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What If Stones Have Souls?

By Charles Foster

Over the 40,000 years or so of the history of behaviourally modern humans, the overwhelming majority of generations have been, so far as we can see, animist. They have, that is, believed that all or most things, human and otherwise, have some sort of soul.

We can argue about the meaning of ‘soul’, and about the relationship of ‘soul’ to consciousness, but most would agree that whatever ‘soul’ and ‘consciousness’ mean, and however they are related, there is some intimate and necessary connection between them – even if they are not identical.

Consciousness is plainly not a characteristic unique to humans. Indeed the better we get at looking for consciousness, the more we find it. The universe seems to be a garden in which consciousness springs up very readily.

Since no one has been able to suggest coherently how consciousness could have emerged from unconscious matter, many philosophers, including Alfred North Whitehead, Timothy Sprigge, David Griffin, Thomas Nagel, David Chalmers and Galen Strawson have argued for the old and parsimonious conclusion that matter is not unconscious at all. There are various philosophical iterations of this argument: the nuances do not matter for these purposes. The argument is essentially an argument for animism. It accords nicely with our immovable convictions about our pet dogs and our more amorphous intuitions about our gardens.

We can’t prove that dogs or tomato plants have souls – nor, for that matter, that humans do. Should these speculations have any ethical consequences?

Perhaps the precautionary principle is the start. Perhaps, indeed, it is the end. Whether or not we are comfortable with the language of ‘soul’, we ascribe moral significance to humans, and moral weight to decisions in relation to humans, on the ground that humans possess something tantamount to a soul. If there is some reason to suggest that non-humans may have a similar possession – or no compelling reason to suggest that they do not – does the principle not mean that we should ascribe moral significance to non-human entities?

Nothing in this implies that we should assume the moral equivalence of humans and non-humans. Where the critical interests of humans and non-humans are in conflict, the principle, as it generally tends to be wielded in many practical situations (such as the judicial review of environmental law decisions) would not outlaw a decision in favour of humans. But the principle does demand a far more earnest weighing of non-human interests than is generally the case.

Of course we do sometimes weigh non-human interests. We acknowledge, for instance, that it is in an animal’s interests not to suffer. But this is relatively unusual. We tend to preserve non-human entities because we consider that it is in the interests of humans to preserve them. If an ancient woodland is spared from predatory developers, it is generally because humans might like to wander through it, or because trees are important for the sequestration of carbon (which is important to humans), rather than because the interests of the trees, the badgers and the butterflies would be violated by the wood’s destruction. Even when we do weigh non-human interests directly – as when we try to avoid animal suffering – that exercise does not entail the acknowledgement of any kind of animal soul. It is true that we think it more morally serious to cause an obviously conscious animal (such as a higher primate or a cetacean) to suffer, but that is usually because we think that, being conscious, its suffering is likely to be greater (or at least more like our suffering, so engaging our empathy).

Whatever one thinks about the animist premise, our intuitions insist that to analyse the grubbing up of a woodland purely in terms of human interests fails to capture sufficiently the moral significance of the destruction. The insistence of those intuitions is interesting. Perhaps we’re hearing an appeal, soul to soul, from the trees?

This will be too much for most. I’ll leave it at this: the ancient and ubiquitous animist way of looking at the world has growing modern philosophical endorsement and an intuitive attraction that should be taken seriously. If the premise might be right, in swings the precautionary principle, which mandates a far less blithe, anthropocentric approach to decision-making in a whole host of domains. Lawyers in some jurisdictions have sought to insist that non-humans – including rivers – are persons. With some notable exceptions, they have tended to fail because of judicial concerns about the dilution of human exceptionalism. Perhaps it is a mistake, at this point in our understanding of consciousness, to assert that non-humans have souls or should be, for all legal and ethical purposes, regarded as persons. The possibility that they might have souls/be persons should be enough for now.



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8 Comment on this post

  1. I am incredibly out of touch with a lot of modern philosophy, and a lot of philosophy period, so if my thoughts are completely without merit, please don’t spend time responding to them. It seems to me that your position regarding the existence of a soul and its relation to consciousness assumes a dualistic approach to the understanding of consciousness. Why must the existence of consciousness, whether it be the heightened consciousness of a primate or a “lesser”-type of consciousness, say that experienced by a dog, have any relation to the concept of a soul. There is the very real possibility that my understanding of “soul” is not encompassed in the definition of “soul” as it is used in your piece. Soul as I understand it, has some quality (ie: ability to endure without a physical body) that seems to be over and above what is referred to when referring to consciousness. By concluding in the second paragraph that the whatever the soul and whatever consciousness are, they must connected even if they aren’t the same thing, I think your piece smuggles in dualism.

    Why must consciousness necessarily require, or impart, the existence of a soul?

    Further, why require the presence of a soul, or consciousness for that matter, when evaluating whether humans can evaluate whether or not they ought to be destructive with regard to consciousless or less-conscious beings? That is, the fact that “analys[ing] the grubbing up of a woodland purely in terms of human interests fails to capture sufficiently the moral significance of the destruction[.]” does not necessarily imply that the woodland has consciousness or a soul.

    I think maybe one of the underlying problems I have with your argument is the use of “morality” as opposed to “ethic.” Why does a prescription that “being,” conscious or not, destruction and the cause of pain in sentient beings by humans are things that ought to be avoided?

    Again, I am probably really out of touch with current philosophical thought and this comment is being made with all due respect. I found your thoughts incredibly interesting and thought provoking so thank you for your work. I haven’t engaged in this sort of thing ever really but certainly not since graduating college; so thank you, thank you, thank you for awakening it.

  2. If a rock has consciousness (I am sticking with consciousness rather than soul) how does that translate when it is split? If we look at a road which consists of many stones split and mingled the consciousness is new? The road has a consciousness? Is that road “conscious” as a result of the individual stones. Has the stone lost it’s initial consciousness and is now something else?

    Humans die when we are split (normally) but rocks don’t have what we recognise as life. we can chip away at a rock and it continues to be a rock. You can’t chip away at what we term as “alive”. At least not in the more complex forms. Are you suggesting that everything has consciousness and when those things are joined to some level they develop self awareness?

  3. Noah and Ian. Very many thanks for your comments. The best way to answer Noah is to deal first with Ian’s point.
    Ian: your final sentence anticipates my suspicion. Perhaps (let’s say) an electron has some rudimentary consciousness or protoconsciousness. When it is joined to other particles they, together, have both ‘more’ consciousness and perhaps, as the number of participants increases, an increasingly different type of consciousness. Split the rock, and the two parts are still ‘conscious’, but perhaps less conscious and/or conscious in a different way from the original parent rock.
    So: perhaps I’m clumsily eliding ‘soul’ and ‘consciousness’. I certainly have no real idea what either of them is – and so can’t have a clear idea of the relationship between them. But I am suggesting that the destruction of a conglomeration of matter (such as a brain) might result only in the relocation or reconfiguration of the consciousness that was associated with the former conglomeration. In talking about these things it’s easy to think of the consciousness or soul somehow residing in the conglomeration. And that smells of dualism. But it’s not really.

  4. If we allocate a soul and conscience to non-humans like tomatoes or even stones, does that also imply non-humans to have a certain will and responsibility? In other words, where does this reasoning end?
    Jaap de Kleijn, The Hague, Netherlands

  5. Many thanks, Jaap. It would certainly imply the possibility of will and responsibility. Exactly what that connoted would depend on how much will/responsibility, and that of course would be difficult or impossible to determine. My argument was simply that if there are reasons to suppose that non-human entities have something tantamount to a soul – or no good reasons to suppose that they do not – we should approach them with reverence. We see precisely that reverence in most hunter-gatherer communities. It would be good for non-humans, and good for us. We can argue about the extent and the ethical colour of the reverence.

  6. Key in life is showing reverence to humans and non-humans. Thx Charles for underlining the importance of such an attitude.

  7. One of the interesting points that Donald Hoffman makes in “The case against reality” is that our perceptions are based on evolutionary principles and there is no benefit for perceiving reality as it is – the benefit is being able to deal with reality in a way that is of most benefit to us. He argues that the reality of a stone may be extremely different from our perception of a stone. If the stone is of no benefit or threat to us then perhaps we perceive it as being this dull thing which we give little thought to. But the “actual” reality could be very different.

    Going down that path you could maybe start to see how everything could be conscious but that reality is hidden from our eyes by our (as Hoffman terms it) interface to the world.

  8. This article and its discussion could appear to conflate existence with life, but seem to more generally identify the position within a paradoxical scale of the informants viewpoints, which, one assumes, are informed by differing knowledge levels and reasoning.
    i.e. Science – hard material generally has a number of states often determined by temperature (itself arising from other causes). So stones may have various states between fluid and hard states. Certainly considering a stone as part of the globe (Earth), the very long lifecycle of many stones and their contribution to the whole is apparent.
    Metaphorical – Various meanings may be applied in the human world, some of which relate to certain groups of people, spheres of interests or physical condition; whose mindsets at any given time may also vary between fluid and hard states.

    Where a particular decision is applied conceptually via the words of a language to one interpretation, part of that interpretation may become associated, via the word, with other concepts (also considering living languages). Do you believe that those contextual confusions could be one of the root causes of religion and education? And do you consider it feasible that many early concepts of consciousness come out of considerations of those conflations resulting from unconscious and incorrect mental associations/applications of the words?

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