Our pets are loyal and affectionate members of our family and we don’t ever want to be parted from them. Lucy a beautiful black cat has lived with us for seventeen years and is nearing the end of her days. To ask ‘Do animals have a soul?’ implies that you do believe in the soul but don’t know if animals have one.
Meanings of soul
Perhaps the answer depends on exactly what is meant by ‘soul’. Here are some possible meanings.
- Once when Lucy was placed in a boarding cattery when we were away on holiday, she was said to be like a lost soul. Soul in this sense can refer to the individuality of the creature.
- Soul can mean the essence of something. It’s central character, nature, or quality. If Lucy could bare her soul I’m sure she would purr her satisfaction with her comfortable basket, fishy food and daily strokes. Like other cats her central quality appears to me to be her sensory enjoyment of life.
- Soul can mean the source of a pet’s feeling and behaviour, regarded as a distinct non-material entity separate from, and animating, it’s physical body. When younger, Lucy, like each living soul with youth, was certainly more full of life and the way she has been cared for has been enough to keep body and soul together. Science can directly observe the effects of life but has never created life itself. It cannot explain the phenomenon of animal instinct. Without a spiritual source to their lives how else can animals show unlearned knowledge of how to feed themselves, find their way home, and nurture their young?
- Soul can mean a higher quality of mind. Lucy doesn’t say much and is the soul of discretion, but we can’t really say this is the reason for trusting her with our personal secrets. I guess it is difficult to say our cat has a higher quality of mind as such. She is affectionate to those who feed her and shows a limited degree of tolerance with the children but it is hard to imagine her developing more virtues than these. They say confession is good for the soul, but I’ve noticed no sign of any guilty conscience whenever she gets caught in some misdemeanour. On the other hand no animal I know of has ever behaved with the depravity and cruelty of some people. To sell one’s soul to the devil seems a possibility open only to a human being.
- One meaning of soul is that of an immortal soul. When someone dies we tend to say God rest his or her soul. They may have been through struggle and strife and we wish them peace. Some would feel this sentiment is also appropriate for an animal. Will I ever see my pet cat again after her death?
Immortality of the soul
Why should you believe in the immortality of the soul?
A first suggested answer is in terms of the experience of a mystic and spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg. Over the last 27 years of his life, he claimed to be able to see and hear what went on in what he termed ‘the spiritual world’ which he said was peopled with the spirits of human beings who had once lived on earth. He described their first condition after death. At first being involved with the outward aspects of their life, they experience things as little different from what they were used to on earth. To my mind this would include the form of their home, their clothes and perhaps the animals with which they were familiar. So perhaps I will see our pet again after I die.
The second answer to the question is in terms of a philosophical consideration. Swedenborg offers us the idea that eternal human life – a life after death not involving physical time and space – arises from our ability to understand and perceive timeless things and matters that transcend place. I would suggest examples of this are human appreciation of higher art and perception of beauty, our capacity for reflection, the experience of the state of meditation, understanding of ethics of conduct in social affairs, and rational thought that transcends desire. It is difficult to imagine a cat being aware of and appreciating a beautiful painting, or an uplifting musical composition.
Swedenborg maintains that our immortality also comes from an inner liberty that is reflected in our motivation, that gives us free-will to choose our intentions, and that, subject to external circumstances, allows us to make personal choices and to execute plans which fulfill our aims.
These two spiritual faculties he calls rationality and liberty.
Do animals have an immortal soul?
So do animals have immortal souls too? My answer thus hinges on whether they can be said to have rationality and inner liberty. Certainly my cat seems to know what she wants and has a will of her own. But her freedom of choice seems to be limited by her natural instincts conditioned by the system of rewards and punishments she has encountered in daily living. The same might be said by some people about us humans. Traditionally, science has assumed human behaviour is determined by nature and nurture: inner liberty of personal choice doesn’t seem to have a place in its theory.
I would say that human freedom seems to be broadened by illuminated thought. Understanding what is morally good in one course of action as opposed to what is bad in another will inform your decision making. Animals don’t appear to have this kind of deeper understanding. Consequently, we do not hold them responsible for their actions. Animals can’t be accused of criminal conduct because only we are culpable in law. I assume our pets are uninterested in personal growth, nor fight temptation nor seek enlightenment.
So I conclude my cat has a soul but not an immortal one. Having said that I still expect to see her again in an afterlife because she represents for me the love and affection we have shared for so long.
Copyright 2014 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems