When we seek to study the world we live in philosophically, we must come to terms with the idea that at the very most we need to get clear on what grounds the world in which we live. This grounding is potentially misunderstood & not easily considered, given that we are usually not in the upside down world of philosophy. This is metaphysical and relational, that is, before we think of our ethics and its relation to our world. To come to terms with the world in which we live as a ground for how it is that we know the world philosophically, certainly involves the way in which we understand and use the words: nature and natural. I will attempt to lay out a three part metaphysical purview of the question so as to get at the beginning of answering our understanding of nature.
Our common understanding of nature is dualistic. This is an understanding of the natural as set apart from that which is human. This is where we have the sense of the concept of artificiality and the like. We, in a dualistic sense of nature, set ourselves in relation to nature whereby we stand apart from it—nature is something to drive to, a place to go camping, and a place untouched by humans, &c. Here is where we might consider nature as pure and therefore human intervention is not pure. This common understanding might not account for our bodies as natural, or that the buildings we inhabit are a natural means in which we defend ourselves from the elements and help us to be more comfortable and thus contribute to our overall well-being. It is in the area of food consumption where we find the terms nature and natural used and misused. We are often asked to buy food products that promise all natural ingredients. Yet it is impossible to separate the multiple ways in which such food products (organic and otherwise) are handled and synthesized by human hands, consumption, and commerce. Such synthesized handling is thought of as artificial when we regard our dualistic relationship with nature in a contradiction. If human interaction with nature is one of artificial (non-natural and artificial) synthesis, then most of our interaction with nature is artificial and not nature. This suggests that nothing is entirely natural once it is synthesized in any way by humans.
Then we have a less common philosophical view which looks at the whole of existence, humans, animals, plants, the earth, &c. are all interconnected. This view is termed monistic—a metaphysical term meant to express that everything is one. This is a much more radical than dualism, and it obviously stands in stark contrast to it. This way of understanding nature would then position humans as simply natural. We are products of nature, we are natural, and we live within a natural way of being. This view also has strange and radical aspects to consider. For instance, we are content to think of ourselves as natural, yet can we consider our trash natural? Perhaps, we can at the very least recognize that waste is a natural byproduct of usage and consumption, which is why we have people working on innovative ways in which we think of waste as a resource.
Another way in which we consider what is natural is as a state of being. The word natural is an adjective which describes a state of being: It is natural for me to be upset at the news of a close friend’s death, she is a natural politician, that statement of yours naturally makes sense. This qualitative way in which we know about things can be somewhat vague. At the same time, it gets us to regarding nature as that which is essential to whatever is considered. If something makes logical and rational sense, then it naturally makes sense. If I am naturally affected by the news of a close friend’s death, then that entails that I am a feeling creature, I naturally feel grief when I need to. This adjectival and adverbial way of considering nature gets us close to what we usually think of when we consider what is objective—we naturally agree with sound logic. This indicates that nature is objective. If nature is objective how does it affect our relationship with nature in the dualistic and monistic perspectives? Objectivity sets a standard for that which it is not (the personal, the subjective, &c.). To understand nature, then is to understand ourselves in relation to nature subjectively and objectively, personally and impersonally.