Does a Gorilla Have a Soul?

During a discussion with one of my friends recently, he related how he had seen a journal (at the airport I think) advertising an article on its front cover titled something to the effect “Does a Gorilla Have a Soul?”

This is an intriguing question. It may of course be unanswerable. (Remember my reference in a previous blog essay to Thomas Nagle’s marvellous essay “What Does it Mean to be a Bat”?)

To begin with there are many interpretations of what we might mean by “soul”. The notion has been prevalent in spirituality and philosophy for millennia. In the Brahminic literature (eg the Rig Veda) as well as in some much more recent references, “mind” and “soul” seem virtually interchangeable.

Plato used a famous analogy to describe the soul as a plurality comprising two horses and a charioteer. One horse represented the noble aspects of mankind and one the base aspects of mankind. The charioteer represented reason. Thus in Plato’s mind reason was the guiding force of the soul struggling to mediate the conflict between good and evil. But for Plato (as indeed Descartes) the soul had a physical platform. The rational soul was located in the head, the soul of the spirit was located in the heart and the soul of the base appetites was located in the abdomen. (Much later, Descartes located the seat of the soul in the pineal gland, which is a component of the “old” brain structure that we share with all reptiles and mammals.)

The American researcher and writer Robert Maxwell Young in an article titled “Animal Soul” observed:

“Aristotle had postulated gradations from inert, inanimate matter to plants, which had the additional functions of nourishment and reproduction, to animals, which were also endowed with sensation, motion, and all degrees of mental functions except reason: he reserved reason for man. Aristotle’s general analysis of causation, which included final causes along with material, efficient, and formal causes, precluded a sharp discontinuity between physical and mental functions.”

Aristotle deduced that whilst inanimate objects and plants did not have souls that animals, despite the fact they did not have humankind’s capacity for reason, because they had some mental capacity, did.

The Eastern traditions (notably Brahmanism and Buddhism) used the tradition of the “witness” as a substitution for the soul. The doctrine of an ubiquitous soul in an abstract form of this nature was prevalent at least as early as the eighth century before Christ where we find it described as “the unseen seer, the unheard hearer, the unthought thinker, the unknown knower, the Eternal in which space is woven and which is woven in it.”

Here we are beginning to get a nuance about the possibility of the immortality of the soul. This was taken up in Christian thought. The Christian predecessors, the Jews, had some reasonably vague concepts about the soul. Their thinking was impacted by the infusion of Platonism through Philo of Alexandria. He taught the divine origin of the soul. However he was still locked into materialism by asserting that the spiritual essence of the soul is tied to the pneuma (breath) whilst the soul proper resides in the blood.

I could further explore the theme of the development of the notion of the “soul”. But I won’t. It is suffice to say that it is an ill-defined concept. It has been variously been attributed to a manifestation of our physical being or something that stands beyond our physicality. It has, as a result, been portrayed as a temporary condition endowed on a mortal body or an immortal manifestation temporarily attached to a physical host.

But if we look at history, at most times, in most places, at most ages, people have believed that human beings have some kind of a soul. because as Mark Baker and Stewart Goetz put it, “…humans also seem to inhabit a rich world of beliefs and desires, goals and purposes, pleasures and pains, sights and sounds, joys and sorrows whose nature has little to do with ordinary physical objects and the forces that act on them.” Baker and Goetz attribute these experiences to a soul.

In short, the “soul hypothesis” seems to be extremely natural, indeed almost inevitable, to the human mind and experience.

If such experiences are a result of having a soul how could we know which living organisms might experience them? (I have already taken a leap of faith by excluding inanimate objects from the experience of these phenomena. Some commentators would even include them but I find that impossible to reconcile.)

Descartes argued that it would be impious to imagine that animals have souls of the same order as men and that man has nothing more to hope for in the afterlife, than flies and ants have. Similarly, God could not allow sinless creatures to suffer; (to have a soul in this context meant having “free will”) without souls, animals would not suffer, and man would be absolved from guilt for exploiting, killing and eating them. But he considered the most important reason for denying souls to animals to be their failure “to indicate either by voice or signs that which could be accounted for solely by thought and not by natural impulse”

[I recall the story of a chimpanzee who was taught to use sign language to communicate with humans and had quite a sizable vocabulary. I have seen similar stories about lowland gorillas. This may have been the source of the story that my friend saw advertised – thus apparently meeting the test set by Descartes. I wonder if the ability to map the objects and actions from the world to a menu of signs however, is more a measure of intelligence than consciousness. ]

Robert Maxwell Young again writes:
“Descartes’s most formidable opponents in the seventeenth century were the Peripatetics, who explained animal behavior by reverting to a version of the Aristotelian view and postulated a third substance intermediate between matter and mind. Animals were said to possess a “substantial form,” a sensitive soul endowed with all mental attributes except reflection, reason, and will. The Peripatetics were more successful in criticizing Descartes than in gaining general acceptance for their own doctrine. A simpler solution was to accord sensation and an inferior degree of reason to animals but to deny them an immortal soul. This approach was favored by naturalists, who were most struck by the capacities of animals and less concerned with the subtleties of metaphysics. If one combined an appreciation of the complicated behavioral capacities of animals with a belief in the principle of the continuity of nature (‘Nature makes no leaps’), different degrees of mentality could be ascribed to creatures at different levels of the ‘scale of beings.’”

Two principal determinants of whether a soul exists that occur frequently in the literature seem both to be limited to the experience of consciousness.

Firstly does the organism possess an “interior world” of consequence?

Secondly, and closely related, does the organism experience qualia?

The big question is then is consciousness a binary function so that you either have it or you don’t? Or are their degrees of consciousness ranging from the mere stirrings of self-awareness to a full blooming consciousness? Moreover, is our consciousness or our ability to access consciousness evolving?

Julian Jaynes in his book “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” argued that consciousness only occurred to humans around 1200BC. The British Academic, Guy Claxton in one of his books (unfortunately I can’t remember which) postulated that consciousness might have been experienced intermittently initially but then became an enduring state of being.

This is all very speculative stuff.

If there is a connection between souls and consciousness, it behoves us to ask how do we know another being is conscious? In truth there is ne way of knowing. I am sure of my consciousness because I actually experience that interior world embellished by qualia. I suspect that you are conscious also because you seem to be so like me and you have sophisticated communication techniques to share your inner experience with me.

Is a gorilla conscious and therefore a likely candidate to host a soul? Who could know? Just as I intimated in the beginning we have no certain mechanism of determining what it is like to be a bat. We also have no certain mechanism to determine what it is like to be a gorilla. If we admit that consciousness might be an evolving thing that is spread unevenly across evolving organisms then maybe a gorilla has some sort of embryonic consciousness. But does that entitle it to a soul? If consciousness is a binary option where it can only be present full-blown or not, then it would be hard to argue that a gorilla has a soul.

11 Replies to “Does a Gorilla Have a Soul?”

  1. Perhaps the question could also be asked “does ‘a’ human being have ‘a’ soul”?

    If the response to such a question is “yes” then this would imply that some kind of personal and unique, though ‘immaterial’, entity is possessed, or retained, by a human being during his or her material space/time animated ‘journey’ and, further, that this immaterial entity somehow retains its ‘special’ unique and separated state of existence even when its coherent ‘host’ no longer has any animated coherent existence – in common language ‘is dead’ [not that ‘animated matter’ – coherent or incoherent – should necessarily be considered to inherently possess ‘life’ in the first place!]

    The notion of a material ‘body’ possessing an immaterial ‘soul’ raises some disturbing questions. Firstly, the apparent ‘gaps’ that seems to separate one ‘bodily defined’ human being from another ‘bodily defined’ human being only have meaning within, and made possible by, the ‘separating’ dimensionality that is characteristic of a ‘space/time’ universe. ‘Separation’ between human beings in a ‘space/time’ cosmos is made possible (i) in the ‘now’ by ‘space’ and (ii) in the ‘not now’ by ‘time’ [without the apparent separating ‘split’ made possible by ‘time’, you and your father may be fighting to sit on the same hundred year old stump in the back yard!]

    When you combine the ‘space/time’ splitting of singularity made possible by the dimensional characteristics of the material universe, with the artificial boundaries imposed on the ‘unbounded’ distribution of fluctuating matter – coherent and incoherent – within that ‘space/time’ domain through the use of ‘nouns’ [‘tree’, ‘car’, ‘Phil’, ‘Jack’ etc – and unique, I might add, to human beings; so gorillas don’t give a ‘hoot’ about souls, not having reached, in their dimensional level of existence, the ‘age of Narcissus’] what Narcissistic human beings [and that’s all of us!] now have is a ‘longing’ for the retention of what we have all fallen in love with, namely, the ‘image’ of our little ‘reflected’ separated, special [small ‘s’] self in the pool of Our ‘collective consciousness’.

    Remember the story: “Narcissus or Narkissos (Greek: Νάρκισσος), possibly derived from ναρκη (narke) meaning “sleep, numbness,” in Greek mythology was a hunter from the territory of Thespiae in Boeotia who was renowned for his beauty. He was exceptionally proud, in that he disdained those who loved him. Nemesis saw this and attracted Narcissus to a pool where he saw his own reflection in the water and fell in love with it, not realizing it was merely an image. Unable to leave the beauty of his reflection, Narcissus died.”

    The ‘tragedy’ in this Greek ‘myth’ is that Narcissus was in love with a ‘two dimensional’ version of his already ‘possessed’ three dimensional ‘self’. Narcissus, longing for, but never seeming to be able to ‘possess’ this ‘reflected’ version of his ‘real self’ died – in his ‘sleep’ of ‘unawareness’! He was ‘unaware’ that his ‘real’ existence was already ‘possessed’ by him at a higher and ‘more real’ dimensional level. Just as in the Plato’s story of the captives in the cave that only ever perceived reality as ‘shadows’ of the real – and killed the one who became aware of ‘reality’ and attempted to alert the others to this ‘higher’ reality.

    Now, how does all this relate to human or animals having individuated ‘souls’? Well, firstly, let’s turn the whole question upside down and rather than asking does an animal or human being have ‘a’ soul, why not ask whether a ‘soul’ or ‘souls’ or, being less specific, ‘some higher dimensional entity’, have ‘an’ animal or ‘a’ human being – or even better still, “does some higher dimensional entity have within Itself, lower dimensional reflected images of itself in the form of animals, and human beings”! This may seem a little ‘mad’ to start with, but let me elaborate. Let’s go back to the myth of Narcissus and ask ‘did a ‘real’ two-dimensional image of Narcissus ‘have’ a three-dimensional human version of itself; or, did a three-dimensional human being ‘have’ [perceive] a two-dimensional reflected version of itself? I think I can assume the latter. So, what is the lesson here? If we find that we are ‘observing’ three-dimensional ‘versions’ or ‘self-images’ that we give names to and call ‘ourselves’ and spend our whole tiny material ‘journey’ attempting to ‘retain’ these individuated reflected versions of our ‘real’ Self – [and I mean Self and not ‘selves’ – see further down in my comment] – could this give rise to the ‘idea’ that there may exist in some parallel non-material ‘realm ‘three-dimensional’ versions of our ‘individuated’ three-dimensional selves that we refer to as ‘our personal souls’? And… like in the myth of Narcissus… be doing so, whilst all the ‘time’ [the eternal ‘now’] being totally ‘asleep’ and ‘unaware’ that our Real Existence was already ‘possessed’ by ‘Us’ – not as parallel ‘souls’ in some ‘same-dimensional’ parallel space/time non-material universe equivalent to the one within which we currently ‘perceive’ our little individuated ‘selves’ – but at the next higher dimensional level in the hierarchical structure or ‘order’ of Reality.

    And finally, it perhaps needs to be grasped that, as with all relationships between ascending dimensional structures, what ‘appears’ to be separated at one level in the structure, is actually ‘unseparated’ at the next level up the hierarchy of dimensions – dots become lines; lines become two-dimensional plains; two-dimensional plains become three-dimensional solids; three-dimensional solids merge into the four dimensional ‘space-time’ universe containing the ‘four dimensional’ ‘selves’ that we [homo sapiens sapiens] currently ‘perceive’ – and fall in love with – within the ‘pool’ of our personal local arenas of consciousness; and, then, at the next higher dimensional level [i.e., the higher dimensional level ‘from’ which We ‘collectively’ ‘perceive’ our seemingly ‘separated special selves’– even though the existence of this level being itself ‘unseen’ is largely ‘known’ except as an ‘idea’ within the ‘awakened’ or ‘aware’ Mind] there is the ‘collective’ and unseparated Self that ‘joins’ us all into that ‘infinite Oneness’ – the ‘collective unconscious’ of Jung – the infinite spaceless timeless ‘implicate’ [implicit] super-positional unseparated potential some call ‘God’ or ‘Brahma’. And what is this cosmos? Just one ‘explicit’ unfolding of Our infinite implicit ‘potential’ that ‘collapsed’ [think – ‘big bang’!] into ‘space-time’ when We [metaphorically] ‘asked’ a question of Our Infinite Undivided Self “who am I and what do I look like” and fell in love with a ‘lower-dimensional’ unreal reflected version of Ourselves in the ‘pool’ of our ‘collective consciousness’! The ‘impossible question’ – for how could the Infinite ever make an ‘object’ of Its Reality such that it could then be ‘perceived’ – that could therefore only be ‘answered’ by ‘dreaming’ a lesser and reflected ‘personal’ version of what is NOT Its Real Self and eventually falling ‘out of love’ with it, thereby ‘awakening’ again to a ‘supra-personal’ – not ‘impersonal’ but above the personal [a la Einstein] ‘awareness’ – a ‘knowing’ that transcends both belief and perception – of Its unchanging ‘ground of Being’.

    So who needs a ‘separated’ Soul to feel ‘free’ of the pallor of material death – just ‘awareness’ of “I am that I am” and that any material ‘thing’ I add after ‘I am’ is nothing more than a ‘fleeting image’ reflected in Our collective ‘pool’ of consciousness! Perhaps ‘space/time’ is nothing more than Our collective ‘prodigal journey’ into experiencing, and eventually rejecting, the illusion of the impossible, so that the ‘certain’ can be ‘know’ beyond doubt! Perhaps ‘doubt’ is the architect of the Matrix!

    So, do the fleeting little animated ‘lives’ of gorillas – or humans – have ‘souls’? Does the fleeting animated image in the pool have Narcissus? Falling in ‘love’ with anything as ‘fleeting’ and ephemeral as a personal self-image or its non-material equivalent ‘a personal soul’ might just be another form of Narcissistic ‘insanity’!

  2. I particularly liked Dr Phil’s inversion of the question.

    But I wonder at what point in evolution were souls injected into an animal (humans are animals) or a what point did our souls attached themselves to an earthly animal.

    I wonder if when our material self dies, will our soul have a memory of our material self. If this is to be the case, then it would be reasonable that our soul would provide us with memory of before we were born. This is not the case. If it were, we would want to keep it a secret for fear of being seen as delusional. Unless of course religion could excuse it……or some new age spirituality.

  3. Thank you Ted for your stimulating blogs. This topic is interesting both as a space for contemplation, but also as it potentially provides the conscious basis for how we treat animals.

    Whenever there is a concept that allows drawing distinction between us and them, danger arises, such as Hitler’s eugenics, or the moral code that supported slavery.

    What humans seem to have in greater amount than animals is capacity for empathy and compassion. I have no idea whether animals have a soul. I don’t even know if I have one. On the possibility that we are all made of similar stuff, however, but to differing degrees, I would suggest that the best use of our compassion is to treat animals as if they did have their version of a soul.

  4. Thanks Ted, and thanks Phil – lovely to hear your voice again!

    Yup, we have since we emerged from the void felt there is something beyond our nature, something “super” natural. And names like God, extra terrestials, Allah, supernatural beings, higher power, Martians etc all attest to that sentiment to this day.

    Our earliest wrtings express the same sentiment – that there is some essence beyond our own nature that gives us life, “animates” us if you will (Anima being Latin for what we call soul). Something that gives us breath, indeed some spirit (Spiro meaning I breathe). But you know this I’m sure.

    So by definition anything having life must have an animating force and therefore a soul – of sorts.Even Gorillas!

    But the real question is – is that life giving essence, that soul, that spirit, that anima, connected in some essential way with the divinity that we call God et al? Now there’s the rub, that makes calamity of so long life and rather makes us bear those ills we have than fly to others we know not of (I think that’s pretty close to what Hamlet said!)

    Lots of people think so. Indeed most of the world, and that since the start of time.

    Thinking, being part of our nature, can’t by definition think Supernature-ly, and we may have some difficulty ipso facto with considering God et al….so good luck with this….

  5. Does Louis Armstrong have Soul?


    Peggy Lee?



    Marcus Auralius?

    “Split a piece of wood, and I am there.
    Lift up the stone, and you will find me there”
    Gospel of Thomas

  6. Interesting topic Ted. I am not sure you can have a soul, witness or mind without advanced language. At least for myself I am pretty sure I think in English, I believe that people who speak a second language often still think in their native language but can change over eventually to think in their second language or even have their thoughts skip between languages, using the one that most aptly covers what they are thinking. I would really like to know if a deaf person thinks in sign language and in particular if deaf people that live in a predominantly deaf community think in sign. Anyone out there know?

    The reason I think this is relevant is that animals do not possess spoken language but do often have quite complex body language. This language though is pretty much always about the F’s (fight, flee, food, and the other one) although a few express grief and some even happiness. I am not aware of any animal that is capable of abstract communication though, asking why the grass tastes good rather than just indicating where the grass is. This suggests to me that animals do not have much if any inner conversations and certainly are not aware of these conversations.

    Dreams however are different, they are based on images. We don’t dream in words, we dream in pictures. Most people will have seen a dog dreaming with their legs galloping in the action of chasing some dreamt of frisbee, but this alone I do not think is a sign of consciousness or self awareness although I have heard it used as an argument for this. If an animal has a soul then I would have to conclude they are not aware of it nor do they care about it. I don’t think they are aware of their mortality so have no need of a soul anyway.

  7. In relation to Matt Smith’s question “will our soul have a memory of our material self” may I refer back to that rather obtuse section in my earlier comment where I question the common idea of there being ‘a’ personal soul [located somewhere in a parallel non-material universe with dimensional characteristics akin to our presently ‘observed’ material universe] that is personally connected to each of the ‘body based’ egoic ‘selves’ that ‘We’ presently identify with as being ‘me’ of ‘my self’.

    This is the difference between the “I” and the “me” that most people equate as being the same entity. What I am suggesting is that the unseen ‘I’ needs to be understood as a ‘collective singularity’ even though the observed ‘me’ may be viewed as ‘one of many’. Einstein had an interesting take on this when he state in 1954:

    “A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self.”

    My point I was making was that if this notion of ‘soul’ could be equated with the ‘observing’ Self rather than the ‘observed’ self, then this ‘observing’ Self must be observing from a position that is one dimension higher than the top level [i.e., the local egoic mind] of the structure that is ‘perceived’ within the ‘perceiver’s’ arena of consciousness [i.e., It is observing from a position that is not Itself located ‘within’ the space-time cosmos, but in a sense, that in which the present phenomenal universe is merely one ‘collapsed’ or explicit unfolding of the ‘implicate order’ that constitutes this Infinite Oneness, to use David Bohm’s term]. I admit it is very difficult to construct a ‘picture’ from a perspective that is upside down, inside out, and back to front, to the perspective that is commonly taken [i.e., from the perspective of the ‘observed’ self – Phil – rather than from the perspective of the “I” that is identifying with ‘Phil’ – as this alternative ‘perspective’ can only be grasped as an ‘awareness’ and not as an empirically observed ‘fact’.

    If it is indeed the case that the ‘perceiving’ Self is not ‘individuated’ personal self at all but is rather a ‘suprapersonal’ Self ‘joined as One’ [and again, this concept of ‘Oneness’ needs to be understood as ‘suprapersonal’ rather than ‘personal’ as the term ‘one’ as understood within the separating dimensionality of our present ‘arena of consciousness’ we call the cosmos would be very lonely!] And why don’t We ‘perceive’ this Oneness? Simply because that which perceives can never perceive Itself as It really ‘is’ – so that when an explicit ‘objectification’ of One’s identity is sought and ‘observed’ and ‘fallen in love with’ [as in the metaphorical story of Narcissus – for is that not what ‘egoic love’ really is] it is always and only with one of those ‘lower dimensional’ [read fragmented – or individuated] collection of seemingly separated fear-driven ‘selves’ called ‘me’.

    When ‘I’ look upon my fellow human beings; and looking past the outer ‘form’ that is manifested as the material life of Ted, or Matt, or Judy, or Phil … and ‘see’ my ‘true Self’ – without any exceptions – ‘above all, and in all, and through all’, [i.e., sharing my true ‘I’dentity with the suprapersonal Self beyond the many personal ‘selves’ that are constantly either ‘aligning’ or ‘competing’ with each other] – and become increasingly ‘aware’ of this shared ‘I’dentity – then ‘I’ will become less and less concerned about what happens to ‘my’ personal ‘soul’ until it is of no concern at all having no foundation in ‘reality’ – and, perhaps, then ‘I’ will have become ‘enlightened’. And when this ‘enlightenment’ of ‘non-specialness’ becomes a shared ‘awareness’ in all Our local ‘arenas of consciousness’ then … the maybe this collective ‘journey’ into ‘Mindlessness’ will end where it began and the ‘Alpha’ and the ‘Omega’ will be the same.

    Is this not what some of the great ‘mystics’ were trying to tell us when they said things like “I AM awake” [stated by Siddhartha Gautama in response to a question “who are you”, after he came to Identify with the Buddha – the common Mind and Life of all beyond their temporal ‘form’] or “Before Abraham was, I AM” [reputedly stated by an ordinary human being called Jesus, after ‘remembering’ his timeless shared Identity as ‘the Christ’ – “Christ is all and in all” – the common unseen suprapersonal non-material Mind that is the ‘ground of Being’ for all local minds]. Or, for the Hindus, it is “Atman is Brahman” which put simply, means that the ‘essence’ or ‘soul’ of every presently individuated temporal entity in joined as one at the higher dimensional timeless, spaceless, suprapersonal singularity they call Brahman.

    ‘Suprapersonal’ – ‘beyond the personal’ – incorporating all that the term ‘personal’ connotes but going beyond the individuated notions that the term ‘personal’ has within our common frame of reference. Should not be understood as ‘impersonal’ such as inferred in the popular saying “may the force be with you” – a power without containing its own implicit intelligence that ‘you’ as a entity can ‘use’ for individuated purposes.

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