I love it when theologians fight with each other, especially Sophisticated Ones™. And when they argue about reality, as Catholic philosopher Edward Feser does with Orthodox philosopher David Bentley Hart in Feser’s post on the conservative Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourse site, the results are hilarious. For when contesting faith-based claims about reality, there’s no way to decide, using evidence, who’s right.
The topic of this particular fracas is one that’s engaged us all: “Do animals go to Heaven?”
Hart says “yes,” Feser “Hell, no!”. Leaving aside the small matter that neither of these gentlemen has any evidence that Heaven exists, the discourse must perforce be based on word-parsing, philosophy, and making stuff up. And both Feser and Hart are good at that, with Feser throwing in his patented requirement that one must read all of Thomas Aquinas (the founder of “Thomism”), study many other philosophers, and especially read Feser’s own books and articles before one can even have a say in this issue. Also, given his thin skin, this post will undoubtedly prompt Feser to reply on his own site, accusing me of theological ignorance. That’s like being accused of ignorance about the biology of unicorns. All I will add is that one cannot make assertions about reality based on philosophy alone.
But to the fray. Hart, says Feser, is dead wrong when he says that animals go to heaven, and Feser calls him out with some lame snark:
Hart’s beef with Thomists this time around is that they deny that non-human animals possess “characteristics that are irreducibly personal,” that they deny that “many beasts command certain rational skills,” and that accordingly—and worst of all, for Hart—Thomists deny that there will be “puppies in paradise.” Hart, by contrast, affirms the “real participation of animal creation . . . in the final blessedness of the Kingdom,” asserting that Heaven will be “positively teeming with fauna.” To make his case, he insists on “the intelligence, cognitive and social” of the humpback whale, the bottlenose dolphin, and the orca. Alas, Hart failed to mention the shark. Perhaps he was too busy jumping it.
Yes, that’s Feser’s link, put there to direct pious Christians to a phrase they might not understand. But why does Feser think that Hart is wrong? Why don’t animals go to heaven?
Well, Feser first contends that Hart doesn’t understand the Thomist argument about why you won’t find Fido playing a harp. Hart, says Feser, claims it’s because Thomists think that animals are basically like pieces of wood, lacking intentionality, affection, pleasure, sentience, or sensation. But, says Feser, Thomists don’t think that! They agree that animals have these qualities and feelings, but lack something more important—the Key to Heaven that only humans have: rationality, abstract thought, and the ability to conceptualize which is embodied in language. Here’s the meat of Feser’s argument:
Hence, like other animals, we have sensory awareness. But unlike other animals, we can conceptualize what we perceive and feel, and this fundamentally alters the character of our perceptual experiences and appetites. A dog can see a tree and we can see a tree, but the “seeing” we do is very different from that of which a dog is capable. For the dog cannot see a tree as a tree—it cannot conceptualize or understand what it is seeing by putting it within the general class “tree”; cannot infer that since this class is itself part of the larger class “plant,” to see a tree is also to see a plant; and cannot grasp that to be a thing of the sort that is seen entails taking in nutrients, going through a growth cycle, etc. A dog can feel pain and we can feel pain, but the “pain” we feel is very different from that of which a dog is capable. For we can conceptualize the pain as indicative of injury or bodily disorder, can infer that long-term health or even life might be in jeopardy, and so forth.
Feser contends (see below) that such conceptualization cannot rest solely on our more complex brains, but is indicative of a nonmaterial soul. He continues.
Think of it this way: animals and plants both need water, will flourish if they get it and atrophy if they don’t, and behave in ways that facilitate their getting it—plants by sinking roots, animals by searching for a stream, pond, or dog dish. But it doesn’t follow that plants, like animals, know anything like the pangs of thirst or the satisfaction of quenching that thirst. Similarly, that a dog will snuggle up to a child or wag its tail when its master arrives does not entail that its “love” is comparable to the highly conceptualized love that a rational animal feels for his child, friend, spouse, country, or God.
Indeed, for it’s that “conceptualized love” that gives humans the privilege of sitting with the angels, while Fido—well, I’m not sure where Feser thinks Fido goes. But surely a large part of love that humans feel is unconceptualized love: pure animal passion triggered by hormones. We may embroider it with our evolved big brains, but that doesn’t mean it differs in some fundamental, non-material way from animal “love.”
Indeed, Feser goes on to espouse a nonmaterial aspect of humans that gives us our ability to conceptualize—our nonmaterial soul. And here he’s just making stuff up, like his hero Aquinas:
So, the reason Thomists deny that non-human animals are destined for Heaven has nothing to do with a Cartesian or “mechanistic” conception of animals. What is the reason, then?
The reason is that non-human animals are entirely corporeal creatures, all matter and no spirit. To be sure, the matter of which they are composed is not the bloodlessly mechanical, mathematical Cartesian kind. Non-human animals are not machines; they really are conscious, really do feel pain and pleasure, really do show affection and anger. But these conscious states are nevertheless entirely dependent on bodily organs, as is everything else non-human animals do. Hence, when their bodies die, there is nothing left that might carry on into an afterlife. Fido’s death is thus the end of Fido.
If human beings were entirely corporeal creatures, the same would be true of us. But, the Thomist argues, human beings are not entirely corporeal. We are largely corporeal—as with Fido, our ability to take in nutrients, to grow and reproduce, to see, hear, imagine, and move about, depends on our having bodily organs. But our distinctively intellectual activities—our capacity to grasp abstract concepts, to reason logically, and so forth—are different. They could not be entirely corporeal.
What? WHY couldn’t our ability to grasp abstract concepts and reason be entirely corporeal? After all, many “corporeal” animals have signs of such things. Animals can show reason and seem to take an intentional stance, as when birds will dig up and re-bury an acorn if they see another bird watching them. Ravens, as I’ll write about soon, refuse to cooperate further with other ravens who don’t pull their weight in a joint task; they have a concept of “cheating.” Animals can reason, too, as with corvids or chimps that can put together tools to master a complex task, something that would seem to require abstract thought.
And there’s every sign that our intellect is intimately connected to our brain. You can damage the intellect in predictable ways by damaging certain portions of the brain, and extinguish your intellect with chemicals like anesthetics. There are diseases like Cotard’s Syndrome in which patients entirely lose their sense of self. And you can produce conscious intentions to do something, like licking your lips, by stimulating certain parts of the brain.
The more we learn about the brain, the more we realize that its workings, and the things that appear to make us different from other animals, are embedded in that gray matrix of neurons. There is no evidence for a “soul” that is not simply something attached to that matrix, and which doesn’t die when the matrix dies. Feser has not a whit of evidence for the soul, or for a complete and unbridgeable evolutionary discontinuity in mentation between humans and animals. He’s simply making stuff up to ensure that only members of our species will get past Saint Peter.
Of course Feser has other reasons to assume a soul, but here he pulls a Fermat:
There are several reasons why [our intellect cannot be entirely corporeal], though spelling them out adequately requires complex philosophical argumentation that is beyond the scope of this essay. For example, some Thomists argue that thoughts can have a precise or unambiguous content, whereas no purely material representation could have such a content — in which case thinking is not reducible to the having of material representations encoded in the brain. (I have defended this line of argument at length elsewhere.)
If you have $20, you can purchase that article from The American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly. I have no wish to, for which Feser will undoubtedly excoriate me. But until he gives me evidence for a soul or an afterlife, I needn’t pursue the matter.
And in the end Feser begs the question:
If human beings do have, in addition to their bodily or corporeal activities, an activity that is essentially incorporeal—namely, intellectual activity or thought in the strict sense—then when the corporeal side of human nature is destroyed, it doesn’t follow that the human being as a whole is destroyed. There is an aspect to our nature—the intellect—that can carry on beyond the death of the body, precisely because even before death it was never entirely dependent on the body. This is why there is such a thing as an afterlife for human beings, as there is not for non-human animals.
He’s again making stuff up: arguing that because we have an incorporeal intellect (which he hasn’t shown), and because by definition an incorporeal intellect lives on after the body dies, then we get to have an afterlife (for which he’s adduced no evidence). And of course that afterlife could simply be a bundle of thoughts floating around the cosmos, not a chair next to Jesus. Where’s the evidence for a Biblical heaven?
The only rational reaction to this type of confabulation is ridicule and utter contempt. Can you imagine grown men arguing about whether dogs, cats, sheep, and cows go to heaven? Yet Feser gets paid for this, and is regarded as one of the most influential philosophers of religion. It all goes to show how intellectually depauperate that discipline is.