The Last Superstition: Animal Souls

Chapter 4: Scholastic Aptitude

Having introduced his main themes in chapters 1-3, Feser now elaborates upon them, starting with

The Soul

a soul is just the form or essence of a living thing. [p. 121]

And the form or essence, you’ll recall, is the whatever-it-is that makes a thing the sort of thing that it is. For triangles, the essence is triangularity (i.e., being a three-sided polygon).

One might think, then, that the soul of a human would be whatever it means to be human. Humanity or humanness, that is. But from context, that doesn’t seem right: humanness is something shared by all people, while the soul has traditionally been an individual thing. That is, while Martha Washington and Nelson Mandela have the same essence of humanness, they have distinct souls.

He goes on to classify souls into a hierarchy: at the bottom are “nutritive souls”, which plants have, and allow them to take in nutrients and reproduce. Above that is the “sensory soul”, which does everything a nutritive soul does, plus sense the world around, and move. Nonhuman animals have sensory souls. And finally, there are “rational souls” — human souls — which have everything that sensory souls have, plus the capacity for abstract thought.

Clearly, this classification is based far more in medieval preconceptions than in modern biology. For one thing, the venus flytrap seems to have a sensory soul, since it clearly senses its environment. For another, there’s no mention of bacteria, which can fit in either category as well. (I’ll grant that, almost certainly, only animals can fit into the “rational” category.)

But the distinction between nutritive and sensory souls isn’t nearly as important as that between sensory and rational souls, since the point is to discuss the mind, and certain things that follow from that, like morality. And here is where Feser really ought to have done himself a favor and looked into current research on animal intelligence.

A quick Google search turned up this Scientific American article about, well, abstract reasoning in animals. I wasn’t surprised that apes exhibit abstract reasoning (the experiment was, roughly, to see whether orangutans and a gorilla could answer the question, “Here’s a picture; here’s another picture; is it the same kind of animal as the first picture?”), but I was surprised that dogs can exhibit abstract reasoning as well, being able to distinguish dogs from non-dogs by sight. Crows can this as well, distinguishing “this is a set of similar things” from “this is a set of dissimilar things”.

More recently, an experiment seems to have shown that apes have theory of mind. That is, gorillas and other apes can figure out what another individual believes, even when that belief is false.

Feser will, I am sure, reply that this isn’t the sort of high-level abstract reasoning that defines a rational soul, and put forth further criteria, but that’s exactly my point: the line between humans and other species isn’t nearly as wide as it might appear; certainly not as wide as Aristotle and Aquinas probably thought. And, of course, our ancestors evolved from clearly-non-rational animals to clearly-rational humans.

Do gorillas or orangutans have rational souls, if at least some of them can, at least on occasion, reason abstractly? It certainly seems to be one of their potentialities, as I understand Feser’s use of the term elsewhere.

More about rationality (emphasis and comments added):

Rationality – the ability to grasp forms or essences and to reason on the basis of them – has as its natural end or final cause the attainment of truth, of understanding the world around us. [Says who? I would have said this is the natural end of curiosity, not of rationality. — arensb] And free will has as its natural end or final cause the choice of those actions that best accord with the truth as it is discovered by reason, and in particular in accord with the truth about a human being’s own nature or essence. [What does this even mean? — arensb] That is, as we shall see, exactly what morality is from the point of view of Aristotle and Aquinas: the habitual choice of actions that further the hierarchically ordered natural ends entailed by human nature. [Who decides which ends are natural? — arensb] But the intellect’s capacity to know the truth is more fully realized the deeper one’s understanding of the nature of the world and the causes underlying it. And the deepest truth about the world, as we have seen, is that it is caused and sustained in being by God. The highest fulfillment of the distinctively human power of intellect, then, is, for Aristotle and Aquinas, to know God. And since the will’s natural end or purpose is to choose in accordance with the furtherance of those ends entailed by human nature, the highest fulfillment of free choice is to live in a way that facilitates the knowing of God. [p. 122]

The description of free will, here, is not one that I’ve ever seen. The core of free will, as I’ve usually heard it, is the ability to make decisions without external influence; what Feser is describing sounds more like “figuring out what’s true, the better to attain a desired goal”. The two concepts are related, but different.

The definition of morality also looks weird. Feser seems to be saying that morality involves learning to live in accordance with human nature. But as I think any parent will tell you, children need to be taught not to steal, or hit their siblings and playmates. And thus, contra Feser, morality seems to be about learning to overcome the less-desirable aspects of human nature, that we might live together with minimal friction.

I pointed out earlier some of what I saw as quite shoddy reasoning on Feser’s part, and why I didn’t find his arguments for God convincing. And given that, as he tells us, Aristotelianism/Thomism has been abandoned by modern scholar, neither do a lot of other people. And thus at a minimum, Feser ought to use his rationality to come up with a better way of getting at the truth, either a better argument for God or an admission that the ones he’s using aren’t all that good.

All in all, though, this paragraph exhibits, in spades, the sort of thinking that gives theology a bad name: redefining common terms in unfamiliar ways, and making questionable-at-best leaps of logic from one clause to the next, to arrive at one’s desired conclusion.

Series: The Last Superstition

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