Thinking about animals (and souls) (part two)

In the first post on this topic, I tried to induce a reasonable skepticism about animals not having souls – that is, to suggest that the widespread belief that they are soul-less is probably not very well grounded in evidence, especially biblical evidence. My hope in doing that was to sort of drag people away from the idea that we can take certain liberties with how we treat animals that we can’t take with people, because animals are a totally different kind of thing and warrant far less respect because they don’t have souls. The fact is that there are, to my knowledge, absolutely no strong arguments for the belief that animals aren’t in some fundamental way the same sort of soul-bearing thing that we are.

In this post I want to make two further points: I want to suggest first that when most of us talk about souls, whether animal or human, we’re normally talking in fuzzy vagaries that we don’t really understand. Second I want to suggest that, even if it could be conclusively proven, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that animals don’t have souls, it shouldn’t make one shadow of a difference in how we treat them.

On the first point, when I say that we’re speaking in fuzzies when we talk about souls, what do I mean? Well, as I mentioned in the first post, it’s not clear from the bible just what a soul is. The common conception of a soul is that the soul is a floaty, ethereal thing that inhabits the body and is our ‘real’ self. This picture of humans – as a body inhabited by the true self – certainly doesn’t clearly emerge from reading the bible alone. Now this idea of a soul, no matter how dubious it may or may not be, is so widespread that questioning it (especially in christian circles) brings a shock. But the truth of the matter is that 1. there are other coherent views out there, and 2. this view is anything but airtight when you start asking questions about it. This post isn’t intended to be anything like a treatise on the human self (and not that I could write one) but a few questions will suffice to cast some suspicion on this view of the self:

First, if I am basically a body controlled by an immaterial soul, what, and where exactly is my soul? The popular view is that the soul is immaterial – it’s not made of matter. You can’t see, touch, taste, smell, or hear it. You can’t put it under a microscope or add a chemical to it to change it. It’s not made of atoms or material particles. But, paradoxically, we also tend to believe that my soul is in my body. This just can’t be if the soul isn’t made of matter, because only things that are physical take up space, and only things that take up space have a location. The soul, if it is immaterial, has no location, and so isn’t in my body in any meaningful way.

Second, if my soul is literally nowhere like every other immaterial thing (God, numbers, concepts, facts, etc.) how is it so consistently tied to one physical object, my brain? How and why is it that what goes on in my brain can so strongly effect my soul states (emotions, thoughts, ideas, etc.)? And why is it that I seem to feel my inner states in my body, rather than feeling them where my soul is (throughout the whole of existence, or nowhere)?

Thirdly, if my soul is an immaterial thing, just what is it? Notice that calling it an immaterial thing isn’t a statement of what it is but of what it isn’t. Calling the soul immaterial only tells me that it isn’t made of matter. It has some other sort of existence. But what could that be? And is it okay to believe in something that you don’t even have a clear conception of? Can you even believe in something you don’t clearly conceive of? I certainly have a difficult time thinking about a thing that exists, thinks, chooses, is distinct from other things, and isn’t made of anything that takes up space.

So, without proving anything, it should at least be clear that this popular picture of what a human self is is not obviously correct, though it may be totally right (and I think it might be). Either way, most people have taken it for granted that humans are bodies with souls in them, and animals are bodies without souls in them; case closed.In light of these questions, we might begin to wonder just what actually separates humans from other animals. If it’s not that we have immaterial souls – just what makes us so different? I think we are different from them in important ways, but I wonder if this ‘soul’ thing is one of them.

But even if the soul was the difference between humans and non-human animals, it’s imperative that we recognize the important commonalities of our existence: we both feel pain, both emotional and physical, we both reason and ponder, we both build complex communities and interact in them in complex ways (bees have prison systems, penguins give gifts to their spouses, monkeys run day cares and make tools to work with, and african greys can hold conversations with humans at about a the level of a four year old), we both develop attachments to our own life patterns and other beings, and we both generally have a real sense of being ourselves, and make choices as ourselves.

So, maybe we’re not so different. Maybe animals have these floaty souls like us, or maybe we don’t have them at all; maybe we have them and they don’t. Either way, as interesting as those questions may be, I don’t think they have one bit of significance for how we should treat animals, and that will be the topic of post three.

  1. #1 by Catie on 8.21.08 - 6.35 am

    I really enjoyed this post. I’ve been reading a lot about this and other related subjects. Still completely confused, but in a good way. Can’t wait for part three.
    P.S. I will never flush a fish again. I will also never buy a fish again because I can’t take care of it. 🙂

  2. #2 by James H on 8.21.08 - 9.11 pm

    Question: I place several goldfish in liquid nitrogen, freeze them solid, and return them to live animation by dropping them back in warm water. Do these fish still have souls? I guess I’ll never know since I flushed them a few minutes later (except for the one I accidentally dropped, oops).

    I’ve enjoyed hanging out with you these past few weeks. You should come over for dinner sometime soon…feel free to work out the details with my secretary.

  3. #3 by Michael Glawson on 8.23.08 - 4.55 am

    James, I’ve definitely enjoyed hanging lately. I’ll be in touch with your assistant on an upcoming date. Feel free to bring some of that liquid nitrogen. I have some stuff I’d love to freeze.

    As for the fish, I don’t know if they have ‘souls’ or not, but I imagine whatever the case is the answer probably wouldn’t be different if you did the same thing to a human.

  4. #4 by Alex Marshall on 8.30.08 - 10.33 pm

    I guess I normally make divisions in “levels” of animals (though maybe that’s not a good way of looking at it). For instance, if an ant bites me, I don’t feel bad for squishing it because I figure ants don’t have much of a sense of consciousness. On the other hand, a dog seems a much more conscious creature and so I’m a lot more considerate of its life/health/happiness. But perhaps this isn’t a really a good division because as I think about it, ants have fairly complex social structures, so maybe they are more conscious than I normally assume. Very interested in reading the next post.

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