Of all the bad ideas that Judeo-Christian religion has spread around the world, perhaps none is more obnoxious and dangerous than the belief that man is God’s chosen species. Even many non-religious people believe that humans experience consciousness but animals do not. Others may feel that animal consciousness is a cute but inadequate shadow of human consciousness, the way Animal Planet’s “Puppy Bowl” is an adorable but ridiculous version of our great and advanced human achievement known as the Super Bowl.
Human consciousness is different from animal consciousness, but it is not special or privileged. Humans just have a huge cerebral cortex, which has evolved organically through natural selection. All of the things that make us feel special — the fact that we have language and music and art, we contemplate the meaning of life, and we document the lives of the Kardashians — are merely emergent by-products of this overgrown organic brain of ours. Animals may not ask questions of “why” and “how,” and they may not think in terms of nouns and verbs, but their experience is nevertheless a continuous string of questions about their surroundings: “what,” “where,” and even “who.”
Most Christians believe that the human body is the temple of the soul. The conscious human mind is somehow more than just the physical particles that make up the brain, because we have been endowed with a Special Ingredient (not to be confused with Special Sauce). Animals, meanwhile, have bodies and brains, but not souls, thus setting humans apart as a fundamentally unique species with preferred treatment by the Creator. This view is riddled with inconsistencies and raises countless questions. Consider the following:
1. The state of a person’s consciousness is dependent entirely on the physical state of the body. When you are ill, your consciousness suffers. If you suffer a blow to the head, you may pass out. Stimulant drugs make the mind race; psychedelics and dissociatives such as ketamine alter consciousness radically. What happens to the soul in these cases?
2. At no time does a person’s consciousness remain unaffected when the brain is under stress, even something as simple as a fever. No conscious state is immune to physical conditions in the body. Phineas Gage famously survived a metal rod passing through his skull, but it changed his personality. Did the rod change his soul as well?
3. People’s personalities are rarely the same from youth to old age, which is especially true in cases of dementia or Alzheimer’s. At what age is our consciousness most like the “real” soul? If I went to heaven, would I feel like I feel now, or when I was 18, or right before I died? When a person with Alzheimer’s goes to heaven, do they get their memories back?
4. As any pet owner knows, animals have distinct personalities, which may change over the pet’s lifetime, after an illness, etc. If animals don’t have souls (but people do), what accounts for this continuity?
5. A Christian would say that God gave me a soul, precisely so that I can make a free choice whether to accept his love or take up Buddhism instead. So what allows my cat to choose between Ocean Whitefish and Mariner’s Catch?
The soul might make a little sense if it were thought to be entirely independent of consciousness — that we actually don’t take our Earthly experience to heaven with us, that humans and animals alike join God in the form of “pure energy,” or whatever. But that isn’t what the teachings say. The Big Sell of Christianity and Islam is eternal life, being reunited with loved ones, and experiencing happiness forever. The problem is that eternal paradise, to be experienced and enjoyed at all, would require some form of consciousness. But nobody can say with any consistency what that consciousness (“the soul”) would be like.
It’s funny, if you asked whether a child has a soul, almost any Christian would say yes. Yet, an infant’s interaction with the environment is less coherent and engaged than, say, a squirrel’s. When a soldier and his dog are reunited, and the dog shows signs of incredible excitement and joy, we’re expected to believe that the dog has no soul. But a week-old human fetus does. I don’t get it.