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Do Animals Have Souls?

Do animals have souls? Let’s get imaginative. If you hear someone answer, “Of course animals don’t have souls,” what kind of person would give that answer? Well for one, that’s the answer most atheists would give since they believe no one has a soul. But the answer could just as easily be coming from a Christian. Why? In Christianity, the soul is what separates from the body at death and continues living in the afterlife (until re-embodied at the final resurrection). Since Jesus died to save humans not animals, why would animals need souls?

So, with many Christians and atheists agreeing that animals do not have souls, why read further? Might be a good time to stop reading. And maybe go hang out with your pet, considering the months you have left with it.

But what if getting to a more accurate answer takes a little more effort?

Two Reasons the Answer Is Complicated

Here are a couple reasons the question deserves more thought (a longer reason and a shorter reason). First, the longer reason. Some very smart philosophers have turned their attention toward the topic of the soul. If you’re a Christian who believes the Bible, it makes sense that you would believe in the human soul (the Bible talks a lot about it). But would you have logical reasons which would translate to someone who doesn’t yet believe the Bible? As it turns out, you do. Christian philosophers have described how humans have characteristics and experiences—such as thoughts, beliefs, first-person consciousness, and free will—which aren’t themselves physical. These nonphysical realities tell us that we are more than just physical bodies. They suggest that we have an immaterial part of us—what the Bible calls a “soul.”

So, where do animals come in? Well, although we’ve got ourselves a fairly strong case for the existence of a human soul, you might take another look at that partial list of evidences for it: thoughts, beliefs, first-person consciousness, free will. When it comes to at least some of those, animals seem to experience them, too. Some animals seem to have thoughts and desires. They have first-person consciousness. As Thomas Nagel (an atheist!) points out, with all our scientific capabilities, humans still don’t know what it’s like to be a bat (except for maybe Batman). A bat has a first-person perspective—bat consciousness—which we don’t have. This is problematic for Nagel’s atheist worldview: “Consciousness is what makes the mind-body problem intractable.”[1] (Notice that “mind” and “soul” are sometimes used synonymously.)


Do animals have souls? “Some animals seem to have thoughts and desires. They have first-person consciousness.”


Again, some of what makes up a soul (or at least tells us we’ve got one) isn’t limited to humans. That complicates things.

Second, here’s a shorter reason the answer is complicated. Once in a while, the Bible uses soul/spirit language for animals. On page one, in fact, God in Genesis 1:30 gives animals the “breath of life” (nephesh, a Hebrew word often translated “soul”). See also Ecclesiastes 3:21 (“the spirit of the animal”) and Revelation 8:9, which describes “the living creatures” (literally, creatures having psyche, a Greek word meaning “life,” “soul,” or “mind”).

Sounds like we might need to delve a little deeper.

What Have People Historically Believed About the Soul?

Through most of history, it’s been the commonsense view that we humans aren’t just bodies and that death doesn’t end the person. If there was a consensus, it’d be that there’s something nonphysical going on about us, something that persists after death. Most religions, including Christianity, presuppose this as well.

Christian theologian Norman Geisler summarizes biblical anthropology: “Humans have an inner (immaterial) dimension and an outer (material) dimension. The former is often called soul (or spirit) and the latter is usually called body.”[2] A distinction between the two dimensions is presupposed by, among other things, Christian eschatology (the branch of theology which deals with last things, such as the afterlife). According to Christian philosopher J. P. Moreland,

“The human soul, while not by nature immortal (its immortality is sustained by God) is nevertheless capable of entering an intermediate disembodied state upon death, however incomplete and unnatural this state may be, and, eventually, being reunited with a resurrected body.”[3]

If you want to delve into what famous thinkers throughout history have said about the soul (I know that’s assuming a lot), I recommend checking out Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro’s A Brief History of the Soul. I’m going to attempt to take the book and speed through it in a few paragraphs. Along the way, you’ll see people’s conceptions of the soul get larger and smaller, narrower and more diverse—sometimes encompassing animals and even plants in its scope.


“It’s been the commonsense view that we humans aren’t just bodies and that death doesn’t end the person.”


Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle spent some of their genius studying the soul. The Greek word for soul (psyche) was commonly seen as what gives life to and animates the body. Plato believed that we existed as souls prior to being embodied; moreover, a soul could re-incarnate after death. Aristotle, too, saw the soul as giving life to and animating the body; thus, it made sense that Aristotle would speak of different types of souls, corresponding to different organisms. For him, plants have a “nutritive” soul, animals have a “sensitive” soul, and humans have a “rational” soul.

Whereas Plato was very dualistic in his thinking (there was the world of physical things and a separate “world” of the unchanging “forms”), Aristotle brought Plato’s dualisms together, to where the forms exist in this world as part of individual things. In this way, the soul is the “form” of the body, and each combination of body and soul is its own unified whole. The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas went on to embrace Aristotle’s basic categorization of souls and to emphasize that a human is a unity of body and soul (not a soul imprisoned in a body awaiting liberation). This “hylomorphic” unity of body and soul seems to fit our experience, for the physical and nonphysical parts of us greatly influence each other. It also fits the grand story of the Bible, according to which we aren’t preexisting souls, but rather embodied humans who, after death and at the end of time, will be re-embodied.


“This ‘hylomorphic’ unity of body and soul seems to fit our experience, for the physical and nonphysical parts of us greatly influence each other.”


Although Aquinas’s theology-philosophy synthesis continues to impress thoughtful people today, a mood of skepticism about mixing the two set in after the medieval years. Rene Descartes, a Catholic, believed in God and the soul, but amid the skepticism of his era, he wanted to test his beliefs to see if he could be certain about them. In the end, he came up with a dualism that divided body and soul much more sharply than Aristotle and Aquinas had done. For Descartes, a body and soul are separate substances, the body more like a machine and the soul more like a rational mind. To him, the soul was no longer what animated the body; rather, it’s more clearly defined as a “thinking thing.” For Descartes, a better word than soul is “mind,” and it’s having a mind that sets humans apart from being machine-like animals.

Emphasizing the sharp distinction between body and soul left Descartes’ successors struggling to explain how the two could interact with each other (for example, Gottfried Leibniz reasoned that God must have pre-ordained a harmony such that every time a soul “willed” something, the physical body was preprogrammed to act). By the time of David Hume, skepticism was back on the rise, with Hume believing it was much simpler to believe that we experience a succession of perceptions, rather than that we have a separate soul that somehow interacts with our bodies. If Hume is right, then not only do animals not have souls—but we probably don’t, either.


“If Hume is right, then not only do animals not have souls—but we probably don’t, either.”


Does the Soul Make Sense Anymore?

Brain science has come a long way since the days of frontal lobotomies. Is there room for the soul in a science-reliant world? Many scientific discussions which mention the soul do so patronizingly (in an “if you still believe in that sort of thing” tone). Descartes speculated that the soul and body interact through the brain’s “pineal gland,” and that’s just the kind of thing to which science comes along and says, “Um, no.” Has science exposed the soul the way the dog, Toto, exposed the “wizard” behind the curtain? (It’s important for me to reference The Wizard of Oz once in a while in order to show I’m up on contemporary culture.)

And yet, looking at the brain and saying, “See, no soul!” is a bit like the Soviet cosmonaut who orbited the earth only to say, “I don’t see any God up here.” The soul is by definition nonphysical, so we shouldn’t expect to see it, even with sophisticated brain-science technology. We all experience inner realities—such as purposeful intention, first-person consciousness, and thinking about our thoughts—which aren’t themselves physical. There are many things which aren’t physical but are very real, such as numbers, virtues, the laws of logic, not to mention God and angels, too. If you want to assume that nonphysical equals mythical, you’ve got to ignore a lot of reality.


“If you want to assume that nonphysical equals mythical, you’ve got to ignore a lot of reality.”


The Soul Hypothesis is a helpful anthology of arguments for the existence of the soul. Its two editors inform us that one editor personally starts with theism (the belief that there’s a God) and reasons to the soul: If God exists (for which there is compelling evidence), then “there is a class of entities (‘spirits’), which contains at least one member, such that those entities are not made up of matter or subject to physical laws but can interact causally with ordinary physical objects.” This being so, one “cannot automatically rule out the possibility that there are other members of this class.”[4]

That is, there being an immaterial God who acts in the physical, the foundation is in place for a species, especially one made in that God’s image (but not limited to that), to assert their wills in the world. Goetz and Taliaferro, in A Brief History of the Soul, summarize, “[A]t the heart of a theistic worldview is the existence of a being that purposefully creates at least some beings (e.g., human persons) who also act for purposes.”[5]


“There being an immaterial God who acts in the physical, the foundation is in place for a species, especially one made in that God’s image (but not limited to that), to assert their wills in the world.”


The other editor of The Soul Hypothesis approaches matters differently from his colleague’s theism-to-soul logic. For him, “the more certain truth is [soul-body] dualism”:

“It seems obvious to him that he cannot be simply a physical object, subject to all and only the laws of physics, given his first-person experience, his ability to reason, and his ability to make free choices guided by his purposes. It is also evident that, as a soul, he is able to cause events in his body, such as voluntary movements; agency is clearly possible. This then raises the possibility that there is some other, greater soul, who can in a free and purposeful manner cause events not only in one particular animal body, but anywhere in the material universe. Such a being would be God.”[6]

In short, “For him, dualism plus a consideration of relevant facts leads to theism.”[7]

In other words, if you believe in God, it’s beyond easy to believe in a soul. But even if you don’t believe in God, do you experience first-person consciousness, the ability to reason, the ability to make free choices, the ability to make your body move based on your intention? Then you’re on your way to believing in a soul as well. And if you find yourself there, it’s beyond easy to believe there’s a God, too.


“Do you experience first-person consciousness, the ability to reason, the ability to make free choices, the ability to make your body move based on your intention? Then you’re on your way to believing in a soul as well.”


And although the march of science is impressive, sometimes its onward march makes its biggest worshipers nervous. As long as science hasn’t exhausted its study of a particular thing, we can still try to maintain a science-of-the-gaps optimism. (As in, “Science will someday disprove the soul. I just know it.”) But sometimes science does its thing for long enough that its limits show up. That’s what’s happening with the soul: the more we know scientifically, the more it seems that there are realities, such as first-person consciousness, which scientific methodology simply isn’t going to be able to explain. It isn’t meant to, any more than a scientist probing my brain could explain why my wife and I gave our children the names we gave them.

Okay, Back to Animals

So, do animals have souls? A lot of it depends on what we mean by “soul.” If we mean something narrow like “the nonphysical human ‘person’ that lives on after death,” that doesn’t fit animals. Yet, if we mean something broad, such as “what animates and give life to the body,” then it seems like something animals do have.

The use of these words in the Bible (e.g., nephesh in Hebrew, psyche in Greek) is hard to nail down, as the same word could mean something fairly generic (such as “life” or “breath”) or narrow (as in, a particular person). We can package some of these uses to form helpful categories, such as that the soul is the nonphysical part of us while the spirit is the part of the soul that communes with God. But again, categorizations like these don’t always tidily correspond with their Greek or Hebrew term.

In guiding us toward a definition of animal souls, J. P. Moreland makes a helpful proposition. He writes,

“Based on our direct awareness of our own inner lives, we should attribute to animals by analogy those states that are necessary to account for the animal’s behavior, nothing more and nothing less. For example, if a dog steps on a thorn and then howls and holds up its paw, we are justified in attributing to the dog the same sort of state that happens in us just after we experience such a stick. The dog feels pain. Now the dog may also be having thoughts about his unfortunate luck in stepping on the thorn, but there is no adequate evidence for this if we stick to what we observe about the dog’s behavior.”[8]


Do animals have souls? “We should attribute to animals by analogy those states that are necessary to account for the animal’s behavior, nothing more and nothing less.”—J. P. Moreland


As Moreland explains, in this way we can deduce that many animals experience things like consciousness, sensations, emotions, and desires—sometimes even thoughts and beliefs. As we factor in these features, we gather that animals can’t be dismissed merely as machines, but that they, or at least the higher-functioning animals, have a nonphysical dimension to them.

What features of a human soul does an animal not experience? While an animal can be conditioned to make choices we would see as helpful and conscientious (“Good dog!”), they don’t seem to have a sense of what’s morally right if it goes against their instincts/conditioning. They also don’t seem to have free will in the human sense (we humans can make a choice that isn’t already predetermined by our desires and beliefs).

It’s true that the human soul and body interact in ways that make them dependent on each other. But it’s also the case that the human soul has the kinds of traits—rationality and intentionality, for example—that plausibly make it less dependent on the body. The less dependent the soul is on the body, the more we can imagine God causing it to live after death. Paul describes getting “caught up to the third heaven” in what was likely an out-of-the-body experience (2 Corinthians 12:2). Scripture describes an intermediate state after death in which our souls await the final resurrection (Philippians 1:21-22; 2 Corinthians 5:6). Given what we’ve observed about the nonphysical dimension of an animal, it’s harder to imagine an animal soul living independently as something which doesn’t exhibit free will agency.


Do animals have souls? “Given what we’ve observed about the nonphysical dimension of an animal, it’s harder to imagine an animal soul living independently as something which doesn’t exhibit free will agency.”


We could intentionally define “soul” in such a way that it could only apply to humans. We could add up everything nonphysical about humans and call it—and no lesser combination—a “soul.” But, if we use “soul” in a generic sense to mean what gives life to and animates an organism or even if we use the word more narrowly as the nonphysical dimension of a living thing, it seems right to suggest that animals do in fact have souls. But what would we mean by an “animal soul”? Along with Moreland, it seems best to conclude,

“Animals are precious creatures of God and ought to be respected as such. But the animal soul is not as richly structured as the human soul, it does not bear the image of God, and it is far more dependent on the animal’s body and its sense organs than is the human soul.”[9]

Does It Cheapen Humans If Animals Also Have Souls?

What is it about the idea of animal souls that feels threatening? As we’ve looked at, it’s not a matter of going kooky on theology and going Oprah on animals: “You get heaven! And you get heaven! And you get heaven!” We’re not saying animals have libertarian free will or that Jesus died for their sins—or even that, by having a soul, they’re made in God’s image, too.

That last statement is actually a pretty important point. We can get sloppy and think that the immaterial soul is God’s stamp that we are made in his divine image. We can assume that being made in God’s image of God equals soulishness—and all the things that go along with having a human soul (consciousness, desire, will, etc.). But that’s a significant misstep. Equating the imago dei with soulishness would not only elevate animals much higher than Scripture teaches, but it would also devalue many, many humans in the process. How so?

Take the abortion debate, for example. In the 21st century, it’s become impossible to deny that the fetus (preborn baby) is a human life. It’s basic biology. Even the non-scientist can catch up with the science now that we have ultrasound technology. Abortion clearly kills a human life. Thus, it has become necessary for pro-choice/abortion advocates to bring in some other criteria as the line which counts. Perhaps someone will say, “Sure, it might be a human life. But it’s not really a person until it’s conscious of its own existence.” Or, “It gains personhood when it has the desire to keep existing.”


“In the 21st century, it’s become impossible to deny that the fetus (preborn baby) is a human life.”


For example, philosopher Michael Tooley, in an article called “Abortion and Infanticide,” explains that human happiness would increase significantly if we could get over our stigma toward abortion and infanticide. According to Tooley, a human life becomes a person at the point that it can form the concept of a self that endures and that it sees itself as one such enduring self.[10]

Pro-choicers are saying, in essence, what matters isn’t the fetus’s humanity, but its soulishness. This is what Nancy Pearcey in Love Thy Body describes as “personhood theory”: you can be a human in fact, but what really counts is being a “person”—which is a matter of value, not fact.[11] But of course “values” are about as arbitrary it gets, which is why abortion advocates often disagree as to where to draw the life-and-death line between human fetus and human person. So, it’s easiest to punt to the mother and leave it up to her sense of value to determine when her baby becomes a person.

“Personhood” becomes vaguely tied to facets of soulishness—e.g., consciousness, desire for continued existence, beliefs. And we all—whether human or animal—have varying degrees of soulishness depending on our species and stage of life. This is why we find secular ethicists promoting infanticide as an option for human babies while denouncing the fast-food industry as the Holocaust of our time.


“We find secular ethicists promoting infanticide as an option for human babies while denouncing the fast-food industry as the Holocaust of our time.”


We who care about human dignity at all ages and stages need to shift the emphasis from our “soulishness” to our humanity. After all, when these facets of the soul (e.g., consciousness, desire for continued existence) become the relevant “line” that pro-choicers draw, they end up creating arbitrary standards which allow us to kill humans which fall under the line. What makes us worthy of protection isn’t that we humans have a soul (again, there’s a strong case for animals having souls, too). Nor is it that we have special facets of soulishness which set us apart from animals (because humans have these in varying degrees).

Our soul isn’t our crucial, core distinguishing characteristic. We humans aren’t imprisoned souls; rather, we are embodied souls (created with a body, and after death, we will be re-embodied at the resurrection). This is why the human body deserves protection from destruction at all ages/stages. The imago dei isn’t just a soul thing; it is something that manifests in our embodiment, too; he didn’t create preexisting souls in his image; rather, “God created mankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).


“Our soul isn’t our crucial, core distinguishing characteristic. We humans aren’t imprisoned souls; rather, we are embodied souls.”


In short, what cheapens humans is not that the word “soul” can apply to animals in a less robust way. What does cheapen us is when we sloppily equate our specialness as a species to facets of soulishness or “personhood” which not all humans experience at all times. When it comes to God’s image, it’s not something he awards to humans who meet the criteria. He has stamped it on humans, period: male and female, geriatric and preborn, influential and invisible alike.


[1] Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” The Philosophical Review, Vol. 83, No. 4 (1974), 435. https://www.sas.upenn.edu/~cavitch/pdf-library/Nagel_Bat.pdf.

[2] Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume 3: Sin and Salvation (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2004), 46.

[3] J. P. Moreland, The Soul: How We Know It’s Real and Why It Matters (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014), 158-159.

[4] Mark C. Baker and Stewart Goetz, editors, The Soul Hypothesis: Investigations into the Existence of the Soul (New York: Continuum Books, 2011), 251.

[5] Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro, A Brief History of the Soul (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 204.

[6] Mark C. Baker and Stewart Goetz, editors, The Soul Hypothesis: Investigations into the Existence of the Soul, 252.

[7] Mark C. Baker and Stewart Goetz, editors, The Soul Hypothesis: Investigations into the Existence of the Soul, 252.

[8] Moreland, 142.

[9] Moreland, 145.

[10] See Michael Tooley “Abortion and Infanticide,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Autumn, 1972), 37-65.

[11] Nancy Pearcey, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions About Life and Sexuality (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2018), 19.

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