Plants, Animals, Humans, and Souls
Posted by turmarion
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:
- It is the seat of personality and individuality
- It is associated with the body, but different from it
- It is immaterial, or to put it differently, non-physical
- 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 animals, Aristotle, metaphysics, philosophy, plants, rational soul, sensitive soul, soul, souls, vegetative soul. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.
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