Thursday, August 22, 2013

Do animals have souls?

*If you are taking the time to read this post, I would like your input. Even if you disagree with me, I welcome dialogue. I don't have a blog as a platform to project my views out into the world; I want to know what YOU think.

I'm not sure that a soul exists in the form of some ethereal version of our self that is transported around this physical world inside our physical body.

So I will argue for the "more than the sum of our parts" version of a soul, the soul being that part of our essence which cannot be accounted for, even if our bodies were dismantled atom by atom.

First of all, what does it mean to say that animals do or do not have a soul?

Defining the nature of animals is really about defining ourselves. We want to believe that humanity is unique and set apart from the natural world. For the earliest humans, the natural world was chaotic and hostile. As nomadic tribes, our grasp on survival was tentative at best. We could be wiped out by a flood or a drought, eaten by animals, plagued by disease. Religious beliefs tied us to a world beyond this world, a supernatural world that was ordered and rational, to which humans alone belong. Our rituals, prayers and sacred items tie us to the supernatural world, and allow us to appeal to supernatural forces to intervene on our behalf in this chaotic and hostile physical world. So, from the beginning we were set apart from animals, and this idea has been central to who we are as human beings. (It should be noted that I am speaking in terms of Western thought and religion, which is almost unique in its view that humans are in a separate category than the natural world.)

Philosophical and scientific thought has continued to hold the idea that we are unique and set apart from animals, establishing rational reasons for this belief. The idea that animals do not have the emotions we have has been mostly abandoned in modern thought, which is why we now have laws protecting animals from abuse and neglect. It is important to note here that the humane treatment of animals has been a central tenet of Jewish law for all of recorded history.

So, we are generally in agreement that animals have emotions, yes?

I was told when I was young that the difference between man and animals is the ability to reason, but that really doesn't hold true either. I was watching a documentary in high school about training dogs to sniff out drugs. The dogs think they are playing a game. They are looking for a rolled up towel, which smells like drugs. When they find "the towel," they are rewarded with a game of tug-of-war with it. Here's where it gets interesting: a crucial part of the training involves teaching the dogs to ignore their own logic when it comes to smelling drugs in a package that is too small to hold their towel. The dog smells the drugs in the tiny package, looks at it, and then continues to sniff the surrounding packages which are large enough to hold the towel. The trainer picks up the tiny package and does a sleight of hand trick for the dog to make it look like the towel was pulled from the package. And it takes a lot of reinforcement to convince the dog that the beloved towel is a "magic towel" that can actually be found in containers that are logically too small.

So, animals are capable of reason (and just as capable as human beings of being trained to ignore reason).

OK, so what about self-awareness? Well, it turns out that self-awareness can be tested, primarily with a mirror. You put a dot on the forehead of a toddler and show him a mirror. Before a certain age, I think about 18 months, the toddler tries to rub the dot off on the mirror. After developing self awareness, when the toddler looks in the mirror, he understands that the dot is on his own head and rubs the dot there. Other animals that have proven they are self aware with similar mirror tests include: Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Gorillas, Magpies, Dolphins, Orcas, Elephants, and Orangutans. (Which is why I firmly believe that none of these animals should be held in captivity and used for the entertainment of humans.)

At the synagogue a few weeks ago, the rabbi was talking about names, and he said that he thought perhaps humans were the only animals that called each other by name. I was delighted after services to inform him that recent studies have found that dolphins do in fact have distinct names for one another (he seemed to be just as delighted to hear this as I was to tell him).

Well, what else is there? What do we have that animals do not?

When I was very young, I was also told that animals do not go to heaven. I remember thinking that heaven didn't really sound like a place I wanted to be.

And I feel the same way about the "soul." If animals do not have one, then what good is it? I cannot count the number of times in my life I have been actively comforted in a time of need by an animal who, unlike the people around me at the time, was undeterred by my well-practiced guise of "I'm OK."

When I look into the eyes of an animal, I see a being who is more than the sum of its parts. Perhaps what I am seeing is the reflection and perfection of my own soul. And if that is the case, then animals absolutely have souls; they have ours.

In addition: rats can laugh. How wonderful is that?


Gerald E. Lavey said...

This is superb, really captivating. And, yes, I believe animals have souls. Too much empirical evidence not to believe that. You come up with really interesting topics. Why don't you post on Feabook as a first step. You deserve a wider audience, Heather. Listen to your elders, I.e moi:).

Heather Annastasia Siladi said...

Thanks, I always forget about facebook.

I'm glad you think animals have souls also. That makes me even more certain that the do. :)

Heather Annastasia Siladi said...

I can't take credit for the idea, though. My husband and boys have been arguing about this. My husband said animals don't have souls, my boys disagreed. I think it's a no-brainer, but I stayed out of it. Then, the very next Shabbat, the rabbi's whole talk was about animals having souls! Haha!

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