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.