21 November 2007

rational animality

It's that busy time of semester as the end of term is in sight and a final push of papers, grading, teaching, committee work, and so on needs to be completed in a matter of several weeks. My brief Thanksgiving break is already overwhelmed. So I'm not sure how much I'll be blogging.

Nevertheless, here I am, sitting in a Panera with some coffee and a bagel, killing time until a midday Thanksgiving feast at Claire's school. As I wait, I'm going to try to string a few thoughts together, though they're bound to be somewhat rough and meandering. Yet, over the past weeks, I've run across a number of different ideas and quotations concerning our essential animality as human, the sum of which have left me pondering.

On one hand, many modern Americans seem manifestly uncomfortable with our animal nature - we lose ourselves in worlds of electronic information, consign disease and death to clinical remoteness, and distance ourselves from nature, agriculture, the food chain, and animal death, particularly the killing of animals for food. A certain sort of residual Cartesianism perhaps informs practices that decisively set us apart from the rest of the animal world.

On the other hand, earlier generations lived in a closer relationship to the material world and likely more readily identified with their natural kin among the animals. Moreover, pre-modern Christian theology situated humanity firmly within the realm of animality, drawing out commonalities and continuities between us and the wider created order.

Part of what got me thinking about this topic was reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma (which I reviewed below). In the midst of some wonderful chapters describing his experience of hunting and in which he takes on the polemics of animal rights activists, Pollan refers to the writings of University of Pennsylvania psychologist Paul Rozin concerning "disgust" (coincidentally, I had Rozin as a professor for introductory psychology when I was an undergraduate and recall him discussing this at length).

Rozin writes about how human beings are universally disgusted by much of what comes from animals: fluids, secretions, decaying flesh, corpses. Since, as omnivores, we consume meat, meat eating creates "problems" for us, which cultures often handle through various rules, rituals, practices, and taboos that govern how we handle animals, slaughter them, and consume and dispose of their parts. Think how differently we might experience the ritual of "giving thanks" over our food when we grew or gathered or, even more, killed, bled, eviscerated, and butchered that food ourselves?

Rozin argues that part of our disgust reaction exists to motivate practices of sanitation in animal handling that benefits our health as meat eaters. But he also suggests that a large part of our disgust arises from ethical concerns and from how animals "confront us with the reality of our own animal nature." Pollan comments,
So much of the human project is concerned with distinguishing ourselves from beasts that we seem strenuously to avoid things that remind us that we are beasts too - animals that urinate, defecate, copulate, bleed, die, stink, and decompose.
And here he refers to a story about the late 17th century Puritan theologian, Cotton Mather. In his journals, Mather notes an incident in which he was overcome by revulsion when he found himself pissing alongside a dog. Mather comments, "Yet I will be a more noble creature; at the very time when my natural necessities debase me into the condition of a beast, my spirit shall (I say at that very time!) rise and soar."

Mather's sentiment here strikes me as deeply uncomfortable with his created animality - with the fact that he is not simply a spiritual soul that occupies or enjoys a present attachment to an animal body, but that he simply is a particular sort of animal. But does the belief that "natural necessities debase us into the condition of a beast" approach anything like a biblical and Christian anthropology?

It seems that, for Mather, as for many modern men, the bright line of distinction that runs through the created world is the distinction between the human creature and all other material beings. Indeed, for certain sorts of Cartesianism, it is precisely the human awareness of self, of feeling and sentience that other creatures lack and which points to our uniquely and essentially non-material nature.

According to Descartes, in his Discourse on Method, an animal is a complex machine, different from other mechanisms in the degree or level of complexity rather than any difference in fundamental kind. After outlining the mechanics of animal motion, he writes,
This will not seem at all strange to those who know how many kinds of automatons, or moving machines, human skill can construct with the use of very few parts, in comparison with the great multitude of bones, muscles, nerves, arteries, veins, and all the other parts that are in the body of an animal. For they will regard this body as a machine which, having been made by the hand of God, is incomparably better ordered than any machine that humans can devise...
Descartes goes on to argue that, if we had the technology, we could build a machine in the form of an animal and, were our technology good enough, there would be no way to discern that the humanly devised machine was not, in fact, of the same nature as the animal it mimics. That's to say, for followers of Descartes, in the same way you might program a computer to cry "Ouch!" when one types an ampersand without the computer thereby experiencing pain, so also an animal such as a dog is "programmed" to yelp were one to kick it even though it doesn't actually feel anything.

Yet, Descartes argues, we could never build a mechanical human being, even if we could build a human-like automaton. Given the fact of the human soul, no machine could ever convincingly replicate our form of mental life, produced as it is by a simple, non-composite, spatially unextended, spiritual soul.

While Mather may not have been a Cartesian - I expect he would attribute sensation and awareness to animals - he nonetheless seems to have breathed alongside Descartes the same air of early modernity when it comes to philosophical and theological anthropology. As far as Mather is concerned, the "natural necessities" of our bodies appear purely univocal with those of the beasts and it is only by a voluntary, super-added act of the spirit and will that we may rise above our animality.

But such a position, I submit, would have been scarcely recognizable to earlier generations of Christian reflection.

For one thing, having a "soul" for Augustine, Aquinas, and most pre-modern Christian thought was not the unique provenance of human beings. A soul, for all these theologians, was the first principle of life in any living thing, whether a plant, an animal, or a human being.

In Thomistic terms, the soul is the form of a living body, the way in which matter must be organized and actualized in order for there to be life. That is, the soul is a sort of ordered, purposeful motion in the world that persists through change, exchanging matter, sustaining itself, and with the capacity for replication. As a form of organization, the soul is not itself a material thing, or a corporeal object that occupies space by way of bulk, and yet it is real.

Think, by analogy, of the difference between a pile of wood, glue, nails, and then all the sorts of things that pile might become: a table, a book shelf, a dog house, a wardrobe. On its own, the unassembled pile is not a "thing" in its own right, enjoying the sorts of compositional properties that would grant it an internal integrity and distinctive function.

On the one hand, in transforming this wood into a particular sort of artifact, nothing is added to the wood - there is no more physical material (wood, glue, nails) than when the craftsman began. On the other hand, there is a profound difference for now there is a table or shelf where before such a reality was, at the most, latent or potential. Through the labors of the craftsman, the potentialities of wood are revealed, actualized, and organized so now the wood functions in a way that it did not before, possessing a recognizable and distinctive function and purpose - that is, its form, everywhere present in the artifact, but distinguishable from the material out of which it was made. After all, a table could as well be glass or plastic or fiberboard or metal.

The soul, then, is like that - a form of organization that reveals and actualizes the potential for certain sorts of matter to be alive, to be caught up into those complex assemblages of process that we call "life." As such, soul adds nothing materially to the matter it enlivens and yet is utterly indispensable to life, identical with that specific actualization of life that makes a particular living thing the thing it is, a self-sustaining activity in the matter it informs. As Aristotle said, "If the eye were an animal, sight would be its soul."

Or, to use another analogy, think of the organized energy of a wave moving through water - something distinct from the water through which it moves, mathematically describable, giving shape and direction to the water, and discernible to our intellect by means of its material actualization in water. In the case of the soul, its form of organization is everywhere present within the body of matter it enlivens, with a greater and different sort of complexity and integrity.

Thus, on such views, the bright line of distinction within the world is not between humans and other living things but between living and non-living matter - though even there the distinction is relative, as the analogies with artifacts and waves suggest. In analogical ways, all things that are "things" in their own right posses "form," modes of organization, directed towards ends, just as all things have an analogically articulated share in the eternal law given how they function together within the ordered whole of the cosmos as an expression of divine purpose and loving care.

As Thomas Aquinas puts it,
Since all things are subject to divine providence as the rule and measure of eternal law (as stated before), evidently all things participate in some way in eternal law, that is, insofar as from its imprint upon them, they derive their peculiar inclinations to their proper activities and purposes. Now among all other things, rational creatures are subject to divine providence in a most excellent way, insofar as they participate in a share of providence, having providence both over themselves and for others... (ST I-II.91.2)
Or, to think of it in other terms, using contemporary vocabulary, for pre-modern thinkers the whole of the cosmos teems with divinely gifted information that shares in God himself as to his will, purposes, and loving care for the world, ordering the cosmos as a interrelated whole in all its parts and directing it towards participation in the life God himself as its ultimate end.

That divinely gifted information, in accordance with the character of that gift, transmits and replicates itself in various ways - over the passage of time, in traces it leaves behind, into the mind of knowers, and so forth (and note how we speak here of information). In living things that information becomes self-sustaining and self-replicating. In animals, information becomes consciously aware of other modes of information. And in human beings, information becomes aware of itself as information, apprehending that essential giftedness and thus having a sense of the God who gifted it.

Thus there is a continuity present within the ordered whole of the cosmos, so that the more simple potentialities of matter are taken up into each successively more complex form of life without loss. In this way human beings are more properly existing, more fully alive, and more completely animals than any other things. That is to say, our humanity does not make us any less animals, but more so. Our humanity pulls us more deeply and profoundly into the potentialities and deep mystery of the material world and thus more fully into the transcendent depths of material reality as it relates to its Creator who, in the infinite fullness and plenitude of his being, is thereby immanently and intimately present to his world.

Returning to Mather pissing beside a dog, the reality of that event is more complex and mysterious than Mather might allow. While the "natural necessities" of the human body are analogically similar to those of other animals, the difference between Mather and the dog lies less in a choice of his immaterial spirit to soar above his material nature, and more in his capacity as a rational animal to be a material organism in a manner that is more fully meaningful and rich than the dog.

As I think through this, I cannot help but recall a lecture by Denys Turner at Villanova University several weeks ago (which, with grateful thanks to Cynthia Nielsen, one may read in its entirety at her blog Per Caritatem). While I have differences with Turner in his overarching argument, I think his comments on the meaning of "rational animal" are absolutely on target and very helpful.

As he unpacks Aquinas' notion of the human person, he begins by noting that for Aquinas,
...we humans are genetically animals all the way through, not partly animals. Therefore, whatever we humans do, we do as animals do it. When we love, we love as an animal loves. If my cat cannot reciprocate on equal terms the affection that I bestow upon it, this is not because she is an animal and I am not. It is because I am and she is not, a rational animal. If I know and love God, then I know and love God as only an animal can. If my cat cannot know and love God, this again is not because my cat is an animal and I am not. It is because the cat is a different sort of animal than me.
As Turner notes, we are different from other animals in that we are "rational" (and do not read "rational" in Aquinas in a reductionist way, in terms of sheer, disembodied intellect). But we must also say that, "rationality is the form of [our] animality."

In this way we are different from either angels or God himself, since "it is only an animal that can be rational, and the rational animal is rational all the way through - not partly rational, partly angelic." Our mode of knowing is different from that of angels or God, even if there are analogies, so that only we, as human, are properly "rational" since "when it comes to how to know things, animals and only animals do it by the rational means of deliberation." For Aquinas, God's knowledge is not discursive in the way ours is, moving from one thing to another, in a process of reasoning and deliberation. Instead, in his infinite and full actuality, God's knowledge has always already fully proceeded through all things knowable in the single event of the eternal generation of the Son in the Spirit as the Logos of the Father.

Turner continues by noting that "only animals have bodies to speak with," a point Dante (good Thomist that he was) picks up suggesting that this is "what it is to be human," to be "a speaking animal," so that human failures involve failures of language. Or, to put things another way, Turner suggests that "only rational animals have meaningful bodies - bodies which bear and transact meanings; bodies which speak." Turner goes on to meditate upon the materiality of our rationality in gestures, sounds, and signs. He says,
You may have a general problem about how meanings get into matter in any case, but if that is so, your problem about meaning and formal language has no more nor less a difficult solution than how it is that a smile or a kiss or a laugh could be the bearer of ironies. All are bits of matter which say things. Explain the one if you can, but only by such means as explaining both.
And so, to say that a human is a rational animal is to say that a human is "a meaning bearing, a sign-conveying lump of organized sensuous matter." Turner adds,
And we call those human bits of matter "bodies" because they are matter alive with that form of life...which consists in the transaction of meaning. They are alive precisely as communicating and the quality of their lives is in the quality of their communicatings. A rational animal is speaking matter - it is a body in its character as language.
And so, for a human animal, though we are indeed animals, we do not eat, urinate, defecate, copulate, bleed, and so forth as other animals do. Even in what might seem our animality at its most brute, there is ineluctable meaningfulness.

When we bleed, we bleed in horror of the sight of our own blood, knowing it to be the ebbing away of our very life. And so blood comes to have meaning and value as it is poured out upon altars, exchanged in a rite of making brothers, drunk as a vampiric elixir of life, signed upon documents, displayed as a token of virginity or of circumcised manhood, consumed mystically in the eucharist, and so forth.

Similar reflections can unfold the meaningfulness of eating, copulating, and indeed, even urinating - for, as Camille Paglia rightly notes, to "piss upon" something as the human male is not simply the elimination of waste, but to make a statement.

An upshot of these reflections is that Descartes' dualistic argument wrongly discerns the character of our thinking. To observe that "I am, I exist, I am a thinking thing" need not entail a dualism of the sort Descartes urges when we recognize that even "thinking" is itself a form of animality, the process of life at its most alive.

None of these remarks are intended to imply that the ontology of the human soul is nothing more than that of other animals - but it is certainly nothing less. I remain convinced that Christian theologians are correct to suggest that human embodied meaningfulness, tied as it is to self-consciousness and deliberation, reveals the self-informing character of our form of life, which coheres with the biblical witness that death for us is not the utter end. If, in the human animal, our animality enfolds itself within the dialogue of community - so that we are together aware of and enjoy ourselves as meaning-bearing animals - then there is a self-transcendence that opens our conjoined lives to God.

And yet, in the end, we remain animals, also joined to the whole of creation around us. In us, the created order comes to its most expressive pitch and so, it is in our humanity that the fate of the cosmos rests and for which the eternal Logos assumed to himself the rational animality that we are.