Do Animals Have Souls?

Yes - Just Like Ours...

Cat with souls


This is another meditation which could easily go off the rails. As I sit here, the senior Cat seems unsatisfied with this quick answer, as he senses some kind of verbal trickery – and he may be right. As one of our past leaders once said - “It all depends on what you mean by...”. Even the word 'animal' has different interpretations and levels of meaning, not to mention 'soul'. 'Soul' in the sense of some mysterious, undying force which inhabits our bodies in some undefined location and floats off when we die cannot be an object for Taoist meditation, since that is inherently unknowable, and meditating on such a thing only brings on headaches. However, another interpretation of 'soul' might be within bounds.



Saying someone 'really has soul' means, among other things, that the person has a personality which resonates with the observer's. So, what is 'personality' and can that quality be found in animals? Senior Cat clearly does not think of himself as an animal, and I really don't either. Note that I don't call him by a specific name – he has never told me what it is, so I call him by whatever seems respectful and appropriate at the time and change it as necessary. He seems to like most of the names I use so I shall continue the practice. So, in some ways I treat him as a person, which implies I think he has a personality of his own, not just a basic 'cat-101' behavior. So, how could we define 'personality' and distinguish it from autonomous behavior?

To me, 'personality' means the observed variety of interactions between a person and the environment (including other people), which self-modifies depending upon learned circumstances. Note that this excludes purely innate behavior and emphasizes the ability to modify interactions as required. By using 'person', this definition excludes artificial intelligence (AI) systems or other non-sentient beings, but could the definition of 'person' in this case also expand to include animals? In other words, do some (or all) animals have a degree of self-awareness that we associate with ourselves? I don't think this question is so easily answered for the simple reason that they (animals) don't speak to us in words, so we have to make assumptions about what is going on in their heads by observing what they do. Note – this is perilously close to a circular argument, so we need to be careful here...

Let's back up a little and look again at the case of AI. If you are conversing with an unknown party over the phone, how can you be sure you are speaking with a person rather than an AI? This is the question asked by the Turing Test, named after a pioneer in cybernetics. The assumption was that the unknown party is actually intelligent if you can have a normal conversation without being aware that the party is really an AI. This rests on the assumption that an AI will not be able to relate to human experiences or concerns in the same way another person would, but I'm not sure how long it will be before this is no longer true, and considering many of the phone conversations I have had, I doubt that this a difficult test in any case.

Many animals are clearly intelligent, and some of the social animals communicate with each other in complex ways. When we think of intelligent animals, the Great Apes (Bonobos, Chimpanzees and Gorillas) first come to mind, but others seem to be smart as well. Corvids (crows) learn to use tools and can recognize individual people and what they are wearing or what they have on them. We have crows nesting in the trees around the monastery, and as we never disturb them, they will hang around if I go outside. However, if I go out carrying a rifle, they will instantly fly off, cussing a blue streak, even though neither I nor anyone around here has ever shot at one. They don't do this if I have a broom, so I get the distinct impression they know what a rifle is and what it can be used for. In my book, this makes them much smarter than porpoises and whales, who should have learned by now to stay the hell away from ships with nets or men carrying sharp pointy things...

Besides acting intelligent, does something have to be self-aware before it can be said to have a personality? Based on observation, I can definitely say no. When Sony brought out its robotic dog Aibo, its owners tended to treat it as if it were a real dog – or even a person, and if it broke, they exhibited real grief. I'm not sure what this says about the Japanese (or people in general), but our ability to anthropomorphize almost anything should act as a warning that our observations and opinions about our furry friends are hopelessly muddled and can't be trusted to give us a real insight (except perhaps about ourselves). So, if an assemblage of electronics and plastic parts can appear to many people to have a distinct personality, even though it is clearly not self-aware, could the same be said about animals?

I'm not sure how to approach the problem of self-awareness; I believe I am self-aware, and at least most of the people I associate with seem to be so as well, but I can think of some who are only marginally so, and that doesn't even get to the question of what happens in some disease states such as Alzheimer's. Animals are clearly aware where their bodies are because they quickly respond to noxious stimuli (such as stepping on an errant tail), and they can even anticipate such an event by scooting out of the way if such treading looks likely. How does one tell whether this behavior is a complicated learned routine or the result of self-awareness? I don't think the distinction can be made, since it involves knowing the internal mental state of the animal, and they just refuse to tell us. Senior Cat is probably walking around right now, thinking 'Am I the baddest Cat or what?' - or maybe not. Cat certainly seems to be thinking such things, but in view of the anthropomorphization problem, I certainly can't trust my judgment.

There have been some experiments designed to try and resolve this issue. The most famous is the 'Mirror Test', where self-awareness is presumed if the subject recognizes the reflection in the mirror as itself. However, there are a number of criticisms of this test, mainly because the assumption is the subject would behave in the way we would if we see ourselves in a mirror (such as cleaning off a spot, checking ourselves out, etc). Senior cat will have none of this; he says he doesn't need a mirror to help his lavage, and that preening in a mirror is undignified – or at least he seems to say these things. He is clearly aware the cat in the mirror is not another cat; if he thought there was another cat there, there would be real trouble – so either he recognizes the image as himself or he regards the image as unreal and unworthy of further interest, and I have absolutely no way of telling the difference. So, after all this, I am left with my personal opinion that animals have at least some level of self-awareness, have 'personalities' as defined above and in this light, have some degree of 'soul'. Of course, many of them are also tasty, so is it OK to eat them if they are more than just meaty automatons? That is perhaps a question on which I shall meditate some more...