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Are crows capable of reasoning about hidden causal agents? Five reasons for skepticism


There has been much discussion in the blogosphere about a recent study entitled, “New Caledonian crows reason about hidden causal agents,” in
the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (doi: 10.1073/pnas.1208724109, PNAS September 17, 2012) by Alex Taylor, Rachael Miller, and Russell Gray, demonstrating that crows have a tendency to attribute the movements of an inanimate object (e.g. a stick) to a causal agent whom they know to be in the vicinity, even when that agent is hidden from view, and that crows react with fear when they witness the movements of an inanimate object in the absence of any nearby causal agent. The authors of the study conclude that crows are capable of reasoning about a hidden causal agent. In their words:

Here, we show that tool-making New Caledonian crows react differently to an observable event when it is caused by a hidden causal agent. Eight crows watched two series of events in which a stick moved. In the first set of events, the crows observed a human enter a hide, a stick move, and the human then leave the hide. In the second, the stick moved without a human entering or exiting the hide… [A hide is a camouflaged shelter used to get a close view of wildlife. – VJT]

The movement of the probing stick was a novel stimulus and, thus, likely to elicit neophobic responses from the crows. [Neophobia is the fear of new things or experiences. – VJT] The movement of the stick was also likely to be an aversive stimulus for the crows as it moved into the space where the crows would put their heads when they attempted to extract the food from the box…

If the crows could attribute the stick’s movement to the hidden human, they could infer that when the human left the room, the stick would not move again. In contrast, in the second, unknown condition, if the crows were capable of causal reasoning, they would predict that the stick might move again because they had not observed a potential causal agent leave the hide…

The crows inspected the hide and abandoned probing with a tool for food more often after the second, unexplained series of events. This difference shows that the crows can reason about a hidden causal agent…

[Humans] make such inferences from a very early age. Between 7-10 mo[nths] of age, infants begin to show surprise if a bean bag is thrown from behind a screen and the screen is then lifted to show an inert object, rather than a causal agent such as a hand. The use of such causal reasoning underpins not only scientific and religious thought but also our sophisticated tool-using abilities and understanding of social interactions…

Comparative studies with the methodology outlined here could aid in elucidating the selective pressures that led to the evolution of this cognitive ability.

Readers wanting to know more about the experimental set-up can watch this three-minute video here. Professor Jerry Coyne has an interesting article about the experiment here.

From a scientific standpoint, the latest study by Taylor et al. was well-designed and rigorous, as it tested the hypothesis that crows are capable of reasoning about hidden causal agents against an alternative hypothesis, that they learn to make predictions about novel stimuli simply by becoming habituated to them. As Taylor recently explained, in response to a question from a reader on Reddit:

…[T]he habituation hypothesis predicts a high level of neophobia (measured as abandoned probes and high numbers of inspections) when the crows first see the stick move (i.e. in the HCA [hidden causal agent] trials). We got the opposite pattern, the crows were calm in the HCA trials, but then became nervous in the UCA [unknown causal agent] trials. As you note there was still habituation within UCA trials, which is to be expected; the crows were observing that this initially scary stimulus of a stick moving on its own was not leading to any negative consequences for them. But they key aspect of our study is that the crows only became scared when there was no human around to attribute the movement of the stick to… (Emphasis and square brackets mine – VJT.)

The reaction to the study across the blogosphere to has been surprisingly uncritical. Bloggers have hailed it as proof that crows are capable of reasoning about hidden causal agents. In this post, I’d like to explain why I think the study’s findings should be treated with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Are the crows reasoning?

First, as the authors of the study note, the same ability that the crows possess is also found in seven-month-old human infants. Most people would say that children of that age are not yet capable of reasoning, as they haven’t acquired a language.

Some readers may be inclined to object: “Maybe the crows are capable of some kind of non-verbal reasoning. It makes sense to suppose that reasoning can occur even in the absence of language. After all, don’t some people think in pictures rather than in words? Why couldn’t crows do the same thing?”

I don’t buy that. Some people do think in terms of pictures, but there’s a difference between such “thinking” and abstract reasoning. The difference matters.

Eleven years ago, while I was training to be a mathematics teacher, I overheard a teacher explaining to a colleague of hers why she insisted that her students should show their workings when solving a mathematical problem. She remarked: “If they really understand how to solve the problem, then they should be able to explain why they solved the problem in that particular way. If they can’t, then they don’t really understand.” The teacher’s remark struck me as an insightful one. It encapsulates my reasons for being skeptical regarding claims that the tool-making abilities of crows demonstrate a capacity for reasoning on their part.

The crucial point here is that the crows are unable to explain the basis of their judgments, as a rational agent should be able to do. The tool-making feats of Betty the crow look impressive, but we cannot ask her: “Why did you make it that way?” as she is incapable of justifying her actions. The same goes for the extremely clever New Caledonian crows who are able to use three tools in succession to get some food (BBC news report, 20 April 2010, by science reporter Rebecca Morelle). Let us imagine an older crow teaching a younger crow how to use a tool. And now try to imagine the following dialogue:

Older crow: Don’t bend it that way. Bend it this way.
Younger crow: Why?
Older crow: Because if you bend it this way, it can pick up a piece of meat, but if you bend it that way, it can’t.

The dialogue contains only simple little words, but the problem should be immediately apparent. The meaning of words like “if,” “why,” “but,” “can” and “can’t,” cannot be conveyed to someone who does not understand them, through bodily gestures alone. Until we have grounds for saying that crows possess a language containing words at this level of abstraction, we should react skeptically to claims that they can reason.

A second reason for skepticism is that although New Caledonian crows take care of their young for a period of two years (which is very long for a bird), the tool-making abilities of crows are not acquired through teaching from their parents. As Alex Taylor acknowledged in a response to a question from a reader on Reddit:

What we haven’t seen in crows is any kind of teaching, or the explicit copying of parents by juveniles (imitation).

Think about that. These crows supposedly learn how to reason without explicit instruction of any sort, and without even learning through imitation? I have t say I find that philosophically absurd. Reasoning is pre-eminently a social activity, because it is by its very nature open to challenge and criticism. Even solitary thinkers are expected to justify their claims in the court of public opinion, and if they cannot do so, they are rightly ignored. Reasoning that cannot be challenged, such as the kind that crows allegedly engage in, isn’t really reasoning at all.

Are the crows reasoning about causes?

My third reason for pouring cold water on the claim that crows are capable of reasoning about hidden causal agents is that in order to reason about causal agents in the first place, you need to be able to understand the notion of a cause, which is quite a sophisticated concept. Even eminent philosophers have a hard time explaining it.

The Scottish empiricist philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) famously defined a cause in terms of constant conjunction: a cause is “an object, followed by another, and where all objects similar to the first are followed by objects similar to the second” and also as “an object followed by another, and whose appearance always conveys the thought to that other” in his Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748, 1777, pages 76-77). Many contemporary scientists and philosophers are happy to parrot Hume’s definition, paying no heed to its glaring inadequacies.

To begin with, there are numerous cases where we can confidently assert that X causes Y, even though we may have had only one experience of Y being followed by X. A single example will suffice to illustrate my point. How many times would you need to see an arrow fired at an animal from a hunter’s bow, in order to conclude that the firing of the arrow was the cause of the animal’s death? Examples like this show that Hume’s requirement for constant conjunction of cause and effect is too strong.

Hume is also wrong to insist that a cause must always be followed by its effect. But in everyday life, cause and effect are often simultaneous. One billiard ball collides with another ball, and we say that the collision causes the second ball to move, even though the two events are simultaneous. A stone hurled by a schoolboy breaks a window, and we say unhestitatingly that the stone’s impact caused the window to break. A fire heats a horseshoe in the blacksmith’s forge, from the very first moment that it comes into contact with the horseshoe. On a more philosophical level, human beings seem to have no trouble in believing that they are being continually maintained in existence by God, without the need to posit any temporal interval between God’s conservative action and their continuation in existence. It is therefore a myth to say that causes necessarily precede their effects.

Finally, I take it that most of my readers will be familiar with the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. The fact that Y happens after X does not imply that X caused Y. Correlation does not imply causation. Even if we observe that Y always follows X, we cannot be sure that X is the cause of Y. There may be another agent, Z, which is responsible for both X and Y. We are forced to conclude that Hume’s definition of a cause in terms of constant conjunction is an inadequate one. Whatever the cause of an effect is, it must be something more than the event which it invariably follows.

The philosophical literature on the concept of causation is vast, and I have absolutely no intention of providing my own definition of a cause, in this short post. The point I want to make here is a very simple one. If even intelligent human beings, who are endowed with a language which allows them to refer to abstract concepts, have a hard time figuring out what a cause is, then shouldn’t we be just a teeny bit skeptical of the claim that crows, whose warblings lack the vital properties of productivity, recursivity, and displacement which characterize language as such, have a concept of causation?

Are the crows reasoning about causal agents?

A fourth reason for doubting the inflated claims made by Taylor et al. in their recent study is that even if we were to generously grant that crows can somehow grasp the notion of a cause, it is quite another thing to claim that they possess the notion of a causal agent – that is, a being who deliberately performs voluntary actions, such as pushing a stick from behind a curtain. In order to possess the concept of a causal agent, crows would need to possess what psychologists call a theory of mind – that is, an ability to attribute mental states such as beliefs, intentions and desires to other individuals. It is doubtful whether even human beings acquire this ability until they are three or four years old.

What’s more, there is good experimental evidence suggesting that even clever animals like chimpanzees (see this video) and elephants (see this one) lack a theory of mind. A chimpanzee, for instance, is incapable of realizing that a man with a bucket over his head cannot see anything, while an elephant can be easily fooled by a scarecrow. Indeed, primate researchers Derek Penn and Daniel Povinelli have written a paper entitled, On the lack of evidence that non-human animals possess anything remotely resembling a ‘theory of mind’ (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 362, 731-744, doi:10.1098/rstb.2006.2023) in which they not only discuss the abilities of chimpanzees but also those of corvids (crows and related birds), and carefully explain why there is no reason to suppose that these animals have the capacity to impute mental states to others. At first sight, the evidence for a theory of mind in these birds looks convincing:

Corvids are quite adept at pilfering the food caches of other birds and will adjust their own caching strategies in response to the potential risk of pilfering by others. Indeed, not only do they remember which food caches were observed by competitors, but also they appear to remember the specific individuals who were present when specific caches were made and modify their re-caching behaviour accordingly (Dally et al. 2006).

However, the experiments performed to date suffer from a crucial flaw, as Penn and Povinelli point out: “Unfortunately, none of the reported experiments with corvids require the subjects to infer or encode any information that is unique to the cognitive perspective of the competitor.” The authors argue that simple rules can explain the birds’ behavior:

In all of the experiments with corvids cited above, it suffices for the birds to associate specific competitors with specific cache sites and to reason in terms of the information they have observed from their own cognitive perspective: e.g. ‘Re-cache food if a competitor has oriented towards it in the past’, ‘Attempt to pilfer food if the competitor who cached it is not present’, ‘Try to re-cache food in a site different from the one where it was cached when the competitor was present’, etc. The additional claim that the birds adopt these strategies because they understand that ‘The competitor knows where the food is located’ does no additional explanatory or cognitive work. (Emphasis mine – VJT.)

Penn and Povinelli also propose two carefully controlled experiments which could provide evidence of a “theory of mind” in non-human animals. Even adult chimpanzees who were used to interacting with human beings failed the first experiment proposed by the authors, while 18-month-old human infants passed the same test.

I realize that some readers will think that crows might be smarter than chimps, given their impressive tool-making feats. But I would ask them to ponder why these clever crows, despite their advanced facial recognition skills, are nevertheless capable of being fooled by simple decoys, such as scarecrows that spin around in the breeze and that make a noise? And why do crows consistently mistake S-shaped pieces of rubber hose for snakes, so long as the pieces of hose are moved to a new location at the end of every day?

Given the preponderance of negative experimental evidence for even the cleverest non-human animals tested to date, coupled with the anecedotal evidence that crows are not that smart at telling humans from straw men, it would be advisable to take the claim that crows possess the relatively sophisticated concept of a causal agent with a very large grain of salt.

Are the crows reasoning about hidden causal agents?

A fifth and final reason for being leery of claims that crows can reason about hidden causal agents is the absence of rigorous testing of the claim that hiddenness played any role in the “reasoning” of the crows in the experiment reported by Taylor and his colleagues. In the experiment, the crows “observed a human enter a hide, a stick move, and the human then leave the hide.” They then inferred that the stick would not move again. I cannot help wondering what would have happened if the crows had merely observed the human leaving the hide, without observing the human enter? Would they still have been nervous about probing for food, after seeing the human leave? In other words, were the crows reasoning about a hidden agent that was capable of pushing the stick, or were they simply reasoning about the number of agents in the vicinity who were capable of pushing it? If they were reasoning about the number of agents, then merely seeing a human leave the hide without seeing him/her enter in the first place would not give the crows any assurance that there were no other human beings in the vicinity.

Relevance to religion? Zero.

Before I finish this post, I’d just like to make a brief remark on the claim made by Professor Jerry Coyne in his post, that the ability of crows to reason about hidden causal agents may help explain the origins of religion:

This notion of “hidden causal agency,” of course, has been suggested as a pivotal factor in the origin of religion. If you’ve read Pascal Boyer’s provocative book Religion Explained, you’ll remember his thesis that before humans understood natural phenomena (e.g., thunder, lightning, or tree rustling), it was natural for them to impute them to causal agents – supernatural ones.

In the experiment reported by Taylor et al., the hidden agent that the crows allegedly made inferences about was previously seen by the crows: they saw the human enter the hide. By contrast, the agents which religious adherents pray to are never visible. Philosophically, there is an ocean of difference between a hidden (but nevertheless material) causal agent, and an invisible, incorporeal causal agent. Belief in the latter cannot be reduced to belief in the former. I can only conclude that the relevance of Taylor’s experiment to the claims of religion is absolutely zero.

I should add that Coyne’s thesis on the origin of religion is self-refuting. At the beginning of his post, he writes that “[i]t would obviously be adaptive for some animals to be able to distinguish between natural phenomena, like wind, and phenomena that have similar effects but are caused by hidden agents like predators.” But if natural phenomena are conceived of as the effects of some supernatural hidden agent, then the distinction between the two cases collapses: in both, we have an agent causing the phenomena.

May I suggest that Coyne is a much better biologist than he is a sociologist?

vjt, I have to say, I cannot agree with Aquinas. Not sure this is the place to discuss it though, lol. Take Article 3 in the first linked source. Would you want to defend all of his arguments in that article. "All the blood which flowed from Christ's body, belonging as it does to the integrity of human nature, rose again with His body" That's a real stretch, imo. :) Mung
Eric, thanks for your comments. You make a lot of good points in your post. It is, indeed, possible that some Scriptural passages can, as you say, be reasonably interpreted either literally or symbolically (metaphorically) and, in a few cases, literalness and symbolism may both be in play. When the Israelites were “saved” from the Egyptians by crossing the Red Sea, for example, that event constituted both a real historical event and a symbolic prefigurement of the Christian doctrine of salvation by water (baptism). The question, though, is how can we know that? What do we do when there is some question about which way to take a certain passage. Does the phrase “God is spirit, and we should worship Him in the spirit of truth,” constitute a literal truth, a metaphor, or both. I gather that we both subscribe to the hermeneutical principle that the best interpretation is the one that captures the meaning that the Divine and human author (in this case, God and St. John) meant to convey. While a Catholic might appeal to the Church’s Teaching Magisterium for a solution to the riddle, the non-Catholic, who subscribes to the principle of private interpretation, may not accept that solution as an authoritative answer for the same reason that a non-Christian may not accept the Bible itself as an authoritative source. Who, then will serve as the tie breaker between the one Catholic interpretation and the multiple non-Catholic interpretations. I submit that the Church Fathers, many of whom were disciples of the twelve apostles, can play that role admirably. Being closer to the source of truth than modern day exegetes, and charged with the task of fighting heresy at every step, they would be more likely to pass on the correct interpretation. As stewards of the Gospel truths, they felt obligated to hold fast to what they had learned--even at the expense of being crucified, beheaded, skinned alive, fed to the lions, or boiled in oil. Not only that, but they felt that their salvation depended on faithfully passing down what had been given to them. I think we have to take what they say seriously and, dare I say it, submit to their authority as truth bearers. With that, I will give you the last word. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to dialogue with you and thanks making your case with readable clarity and fraternal charity. StephenB
Mung, You asked (#34): "Is it part of the doctrine of the Incarnation that Jesus Christ is still in the same body he occupied at the time of his death?" The short answer is "Yes." Here are some good Catholic and Protestant references. St. Thomas Aquinas discusses the matter here and here, while the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry discusses the question here. I hope that helps. vjtorley
Kantian Naturalist Good thoughts. Don't worry, you're not derailing the thread. You're getting it back on track. :) Eric Anderson
Alright, I'll bite and make one more comment, since we're having fun. :) StephenB, thanks for your comments.
We must be careful to distinguish between Biblical metaphors, which express truth in picturesque language, and the truths themselves. Surely, no one thinks, for example, that God has wings or feathers simply because he may, in a sense, take us under his wing.
I agree. One of the principal challenges of scriptural interpretation is ascertaining what is to be understood literally and what is to be understood metaphorically -- no easy task. Particularly when there are passages that would seem to be at odds.
It is the same with metaphors of bodily existence. The defining passage, I think, is John 4:24: “God is spirit . . .”
And how do we know that statements of bodily existence are metaphors, but the statement about being a spirit is not? Certainly we don't gain that insight from the text itself, so we must be relying on some other source. Is it possible we are reading that into the text? John 4:24 is an interesting case in point. At first glance the first four words seem pretty straight forward. And yet: (i) the very next clause (as you cited) says we must "worship him in spirit"; surely that same word is meant metaphorically in the second case; (ii) we have the "God's image" statement we have already been discussing; (iii) the martyr Stephen saw Jesus standing on the right hand of God (meaning he must have seen God too and there must have been some discernible form to God); (iv) Moses conversed with God "face to face," and so on. Now it seems pretty convenient to me that we would rely on one word made in the context of a metaphorical discussion about how we are supposed to worship (rather than being, say, a discussion detailing the scientific status of God's physicality), and that we would take that word literally, while at the same time treating as metaphorical other passages, some of which are not meant as a discussion/teaching moment at all, but are just a description of an actual experience someone had. Actually, rather than John 4:24, I think the real defining passage is where it states that "God is love." Maybe the whole God thing is just a metaphor for love! :) Just kidding, but it does highlight the fact that we can't rely on a single passage or even a couple of passages, particularly when they are analogy-laden teaching moments, at the expense of other passages that include matter-of-fact statements of experience. Well, I've babbled too long. As I said, we obviously won't resolve this issue on this thread. I just think we should be open to acknowledging that the idea that God does not or cannot have a body is certainly not the only reasonable interpretation of scripture, and if we look not at a single statement or two but instead (if I may be forgiven for stealing a phrase from our intelligent design discussions) at the overall weight of the evidence, it is not clear to me that it is even the most reasonable interpretation. Anyway, I appreciate the discussion and everyone's good-natured approach to laying out our thoughts regarding what, in some quarters, might be a sensitive issue. Eric Anderson
VJ, thanks for the kind words. The congenial way that you, Eric, and Mung entered into a dicussion on such a critical issue persuaded me that I could chime in without distracting from your theme. StephenB
StephenB, Thank you for your insightful post on God's incorporeality. Your choice of John 4:24 ("God is spirit") as a key text was an excellent one, and the citations you listed from the Church Fathers should leave no doubt among readers that the early Church believed God to be an incorporeal spirit. vjtorley
Kantian Naturalist, Thanks for a very sensible post. It was well-written and I enjoyed reading it. Thank you once again. vjtorley
Just a recent thought, having an aged dog near her end, but I feel that God will reverse every effect of sin, all the deaths of everything with the breath of life - all our pets and all the animals all back! butifnot
The Development of Children’s Reasoning Strategies in Probability Tasks Mung
A mighty posted thread dealing with crows! Would these smart crows do such a thread on us? Robert Byers
The difference lies in the explanation provided as to how this came to be — how it is that we entered the space of reasons.
I entered for the free food. It sure as heck wasn't for the conversation. Mung
I don't wish to derail an interesting discussion of theological matters, but I do want to add a few thoughts about the idea of rationality and the sense in which a normal mature human being is a rational animal. On a first pass, it might seem fine to identify rationality to the capacity to make inferences. But I think that the example of the crows, and many other examples drawn from cognitive ethology, might make us leery of that view. One might say that it is one thing to simply infer, and quite another to know that one is inferring. The latter, but not the former, would seem to be at work in our capacity to assess our inferences -- or, to use Bob Brandom's phrase, our ability "to play the game of giving and asking for reasons". If that distinction works, it might be fine to acknowledge that the crows really are inferring -- not just mimicking inference or whatever -- but still deny that their implicit, tacit inferences count enough to grant them a place in the space of reasons, because they cannot make their inferences explicit, taking those inferences as reasons for action, for evaluation, revision, etc. The contrast, then, between a normal, mature human being and anything else is that the former can both ask for reasons and provide reasons when asked to do so, which is to say, she can not only make inferences but keep track of her inferences as inferences, revise them as need be, and so on. And the reason why we can reflect on our inferences, as well as make them, is because of the recursive structure of natural language. I don't think this approach will clarify the concept of rationality entirely, but I think it'll help. On a slightly related note, I think it matters greatly to distinguish between what we hold true as a matter of conceptual analysis and what we hold true as a matter of well-grounded explanation.* The assertion that "a normal mature human being is a rational animal" is, I think, a piece of conceptual analysis that theists and naturalists should agree on. The difference lies in the explanation provided as to how this came to be -- how it is that we entered the space of reasons. * For the philosophers: in saying this I am aware of setting myself against Quine's rejection of the analytic/synthetic distinction. So be it -- I am not a Quinean, though I am a pragmatist of a different stripe. Having read recently C.I. Lewis' Mind and the World Order, I now think that the real problem with Quine lies in his rejection of intensional expressions. Once we embrace extensionalism, the rejection of the analytic/synthetic distinction is soon to follow. So the trick here is to prevent extensionalism. But one might have scruples against positing intensional entities, as that soon leads to an inflated ontology such as Meinong's. So the trick, I've now come to think, is to make a place for the distinction between intensional and extensional expressions without reifying intensional expressions into intensional entities. And the way to do that, I think, is to treat intensions as metalinguistic expressions of semantic rules, where the rules are cashed out in terms of shared norms of linguistic behavior. Kantian Naturalist
p.s. "And just as they were telling about it, Jesus himself was suddenly standing there among them." YIKES! Bet that gave them a start. Mung
Re the latter, just a glimpse of the nature of Jesus’ (and later our own) glorified bodies is evidenced in his appearance to the disciples, when they were lying low in the upper room, with the doors barred, after Jesus’ crucifixion; and he walked through it.
Yes, and on the road to Emmaus his disciples did not recognize him. Bu what, in the text, makes you think He walked through the door, or even climbed through a window? :) I tend to think that He could put on and take off a "body" at will and didn't have to resort to walking around unless He just wanted to. Mung
Mung, the question of Jesus' simultaneous spirituality qua one of the persons of the Holy Trinity and his glorified corporeality is deeply mysterious, logically beyond our comprehension, simply paradoxical. Re the latter, just a glimpse of the nature of Jesus' (and later our own) glorified bodies is evidenced in his appearance to the disciples, when they were lying low in the upper room, with the doors barred, after Jesus' crucifixion; and he walked through it. After eating with them.. so he was not pure spirit. Indeed, he is the head of his own Mystical Body, of which, d.v., we shall become members. It is also generally attested to by some of the people who have had an NDE, some of whom said that they had been met by him. I don't use tentative words, such as, 'claim', in this kind of context, as the evidence for the truth of them, generally, far exceeds the plausibility of any claims about their being starved of oxygen, or any other nonsense they dream up. We know there is no limit to the level of fancy to which atheists will resort to negate any manifestation of non-materialism. Axel
JLAfan2001, in one YouTube video, a young man who had had an NDE told how surprised and tickled he was, when the first creatures running to greet him ahead of the family posse, were all the pets the family had had, at least in his time. Also, there is the passage in Romans 8:18-22: 'I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that[h] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.' So, I think, our pets will enjoy a lot more than the natural joy they were able to experience here, below, if appreciably less than the Beatific Vision. Axel
I don't believe God the Father has a body. I don't believe God the Spirit has a body. I don't know that I have ever met anyone who has believed that, to be honest. I also never really though about it all that much, taking Scripture at face value on those points. I do believe though that Jesus Christ has a body, His church. :) While I have come across many people who think that even now Jesus is still in a human body in heaven, I am not one of them. I can't even tell you what the 'orthodox' Christian view on that point is. Mung
StephenB, Thanks for the quotes. I wish I had the time to read everything that I just don't have time to read (including all the writings of the Fathers)! But I did read your post :) Mung
Eric, Mung, VJ, let me tug away at this issue if I may. We must be careful to distinguish between Biblical metaphors, which express truth in picturesque language, and the truths themselves. Surely, no one thinks, for example, that God has wings or feathers simply because he may, in a sense, take us under his wing. It is the same with metaphors of bodily existence. The defining passage, I think, is John 4:24: "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." According to Jesus Christ, the Father doesn’t “have” a spirit, the Father “is” a spirit, which means that God, as God, has no body. There were many things that the early Church fathers disagreed about, but on this subject, they were unanimous in their conviction: God is an unchangeable, immaterial spirit who has a nature that contains no parts. Bodies extend through space and can, for that reason, be divided into parts. God cannot have parts. Let's consider what a few of those church fathers had to say. (I include only a small portion of them to save space). Remember, they were all of one mind and there are many more not listed. Irenaeus "Far removed is the Father of all from those things which operate among men, the affections and passions. He is simple, not composed of parts, without structure, altogether like and equal to himself alone. He is all mind, all spirit, all thought, all intelligence, all reason . . . all light, all fountain of every good, and this is the manner in which the religious and the pious are accustomed to speak of God" And again, "Being is in God. God is divine being, eternal and without beginning, incorporeal and illimitable, and the cause of what exists. Being is that which wholly subsists. Nature is the truth of things, or the inner reality of them. According to others, it is the production of what has come to existence; and according to others, again, it is the providence of God, causing the being, and the manner of being, in the things which are produced." "What is God? ‘God,’ as the Lord says, ‘is a spirit.’ Now spirit is properly substance, incorporeal, and uncircumscribed. And that is incorporeal which does not consist of a body, or whose existence is not according to breadth, length, and depth. And that is uncircumscribed which has no place, which is wholly in all, and in each entire, and the same in itself." "No one can rightly express him wholly. For on account of his greatness he is ranked as the All, and is the Father of the universe. Nor are any parts to be predicated of him. For the One is indivisible; wherefore also it is infinite, not considered with reference to inscrutability, but with reference to its being without dimensions, and not having a limit. And therefore it is without form" Origen "Since our mind is in itself unable to behold God as he is, it knows the Father of the universe from the beauty of his works and from the elegance of his creatures. God, therefore, is not to be thought of as being either a body or as existing in a body, but as a simple intellectual being, admitting within himself no addition of any kind.” "John says in the gospel, ‘No one has at any time seen God,’ clearly declaring to all who are able to understand, that there is no nature to which God is visible, not as if he were indeed visible by nature, and merely escaped or baffled the view of a frailer creature, but because he is by nature impossible to be seen." Athanasius "God, however, being without parts, is Father of the Son without division and without being acted upon. For neither is there an effluence from that which is incorporeal, nor is there anything flowering into him from without, as in the case of men. Being simple in nature, he is Father of one only Son" Hilary of Poitiers "First it must be remembered that God is incorporeal. He does not consist of certain parts and distinct members, making up one body. For we read in the gospel that God is a spirit: invisible, therefore, and an eternal nature, immeasurable and self-sufficient. It is also written that a spirit does not have flesh and bones. For of these the members of a body consist, and of these the substance of God has no need. God, however, who is everywhere and in all things, is all-hearing, all-seeing, all-doing, and all-assisting." StephenB
I think the processes of reasoning and that of reflecting, pondering, wondering, are indissolubly tied, and some thoughts, perhaps the original ones, infused whole, and others conjured up by association. I believe, if my memory serves that is, that St Theresa of Avila, referred to 'lights', knowledge directly infused by the Holy Spirit. I can remember wondering, as a six-year old, what thoughts had led to my cuurrent thoughts, and I expect such musings are quite common in children - who, as Joe intimated about animals, are not as dumb as they are cabbage-looking. Axel
Robert, I don't mean to demean the intelligence of unworldy people, who tend to have a far sounder spiritual intelligence, a better grasp of spiritual priorities, but that memory process you speak of can be seen in our pubs. An old boy who was, perhaps, very poor at his sums in his primary school, will immediately tell you what permutation of numbers you need to get out - singles, doubles, trebles, as he has come to remember occurrences of the same score many times over the years, and the 'getting-out numbers required. The memory is connected to the intelligence in human beings by way of the soul, which is constituted of the memory, will and understanding. Animals, we know have a different kind of soul, presumably in terms of the limitations on their will and understanding. Axel
vjt, Thanks for the links. That third one reminds us of a few things: "We are told that God is a Spirit (John 4:24) and thus invisible (I Tim. 1:17)." "Jesus came to "make him known" to us (John 1:18 RSV). When we behold Jesus we "have seen the Father" (John 14:9)." But someone can argue: See, that means God (the Father) has a body :) Mung
Hence for Christians who believe in the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, the sentence, “God the Son had a human, fleshly body,” is now true. Is it part of the doctrine of the Incarnation that Jesus Christ is still in the same body he occupied at the time of his death? Eric:
I should also point out that in the latest historical experiences outlined in Biblical scripture He still had one
Such as the encounter with Paul on the road to Damascus? And the evidence he was embodied is?
and He apparently will have one when He visits again.
He did visit again, and it was without a body. :) Also, see Hebrews 5:7 Mung
Hi Eric, Thanks for your courteous and thoughtful response. It appears you favor the view that God the Father has a body of some sort. Here's my question: does He need one? If the answer is "No," then it is hard to see how our being made in the image and likeness of God the Father's corporeal form could "teach us something about God's makeup," as you suggest, when this corporeal form is something God can happily do without. But if the answer is "Yes," then I put it to you that a Being Who is incapable of existing without a body must be composite, rather than simple. But if God were composite, then He would be contingent - in which case, He wouldn't be God. I will concede that there are Scriptural passages which do seem to impute some kind of corporeal form to God (e.g. Genesis 3:8, Genesis 19:1-13, 33; Exodus 33:18-23). For an explanation of what these passages might mean, you might like to look at these articles: here, here and here. Regarding animals' cognitive abilities: for my part, I'm inclined to think that there are non-human animals which are capable of genuinely loving human beings for their companionship, and not just for the food they provide. I also think that there are non-human animals which are capable of loving other animals of their own species, simply for their companionship. One might then argue that if humans are capable of loving certain kinds of animals as companions in their own right, and if these animals are genuinely capable of loving their human owners, then these animals could be said to be eligible for some kind of immortality, since the act of loving someone is not a bodily operation as such but a spiritual one. The same argument would apply for animals which are capable of genuinely loving each other. Granted that non-human animals are incapable of forming a concept of God, or of abstractions such as truth, love and immortality, could they nonetheless be spiritually "hard-wired" with a very small number of basic abstract concepts, even if they are incapable of articulating them? For instance, could some animals have the concept of an individual, a "significant other," or an agent, implanted into their psyches by God, as a basic concept? Finally, the unanimous Christian theological tradition that only human beings are capable of enjoying the Beatific Vision (and conversely, capable of suffering the perpetual deprivation of this Vision, in Hell) does not rule out the possibility that some animals may be allowed to enjoy some kind of non-beatific natural happiness in the hereafter. My two cents. Take it as you wish. Cheers. vjtorley
vjtorley@29: Thanks for the detailed reply and for taking time to lay out the thinking that some would take with respect to deity having a physical body. Just a couple of quick responses and then what I think is the takeaway of the discussion. As to your first point, the lack of a body before the incarnation is true for God the Son, but not necessarily God the Father. Note that Genesis says "let us make main in our image, plural. Also, even if we grant a noncorporeal form, apparently that form looked essentially like the corporeal form. There are instances in scripture (prior to the incarnation) where God is seen and conversed with as a man. One can argue that those instances are just visions, or symbolic, or that God assumed the human likeness in order to appeal to the listener and so on. However, that argument is itself a questionable interpretational gloss. Finally, you seem to be straining the interpretation of Genesis by focusing on the absence of the word "future" in the scripture, particularly when we are talking about a being outside of time and for whom all things (past, present and future) are present before Him. The second argument you lay out completely fails. Scripture refers to God's image, which is just a possessive form. If God possesses a body and possesses that image then it is certainly "God's image" and can be plainly stated as such. Additionally, I think you will agree that we are not our bodies, but that we have bodies. Thus if we are made in God's likeness, as you strongly assert, perhaps that should teach us something about God's makeup. Third:
But the sentence, “God has a body,” is not true as such, even now.
That simply doesn't follow. We have established that at least God can have a body and did have a body, last we heard from the New Testament writers, and at His return apparently will have a body then as well. I'm still waiting for a good reason to think that He can't have a body now. Fourth:
If man is made in God’s image and likeness, then we can legitimately ask: in the image of which body was man made? God the Father’s or God the Son’s?
Yes we can legitimately ask that question, and the answer, although interesting, could be either or both, so not really germane to the point at hand. Finally, you quote the Broadman Commentary regarding the word "image":
[Image] describes an exact resemblance, like a son who is the very image of his father.
I think that is an excellent definition and one with which I would heartily agree. An exact resemblance, like a son to a father. ---------- Well, we won't resolve everyone's viewpoints on whether God has a body on this thread, but I just want to summarize the reason for me pushing on this issue and what (I believe) has been established. Hopefully the discussion has been instructive for future times when we are tempted to rest a proposition on something that is up for debate. 1. Part of the discussion on what makes us unique from animals centered on the idea that man is made in God's image. It was suggested by JLAfan2001 that this might be a theological problem if animals are seen to have consciousness/reasoning (as JLAfan2001 understands "God's image" to mean not "image" but something more akin to consciousness/reasoning/free will). 2. It was argued that this definition of image was perforce correct because God can't have a body (and, therefore, "image" must be understood figuratively, rather than literally). Yet we have established that God the Son can have a body, did have a body, and will have one again at some future point. Further, I have not seen any valid reason for concluding that God the Father could not have a body. 3. Thus, it remains entirely possible that man is in fact made in God's image (physical likeness). That alone would give man a unique position within creation. Note, I am not suggesting that this is the only unique attribute; there is clearly a vast difference in degree of other attributes (reasoning, language, consciousness) between us and the animals. 4. Thus, even if we discover through scientific research that there is not a difference in kind between us and the animals in our reasoning/consciousness, we need not think that this upsets any theological apple cart, if we are careful about the theology and don't assume things that are questionable. Further, I do not see any valid theological reason why the animals cannot have been endowed with a lesser portion of the divine attributes of reasoning/consciousness that man was endowed with. In summary, I agree there are significant open questions about animals' reasoning capabilities (and free will, consciousness, etc.). We should remain open, however, to what is discovered over time and not paint ourselves into an a priori corner that precludes the possibility of animals having some of these attributes, due to unclear (and questionable) theological assumptions. ------- Well, that is too long already. I've probably said my piece and taken too much of the thread. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss. Good stuff. Eric Anderson
Mung @28: Excellent. So you've come to express my very point. God can have a body and did have a body. (I should also point out that in the latest historical experiences outlined in Biblical scripture He still had one; and He apparently will have one when He visits again.) Thus, the whole point of this present aspect of the discussion ("made in God's image" can't refer to an actual image because God can't have a body; and, therefore, it must not be taken literally, but instead should be understood as an abstract reference to some other attribute of deity) is based on reasoning that is, at the very least, highly questionable.
So while the view that Jesus is not currently clothed with a body of flesh (I just love the language we need to use to even talk about this, lol) may be ad hoc (I’m not granting that it is), it’s not for any reason you’ve given.
If you mean that it is not based on the idea that God can't have a body, then we are in complete agreement. So I'm still waiting to hear a good reason . . . Eric Anderson
Hi critical rationalist, I enjoyed reading your post (#20 above), and I totally agree with the careful distinction you drew between explanatory and non-explanatory kinds of knowledge. I think you hit the nail on the head when you wrote in your final paragraph:
Since "reasoning about hidden causal agents" entails creating explanatory knowledge, we need not be skeptical about whether crows do not exhibit it. Rather crows are creating non-explanatory knowledge, which are essentially useful rules of thumb.
My sentiments exactly. Thanks again. vjtorley
Hi Eric, Thank you for your recent posts (#24 and #27). You are quite right when you point out that according to the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, God (or more precisely, God the Son, Second Person of the Blessed Trinity) assumed human nature - which implies that He assumed a human body. Hence for Christians who believe in the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, the sentence, "God the Son has a body," is now true. However, I'm afraid that won't help your case. First, the sentence, "God the Son has a body" was not true before the Incarnation. The first human beings existed long before the Incarnation, and according to Genesis, they were made in the image and likeness of God. Since God did not even have a body at the time when they were made, then God's declaration in Genesis 1:26, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness," could not possibly have referred to man's physical form, as God had no physical form at that time. Now you might object that God might have been talking about His future physical form when He said, "Let us make man in our image." But that won't wash. For He does not say, "Let us make man in our future image, in our future likeness", but simply, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness." The statement is clearly present tense. Second, even if the foregoing argument does not convince you, there is another argument that should. By your own admission, a body is something that God has, rather than something God is. Hence if God has a physical form, then that form is not God, as such. It's something that God has, but it's not Him as such. Hence it follows that if man was made in the image and likeness of God's physical form, then man was not made in the image and likeness of God. But 1 Corinthians 11:7 says clearly that a man "is the image and glory of God" (emphasis mine). Genesis 5:1 also declares that "When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God" - in the likeness of God, in other words, and not in the likeness of something that God has. A third argument against your claim that the term "image and likeness" refers to a physical form is that the Bible states that man was made in the image and likeness of God - and not in the image and likeness of any particular Person of the Blessed Trinity. But the sentence, "God has a body," is not true as such, even now. We can legitimately say that God the Son has a body, since Jesus Christ is a Divine Person, even though He has both a Divine Nature and a human nature. Hence the Person to whom Jesus' body belongs is God the Son, even though the nature to which it belongs is Jesus' human nature. But God the Son is a distinct Person from God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. Neither of these Divine Persons has a body. Hence it is false to say that God as such has a body. Hence the term "image and likeness" cannot refer to man's physical form, since God as such is not a physical form, and moreover does not have one. A fourth and final argument is that even if we were to suppose (as Mormons do) that God the Father also has a body, that body is nevertheless distinct from the body that God the Son now has. If man is made in God's image and likeness, then we can legitimately ask: in the image of which body was man made? God the Father's or God the Son's? I'd like to leave you with a final thought. Regarding the meaning of the term "image," The Broadman Bible Commentary has this to say:
It describes an exact resemblance, like a son who is the very image of his father. Ancient kings would place such effigies of themselves in cities they ruled. (The Broadman Bible Commentary, Vol.1, Nashville: Broadman Press, 1973, p.125.)
The conclusion I draw is that what the author of Genesis intended to state was that man was originally created to be God's viceroy on Earth. I hope that helps. vjtorley
Unless of course, we layer on an additional, unscriptural, ad-hoc proposition to the effect that the resurrected body was later jettisoned for some reason, all in an effort to maintain our view that deity cannot have a body . . .
Hi Eric, Jesus was God in the flesh. So there is no ad hoc proposition to maintain a view that deity cannot have a body. Agreed? So while the view that Jesus is not currently clothed with a body of flesh (I just love the language we need to use to even talk about this, lol) may be ad hoc (I'm not granting that it is), it's not for any reason you've given. regards Mung

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