A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

reader comments: natural

10 Jan 1998
I am really enjoying the Skeptic's Refuge and plan to spend a lot of time at this site. Cheers to you! I wonder if you are a scientific pantheist, as I am?

reply: From what I can tell about scientific naturalism from Paul Harrison's site, I would have to say that I do not have the emotional constitution to be a scientific pantheist.

I just read the new entry entitled "natural," which I enjoyed. Just because something is natural doesn't mean it's good. Since you have given some thought to nature and what is natural, I wonder if you could help me get my mind out of this hamster wheel.

Beaver's are natural. Dams which beavers build are natural. Man is natural. Strip malls which men build are what? Natural or unnatural?

I don't believe strip malls are "natural" but I can't seem to clarify my admittedly muddy thinking on this. I thought maybe you could help.

reply: What you ask is the kind of question certain philosophers have been asking for eons. Remember Bishop Berkeley and the question as to whether a tree falling the forest makes a sound when no one is around? Or William James and the question as to whether people walking around a tree several times on which a squirrel was walking, passed the squirrel even though the squirrel always moved around the tree ahead of them? The answer to yours and these questions has the same form, namely: "It all depends on what you mean by x". If by 'natural' you mean an object not designed but occurring as a result of instinct, then the beaver dam is natural but the strip mall is not. If you mean by 'natural' you mean present in nature, then everything is natural, including the strip mall. 

09 Jan 1998
Just a quick note about St. John's Wort. While hypericin is a MAOI, it is relatively mild and reversible, which means that the side effects (hypertensive crisis) possible from tyramine in older, irreversible MAOIs is not present. Also, as with other "herbal remedies", the action is supposed to come from more than one active principle. Sometimes it works, sometimes it's placebo. In any case, St. John's Wort appears to be effective in mild depressions. Of course, placebos help 1/3 of severely depressed individuals too.
Kevin Smith

I don't know where you are getting your information about placebos and the severely depressed, but it does not jibe with any scientific study I am aware of. You may be thinking of studies which have shown that for certain kinds of physical complaints, placebos are effective more than 30% of the time. Severe depression is a physical illness, but it is not one of those for which placebos show any effectiveness at all. You might want to read some of the following:

Now, regarding St. John's Wort and its potency and side-effects: The point I wanted to make is that if St. John's Wort or any other "natural" product is good medicine, it is not because it is natural but because of its chemical constitution. St. John's Wort, like any medication, comes in different strengths which can be indefinitely increased simply by taking more of the substance. To assume that because something is natural, it will have only mild or no adverse side-effects, is wrong. Each particular substance and the quantity taken must be evaluated. Furthermore, there are some known side-effects of hypericin which you do not mention, for example, "photosensitivity characterized by dermatitis of the skin and inflammation of the mucous membranes on exposure to direct sunlight." This may not be a problem for most humans, if they do not take an excessive dose. Right now, we do not know what amount of hypericin that would be.

St. John's Wort seems to have strong empirical support for its use to treat mild depression, but so does cognitive therapy, which may not be natural, but it is often done without the patient needing to take any medications, natural or synthetic. People who say they take St. John's Wort because they don't want to take any medications are confused. St. John's Wort is a medication, even if it is sold as a food supplement in your local grocery store.


  • April 18, 2001. A study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that St. John's wort was no better than a placebo in treating severely depressed patients. (The study involved 200 patients for eight weeks.) This contradicts the results of an earlier study by Ronald Brenner, chairman of psychiatry at St. John's Episcopal Hospital in New York City. (His study involved 30 mildly to moderately depressed patients for six weeks.) A third study may resolve the issue for a while. The National Institute of Mental Health and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine are doing a joint study on the effectiveness of the herb in treating major depression. The study is very large and will be the most comprehensive study ever done on St. John's wort.

  • 11 Jan 1998
    To me, the word "unnatural" is meaningless.  If something exists, then it is a part of nature, and therefore natural.  Often, people contrast "natural" with "artificial" or "manmade."  These things could only be "unnatural" if we concluded that human beings somehow exist outside of nature, which is ludicrous. Are bird nests unnatural?  Ant hills?  Beaver dams?  Why are we so special that everything we do is "unnatural?"  I agree that humans do a lot of stupid things, and can be a danger to ecology.  But we need actual ethical reasons for doing or not doing something, not claims that it is "unnatural," which is simply  untrue.
    Greg Jensen

    reply: The words 'natural' and 'unnatural' have several cognitive meanings. The context will usually make it clear which meaning is intended, but occasional ambiguity is inevitable. On the other hand, the emotive meanings of these terms is rarely unclear. 'Natural' usually has a positive emotive meaning and is usually intended to express and evoke approval. 'Unnatural' usually has a negative emotive meaning and is usually intended to express and evoke disapproval. Lazy thinkers will simply dub something 'unnatural' and erroneously think they have shown it is morally wrong. Or, they will dub something 'natural' and erroneously think they have shown it is morally good.


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