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Do Any Dogs Go To Heaven? If So, Why?

Neuroscientist Christof Koch was troubled as a child by the Catholic tradition that dogs like his beloved Purzel did not go to heaven

In recent articles, we’ve discussed well-known neuroscientist Christof Koch’s Integrated Information Theory (IIT) of consciousness which, as he acknowledges, takes a panpsychist (everything is conscious to some degree) approach to the mind. He has explained his reasoning at MIT Press Reader: Materialists must see human consciousness as an illusion — but then whose illusion is it? Panpsychism allows humans to have actual consciousness but, he says, “experience may not even be restricted to biological entities but might extend to non-evolved physical systems previously assumed to be mindless — a pleasing and parsimonious conclusion about the makeup of the universe.” His perspective is gaining popularity in science.

One, perhaps unexpected, factor that he mentions as shaping his overall approach was youthful dissatisfaction with Catholic Church teachings about the immortality of animals:

Abrahamic religions preach human exceptionalism—although animals have sensibilities, drives, and motivations and can act intelligently, they do not have an immortal soul that marks them as special, as able to be resurrected beyond history, in the Eschaton. On my travels and public talks, I still encounter plenty of scientists and others who, explicitly or implicitly, hold to human exclusivity. Cultural mores change slowly, and early childhood religious imprinting is powerful.

I grew up in a devout Roman Catholic family with Purzel, a fearless dachshund. Purzel could be affectionate, curious, playful, aggressive, ashamed, or anxious. Yet my church taught that dogs do not have souls. Only humans do. Even as a child, I felt intuitively that this was wrong; either we all have souls, whatever that means, or none of us do.

Christof Koch, “Consciousness Doesn’t Depend on Language” at Nautilus (September 26, 2019)

A well-known Christian scholar and writer of the mid-twentieth century, C.S. Lewis (1898–1963), took a more complex view of the question. Lewis, in no way a panpsychist, offers a tentative case for some animal immortality — based precisely on the human exceptionalism that Koch finds objectionable.

First, we must ask, why does it matter whether an animal survives its death in some sense? If a horde of caterpillars is annihilated, what would immortality have conferred on any of them?

Let us suppose beautiful butterflies instead, themselves a symbol of immortality. We regret their deaths. But what would immortality mean for a butterfly, which probably does not have a sense of self in the way Purzel surely did? What, exactly, are we trying to preserve?

Lewis addressed that question in Chapter 9 of his 1940 book, The Problem of Pain. As Carol Apple notes at Orthodoxy Today,

Lewis believes that animals receive a sense of self or personality from association with their human masters. We give our pets names and they answer to those names (hopefully), and perhaps recognize themselves by them. “If a good sheepdog seems ‘almost human’ that is because a good shepherd has made it so,” says Lewis. Lewis suggests, acknowledging that he is going out on a theological limb, that animals “attain a real self in their masters in a sense similar to the way human attain real life in Christ.” “And in this sense,” suggests Lewis, “it seems to me that certain animals may have an immortality, not in themselves, but in the immortality of their masters.”

The picture of the good man/dog relationship, admits Lewis, is an ideal one. It does not explain the destinies of wild animals or of badly treated domestic animals. But in his view, this is the natural relationship between man and beast, the relationship that would be normal in an uncorrupted world.

Carol Apple, “Animal Immortality: Do Animals Go to Heaven?” at Orthodoxy Today (March 6, 2014)

Some Christians have objected that no such view is found in the Bible. Lewis, who was generally quite orthodox in his views, did not see that as an insurmountable obstacle:

“The complete silence of Scripture and Christian tradition on animal immortality is a more serious objection,” he says. However, this silence does not mean it is not true. God simply does not reveal any information to us about the purpose or destiny of the animals: “…the curtain has been rent at one point, and one point only, to reveal our immediate practical necessities and not to satisfy our intellectual curiosity.”

Carol Apple, “Animal Immortality: Do Animals Go to Heaven?” at Orthodoxy Today (March 6, 2014)

In any event, on the view suggested by Lewis — call it a thought experiment, if you like — what might make a dog immortal is his identification with humans, who are immortal. One thing is certain: Purzel would not have been “Purzel” at all if he were a wild canine. Humans created “Purzel,” whether they recognize it or not. The question then becomes, does any part of that identification — “Purzel” as created by humans — participate in immortality? We can’t know that. But we can be sure of one thing: To even entertain such a hope, one must begin by believing in some form of human exceptionalism and immortality.

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Do Any Dogs Go To Heaven? If So, Why?