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Pawprint in the CloudsFor millennia, we humans have questioned the nature of our existence – and what happens to it after death. Do we return to Earth in other forms? Are there realms beyond Earth where we can travel and live? Or do we simply vanish into nothingness, evidenced only by what we’ve left behind?

Surrounded by our natural world, we have complex relationships with animals in our ecosystems. As we’ve invited dogs, cats, birds, and other creatures into our homes, some of us are asking the same questions about them. Some believe that if there is a heaven, we’ll see our furry and feathered friends there. Others argue that animals don’t have souls.

Consciousness, Descartes, and Housecats

Debates rage on about the nature of human-animal relationships. New York Times opinion columnist Farhad Manjoo refers to one prevailing viewpoint as expressed by French philosopher René Descartes: Animals are mindless and soulless machines, nothing more. Yet newer research reveals that cats have complex emotional lives. The same goes for dogs, chickens, cows, pigs, elephants, and many other mammals. There’s even some evidence that birds have emotions.

If animals have emotions, that leads to another key question: Do they possess a consciousness? Manjoo points to the “Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness,” issued in July 2012 by a group of neuroscientists, neurophysiologists, and other professionals in the United Kingdom. These professionals mentioned how many animals possess the neurological structures needed for consciousness.

We define consciousness in humans as awareness of oneself that can include thoughts, emotions, memories, and sensations. But what would it look like in animals? Science journalist Grant Currin discusses the impact of neuroanatomy: Having differently structured brains could give rise to different types of consciousness in other species.

Consciousness and the Soul

Just as we’re struggling to define the nature of consciousness, it gets even trickier when we think about the soul. Our religions don’t agree on whether the soul even exists, much less how to define it. But assuming that souls do exist, is possessing consciousness a prerequisite to having one? And if humans aren’t the only beings with souls, what does that mean for existence as a whole?

Theologians, philosophers, and other thinkers offer many possible answers to questions like these. As Quartz writer Adam Epstein reports, Pope Francis declared that “paradise is open to all of God’s creatures” back in 2014. But Christian thought varies on the topic. Since God only made humans in his image, one argument goes, only humans have souls. Others side with Pope Francis.

Other religions’ views vary just as widely. Islam considers all souls eternal, including those of animals, but the Quran isn’t clear on where nonhuman souls go after death. Buddhism and Hinduism posit that both humans and animals are part of a grand birth, death, and reincarnation cycle. As for Judaism, its texts offer many different ideas about the afterlife. So there isn’t even a unified consensus on what happens to humans, much less animals.

The Moral Implications of Having a Soul

If an animal can possess both consciousness and a soul, what does this mean? We can examine the issue in terms of life after death, but perhaps more immediate questions emerge. Do they know the difference between right and wrong? Can they be held accountable for their actions? How would our laws have to change to accommodate these new realities?

Meanwhile, we have other tough issues to consider. We assume that some human ethical principles are universal – to avoid killing others, for instance. But once we add nonhumans to the equation, it gets more complicated. How would the “do not kill” principle translate for predatory species? Again, questions like these have no simple answers. In the absence of harder evidence, such answers remain out of our reach.

Category: Faith

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