Sunday, August 05, 2007

Do animals have souls?

I’m reading a book by Douglas Hofstadter called “I am a Strange Loop.” The book shows a lot of promise and I can use some of the concepts in the book as a jumping-off point for discussion.

Hofstadter has a chatty, informal style which I can forgive him for because his points are clearer for the use of it. But sometimes the reader feels as if personal information is getting in the way of the ideas…

In Chapter 1, Hofstadter explains some of his rationale for vegetarianism, and it’s worth exploring some of the points he makes. An important concept for Hofstadter is the “soul”, although he is unable (or at least unwilling) in the first chapter to provide a definition of what the soul is.

Citing the likeness between mammals and human beings, he considers it immoral to kill and eat higher forms of life. He contends that all mammals have souls, and then touches on the question of where to draw the line between higher forms of life and lower forms. Why is it OK to slap a mosquito, but not OK to kill a fellow human being?

The answer for Hofstadter is that there are higher and lower levels of “soul”, just as there are higher and lower levels of consciousness.

Let me return to a point I believe I made earlier in this blog series – in my view, humans beings can be seen as a sort of recording device. What we are recording is experience. What experience is is a record of the interaction between the being and reality, between the internal and the external world.

One way we can view “soul” therefore is as a record of experience. Some beings keep only a very short record of their experience – these would fall into Hofstadter’s category of creatures with small souls. Others keep a vast and extensive record, such as human beings.

Hofstadter specifically brings up the issue of the fetus as a creature with only a small soul, suggesting to me that whether he has consciously made the connection or not, Hofstadter is implying that the degree of soul a being possesses is a factor of the degree of experience it has recorded or is capable of recording.

I’ve made the point in earlier entries that our experience is recorded in our memories, but DNA and other genetic material is a form of very long-term memory, storing the experience of our millions of generations of ancestors. The only sense in which the soul is immortal is that the experience it records is capable of being transmitted to subsequent generations.

The animals, plants, and primitive life-forms that Hofstadter characterizes as being “small of soul” are those animals whose experience is recorded primarily in their DNA and genetic material. Animals such as human beings, dogs, and so on that he characterizes as being larger of soul are creatures whose individual life experiences form as large a part of their souls as the species-experience recorded in their DNA.

When we speak of the soul of a mosquito, we are referring to the semi-automatic behaviour patterns the species has learned over countless millions of generations. Animals such as mosquitoes show little individual deviation in behaviour and there is little evidence that they are capable of individual learning, or even that such learning would help them reproduce more efficiently.

When we speak of the soul of a human being, we are surely referring to the special life experiences that have shaped the consciousness of that person. When we speak of the soul of a city or the soul of a nation, we are speaking of the collective experience as recorded in the brains of the citizens of that city or nation. When we speak of the Soul of Humanity, we are referring more to the inherited learning and behaviour patterns of our species.

One of the goals of this blog is to discover plausible, rational definitions of religious metaphors, not in order to dismiss them but to decode them.