On Animals and Souls


In the ABC Evening News of July 20, 2001 we saw a woman in profound grief, saying good-bye to her deceased dog which was neatly laid in an elegant coffin. She placed a flower on the pet in peace, along with what seemed like a little velvety bag, filled perhaps with beef-biscuits. Tears rolled down her eyes in profusion even as sympathetic friends and relatives tried to console her aching heart.
Another person in the news declared something to the effect that if anybody deserved to go to heaven, it was his very faithful and loving Labrador. Yet another expressed the judgment that Heaven wouldn’t be Heaven if there were no dogs there. All this was related to the profound theological question as to whether dogs have souls.
Among the ancients, Pythagoras and company (like many of their Hindu cousins even to this day) had little doubt that, not just dogs, but all animals have souls: indeed that some of these could well have inhabited other human beings in previous terrestrial trips. On the other hand, Christianity and Islam deny entry into Heaven for animals, non-Christians, and non-Muslims: to the former because they have no souls, to the latter because they have not accepted the only Savior/Messenger of God there every was or will be. Descartes gave a death blow to beastly dignity by declaring those lowly creatures to be mere automata.
Today some animal-rights groups conduct funeral services for departed dogs and cats in caskets. All of which brought the reporter to an eminent theologian of the Judeo-Christian persuasion who reasoned that animals simply cannot have souls because they have no free-will, and that therefore there was no question of having pets in paradise. This must have broken the heart of the lady who was lamenting at the mortal remains of her dear dog.
If the question had been posed to a biologist, he/she too would have denied souls to dogs, but more curtly, by asking: “Are you kidding?”
This is one issue on which modern scientists and thoughtful theologians of the Abrahamic tradition concur without blinking an eye: that animals have no souls, except that biologists deny it to humans also.
One may of course ask, if there are flora in Heaven, why not fauna? But that just complicates the debate.
Peter Jennings also reported that more than 40% of Americans believe animals have souls. We need less than 10 more percent to prove that the proposition is true.

The moral of the story, it seems to me, is that contradictions and confrontations are inevitable when we mix up metaphysical understandings of the human condition with physical descriptions of the same. The two are truths of two different categories.

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About Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.
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