On Natures

by Jason Stotts

The nature of any existent is that aspect or attribute which explains the greatest number of characteristics and/or actions of the existent. A “nature” is an epistemological device of identifying existents by their fundamental characteristics. It has no metaphysical existence aside from the facts of reality that allow it to be formed by a person. The rules for identifying natures are as follows:

  1. All inanimate existents that are non-artifactual must be explained in terms of physical constitution, which is ultimately explained in terms of chemical composition.
  2. All inanimate existents that are artifactual must be explained teleologically, since men created them to serve a particular purpose.
  3. All living existents must be explained in terms of survival: what they use to live and how they do it.

The characteristics used in the identification must be those that are fundamental to the existent. A diamond, for example, is certain type of gemstone. It is transparent, it is hard, it can scratch glass, it can have a prism effect on light depending on its cut, and is highly valued by humans for its beauty and as an enduring store of value. Which one of these characteristics is the diamond’s nature? None of these explains the others. This is because the nature of non-artifactual inanimate matter must be given in terms of its physical constitution, ultimately explained in terms of its chemical composition. In this case, it is the unique Carbon bonds that give a diamond all of its characteristics.

Also, we must be careful to determine whether an inanimate object is artifactual; i.e. man-made. A knife is a manmade object used to cut other objects. It can be made out of a wide range of materials and can come in a variety of shapes. A knife can never be explained in terms of its physical constitution because that is not what is fundamental about it. A knife must only be harder than that which it is designed to cut: a piece of string makes a perfect knife for clay. Also, note that a nature does not need to explain all attributes of the existent, but only the fundamental ones.

Furthermore, one can only speak of the nature of the entire existent and not of the nature of its parts. It is the nature of a panther to be a predator. One of the things a panther uses to kill its prey is its claws. What is the nature of its claws? They do not have one; they are a part of a larger entity. While we can talk about their harness or how they are retractable, they can only be understood as a part of a larger entity.

Thus the nature of an existent is the fundamental attribute or aspect by which we can identify an existent.

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