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The soul and our knowledge of non-human animals


To: Kerryn C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The soul and our knowledge of non-human animals
Date: 8th May 2008 11:05

Dear Kerryn,

Thank you for your email of 25 April, with your first essay for Possible World Machine, written to your own title, 'Musings on the soul.'

I agree with you (and with the philosopher Hume) that Descartes was wrong to consider animals as lacking something that human beings have, viz. feelings and consciousness.

Your testimony is especially valuable, because many of the philosophers who argue over the question of animal consciousness have little direct experience of communicating with animals, apart from petting a cat or a dog.

As it happens, one my former students from the time when I gave WEA classes, Islay, is a keen amateur show jumper and has a strongly developed sense of what mood her horse is in today, whether or not she can ask it to jump a particular fence and so on.

Descartes was hampered considerably by the available models for mechanical devices: human ingenuity had reached the point of making life-like twittering birds in cages powered by clockwork. Today, the model is very different -- computer science -- and it is interesting to speculate how different his theory might have been had the science of his day been more advanced. He may well have taken the route of contemporary dualists who assert that all mental events are produced by physical events in the body and brain, rejecting Descartes' theory of causal interaction between a soul and the animal spirits as they pass through the pineal gland.

I like your point about the involvement of the whole body and not just the brain. The brain is not like a piece of clockwork or a car engine which is separate from the device which it 'powers'. Descartes was not unaware of this point, remarking in the Meditations that he is 'not lodged in my body as a pilot in a ship'.

However, the question still remains what we are to make of the difference between humans and non-human animals. One theory put forward by Peter Carruthers (in his book 'The Animals Issue') is that what human beings have, a capacity for self-reflection which Descartes so eloquently describes, depends essentially upon language.

That is not to say that animals lack consciousness, but rather that what they have lacks the crucial dimension of time. Animals live in the present. They carry their memories, for example of previous good treatment or bad treatment, in the form of acquired behaviour -- such as trust or aversion -- but they are incapable of having actual thoughts about any time other than now.

It is easy to get bogged down in arguments over 'how different' animal consciousness is from human consciousness. My own take is that, in the absence of a capacity for linguistic communication, there is a sense in which nothing can be said about how things are from, e.g., the horse's point of view. Any words we use are mere metaphors which may serve as useful heuristic devices but which do not in any real sense 'map onto' the reality which we are attempting to describe. I would go so far as to say that animals are an 'enigma', a portion of reality which we can never fully explore or comprehend.

Thomas Nagel, in his article, 'What is it like to be a Bat?' uses this aspect of enigma to argue against physicalism on the grounds that any physical description would necessarily fall short of capturing how things are from an animal's -- e.g. a bat's -- point of view.

You say that you do believe in the existence of a soul, and also -- more challengingly -- that your ability to fathom another person's feelings is evidence that human beings have souls and are not merely physical.

This raises the question of whether we can imagine what a human being who lacked a soul would be like. I'm a fan of zombie films ('Ten Days After', 'Dawn of the Dead', 'Resident Evil' etc. etc.) and it is interesting to speculate whether there could be something resembling a human being which lacked the soul component. Would they behave like zombies in films?

Suppose I suggested that, in fact, Gordon Brown is a zombie. Gordon's brain and nervous system are 100 per cent responsible for producing all of Gordon's thoughts, feelings, speech, behaviour. Or rather were. Because yesterday, for some unknown reason, there was a malfunction and all Gordon's thoughts and feelings stopped. Now there is just darkness within. However, all of Gordon's behaviour, including what he says, the tiny things you notice on the TV screen or face to face continue, as before. Gordon's brain and nervous system continue to produce all the physical effects that they did before, and only the mental component -- what things are like from the inside if you are Gordon Brown -- is missing.

And, of course, no-one could ever know.

Then again, how do you know that I am not a 'undetectable zombie'? Meeting me and listening to your gut instincts would not make any difference, according to this theory. Unless you believe in some form of telepathy.

One philosopher who has explored the zombie idea is David Chalmers, in Australia. He has a web site and you will find plenty of references on the web to his ideas.

All the best,