The Cat, The Dog, The Robot and The Soul

Since before Biblical times men and women believed that human beings were unique, superior to the other animals that inhabited the Earth.  Later theologians would claim we had souls and animals didn’t.  Actually, the idea of an immortal soul only seems to arise after the New Testament, because in the Old Testament, life after death is barely hinted at.  It was man and woman that got special attention in Genesis, giving them dominion over all the animals, and God eventually told Noah we could eat them.  So we hunted and killed anything that swam, crawled, flew, leaped and ran.  We sacrificed them by the thousands in honor of God for many chapters of the Bible after that.   We justified our dominion by writing off the other beings in our environment as soulless creatures, unable to feel and know, and unworthy of love, empathy and compassion. 

Well science is starting to take a second look at the lives of animals.  Either we are closer to them, or they are closer to us.  If we have souls, maybe they do too, or at least some of them.  It’s hard to imagine all the cockroaches having unique identities, personalities and desires, but maybe we just don’t examine their lives long enough before we step on them.

The wonderful science writer Natalie Angier wrote in her NY Times “Basics” column, “Even Among Animals: Leaders, Followers and Schmoozers,” where she tells us about animal personality research.  She has a significant quote that I like:

“There are low information processors who don’t attend much to their environment and bulldoze through life,” said David Sloan Wilson of the State University of New York at Binghamton. “Then there are the sensitive ones who are always taking things in, which can be good because information is valuable, but it can also be overwhelming.”

I guess I’m one of those sensitive creatures that are overwhelmed by input, and that’s why I take the time to worry about cruelty to pigs and cows, rather than being the kind of person that just gobbles down the barbecue.  But that quote, based on animal studies, is very revealing.  Does it explain the foundation of conservatives and liberals?  Can we see the seeds of human traits like bravery, leadership,  cruelty, compassion, creativity, and so on in animals?  It’s natural to assume so if you believe in evolution.  If our eyes are a product of continual evolution, why not our individual personality traits?

Would we see this more dramatically if other animals had evolved bigger brains like us and could tell us what they felt?  I recently read a story about an uplifted chimp that can talk.  Read or listen to the very moving short story “Evil Robot Monkey” by Mary Robinette Kowal.  I think the narrated version has more impact and it will only take six minutes.

Anyone who lives with pets knows they have personalities.  People who love their animals want them to have souls too.  If you search on the quoted phrase “do animals have souls” on Google you’ll find 6,580 replies, many of which that look for theological justification that will give them hope they will see their pets again in heaven. 

I don’t think we have souls, being an atheist, but I believe animals have a kind of self-awareness that make them more than animated meat.  I’ve always been fascinated by robots, and believe we’ll one day have intelligent machines that are smarter than us humans.  They will have to evolve just like us, and I think we’ll see them go through developmental stages equal to various animals.  I doubt we have a machine as smart as an ant yet, but it won’t be long before we’ll see machines with personality traits, and soon after that we’ll have machines equal to dogs and cats.  Through robotic studies, we’ll eventually understand how much awareness an animal has.

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However, we shouldn’t need to wait until then to understand our unethical relationship with the rest of the animal kingdom.  We need more animal observers like Jane Goodall.  Can you imagine what compassionate observers could report about living among chickens, pigs and cows in factory farms?  Are their inhabitants all identical soulless creatures, or do they each have a personality struggling to survive in monstrous living conditions?  Maybe I’m wrong about souls.  But I’d like to be believe if we have souls its because we earned them.  Who knows, maybe in the far future vast AI intelligences will observe mankind and note they come in two kinds, those with empathy, and those without.

JWH – 4/11/10