Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Do Animals Have Souls?

By Sean McDonough, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

Dedicated readers of this blog (and might the plural, let alone the “dedicated”, be rather optimistic?) will note that the question in the title is a follow-up to a previous post involving the question of human “souls” – and more importantly, the question of how words work. This present piece springs from close observation of my dog at work and play…or more precisely, at rest and play, with the occasional duty of barking at people who pass by the house, and enthusiastically greeting those who enter it.
Now, with respect to humans, I argued that while we cannot expect to isolate an entity called “the soul” somewhere in a Platonic heaven, the word “soul” does mighty good work addressing the interior dimension of our existence. Right from the start, then, we recognize that since humans don’t “have” souls in the same sense that they have bus tokens or a mole on their cheek, we would assume that animals don’t have them, either. This is a crucial point, since without it we can find ourselves split in two by a putative decision tree:
Do animals have souls?
No> Wantonly ridicule, kill and eat them
Yes> Refuse to make any use of them whatsoever, and set up animal focus groups with a view towards creating greater inter-species cooperation.
It doesn’t work that way.
The question about animals “having souls” is really a question as to whether they have an “interior dimension of their existence” that warrants the use of the word “soul”. And here the evidence is a bit mixed. The crucial element in determining the presence and nature of such an interior dimension is, generally speaking, speaking. I use “generally speaking” not only for the delight of having “speaking” appear twice in a sentence, but also because we can assume the presence of the interior dimension of a person who is unable to communicate with words. But generally we know what is in a person’s “soul” because they tell us about it.
Animals do not do this, Doctor Doolittle aside. They can’t tell us whether Eli Manning is an “elite” quarterback, or whether a beautiful sunset can reasonably be termed “sublime”. If the proverbial roomful of monkeys ever did bang out Shakespeare’s works on their monkey-friendly word-processors, it would only be by accident, not intent.
Even as I write this, I can sense the growing wrath of animal lovers. So I hasten to add that even if animals don’t communicate with language which reveals an interior dimension of life perfectly analogous with that of humans, they surely communicate in all sorts of other ways. Pain, fear, anger – a growl or a whine or a nip can get that dimension of their “inner” experience across quite clearly. And while dogged materialists will strive to tell us canines can’t really be sad, as a dog-owner and recent viewer of Benji the Hunted, I feel comfortable in affirming that they can…at least in some sense.
And it is with precisely such equivocation that I want to conclude this brief exploration of the animal soul. We can know quite a bit about what humans are like on the inside. We simply can’t know what is going on with animals with the same level of precision. So using the language of “soul” is probably not the most helpful thing to do. But that hardly establishes an unbridgeable chasm between the animals and us. The Scripture is quite clear that whatever unique qualities humans bring to the table, we are all of us, human and animal alike, part of God’s creation, distinct from the creator himself (Revelation 4, where humans are mixed in with the beasts in the persons of the “living creatures”, is a particularly vivid illustration of this fact). The Scripture also warrants using animals in labor and for food, so I eat my cheeseburgers with a clean conscience.
And if my dog ever questions me about that, I’ll just point out to her that she eats the hamburger, too.

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