Recently, there has been a lively exchange of views on the subject of animal rationality and animal immortality between Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart and Thomist philosopher Edward Feser. A fair-minded reader would have to conclude that Feser has gotten the better of Hart in this exchange. (For a handy summary of the arguments put forward on both sides, I would warmly recommend Professor Feser’s latest article; his earlier articles can be found here, here and here. Hart’s articles in First Things can be found here and here.)
Nevertheless, I have strong reservations about some of Feser’s arguments. In a nutshell: Feser seems to want to place a period where the available evidence – from both science and philosophy – leaves a comma. Full disclosure here: my Ph.D. thesis in philosophy was on the subject of animal minds, and I should point out that I have written several articles on Uncommon Descent (see here, here, here and here), pouring cold water on recent scientific studies purporting to show that non-human animals possess rationality and a sense of self. I should add that I’m not a great pet-lover, although I do refrain from eating meat (but not fish). Consequently, I have no particular axe to grind on the issue of whether some animals possess an immaterial sort of consciousness, making them possible candidates for immortality.
As this will be a very short post, I’d like to briefly enumerate the problems I have with Feser’s arguments, before throwing the discussion open to readers. Here goes.
1. Professor Feser assumes that the term “concept” has only one meaning, which can be applied to all of the concepts we have – including the concept of redness, the concept of same-different, the concept of triangularity, the concept of computability, the concept of gold, the concept of life, the concept of being a horse, the concept of a person, and the concept of a concept itself. To say the very least, this seems doubtful. Some of these concepts are much more refined than others, and it is hard to see what my concept of redness has in common with my (meta-)concept of a concept. The philosopher Ralph Machery has argued cogently that concepts are not a natural kind. Machery argues for a heterogeneity hypothesis, writing that “the class of concepts is divided into several kinds of considerations that have little in common.”
2. That being the case, Feser’s claim that non-human animals are incapable of forming concepts needs to be treated with caution. A strong case can be made that higher-level concepts, requiring the use of propositional language, are indeed unique to human beings. However, Feser appears to be unaware of recent experimental evidence that honeybees can acquire abstract concepts such as “same” and “different,” possession of which seems to presuppose the grasp of a rule. I describe and evaluate this evidence on pages 302 to 304 of my thesis, which Feser is welcome to have a look at. In addition, mammals and birds possess an awareness of Piagetian object constancy, or the ability to anticipate that an object which disappears behind an obstacle will subsequently re-appear. This finding would seem to indicate that these animals possess at least the basic concept of a physical object. One could therefore argue that while non-human animals are incapable of verbally articulating the primitive concepts they possess, these concepts may nonetheless be built into their natures as sentient creatures. (The next question we would need to ask is whether these primitive concepts could possibly be “hard-wired” into their brains or whether they are immaterial features of their psyches.)
3. Most cat and dog owners would vigorously contend that their pets view them as companions, and that cats and dogs can empathize with their owners when they are feeling sad, lonely or unwell. Recent psychological studies lend support to this claim, although they are far from conclusive. That being the case, one might reasonably suggest that perhaps these animals possess a primitive concept of “person” or “individual,” and that they view their owners not merely as useful objects (e.g. food-providers), but as “significant others” But as Feser would readily acknowledge, the concept of a person is not a material one. It therefore follows that if some pets are capable of genuinely loving, empathizing with or enjoying the companionship of their owners, they must be capable of performing at least one immaterial mental act. And if that be the case, then we can no longer rule out the possibility of immortality for these animals. (I should point out that by “immortality,” I do not mean “Heaven,” as the latter presupposes an explicit knowledge of God, while the former does not.)
4. It strikes me that Feser’s dichotomy of concepts (which are immaterial and which are supposedly unique to rational beings) and images (which even sub-rational animals with sensory capacities are capable of possessing) is too simplistic: it overlooks the intermediate category of a mental schema. Mental schemas have a clearly defined internal structure: for example, the concept of food is connected to the attributes of a taste (sweet, sour, salty or bitter), texture (tough, tender, lumpy, gritty or slimy), the source from which it comes (usually an animal or plant) and what you have to do in order to obtain it (hunt, scavenge or harvest). While it is true (by definition) that an image can only have a material realization, the same does not appear to hold for a mental schema: while it can certainly be represented in diagrammatic form, its reality is not exhausted by any particular physical representation of it. Mental schemas thus seem to possess a universality that mere images do not. Of course, that does not necessarily make them immaterial, and in a recent post, I have argued that humans’ (and, by extension, animals’) brains may indeed be capable of storing mental schemas as representations of objects in the external world.
(UPDATE: In another post, Feser cites an argument put forward by the philosopher Donald Davidson, that animals are incapable of having beliefs, on the basis that they are incapable of (a) having the concept of believing something, and (b) using language. This argument has been critiqued by philosophers John Searle and Peter Carruthers, neither of whom could be accused of being “pro-animal.” For a good discussion of the problems with Davidson’s argument, see here. I also discuss the argument on pages 133-134 of my thesis. Very briefly: (i) Davidson’s claim that one cannot have a belief of any sort unless one is capable of having the concept of a belief is highly contentious, to say the least (think of young children); (ii) the claim that the capacity for having a belief presupposes the capacity for language is true only if the capacity for having a concept presupposes the capacity for language, which as we have seen above is dubious; and (iii) the demand that the content of animals’ beliefs should have a sense which is precisely specifiable in human language is tantamount to imposing what Carruthers calls a co-thinking constraint on animals. I should add that Feser contradicts himself when he says in his post that even desires presuppose beliefs: no Aristotelian would say that, as Aristotle was quite happy to impute desires to animals.)
5. The term “rationality” is variously defined in the literature. On a minimal definition, it refers to the ability of an agent to select and employ suitable means in order to obtain its ends or goals. Using this definition, it is hard to see how we can deny rationality to cockatoos who can crack locks unassisted, without having to be offered a reward at each step along the way, or to New Caledonian crows, such as the amazing 007, who managed to solve a complex eight-stage puzzle in order to get some food, in the course of just three minutes. (Sadly, Feser never even mentions these extraordinary cases in his articles on animal rationality and immortality.) Perhaps, as I suggested in an article on Uncommon Descent, New Caledonian crows have an enormous mental reservoir of accumulated knowledge relating to how they can manipulate objects with their beaks (“smart moves”), and perhaps they simply draw on this when solving problems. If that is the case, then the crows wouldn’t be reasoning, but relying on their life-time experience in order to solve complex problems. But I wouldn’t bet on it. As MUSE editor Elizabeth Preston reveals in an online article titled, It Takes an 8-Year-Old to Outsmart a Crow (July 26, 2012), there are certain puzzles that New Caledonian crows appear to be incapable of solving, but it turns out that they’re the sorts of puzzles that most human children up to the age of eight can’t solve either. I doubt whether Professor Feser would want to say that seven-year-olds are incapable of reasoning.
Alternatively, the term “rationality” might be restricted to creatures who are not only capable of directing suitable means to their ends, but also capable of explaining why they chose these particular means, and not some other ones, in order to attain their ends. A crow can bend a piece of wire to get a piece of meat, but it cannot tell other crows why you should bend the wire this way, rather than that way, in order to get the meat. Such a capacity presupposes the ability to use language, which as far as we can tell is unique to human beings.
Professor Feser evidently prefers to use the term “rationality” in the second and narrower sense of the word. That is his privilege. However, he needs to explain why rationality in the first sense of the word (means-end rationality) does not require the use of any immaterial concepts, and could thus be possessed by an animal whose capacities are exclusively bodily capacities.
6. Insofar as the evidence of science does point to the existence of clear-cut differences between humans and other animals, it doesn’t draw the line in precisely the same way that Aristotelian-Thomist philosophers do.
As I pointed out in a recent online article titled, The Myth of the Continuum of Creatures: A Reply to John Jeremiah Sullivan (Part One), there is some scientific evidence that self-awareness is unique to human beings (see Derek C. Penn and Daniel J. Povinelli’s article, On the lack of evidence that non-human animals possess anything remotely resembling a ‘theory of mind” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 29 April 2007, vol. 362 no. 1480 731-744; Derek C. Penn and Daniel J. Povinelli’s 2009 paper, On Becoming Approximately Rational: The Relational Reinterpretation hypothesis in S. Watanabe, A. P. Blaisdell, L. Huber and A. P. Young (eds.), Rational animals, irrational humans, Tokyo: Keio University Press, 2009, pp. 23-44; and finally Peter Carruthers’s penetrating critique Meta-cognition in Animals: A Skeptical Look in Mind and Language, Vol. 23 No. 1, February 2008, pp. 58–89). However, all that scientists mean here is that non-human animals don’t appear to be aware of their own mental states (introspection). Nevertheless, a defender of animal rationality could still argue that non-human animals might still possess a very simple, primitive concept of “self,” which is “built into” their psyches. And even those scientists who maintain that human beings alone possess higher-order awareness tend to avoid being dogmatic about their findings: thus David B. Edelman, Bernard J. Baars and Anil K. Seth, in a 2005 article, titled, Identifying hallmarks of consciousness in non-mammalian species, write that “Higher order consciousness, which emerged as a concomitant of language, occurs in modern Homo sapiens and may or may not be unique to our species” (emphasis mine – VJT).
It is broadly agreed among scientists that language, in the strict sense of the word, is a capacity unique to human beings. But the properties which distinguish human language are defined as productivity, recursivity, and displacement, whereas on the Aristotelian-Thomistic view, it is the possession of linguistic concepts that separates humans from other animals.
Autobiographical memory also appears to be a uniquely human trait. However, even here, we should be cautious: there is tentative (but much-contested) evidence that apes announce to other apes their intentions regarding where they will go tomorrow.
In all fairness, I should mention in passing a recent study titled, 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. I debunked that study in an online post here, pointing out that one can reasonably doubt whether the crows are reasoning (as seven-month-old babies seem to possess the same ability; also, the crows may not be reasoning about causes as such, let alone causal agents or hidden causal agents.
Finally, there is also scientific evidence suggesting that only modern human beings are capable of creating symbols (see here), that only human beings can understand abstract rules (see here), and that only human beings can go deeper than mere perceptions (see here). Summing up the evidence, authors Derek C. Penn, Keith J. Holyoak and Daniel J. Povinelli write:
…[B]ased on the available empirical evidence, there appears to be a significant gap between the relational abilities of modern humans and all other extant species – a gap at least as big, we argued, as that between human and nonhuman forms of communication. Among extant species, only humans seem to be able to reason about the higher-order relations among relations in a systematic, structural, and role-based fashion. Ex hypothesi, higher-order, role-based relational reasoning appears to be a uniquely human specialization…
(Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2008, 31, 109–178; emphasis mine – VJT.)
All well and good; but what Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophers contend is that only human beings are capable of reasoning at all; man is simply defined as a rational animal, full stop. The scientific picture is more nuanced; what it tells us is that certain kinds of reasoning are unique to human beings. It follows that science cannot be enlisted in support of Professor Feser’s contention that while some human mental capacities (reasoning, understanding and choosing) are non-bodily capacities which might in principle be capable of persisting after bodily death, all of the mental capacities of non-human animals are bodily capacities, which means that there can be no possibility of a hereafter for Fido.
7. Concerning the evidence from religious tradition, I’d like to quote from an online article by the lawyer Philip Johnson (not to be confused with the Intelligent Design exponent, Phillip Johnson), titled, Animals and Resurrection:
Among the pre-twentieth century voices who affirmed some kind of restoration to life for animals we find Irenaeus (c.130-202), Tertullian (c.160-225), John Bradford (1510-1555), Richard Overton (1599-1664), Thomas Draxe (died 1618), Matthew Henry (1662-1714), John Hildrop (1682-1756), Thomas Hodges (died 1688), Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752), John Wesley (1703-1791), Augustus Montague Toplady (1740-1778), Richard Dean (1726-1778), William Paley (1743-1805), Francis Orpen Morris (1810-1893), Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), and George MacDonald (1824-1905).
While I haven’t been able to unearth any relevant quotes from Irenaeus or Tertullian, I can attest that Johnson is right about the authors from the past 500 years who expressed openness to the notion of animal immortality.
In a separate article, Johnson describes John Wesley’s views on the possibility of a resurrection for animals:
John Wesley, who was a vegetarian in his diet, was one spearhead figure in tackling the problems associated with animal cruelty and in holding to a theology about animals. His sermon The Great Deliverance exposited Romans 8, emphasising the resurrection of animals. Wesley also exposited on the new creation of Revelation 21:5 in which he expected the whole creation to be restored. Wesley also paid attention in his journal to the writings of John Hildrop (1682-1756) who also believed in the resurrection of animals and wrote in 1742 Free Thoughts Upon the Brute Creation.
Wesley maintained that what distinguished human beings was not rationality, but the knowledge of God. By contrast, the classical Aristotelian-Thomistic view of reason (upheld by Feser) is that firstly, it is a capacity that you either possess or you lack; and secondly, that it is a universal capacity, which can be used to address any subject whatsoever. On this view, it makes no sense whatsoever to suppose that there might be bona fide rational agents who are nonetheless incapable of reasoning about God.
Who is right in this dispute? I suspect that the truth may lie somewhere in the middle. Sentient non-human animals appear to be naturally incapable of entertaining concepts which can only be defined in terms of language. Since the concept of God is one such concept, there can be no hope of a Beatific Vision for Fido. However, these animals may nonetheless be capable of possessing certain primitive concepts (such as the concept of an object or the concept of self vs. others) which they can grasp but cannot articulate. If this is the case, then these animals stand on the very bottom rung on the scale of creatures with immaterial capacities, which means that we cannot rule out the possibility that they may enjoy a limited form of immortality.
I shall stop here. What do readers think?