Could I Ever Be a Nonhuman?
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion Article from


Stephen Kaufman, M.D., Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA)

Could I Ever Be a Nonhuman?

Last essay, I introduced John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, and I argued that nonhumans should have a place at the hypothetical “original position,” in which those with a stake in society’s rules and regulations would determine what those rules and regulations would be. Important to Rawls’ theory, nobody in the original position would know their future identity. They could be rich or poor, male or female, or (as I argued last essay) human or nonhuman. While I don’t think it is necessary to believe that it is possible that any of us could actually have been a nonhuman in order to hold that nonhumans should have a place in the original position, I do think that it is reasonable to posit that the sense of self, which we experience only in our own body and not in any other body, could inhabit a nonhuman body.
I come to this conclusion after exploring the existential question, “How did I come to inhabit the body I have?” In other words, how did the collection of unfeeling atoms that comprise my body result in “me,” with my own subjective internal, ongoing sense of being, whereas I have no sense of being in any other, similar collection of atoms that I call “other people.” Further, why does my sense of self exist in this body at this point in time, rather than in some other body and/or at some other time? I’d like to consider some theories that have aimed to address this or other, similar questions.
A common response, particularly among religious people, is that my sense of self is a manifestation of an eternal soul. I see several problems with this theory. First, the sense of self seems to depend upon the physical brain. For example, those in a coma appear to have no sense of self. It is hard to see how the sense of self could survive the demise of the brain.
Second, I find little evidence for a nonphysical entity that could account for this “soul.” There have been reports about experiences after death, such as people claiming to have visited Heaven or having had communication from dead people, but I have not found such reports at all convincing. They have not, for me, met the standard that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I suspect that many, if not all, of these claims could be explained by neurology (such as the distinctive experiences that can occur if the dominant [usually left] side of the brain is suppressed in a near-death experience), self-deceit (which can often occur in situations of intense human desire), psychosis, or fraud.
Sometimes people attribute the sense of self to a soul, but they are hesitant to say more about the nature of the soul because we have so little evidence for what the soul is or does. Such a description of the soul doesn’t tell us anything about the sense of self – it merely gives it the name “soul.” Often, such naming is for political purposes rather than for purposes of gaining greater understanding. People have repeatedly sought reasons to include humans within the circle of moral concern and to exclude nonhumans, and the highly dubious claim that humans have a soul while nonhumans do not has been one such reason.

Many people cite religious texts or oral myths as proof of a soul. Indeed, there are many biblical passages (particularly in the New Testament) that suggest a soul existing beyond the grave. I will explore this possibility next essay. 

Go on to: What Happens to the Soul When We Die?
Return to: Reflection on the Lectionary, Table of Contents 

Return to Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion