There is no mind on the other side of the wall

Tony Harratt, black and white,photography

It was one of the most emailed and shared NY Times articles this month. It has set off a frenzy of opposing responses from religious groups and from folks who believe in life on other planets – – along with others who are in violent agreement. I read it the day it was published (May 2nd).  I found it interesting that for a man clutching the fence (The Believer of Convenience), it has been looming in my consciousness since then. And, like Lightman, it frightened me too.

The Op-Ed piece is written by Alan Lightman, a physicist from M.I.T. and author of “The Accidental Universe.  It is titled: “Our Lonely Home in Nature“.  A few excerpts:

The tornadoes that have been devastating parts of the South and Midwest, just weeks after a deadly mudslide in Washington, demonstrate once again the unimaginable power of nature…

…Aren’t we a part of nature, born in nature, sustained by the food brought forth by nature, warmed by the natural sun? Don’t we have a deep spiritual connection with the wind and the water and the land that Emerson and Wordsworth so lovingly described, that Turner and Constable painted in scenes of serenity and grandeur? How could Mother Nature do this to us, her children?

…Yet despite our strongly felt kinship and oneness with nature, all the evidence suggests that nature doesn’t care one whit about us. Tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions happen without the slightest consideration for human inhabitants…Our comfort with nature is an illusion.

…In the other direction, nature is constantly given human qualities. Wordsworth wrote that “nature never did betray the heart that loved her.” Mother Nature has comforted us in every culture on earth.

…I would argue that we have been fooling ourselves. Nature, in fact, is mindless. Nature is neither friend nor foe, neither malevolent nor benevolent.

…Nature is purposeless. Nature simply is. We may find nature beautiful or terrible, but those feelings are human constructions. Such utter and complete mindlessness is hard for us to accept. We feel such a strong connection to nature. But the relationship between nature and us is one-sided. There is no reciprocity. There is no mind on the other side of the wall. That absence of mind, coupled with so much power, is what so frightened me on the sailboat in Greece.

…we should not be concerned about protecting our planet. Nature can survive far more than what we can do to it and is totally oblivious to whether homo sapiens lives or dies in the next hundred years. Our concern should be about protecting ourselves — because we have only ourselves to protect us.

Read entire article: Our Lonely Home in Nature


  • Image Credit: Tony Harratt Photography. Storm in Liverpool Bay.
  • Related Quote: “The universe doesn’t care about us. Time doesn’t care about us. That’s why we have to care about each other.”  ~ David Levithan



  1. hard to argue with a lot of what he says


  2. Wow. I can’t remember when someone voiced my own opinion and perspective so completely. I’ve long thought that when Man upsets the balance too much (global warming), the Earth will just shudder like a dog throwing off water, and eliminate the irritants.


  3. thought provoking, and while i agree with some of it, i think we do have to care for the planet, to sustain it and humanity as long as we can, to at least try. perhaps it offers us some small measure of control or of mattering at all. things that are out of our control will remain out of our control. it makes us remember how minute we are in the scheme of the universe.


  4. “…we should not be concerned about protecting our planet. Nature can survive far more than what we can do to it and is totally oblivious to whether homo sapiens lives or dies in the next hundred years. Our concern should be about protecting ourselves — because we have only ourselves to protect us.” Pretty much TOTALLY disagree with this last part. 😦 We all still need the sun, the water, and the beauty which surrounds us and if we selfishly disregard the need to protect these resources, we will end up with not only an angry planet, but a dead planet as well.


  5. Barneysday says:

    I like the line questioning, “…how can mother nature do this to us?” Much more importantly, how can we do what we’ve done to mother nature over the thousands of years of our existence.


  6. “But the relationship between nature and us is one-sided. There is no reciprocity. There is no mind on the other side of the wall.”

    Dear Alan,

    What wall? When someone complains about the human inclination to personify non-human things they often fail to swallow the very medicine they dish out. Confusion around the nature of words often leads to much confusion around the nature of nature.

    We live by the metaphors we use, or as Auden so aptly put it, “We are lived by powers we pretend to understand.”

    Perhaps you are not able to reconcile your own mortality to the nature of your own human ability to imagine something more than that; an ideal of a perfect world. Why be so touched and compassionate if nature herself isn’t, and we too, are “just mindless nature?”

    Your respectful-of-nature reader, Debra

    P.S. Nature says, “don’t build houses on cliff sides vulnerable to mudslides. Don’t go sailing out in the big powerful ocean if you’re not prepared for the consequences of the inherent risk due to the nature of oceans.”

    Our ancestors knew this, and some of us still do, but when money acts as insulation between the nature of nature and our common sense, perhaps we lose the ability to act within our true nature.

    Why blame the entire human race for your own personal naivete? And, how is it that you are given an international megaphone in world that has birthed much grander ideas than these?


  7. Intent is everything, as they say. Nature just IS. It doesn’t plot against us. When conditions are right, it turns into snow, rain, or whatever, when the conditions change, it stops being that and becomes whatever fits into the new conditions. I believe there is life all over the place. What I don’t get is why people fight so hard against things they don’t believe in. I don’t care if people don’t thing that life exists anywhere else. I don’t care what they believe. I certainly wouldn’t waste my time fighting about it. For me it’s true that life exist everywhere in the universe. I don’t care about what they believe. LIFE is an illusion. We make everything up. All of our beliefs…EVERYTHING IS MADE UP. A baby isn’t born with all of that garbage. We have to teach people to believe in things. Things that are handed down for generations and enforced by the churches and governments and all the rest. But IT’S ALL MADE UP. We can change things ANYTIME we like. And we do! Pluto is no longer a planet because WE SAID THAT IT IS NO LONGER A PLANET. It’s that easy. WE MAKE EVERYTHING UP and then pretend it’s REAL. LOL Things are what we say they are and when we say they are no longer that way, then they are no longer that way…we can do that because it’s all pretend…it’s something we make up as we go along.


  8. “Man plans, and god laughs.” Insert nature for god depending on your religious preference.


  9. I have to agree with Dave here…. Man plans..and God laughs


  10. Some of this sounds like John Burroughs who said, “The Nature God neither sends calamities nor wills them–they are an inevitable part of the growth and development of things. . . . If the world were made by a Maker external to it, [then we could ask], Why not make it a better world? But the world is not something made, and it did not have a Maker. . .the universe is, and always has been.” (Accepting the Universe, 1921). As a naturalist, Burroughs (and his friend John Muir), would certainly say we have a part to play in preserving the beauty, since, as Muir said, “the best synonym for God is Beauty.”


  11. I was going to suggest that whether or not we believe in a higher power or benevolent or malevolent Mother Nature we still wouldn’t anyone to soil our soup. Then, I remembered that we humans consume all kinds of toxic stuff – from drugs and poisons to ideas which don’t serve us. Maybe the real question is whether people will ever accept that Walt Kelly’s Pogo was right: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”


  12. If we continue along our path of destroying nature, we do so at or own peril, for nature will survive and will recover. I think the author recognizes this truth; he is not suggesting that we not be concerned with protecting our planet (the use of the word “our” throughout this discussion is informative in itself) for in protecting the planet, we protect ourselves. Man’s ego knows no bounds, as if we and nature are some how equals.


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