Do animals have souls, and does it matter?

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Do animals have souls, and does it matter?

I am often reminded by well-meaning non-vegans that animals ‘are only animals’. In response, I often succumb to the temptation of reminding them that ‘humans are also only animals’. This slightly pedantic comeback sidesteps an important underlying assumption which deserves thorough investigation: what is it that people think makes humans ‘animals’ but animals ‘only animals’? I don’t encounter many people who argue that humans are not animals, nor do I often confront individuals who question our evolutionary heritage; similarly few people, in my experience, have contended that animals do not possess some measure of intelligence and consciousness.

When trying to understand how people defend their belief in a definitive and important distinction between humans and other animals, I end up either in the interesting but complicated discussion of intelligence and self awareness, or in the trickier realm of metaphysics. These two areas often blur into each other, and I suspect that an unexamined assumption that souls exist supports many arguments that, on the surface, seem to be based in science.

The truth is that I don’t feel as if I am ‘only an animal’. I am sympathetic to arguments that there is something special and different about humanity that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, because I feel it too. But, like most ideas that just ‘feel right’ or seem to be true, our sense of human exceptionalism must be subjected to even more analysis than the average idea, because if we let our brain have its way it will indulge in all manner of confirmation biases* making us feel secure and confident in our potentially flawed ideas.

The cultural understanding that humans are different and superior to all other animals needs to be challenged. Personally, I am driven by a desire to be right, at any cost… and usually that cost is humility. It can be hard to admit a mistake or a misunderstanding, but the more quickly and easily this can be accomplished the sooner I can progress on to adjusting my ideas to align with the evidence. Confronting irrationality is an important personal project for me and I would like to see it adopted by society as a whole, in all areas, no matter how seemingly inconsequential. But the idea of human exceptionalism is not just a benign idea that deserves to be subject to my obsessive scrutiny. It is an idea that facilitates and perpetuates harm*.

Human exceptionalism is propped up by our sense that it is somehow different and special to be human and that different specialness is often explained by reference to the metaphysical idea of ‘souls’. To properly examine the current perceptions of non-human animals and understand why they are treated the way they are, we must dig into what it feels like to be human, and why so many of us believe that we, unique among the other animals, are possessed of souls.

Where do souls come from?

Humans are always grasping for a way to understand who ‘we’ are. We all feel that we are someone but putting our finger on who that ‘one’ is becomes increasingly difficult as we address the riddle in more detail. It feels as though we are more than our bodies, but our most basic ‘self’ is a physical one. Our bodies have immune systems that maintain a boundary between the ‘us’ and the ‘not us’. I understand this as a biological sense of self, similar to the ‘unit of selection’ that evolutionary biologists refer to individual organisms as*. From this biological foundation (our bodies and brains) emerges the psychological ‘sense’ of self.

All humans experience a feeling of presence and agency. We often feel as though we are homunculi, seated somewhere in the space behind our eyes, piloting our unruly bodies around. This personal ‘self’ seems closer to what modern western people influenced by contemporary spirtual ideas* describe as the soul than the aforementioned biological unit. This is suggested by the slippage of the word ‘soul’, the definition of which includes both an immortal non-corporeal self and a quality of emotional intensity - he’s got soul! - as well as many shades of meaning in between. It is difficult to doubt the psychological self’s existence, since ‘doubting’ requires an agency provided by the sense of self. In The Self Illusion Bruce Hood argues (with reference to studies conducted by experimental psychologists) that the ‘self’ is not an ‘integrated individual inhabiting a body’ but a subjective experience that our brains confabulate to facilitate interaction with the world:

We all share a common goal to become part of the human race through our social interactions and that can only take place when people construct a sense of self.*

Our psychological selves feel real because they are so necessary for interacting with the world. It seems counterintuitive to doubt them. Yet some Buddhist scholars, philosophers and now neuroscientists are reframing the concept of psychological selfhood as an unconscious cognitive strategy rather than a discrete entity.

Philosopher Derek Parfit presented a thought experiment in his landmark text Reasons and Persons that demonstrates how powerful our sense of psychological self is, and how uneasy it makes us to doubt them. He asks his reader to imagine a ‘teletransporter’ that scans a person, records all the information about that person’s body and brain then destroys the original and beams the information to another location where a replica is created*. Parfit acknowledges that most of his readers, even the most commited rationalists, will feel as though the replica is somehow different despite there being no material difference. This is because, even in speculative sci-fi thought experiments, we are still inescapably invested in our ‘selves’.

It is while in the thrall of what Hood calls the ‘self illusion’ that our sophisticated primate brains start to fear losing our ‘selves’. It is interesting to speculate to what degree non-human animals may possess psychological selves or an understanding of mortality** but in humans the fear of non-being manifests as, or contributes to, a fear of death. Social psychologists suggest that belief in an immortal soul is the simplest strategy human beings use to avoid or deny the knowledge of their own inevitable demise**.

In this extract from professor of divinity Henry Scott Holland’s 1910 sermon, entitled Death the King of Terrors, the raw fear of losing self is exposed beneath the fear of death:

Death is nothing at all
I have only slipped away into the next room

I am I and you are you

Whatever we were to each other

That we are still*

This passage speaks to us so profoundly because it identifies and salves the concern that people who we love will cease to exist and that we too will one day not ‘be’.

History of the soul

The conception of a ‘spiritual self’ arising out of a ‘psychological self’ (which itself is dependent on the physiological self) is intuitively appealing perhaps because it soothes the fear of mortality, and has been prevalent among human societies throughout history. And perhaps even pre-history: archeologists now suspect that the Neanderthals, our extinct relatives, demonstrated symbolic thinking in their sophisticated burial rituals and had a conception of life after death*.

Some of the earliest writing on souls come from Ancient Greece. My description of the three levels of self parallels Aristotle’s hierarchy of living things. His first level, common to all life including plants, was biological; the second, which only animals possess, was agency or will; and the third, unique to human animals, was reason*. Aristotle’s idea of the soul was very different from the Christian concept, and the vaugely defined contemporary ‘spiritual’ concept, but it’s interesting that he made a particular effort to segregate humans from other animals when discussing consciousness – a tradition that carries through the western philosophical conjecture on souls. The eastern traditions are more generous towards animals. Most Buddhists, Jains and Hindus grant animals some form of souls*. The belief that animals have souls inspires Jains to refrain from any violence towards living creatures, a principle they call Ahimsa*. But even Jains do not believe all souls are equal: like Aristotle, they define a hierarchy with humans at the top because of our potential for rational thought.

The medieval Islamic Philosopher Avicenna proposed a thought experiment in which one imagined oneself created ‘all at once’ and suspended in the air:

One of us has to consider that one has been just created in a stroke, and that one has been thus created fully developed and perfectly complete, yet with one’s vision shrouded from watching external entities created falling in the air on in empty space in a fall not buffeted by any felt air that buffets it; its limbs separated and not in contact nor touching on another.*

Avicenna argued that the first thought that this floating man would have is: ‘I am’. He believed this thought proved that humans possess a self-aware soul consisting of an immaterial substance. Avicenna’s argument followed Plato’s dualistic conception of the body and soul as essentially separate*. He argued that his thought experiment demonstrated the existence of a self-concious mind, which was synonomous with an immortal soul, and that therefore it must be entirely separate from a mortal physical form. A secular reader of Avicenna’s arguments may notice that his conclusions tread on his premises, for to conclude that a self-aware mind must translate to an immortal soul is to presuppose the potential existence of a soul. Like Henry Scott Holland centuries after him in the sermon quoted above, Avicenna clung to his psychological self - ‘I’ - and expanded on it with the eternal – ‘am’. The word ‘am’ is the first person singular present indicative of ‘to be’. ‘I am’ could be translated as ‘I exist’. If the speaker identifies as an immortal soul, then that existence is infinite.

In the modern Christian tradition, the division between human and non-human animals is often defined by possession of an immortal soul. This is perhaps a simplified understanding of the relationship between animals and humans detailed in the Bible, which begins in Genesis with the order of creation. On six successive days God creates all things, finishing on the sixth day with the pinacle of creation: mankind*. The world ‘soul’ is often used in the Bible as a synonym for human, it’s also used to describe the animating principle (or ‘breath’) of a person or animal, and in the sense which I am discussing here: a spiritual immortal aspect of self*. Christian apologetics, advancing the idea that animals are not possessed of souls, argue that God would not have granted man dominion over animals as he did after the flood** if animals had souls. They also remind us that animals and humans are not related in the way evolutionary science claims quoting Paul to reinforce their point:

Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another.*

Thomas Aquinas attributed souls ‘anima’ to all animals but only immortal souls to human beings. Many modern Christians are more liberal believing animals do have souls, the pope has recently taken a stand on the issue declaring that all animals do have souls*.

Christian perspectives on the nature of souls are unsurprisingly many and varied. The complicated, contradictory and often poetic language of the Bible allows it to be interpreted to conform to the readers own biases. There are Christian writers who write in favour of animal rights (for example Matthew Scully in Dominion and Frank Hoffman in All Creatures Here Below) and many who justify their eating of meat with reference to selected passages.

Many modern Christians reflect on the souls of their companion animals, wondering if they will meet in heaven, or in a future incarnation, or possibly through a pet psychic, but they seem to spend much less time imagining the inner spiritual self of the animals they eat.

The soul we can’t find and don’t need

Just because I can explain why humans would and could create the idea of immortal souls does not mean I have demonstrated the soul’s non-existence. For rationalists, the burden of proof must fall to those who claim that souls exist.

One of those scholars who promoted the theory of souls was a physician Dr. Duncan McDougall who, in 1907, sought to demonstrate the existence of souls by weighing human bodies moments before and after death, and measuring the difference*. His calculations reported that three-fourths of an ounce were lost upon death. This he interpreted was the weight of a human soul. He performed similar experiments on dogs and concluded they were soul-less.

McDougall’s experiments were reported in the New York Times and in several medical journals, but later researchers were unimpressed by the poor methodology, inadequate weighing equipment and sample size of only six human and fifteen canine patients. The physicist Robert L. Park wrote that MacDougall’s experiments “are not regarded today as having any scientific merit”*.

McDougall was unusual in proposing the soul as a physical, or at least part-physical, thing with mass. Most believers suppose that souls are entirely non-physical and impossible to record or measure scientifically. They defend different epistemological approaches to truth, for example presenting faith as a ‘way of knowing’*. This faith-based approach to epistimology is called Fidelism, defined here by Christian apologetics at

The word fideism derives from the Latin fide, meaning “faith,” and so in a general sense means a position that assigns some kind of priority to faith. Although fideists often speak of Christian truth as “above” or “beyond” or even “against” reason, they do not maintain that the truths of Christianity are actually irrational. Rather, by “reason” they mean human reason or rationality, the use of reason by the human mind. Essential to the case for fideism is the belief that some truths of Christianity are beyond our capacity to understand or express in a logically definitive fashion.*

Since I don’t experience Calvin’s sensus divinitatis, I can only interpret Christian theories of knowledge as relying on introspection, perhaps guided by a cultural set of ideas and hopes which influence them. The arguement in favour of the ‘knowledge’ of God, or souls, seems to be subjective validation* but ‘knowledge’ of the soul is not universal. I do not ‘feel’ ensouled, although I can imagine why others do.

When sitting in meditation for prolonged periods, most people experience a falling away of the sense of psychological self. I find meditation a respite from the constant project of building and maintaining a ‘self’. Thoughts come and go in a slow but erratic fashion, and I am neither the thought nor a witness to it. fMRI scans conducted on meditators are in their infancy, but seem to confirm that something unusual is happening in their brains*.

Meditation is an integral part of many Buddhist traditions, so it is unsurprising that Buddhist scholars have explored a concept of no-self (‘Anatman’), dating back to some of the earliest Buddhist texts*. This doctrine of Anatman describes a self as ‘conditioned processes’ that are impermanent and ever changing. Though many schools of Buddhism teach reincarnation, contemporary Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor rejects the idea. He embraces a Buddhist philosophy with no immortal soul and no psychological self**

I reject karma and rebirth not only because I find them unintelligible, but because I believe they obscure and distort what the Buddha was trying to say. Rather than offering the balm of consolation, the Buddha encouraged us to peer deep and unflinchingly into the heart of the bewildering and painful experience that life can so often be.*

With no physical evidence and the subjective evidence varying wildly, let us also consider the philosophical problems that the idea of an immaterial soul presents to rational thinkers. If we accept that souls exist and are immaterial, we must explain they interact with our physical bodies*. The two must interact for our thoughts to affect our actions, and our actions (for example, intoxicants or brain injury) to affect our thoughts. Descartes attempted to answer this by suggesting that the ‘thinking substance’ interacted with the ‘corporeal substance’ via the pineal gland*. Contemporary philosophers and biologists know a lot more about the function of the pineal gland* and neither group would argue that it could solve the mind-body problem. The soul, like the ‘God of the Gaps’* retreats just a little further into the unknown everytime we investigate it. But thanks to scientific advances like the invention of fMRI machines, the gaps in our knowledge about the brain is closing fast. To apply Occam’s razor*, assuming an extra metaphysical layer of self above the physical and psychological is unnecessary and foolish.

Mere Meat

I have deconstructed the spiritual self and destabilised the psychological self, suggesting that they are mere cognitive strategies. This leaves me to ponder how to interact with the world, and why should we be nice to other people and animals if we are just robots. The idea of the soul has been used to explain and support the hierarchy of living beings with us ensouled humans at its pinnacle. This hierarchy is used as justification for the way we treat - or mistreat - animals. But if we conclude that souls do not exist and even the ground from which they grew - that of self - is uncertain, then what reason is there not to slip into nihilism?

For physicalists, The question of morality is complex*. I can offer my perspective as a confessed self-less, soul-less automaton: If thinking we have immortal souls makes people feel like their lives are preludes to something else, or short chapters in a longer story, I worry that they will not fully embrace the experience of this life. I am concerned that if our mortal lives dwindle in relative importance we will treat others as if their lives don’t matter either. It seems a dangerous gamble to count on the flimsy hope of another life when you have a real, fleshy experience right here. The gamble becomes even more dangerous if you let that idea affect how you live your life. In the immortal [sic] words of singer/songwriter George Hrab:

So let’s remember, everything alive will die someday,
but let me say, you shouldn’t do just whatever you will,
don’t ever cause anyone ill- an historic reversal.
Don’t you know?
This is the only chance you’ve got, it ought to mean an awful lot,
this is the show and not some rehearsal.**

Furthermore, if we are accept that we have no immutable self and that ‘we’ are simply a narrative built from our experiences and actions that facilitates us interacting with the world, then it becomes clear that we are no more than what we do.

There is no kernel of good, pure self left to refer to when we witness ourselves making choices that harm others. We cannot cause suffering but still believe we are kind and good deep down. There is no ‘deep down’. This perspective encourages taking responsibility for our actions and being proud to let those actions define the narrative self we construct.

We can see evidence of suffering in all creatures* and the consensus reached in the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness is that virtually all animals have some degree of sentience*. Perhaps animal brains construct a sense of self similar to our own - or perhaps they don’t - but when we see the self as a collection of moments unfolding, it becomes even more horrifying to contemplate the idea of an animal ‘self’ experiencing the suffering humans regularly inflict on animals who have no soul to retreat to*.

To understand ourselves as purely physical is not to denigrate humanity: it is to elevate physicality. Jennifer Michael Hecht taught me this in her talk at The Amazing Meeting 2012:

It is an amazing thing – the meat thinks! The meat wrote Paradise Lost, the meat wrote all the symphonies, the meat made the iPad…*

When we realize that we are mere meat, the horror of eating meat is revealed. By stripping off our souls and questioning our selves, we are permitted a glimpse of the flimsy barriers that we have constructed to separate human from animal.

This provokes us to question our choices. Thinking critically about the choices we make and their effect on the world is perhaps the most important thing any human being can do.

After all, when we are ourselves no longer, our only remnants will be the marks we left on the world.

Rebecca Fox is as likely to be found meditating and burning incense as she is in an academic library, and yet is a passionate atheist and a skeptic. Her artistic career is fuelled primarily by ingestion of soy lattes. Her artwork can be found at Her vegan and skeptical activism is fuelled by critical thinking and compassion.

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