the real obstacle to understanding – a problem that is exacerbated by what we purport to know for certain. Nor can we pretend to solve the problem with a knowledge of what is needed. We know that animals need teeth and chickens need eggs, and though we may be able to artificially engineer things so that we no longer need real teeth, or chickens no longer need to lay eggs, it still does not give us more than a retrospective knowledge of what can happen. But it is now an ‘artificial reality’ that occupies the threshold of what happens next, and one that is skewed in its own way by the artificiality of what we presume to know. Then, just as we remain certain about something called ‘nature’, which we really don’t understand, so we presume to understand ourselves on that basis – by explaining away the facts in the same vein – by claiming to know that our existence really comes down to something explicable in terms of something else acting as its cause – having adopted ‘natural causes’ as our explanatory fairy godmother. ​

Mike Laidler

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