by Guido Dalla Casa
This article about the soul of sensing beings is an English translation of an Italian article published on Marcella Danon’s Italian e-zone, Ecopsicologia.net.
What soul is
The idea of soul is connected with a stable, permanent, autonomous and unitary entity in all Western culture tradition and in Judeo-Christian and Islamic religion teachings. It “exists” or “doesn’t exist”: it’s attributed exclusively to a human being and only to an individual.
According to the materialistic view of mechanistic science followed by majority in Western culture, soul doesn’t exist: thought simply is a kind of a brain product. There’s no esteem for the systemic-cellular mind. To believe otherwise requires that we define the life-death passage, about which medical science has great doubts.
According to present scientific knowledge, that is interpersonal psychology, system theory and quantistic physics, both positions are nearly impossible. Dualistic opposition is the usual way that western ideas are presented.
I think it’s now right to think in terms of mind-psychis-spirit: a variable entity with no definite boundaries, changeable during time and proper of all systems above a given threshold of complexity. All living sysyems have a very high complexity level. It’s clear that the statement that man has soul and animals don’t have is a complete nonsense. All living beings are sensing, and the same is for many other natural entities (ecosystems, complex of living beings, collective beings, et al.).
In Fritjof Capra’s words (Uncommon wisdom, Simon and Schuster, 1988):
“According to Bateson mind is a necessary and unavoidable consequence of a certain complexity, that begins long time before some living beings can develop a brain and a central nervous system. He also explained that mind characteristics are not only in individuals, but also in social systems and ecosystems, that mind is immanent not only in a body but also in ways and messages out of the body. That was revolutionary for me. The meaning of mind for Bateson was very different from the previous mine.” (translation from the Italian version of the book)
In a deep-ecology background, there is no problem of men vs. animals, because man is an animal at any effect: no border, no separation at all.
In a recently published book (R. Corbey – The metaphysics of Apes – Cambridge University Press, 2005) the characteritics of the human-animal boundary are examined. The border was ever displaced, but the conclusion is that there is no border at all. Other animals play, suffer, feel deep emotions, have behaviours completely comparable with humans.
With this background, also the ethical problem of freedom from suffering for non-human sensing beings is a nonsense: the freedom from suffering has the same destiny for human and non-human beings, for they have the same nature. Other beings are living our same adventure. Nothing can disappear, all suffering must have a resolution, for all natural entities.
This can explain some kind of “reincarnation”, not necessarily of an individual type, the only one that Western culture can understand, with an “easterner” or “exotic” accent. But, if we think about our destiny after death, we must also think about what was before birth.
We now ask: if a worldview where all is nothing but matter with the only exception of a unique species is more or less materialistic than a thought background where any natural entity put in evidence spirit, mind and World-Soul.
Descartes’ thought affects the West
The background ideas on soul, as supported by the religions born in Middle-East, were strengthened and defined by the French philosopher René Descartes.
The dramatic chasm between spirit and matter is at the core of his thought, and the exclusivity of soul attribution to our species has confined all other beings and natural entities in the kingdom of rough matter, with no kind of soul or mind. So to Descartes there is no ethical problem: they are simply subject to mans’ manipulation. The awful chasm in the living world is heavier for this: mankind, with soul divided from body, and other beings, only matter, that is machines. The French philosopher said that (other) animals could not suffer, nor feel anything!!
Some objections to Descartes’ ideas:
- Spirit-matter dualism is denied by modern physics, that is by Bohr-Heisenberg interpretation, where existence of an external reality is over: there’s no energy-matter world independent from psychis. Spirit and matter are not dividable.
- The importance of reason against emotion and feeling is denied by psychoanalysis. The presence of non-conscious makes vanishing the idea that behaviour comes only from reason.
- “Cogito. Ergo sum” is a mere illusion. Conclusion (So I exist) is the same thing as “I am thinking”. It’s clear only a changeable thinking, not a permanent “ego”. We can see not the existence of a permanent entity, but only a ceaseless motion of mind conditions in eternal change. In other words, Descartes is wrongly jumping from a thought flux (in becoming) to a fixed entity (in the being).
Thinking is a process. Being is a status. When I am thinking, my mental status is changing in time. How can “ego” remain the same?
The following statement by Diderot is very interesting:
“Do you watch this egg? Due to him all theology schools and temples on Earth can be reversed. What this egg is? A non-sensible mass before fertilization. How can this mass become an organization, a moving life? By heat. But what the origin of heat is? Motion? And what is the following effect? Sit down, and follow any development by your own eyes.
In the beginning a point is waving, a line is widening and colouring: flesh, a beak, wing edge, eyes, legs begin to appear; a yellowish matter is becoming inner-body. This is an animal: he/she walks, flies, is angry, runs away, is crying, suffers, loves, desires, is happy. He/she is entirely like you, makes all you make, behaves like you.
Can you think, as Descartes does, he is a mere imitation machine? But children too will laugh against you, philosophers will say that, if he’s a machine, you too are a machine. But if you think that the only difference between you and that animal is a mere quantity-organization question you can show a right reason-way. The conclusion will be that you can have sensitivity, life, memory, consciousness, love, thought starting by bulk matter, a certain pattern, with another bulk matter, heat, movement….Listen: if you don’t accept a simple fact, the matter inner sensitivity, or structure-pattern result, you must remain senseless and fall into an abyss of misteries, counter-facts, absurdity.”
(translation from the Italian version of the book La Nouvelle Alliance by Prigogine-Stengers)
We and other sensing beings
When affinities between humans and other animals are in exam, we usually only speak about now living very similar sensing beings (big Apes). If we also consider past beings (Australopitecus, Homo habilis, Homo Neanderthalensis, et al.), current ideas are again very, very strange.
Australopitecines or Homo erectus have been extinct for a few hundred thousand years; that’s a very short time compared with Life scale. The extinction of these hominides is really a chance. If they were living, our culture, according to some institution’s opinion, could behave in one of these ways:
- hunting these beings is a sport;
- the beings must be put in a cage;
- they are good as slaves;
- or think that killing a Neanderthal is a murder, maybe with jail for life.
Also if we limit our study to living species, we note that the more we know about Primate behaviour, less the differences between human and non-human Primates appear to be. As an exemple, we now know that difference in genetic information between our species and bonobo chimp is about one per cent.
The idea of “man”, in Western background, is built in contrast with animal’s humanity and animality appear as opposite terms in biblic conception, but also in Bacon’s and Descartes’ deriving science. All this is impossible to think with to-day’s scientific modern knowledge!
Current language is also incorrect: man is an animal.
The true name of bonobo, Pan paniscus, should be Homo paniscus, because difference with Homo sapiens is very small. The real problem is to free ourselves from the monster-anthropocentrism that affects our culture and is the background reason of the awful ecological situation of our Planet.
I read that the Spanish government declared “Big Apes have mental properties and feelings that are more than enough to consider them in the community of those “worthy-of-rights”.
The scientific world has known for two centuries ago that there’s a very small difference between man and chimpanzee, but has never behaved according to this knowledge. Other animals suffer, love, are conscious. What other quality is needed to give “subjective rights”? If the answer is any kind of self-awareness, there’s no logic at all in attributing rights to humans in a coma condition, or to human embryos, and deny them to a conscious sensing being as an orangutan or a dolphin.
Due to recent studies on emotions, feeling, behaviour and the social patterns of many living beings, it’s now completely evident that the fairy-tales of the past that our species is “intelligent” while (other) animals have only “instinct” is just that – a fairy-tale.
The following statements are from the article “Minds of their Own – Animals are smarter than you think” by Virginia Morell, printed in the March 2008 issue of National Geographic. The article is on the cover with title “Inside Animal Minds”. Some excerpts from Jennifer S. Holland are also copied under the pictures of this wonderful article, which is the summary of the results of a thirty-years study on mind, behaviour and learning attitude of many non-human sensing beings drawing on the work of Irene Pepperberg and many other scholars.
Pepperberg’s work began in 1977 when she brought an African parrot named Alex into the laboratory with the aim to teach him the English language. “When Pepperberg began her dialogue with Alex, who died last September at the age of 31, many scientists believed animals were incapable of any thought. They were simply machines, robots programmed to react to stimuli but lacking the ability to think or feel”.
Only thirty years ago, nearly two centuries after our knowledge about Unity of Life and our position in the natural world, similar ideas were common!! Let us read something about the article:
“Alex distinguished colors, shapes, sizes and materials. He did some simple arithmetic, such as counting the yellow toy blocks among a pile of mixed hues”.
“Apples taste a little bit like bananas to him, and they look a little bit like cherries, so Alex made up the word ban-erry for them”.
“Chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas have been taught to use sign language and symbols to comunicate with us, often with impressive results. The bonobo Kanzi, for instance, carries his symbol-communication board with him so he can “talk” to his human researchers, and he has invented combinations of symbols to express his thoughts”.
“Azy, an orangutan, has a rich mental life. Orangutans are on equal cognitive footing with African apes, or even surpass them on some tasks. Not only does Azy communicate his thoughts with abstract keyboard symbols, he also demonstrates a “theory of mind” (understanding another individual’s perspective) and makes logical, thoughtful choices that show a strong mental flexibility”.
“Like primates, sheep, in studies, recognize different faces (about 50 other sheep and 10 humans) and still know them two years later”.
“We are not alone in our ability to invent or plan or to contemplate ourselves – or even to plot and lie”.
“With sizable brains and dexterous arms, octopuses are known to block their dens with rocks and amuse themselves shooting water at plastic-bottle targets and at lab staff. They may even express basic emotions by changing color.”
“Young bonobo Kanzi began picking up language on his own – observing scientists try to train his mother. At 27, the bonobo “talks” using more than 360 keyboard symbols and understand thousands of spoken words. He forms sentences, follow novel instructions, and crafts stone tools, altering his technique depending on a stone’s hardness, as the first humans did”
“Intelligence throughout the animal kingdom is a bush, not a single-trunk tree with a line leading only to us”.
“Betty is a wild-caught crow. …They gave Betty other tests, each requiring a slightly different solution. Each time, Betty invented a new tool and solved the problem. It means she had a mental representation of what it was she wanted to make. Now that is a major kind of cognitive sophistication”.
It’s clear that the smartest or most intelligent bonobo has (or is) more mind-psyche-spirit than most humans.
Our position in Nature
“The worldview in which we are unique and different and better than any other being living on the Planet is only a curious delirium of grandeur.” ~ Fabio Ceccarelli (anthropologist)
The anthropocentric position that gives anything value only when referred to mankind is widespread in our culture. A biocentric worldview gives intrinsic value to all living entities, an ecocentric worldview gives intrinsic value to all natural entities and their interrelations. Humans, their cultures and interrelations, are natural entities; so they too are held within an intrinsic value system.
Relation man-Nature is a relation part-Whole, the same way a cell-kind is connected to psycho-Organism whom it is a part of. A cell group has a greater intrinsic value as a part of an Organism than if separated.
If we give a self-intrinsic value to any natural entity and interrelations among them, we give a deep meaning to Life and World: we understand and accept her own spirituality.
At this respect, the present background thought of Western culture comes from the religions born in the Middle-East, spread out into all world, often by violence, with the diffusion of terribly anthropocentric ideas. The institutions that represent them are continuing to pursue this work: besides spreading the fairy tales on their conception of soul, on the practical side they are very interested in four super-iced or frozen cells (if human!) but they can’t speak even one word on the terrible suffering experienced by so many sensing beings and the breakdown of entire ecosystems.
Materialistic-mechanistic thought has changed nothing, maintaining a human-centered worldview through a sort of “selection worth” and the exclusivity of mind-spirit is empty.
The evolution of complex systems
It’s well-known that the mind-matter Cartesian chasm was abolished by the uncertainty principle, stated by Werner Heisenberg in 1927. The following Copenhagen interpretation, supported by Danish scientist Niels Bohr and never confirmed by any test, tells us that energy-matter world has no reality without mind presence.
Erwin Schroedinger, a well-known German physicist, reached the same result as Heisenberg’s by a different route when he stated the differential equation that refers to his own name. The Schroedinger equation deals with ghost-entities, but is capable of describing something versus time, even if only a chance-wave.
In the study of complex systems that emerged in the decades since these thinkers, we have some bifurcation-unstability, that are points beyond which the system chooses a non-predictable way, not in theorical line, based on energy-matter events: the system chooses its following way. In other words, mental phenomena are arising or, if you like, a mind-psyche-spirit is appearing. That doesn’t necessarily means a self-awareness.
Mechanistic-materialistic scholars write that the system takes by chance the way following the bifurcation. I think that the word “chance” is a usual label they put on all they don’t know about or understand completely. There’s no reason at all to name “choice” the phenomenon if a human brain is interested and “chance” if it’s in a sparrow brain or cephalopode nervous ganglious, or a termite family evolution.
A time horizon is ever present: beyond it the system behaviour is completely undefinible. With an exemple taken from meteo: “The wing beating of a butterfly in the English country can cause a great storm in the Caribbean”, this is the sentence from which the name “Butterfly Effect” comes.
It is not a question of our incapability or impossibility to know all parameters, but it’s the intrinsic nature of phenomena. In bifurcation-instability a creative process is at work: so, creation has not happened in the past – it’s a continuous process.
The traditional idea of religious institutions born in the Middle-East and followed also by mainstream science, is that man has free-will, while all the rest of the natural world (all other animals included!) are subject to rigid physic-mechanical laws. For another part of “old” science (determinism) there’s no freedom at all for anybody.
As we have written above, according to a present current of science, there is some kind of freedom in any natural process: free will is nearly everywhere, even if in different quantities. Any natural entity, any process, any complex system, has its own degree of freedom. Only the quantity is different in a case by case basis. According to the so-called “dog-at-leash” view, all entities (man included, of course) have a leash, of different length, driven by systemic forces, not only physical or in the matter-energy field, but also minded. With a Bateson’s expression: “If you like, you can name God the systemic forces”.
A dog can sometimes cause a complete change in direction to the leash-driver, if he/she goes here or there at a crossroad. As an example, the impredictability degree showed in many insects, or mammals, or bird communities is not very different from humans. Besides, the societies of many species have complex structures.
If there is some difference between human and non-human animals, it is of quantity and not quality: ethics must be aware of this.
Maybe I have written too much: it’s enough to have a friend-dog, or read this interview with Konrad Lorenz:
… I talked a long time, on these subjects, with Konrad Lorenz, the father of modern ethology.
To the question of whether animals also are self-aware, he answered, in his warm and fascinating way: “No serious person can have doubts about this. I am sure, I repeat very sure, that animals are completely conscious. Man is not alone in having a interior subjective life.” And he goes on to say that man has a kind of self-grandeur. Of course – the great scientist tells us – the fact that animals have a conscious-awareness “gives us big problems”. Maybe man is afraid to go on in this vein of logic: if we attribute an interior life to animals, we must recognize the horror of our treatment to them.
Lorenz spoke with me also about the surety with which animals immediately know the intention of the humans around them. But there is no need of a similar authority to comment on the episode of the gorilla we mentioned earlier: only a strange mind, sick for dogmas, can have any doubt about animals having will. Those Wiener dogs, Lorenz’s dogs too, are always good – not out of instinct, but because they feel people love them.
Ethology is confirming what Giordano Bruno’s phylosophical genius well knew: all living beings are appearently different but in reality one universal substance. They all have the same metaphysical root; the difference between us is only quantity, not quality: in Kant’s language, it’s in phenomenon, not noumenon. Intelligence, that connects things, is common to every being, with reference to each esigence. This is the teaching of great thinkers, from Schopenhauer on and this is also what Lorenz is telling me.
Considering man as completely divided from animals is an impossible way of thinking. Animals lie – many birds, and Lorenz spoke to me about other animals too – are capable of abstraction: this causes the end of the dogma that only man can use abstract reason.
Western philosophy is too immersed in theology: also Nietzsche recognized it, even if he used to speak like an upside-down priest. The evil he saw is in the very beginning: “Grow and multiply yourselves, and fill the Earth, with dominion on it, and be the lord over sea fish and sky birds and over all the beasts that move on Earth”. So, you must be the oppressor and killer of any other living being: are these the words of a God? Maybe He could avoid similar words, after the creation of so a wicked being as man. Lorenz, after an historical survey, names that order “satanic”.
This in strong contrast with the high-level words that Buddha told his horse when he freed him: “Go! Your destiny is nirvana, for you too”. This tale deeply touched Schopenhauer and Wagner, but has no effect on the brain-cortex of our theology-philosophers: they prefer Descartes, who thought of animals as machines.
With a speech with Lorenz, we can have a better scientific and ethical viewpoint, because he has studied and felt better than everyone the animal interior-subjective life; he well knows what kind of moral responsability this means…
(last paragraph is a translation of a piece from an article by the journalist Anacleto Verrecchia, printed on the Italian daily newspaper La Stampa, on September 8, 1986)