Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Do Animals Have Souls?

A direct link to the above video is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rM5VFnirTmg

A few days ago we had to say goodbye to the family dog, a seventeen-year-old mostly-Bichon named Buddy. Buddy was one of those amazing creatures who exuded love, forgiveness, and understanding throughout his days, and our lives are richer for having known him.

Anyone who has spent time getting to know an animal can clearly see that there is an awareness, something that could be called a form of "consciousness" in there, that reasons, yearns, develops likes and dislikes, is happy or sad, energized or depressed from day to day, the same as you and I. In my recent blog entry News From the Future, I talked about this idea from an extreme point of view, but this is not something to be taken lightly - anyone who tells you animals do not feel emotions is, I'm sad to say, operating under a paradigm that has been in both the religious and scientific mainstream for centuries: that old school of thought teaches that we are simply projecting our own thoughts and feelings on these animals, anthropomorphizing their mechanistic actions as we delude ourselves into seeing more than what's really there.

I'm glad to see all the scientific articles that are being published nowadays that indicate science is now waking up to the possibility that animals are not simple automatons, operating in a way that is completely inferior to the human experience. Here's some examples from New Scientist Magazine from the last few months:
June 17 2009 - Monkeys, Coots, Salamanders, and so on can count
May 21 2009 - Evidence of speech in various species
May 13 2009 - Prairie Dogs communicate surprisingly detailed information with their calls
May 12 2009 - Evidence of empathy, compassion and a sense of justice in various species
May 6 2009 - Evidence of a desire for "play for the sake of play" within the animal kingdom
May 1 2009 - Parrots demonstrate an ability to "groove along" with rhythmic music
April 2 2009 - New book demonstrating surprising animal intelligence
March 12 2009 - Chimps use geometry to navigate through the jungle

And of course, in a discussion of whether animals can think, who can forget Alex, the African Grey parrot who demonstrated speech, reasoning, and creativity in his use of language:

A direct link to the above video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7yGOgs_UlEc
Scientist Irene Pepperberg published a book late last year about this amazing animal's achievements, called "Alex and Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence--and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process".

One of the self-serving fallacies humans have bought into is that it's their giant brains that give them unique capabilities, and animals can therefore not be capable of the same achievements. While there's no question that brain size is part of the equation, we go too far when we assume a small brain can't exhibit any of our capabilities. The picture we're looking at here comes from an article published a few days ago by Reuters, titled "Fish Can Learn Despite Small Brains". Imagine how tiny the brain must be in the fish pictured here, which is called a nine-spined stickleback, and is found in streams across Europe. From the article: "Jeremy Kendal of Durham University and colleagues from St. Andrews University found in tests that 75 percent of sticklebacks were clever enough to know from watching others that a feeder in a tank was rich in food, even though they had previously got little from it themselves." The scientists described this as an unusually sophisticated social learning skill, normally only associated with humans. Isn't that amazing?

Let's back up for a moment. What do I mean then, when I say "soul"? Last week in "Happy Birthday Paul" I reviewed the idea that what is often thought of as the soul is really an interlocking system of memes and behaviors, a system that is constantly in a state of change and renewal, and which is connected outside of our physical bodies through ways that acknowledge the proven non-local nature of our universe. Last blog, in Logic vs. Intuition, we looked at a new approach to computer intelligence that might some day allow for the emergent properties of consciousness to arise in a very way similar way, using large numbers of tiny nested routines all working in concert with one another. Could the computer that some day demonstrates these emergent traits of consciousness be said to have a soul? Food for thought.

Here's one of the discussions I had about the concept of souls in my book:

Viewed as a set, one could describe the many memes that make up an individual as being their personality, or their way of looking at the world. One might also call this set of memes the soul. A common assumption is that each of us has a single soul which we carry with us from conception to death. But consider this: if we were to meet up with our own younger self from twenty years ago, what are the chances that we would share the very same set of memes? It should be obvious that the chances of direct correlation are virtually nil. According to this line of reasoning, the illusion that a single body contains a single “soul” is a fiction. Each of us is a dynamic system, mutating and developing over time. Certainly, there is a core set of physical memories that will be encoded over time into each of our brains that will create links from past to present to future unique to each of us. But the memes and belief systems that make up our “soul” are much more complicated and transcendent across time and space than the set of physical memories each of us carries in our neurons. The memory of “What I Had for Lunch Last Thursday” will stretch out across time only for as long as any individual’s brain cells recall it. Larger belief systems and emotions that make a person unique can extend well beyond the death of a body, and would be what survives, while the niggling details of day-to-day life would not.
Do animals have souls, some simpler, some more complex? It seems self-evident to me that they do, but as I mentioned there are branches of both religion and science which have insisted that animals' awareness of the world around them is not in any way comparable to our own. In Logic vs. Intuition we talked about scientific materialism, the old school of thought that says the only thing that matters is matter, and that consciousness has no part in the universe we are observing. Thankfully, that point of view is being gradually overturned, as new evidence comes to light that even bacteria communicate to each other, that our gene expression can be changed by changing our lifestyle and attitude, and all forms of life are not nearly so different from us after all.

Ultimately, we have to understand that humans are part of a continuum that connects from the simple to the complex, in fractal iterations that repeat at different scales, and we should abandon old ways of thinking that place humans as somehow being "better" than other life on the planet: the more that we can see that we are each just one part of a multi-layered system, the better the decisions we will make as a species. Here are some other past blogs where the subject of "what is a soul?" has come up:
Where Are You?
Could I Meet My Incarnation?
The Musician
You Have a Shape and a Trajectory
I Know You, You Know Me
Magnets and Souls

Enjoy the journey,

Rob Bryanton

Next: Top Ten Tenth Dimension Blogs, June '09 Report


Mariana Soffer said...

Very intresting article, first I am going to point you to some related post:http://charbonniers.org/2009/06/19/anthropomorphism/

Is about the natural human tendency to interpret an imal behavior in human terms.

Then I wanted t remind you about some studies that had been done about human decision making, they show that first they take the decision and after that they find the logical justification for it.

I can search for the papers if you want me to.

There is also an article I read recentely about how meditating could be used for bridging the gap among the brain of chimps and the brains of humans.
Hope you find this info intresting rob. Take care. M

Rob Bryanton said...

Thanks for the anthropomorphism entry, Mariana, that looks like a blog I want to spend more time browsing through.

I've seen some of the studies about logical justification after the fact, including ones where the person's choice is changed without their knowledge, but they still find ways to justify what it appears they chose.

Chimps and meditation? That's a new one on me! Tell me more.

Best regards,

Mariana Soffer said...

Rob here is some more info, anyway you can askme whenever you want.

Psychologists are beginning to realize that much of our mental life
rests on the operation of dedicated, biologically-determined mental
modules that are specifically attuned to restricted domains of
knowledge, and that have been laid down in our brains by evolution

I discuss this idea here:


Since 2003, I'm working on analogy-making:





H0pe you have enough so start with, there are tons of ideas regarding consciousness and other issues you might also be willing to read about,

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