Plants, Animals, Humans, and Souls


Last time we talked about the concept of the soul in general, as it’s usually understood in our culture.  Having established that basic foundation, I want to use it to analyze the question of who–or what–actually has a soul.  This is why, by the way, I’m categorizing this post in my polygenism series.  The ideas I intend to develop will figure more prominently in the larger context of polygenism and (possibly) the Fall of Mankind.

So as we said, the soul as generally understood could be defined as follows:

  1. It is the seat of personality and individuality
  2. It is associated with the body, but different from it
  3. It is immaterial, or to put it differently, non-physical
  4. It is separable from and can survive without the physical body

Definition:  To be clear, 3 means not made of matter or energy.  The soul is properly defined as “spirit”, which is not part of the material universe in any way.  We discussed this a bit last time.  We’ll look at the term “spirit” shortly.

Corollaries:  From 2, it is clear that though the soul is not itself material, it can affect physical objects.  It does this every time we move, in fact.  If psychokinesis is a real phenomenon (which I may discuss in detail later, but won’t here), then the soul may be able to affect matter beyond the body with which it is associated.  From 4, it follows that it is at least possible for the soul to survive physical death.  While not a direct corollary, the immortality of the soul–that it is indestructible and can never cease to exist–is typically assumed in the Western tradition since the time of Plato.

What I want to look at now is how, and if, the term “soul” can be applied to life forms besides ourselves–principally animals, but plants, too.

It’s worth pointing out at the start that in many, many languages, the word for “soul” and the word for “breath” are related.  The Hebrew nephesh (נֶ֫פֶשׁ) literally means “that which breathes” or “breather”.  The Greek psyche (ψυχή) comes from a root meaning “to breathe” or “to blow”.  The Latin anima (whence the word for “soul” in the modern Romance languages) comes from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “to breathe”.  The Sanskrit ātman (आत्मन्), “soul” or “self”, is cognate to the Greek atmos (ἀτμός), familiar as a root in the English word “atmosphere”, which literally means “vapor”, and thus once more connotes breath or air.  Examples could be multiplied, but the theme is clear.  To ancient peoples, the most evident sign of life, for a human or animal, was its breathing.  Thus, “breath” came to connote “life force”, “vital principle”, or, as here, “soul”*

Similarly, the word for “spirit” in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and others, is identical with the word for “wind” or “breath”.  We can see that in the word “spirit” itself–the root occurs in respiration, “breathing”.  “Spirit” partially overlaps with “soul” in its meanings.  “Spirit” emphasizes more the life-force aspect of the soul, that which maintains life, and “soul” emphasizes more the locus of personality and self.  For the purposes of the discussion here, we’re going to consider “soul” and “spirit” as loosely synonymous, and focus on the concept of the soul.

We see, then, that for ancients “soul” was more or less equivalent to “life force” or “that which makes a living being alive”, though it was sometimes broader than that.  To refine that notion, I want to look at Aristotle’s discussion of the soul.  As I said last time, as Bones McCoy might have put it if he’d been a philosopher, I’m a Platonist, not an Aristotelian.  Nevertheless, in this context, Aristotle has some useful and interesting things to say.

Aristotle discusses the soul principally in the book On the Soul (often cited in English as De Anima, the Latin title; though of course, it was originally written in Greek, and titled Peri Psychēs).  For Aristotle, the soul is the form of any living being.  “Form”, in this context, is based on Plato’s notion of the Forms (sometimes called Ideas).  Briefly, to Plato, a “form” is that which makes something what it is, as opposed to something else.  For example, a Chihuahua and a Mastiff may be very, very different; and yet they are both dogs.  They share something in common–“dogness”, if you will–that makes them both dogs, despite their obvious physical differences.  To Plato, the Forms–note my shift to capitalization–are the unchanging, eternal templates or essences of all the things we know in this world.  The Forms are above the material world, eternal and perfect.  Particular examples of the Forms–what philosophers call “instantiations”–are mere projections of the Forms into the material world.  For example, the Form of Dogness is more “real” than any given dog in this world.  Fido or Rover or Fluffy are merely projections of the Form of Dogness into the material world.  This idea is famously elaborated in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

Aristotle viewed the Forms differently.  To him, a form was more of an abstraction that did not exist in a separate Realm of the Forms, but rather a pattern or template that existed only as manifested in matter.  So, for example, you might say that the form of water is that it has molecules each of which has one atom of oxygen covalently bonded to two atoms of hydrogen (Aristotle, interestingly, was not an atomist, believing that matter could be infinitely divided.  Still, for the purposes here, this is a good an example as any of the form of water).  Thus, there is no transcendent Form of Water lurking somewhere beyond the cosmos.  Rather, any time the pattern of atoms that we call H2O occurs, this pattern produces what we call “water”.

Thus, in calling the soul the form of a living thing, Aristotle is not saying that there is an immaterial entity residing in a living thing’s physical body.  Rather, he means that what we would call the electro-chemical pattern of processes present in a living being are its “soul”–that which makes it alive.  Thus, in this sense, all living things have souls.  A dead being–a corpse, as it were–no longer has that pattern of processes that we call “life”; thus, it no longer has a soul.  The soul hasn’t “left” it; rather, it has ceased to exist.

Aristotle goes on to distinguish three types of souls.  The lowest is what he calls the “vegetative soul”, that which is (obviously) associated with plants.  The root of the words “vegetation” and “vegetable” are a Latin stem that means “growing”, “power of growth”, or “vital”.  Thus, the vegetative soul is that which causes a living thing to grow.  To Aristotle, this was the main property of plants.  They grew, and were obviously alive; but that was about it.  Thus, the vegetative soul is in a sense the “lowest” soul.

Moving “up” a step, we have animals, which according to Aristotle have a “sensitive soul”.  Animals grow and are alive, as are plants.  However, they also are capable of movement and respond to stimuli–hence the “sensitive” soul.

Finally, we come to humans.  Humans are animals, of course; but we alone are what Aristotle calls “rational animals”–that is, we can think.  Humans, therefore, have a “rational soul”–a soul that is capable of reasoning and thinking.

It is important to note that in Aristotle’s thought, each higher level of soul incorporates the functions of the lower souls, without being composite.  In other words, a plant has only a vegetative soul.  An animal has a sensitive soul.  However, since the animal is alive, it requires all the functions of a vegetative soul, too.  Instead of having two separate souls–vegetative and sensitive–or a soul that has two “modules”, so to speak, an animal has a single, unitary sensitive soul that performs all the functions of a vegetative soul as well as all the functions unique to animals.  Likewise, a human has a rational soul that performs all the functions of the vegetative and sensitive souls, as well as the functions unique to humans.  Each soul is thus indivisible–it has no parts–and performs all the functions of its level, as well as those of the lower level.  This can be graphically illustrated thus (courtesy of Wikipedia):

Each higher soul can thus be seen to encompass, as a subset, all the lower souls.

Since a soul, to Aristotle, is a configuration or pattern, and not a transcendent template, it ceases to exist at death.  If I take a complete puzzle and take apart all the pieces and toss them hither and yon, the picture doesn’t “go” anywhere–it ceases to exist.  If I burn a sheet of paper or a log of wood, the molecules are reconfigured into ashes and gas, and the paper or wood ceases to exist.  If I have several Scrabble tiles arranged into a word, and then toss them randomly back into the box, the word doesn’t go to the Realm of the Words; it just isn’t there anymore.  Thus, when a bacterium or a tree or a deer dies, the configuration of life-processes that we call a “soul” ceases to exist.  There is no “spirit” or “soul” to “go” somewhere–you just have a dead plant or animal.

Aristotle makes an exception with the rational soul, though.  The arguments he makes are rather difficult to follow and somewhat contested (a very brief and non-technical explanation can be found in Mortimer Adler’s Intellect:  Mind Over Matter).  Suffice it to say that to Aristotle, the function of thinking or rational thought or intellection by its nature must be immaterial and that therefore that which performs it–the rational soul–must also be immaterial.  By the same logic, the rational soul must be capable of existing without the body; and thus, by implication, it is immortal.  It is not at all clear, though, that Aristotle sees the human soul as containing personal identity (he seems to relegate the immortal part to rational thought properly so-called), nor that he believes it can function without a body.  That is, if we view the body as a computer and the rational soul as its software, then when the computer breaks down, the software–the CD-ROM or the pattern of magnetic fields in the RAM, is still there; but it can no longer function. Thus, whether Aristotle believes that one’s personal identity can function after death (as a ghost or in heaven or hell or whatever) or rather that there’s just a kind of thinking power that “turns off” at death without disappearing, is impossible to say.

This is a horrendously succinct description, and I feel that I’m copping out by failing to detail Aristotle’s arguments.  To do so, though, would take us way too far afield, as well as straying into areas that even scholars of Aristotle don’t agree on.  My main purpose is to give the basics of his views on the soul, and to critique them.  I have spent most of this post describing; now let me critique.

Aristotle’s division between the vegetative and the sensitive souls is no longer tenable.  Plants, as much as animals, are sensitive, or to use the language of modern biology, “irritable”.  That doesn’t mean they are surly; rather, that they respond to stimuli.  Plants grow towards the light, and their roots grow downward; the sensitive plant folds its leaves when touched; leaves of many plants fold during the night and open up during the day; sunflowers have long been known to follow the sun; and so on.  Really, even Aristotle, keen observer that he was, should have noted some of these things and taken them into account.  Alas, like most Greeks of his age, he was not an experimentalist, feeling no need at all to actually test out his ideas by making observations.  In any case, scientific evidence has accrued recently for things that Aristotle, even had he been an experimenatlist, could not have observed.  Studies such as this and this have actually raised the possibility of sentience, or even rudimentary consciousness, in plants.  This is far from the sometimes flaky claims made back in the 70’s about plants that showed “responses” on lie detectors or that supposedly had preferences in music–these studies look at very subtle processes and are revolutionizing our understanding of plants.

Likewise, the division between animals and humans seems less clear than was previously thought.  Dolphins, great apes, and even the Eurasian magpie, a bird, have passed the mirror test, which seems to indicate self-awareness, a property formerly thought to be unique to humans.  There is some evidence that some species of whales use consistent vocalization patterns to refer uniquely to individuals when communicating with them.  This is a fancy and technical way of saying that they seem to give each other names.  This would indicate not only self-awareness, but almost certainly a human or near-human level of intelligence.  Whether all this indicates the hypothetical ability of some of these creatures to exercise intellection (rational thought) or reason is unclear; but it seems unwise to rule out the possibility a priori.

Thus, while the Aristotelian view of the soul as the form of a living being, that which makes it alive, has something to recommend it, his division of souls into the three classical categories of vegetable, sensitive, and rational does not seem to be sound in light of current scientific knowledge.  From a religious perspective, Aristotle’s model also seems to be deficient in supporting continuation of consciousness after death, despite St. Thomas Aquinas’s use of Aristotle in formulating his theology.  Thus, we seem to be no closer to answering the question, “Do animals have souls?”  The answer is obviously “Yes,” if we mean souls in the Aristotelian sense; but that sense has serious problems.  In any case, what we really mean in asking the question is whether animals have souls in the more Platonic sense of an immaterial seat of individuality that may perhaps survive death.  Crudely–will we see our pets in Heaven?  In order to consider these issues, we’ll have to make use of non-Aristotelian, perhaps non-Western tools.  We’ll be doing that next time–stay tuned!


*Interestingly, the English word “soul” actually is not etymologically connected to the concept of breath or breathing.  It comes from a Germanic root that is speculated to be related to the word for “sea”.  The idea is that, like the Homeric Greeks, the ancient Germanic peoples believed the realm of the dead was far to the West, beyond the Atlantic Ocean–the “Great Sea”–and thus that “soul” means something like, “that which goes beyond the sea”.  Leave it to the Germanic languages to be the odd men out!

Part of the series “Polygenism, Human Origins, and the Soul

Posted on 20/07/2018, in metaphysics, philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. So, how do you feel your view of “soul” should change the way a person acts, as compared to someone who does not belief this?

    • As I said on the other post, I (apparently) prioritize belief more than you do. That said, a person should be as good a person as possible, regardless of belief. I certainly do not join fellow Christians in asserting that belief in God makes one a better person, or is even necessary for one to be a good–or even exemplary–person. There are plenty of atheists who are far better people than most Christians.

      That’s not really relevant to this post, though. I’m looking at whether animals, as well as humans “have souls”–i.e., loci of individuality or “self” which are (at least in part) immaterial and which (possibly) survive death.

      Personally, I consider the question as to whether or not human consciousness and individuality survives death to be of supreme importance. To me, if one perishes utterly upon death, it would seem to render everything else meaningless. I have, however, had conversations with atheists and agnostics on a blog or two that I frequent, and from dialogue with them, I have come to understand that for some people continuation after death is really not important. Evidently some people are actually OK with the notion that someday they will completely cease to exist. To me, that’s completely opaque, and I don’t “get” it. One might as well say that 2 + 2 = 749, or that they didn’t care whether or not someone cuts their legs off. However, from prolonged dialogue with the people I’ve mentioned, I’ve come to accept that, whether I understand it or not, some people really aren’t bothered by the concept of ultimate cessation. I think that’s monumentally weird; but to each their own.

      In one sense, it doesn’t matter. If there is no continuation after death, then I won’t be around to complain about it post mortem; and if there is an afterlife, then those who disbelieve in it now will eventually realize their error. Since I’m a universalist, I think that such unbelievers will not find this to be an unpleasant surprise, but a good surprise, in the long run. The point is, we all try to be the best we can here and now (hopefully), and as to anything beyond that, we pays our money and takes our chances, so to speak.

  2. @ turmarion:

    I am just as fine with eternal life as I am with no eternal life. Neither of them has implications for me.

    Your imagination is hampered however, and you tell us you feel that if you stopped surviving after your death, that would “render everything else meaningless”.

    Wow! So extreme.

    Look mate, your memories of your childhood largely disappear, the body of your twenty-year-old self disappeared. Your younger experiences are largely gone from your memory. Yet I would hope you would not therefore classify everything in your past as meaningless just because it has not survived into the present.

    That is a very anti-Buddhist claim.

    But I won’t argue that it is not your fear. You have a deep rooted fear in not living forever even though you have continued to die throughout your life — and comfortably die, at that, without regret.

    Can you see my point? — Maybe your fear is more common than not, so it is clear why you feel others who don’t have your fears as being weird. But maybe the best insight their is to understand your own pathology and not to thing others as pathological. You don’t sound Hindu or Buddhist at all. You sound very classically monotheistically greedy for eternity. Smile.

    • I am just as fine with eternal life as I am with no eternal life. Neither of them has implications for me.

      That’s fine. It’s unintelligible to me, but it’s fine. Please note: That’s not equivalent to saying your views are “weird”; it’s saying that they don’t make sense to me.

      I would say more broadly that the human experience and the existence of the human race in general seems meaningless, if there is no continuation of some sort, if we just live as a species for awhile, then die out, then the whole universe dies its heat death, and that’s all there is. You are, of course, free to believe that that perspective is crazy; but it seems more the default of the human race over time, in terms of belief. That doesn’t make it right, of course; but the majority of the human race has traditionally held that there is more than just the material cosmos.

      I am quite aware of the Buddhist concept of anātman, “no-self”. Even in Buddhist contexts, it has been debated exactly what that means. Certainly, the Theravada scripture, the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta implies some sort of continuation beyond ordinary existence for the arhat (enlightened being). There are implications of this in some Mahayana and Vajrayana sources, as well. So, there’s “no-self” in the sense that nothing has any inherent, independent being (the notion of śūnyatā); but from another point of view, there are individual “mind-streams” that may enter a new mode of existence after death. In any case, I may or may not “sound Buddhist”; but then again, I never claimed to be Buddhist!

      I understand your point, but I disagree with it. I’d also note that claiming I “fear”, that my views are “extreme”, that I have a “pathology” and that monotheists are “greedy” for eternity (plenty of non-monotheistic faiths believe in eternal life, by the way; and Jains, who are totally non-theistic, believe the arihants exist in eternal bliss), don’t seem to be a fruitful approach to dialogue. I disagree with your views; but I’ve never said or even implied that they’re weird, pathological, etc. You can feel as you like about my views; but once more, I thought that the point here is dialogue.

      • @ tumarion

        Thank you for your reply. You repeated that human life without a guarantee of eternal life “seems meaningless”. But do you worry about dogs, chimpanzees and other animals living meaningless lives, or maybe your view is that they are saved from meaninglessness too because somehow they go on into eternity in some form as do bacteria and fungus.

        Indeed, humans have held on to various notions of the afterlife for a few millennium, but I don’t think that adds evidence but instead shows the stubbornness of cognitive illusions as a side effect of having some notion of self — itself an illusion, it seems.

        So I understand fully that you have a personal aesthetic desire and your own hopes to live forever, but I think that declaring life (in general) without eternity as meaningless is dramatic and not accurate because, as I wrote earlier, we don’t act like we really think things are meaningless even though they are impermanent.

        Instead, I see the “meaningless” complaint as common rhetoric which is meant to be persuasive while it should instead be personal confession instead of a philosophical claim. I think with little thought, we can see that immpermanance is not “meaningless” even though it is not desired by the individual — both on the micro and macro scales.

        For example, just because someone wants to have a birthday party each year but one year doesn’t, doesn’t make that year meaningless if a party does not happen. Likewise, just because someone loves sports and hiking but becomes a quadriplegic in an accident, does not make their life meaningless no matter how great the disappointment. For certainly meaning can be found in all these limitations, indeed great meaning — there are friendships, love, giving, laughter, awe and many other meaning-filled experiences one can have even though you won’t live forever. Life does not become meaningless without a promise or hope for eternity. I feel stating such is a rhetorical exaggeration. So though you may have that feeling, I think it is a personal feeling that is certainly inaccurate as an existential statement or ontological statement though accurate only personally. That is my argument.

        Can you see how life for religion-free people can be very meaningful? If so, do you think their sense of meaning is deluded because without eternal all life is obviously meaningless. Or do you agree that “meaning” is a personal feeling, not an objective fact?

      • Can you see how life for religion-free people can be very meaningful?

        I’ve explicitly said that I understand that religion-free people can have meaningful lives and be perfectly happy as such. Of course, as you yourself point out, not all religion-free people are in agreement. Woody Allen, for example, is religion-free, and has stated his belief that life is meaningless and that death ends it all and makes the meaninglessness even worse. Many in the so-called anti-natalist movement assert similar things, going so far as to argue that humanity would be best off to allow itself to die off. Thus, it’s not really a matter of religious vs. non-religious. People seem to have different temperamental responses to issues of meaning and whether life in a meaningless cosmos is worth living.

        As to whether or not this perspective is “inaccurate as an existential statement or ontological statement”, there’s not really any way of knowing that one way or another.

        If so, do you think their sense of meaning is deluded because without eternal all life is obviously meaningless.

        I think they’re incorrect, but I don’t feel it’s my business to interfere with them or try to alter their beliefs. If they’re happy as they are, why is that my affair? Why is it your affair to take issue with my beliefs?

        Or do you agree that “meaning” is a personal feeling, not an objective fact?

        No, I do not. I’m sure you’d disagree with that, but then we must agree to disagree.

      • 1) Again, you seem to load your description with your presupposition:

        “People seem to have different temperamental responses to issues of meaning and whether life in a meaningless cosmos is worth living.”

        “Meaning” is not something that is objective — do you agree. So what the heck is a “meaningless cosmos”?

        So, if “meaning” is not a personal feeling, but an objective thing? What is it? For can’t be like other things we call objective.

        It seems to me to be a word ripe for abuse and agendas.

        2) Again you ask, “Why is it your affair to take issue with my beliefs?”
        Again I state: You write publically, you declare things. I respond. If you wish people not to take issue with your beliefs, why publish on internet, why have comments turned on?
        Odd question.
        Do you only write to hear people agree or applaud?

      • As a mathematical and philosophical Platonist, I believe that, for example, mathematical truth is objective and exists outside the human mind. We merely discover it, not create it. While I don’t completely agree with Plato’s notion of the forms, I do believe in the existence of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, objectively existing outside us. I also believe in the existence of God, the Divine, whatever you want to call Him/Her/It. This is the source of being and meaning, which is therefore objective. If the materialist account of the world were right, then meaning would indeed be objective. I don’t think the materialist view of the world is right. You, I assume, would disagree.

        You originally said, in your first post, that you wanted “dialogue”. That means an exchange of ideas in a quest for mutual understanding. On another blog I frequent, I’ve had very long conversations with self-described atheists (or “religion-free”, if you prefer that term) in which we discussed a lot of the same topics you and I have here. I started out in those conversation thinking that non-believers were avoiding the issue of meaning. By the end, I had changed my mind, and decided that, as I’ve said here, different people have different temperaments and whether I understand another person’s perspective or not, that doesn’t make it invalid.

        Know what? At all points, those discussions were cordial and respectful and neither side called the other “pathological” or “extreme”. To put it another way, neither side, to use your language, thought it was “fun” to “challenge” other peopole’s publicly stated beliefs, but trying to understand them. I don’t post with the expectation of nothing but applause, and I don’t have a problem with disagreement. Your main purpose here doesn’t seem to be to try to understand where I’m coming from, and then to say, “Well, I think you’re wrong, but I see what you mean,” but to prove that I’m wrong. I get that you think I’m wrong, and that’s fine. I see no point at all in arguing beyond that, though.

  1. Pingback: Polygenism, Human Origins, and the Soul: Index | The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

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