Question by Larry Beahm:
What evidence do we have, both scientifically and spiritually, that animals have souls? Recent papers declare that the soul is found in the physical effects of some micro-something-or-other in the human brain. If animals have souls, where does that stop? Insects? Bacteria?
Answer by Zen Buddhist Dr. David Zuniga Ph.D:
Thank you for this intriguing question. I’m a longtime vegetarian and have had pets all my life, and Buddhism has a special ethical care toward animals, so the issues you raise touch me on a personal level.
Your question brings to mind an interfaith conversation I had on a related topic. I was having a personal conversation with my good friend retired Bishop John Shelby Spong. I asked Jack, as he prefers to be called, if there are animals in heaven. He smiled and replied, “It wouldn’t be heaven without them.” I don’t think Jack believes in heaven as a literal place but considers heaven as more a way of being. Jack’s theology, like many Christian mystical thinkers, is close to Zen philosophy.
My primary disciplines are Zen Buddhism and clinical psychology, so I speak most often being grounded in those perspectives. There is no empirical (i.e. definitive, demonstrable, repeatable, verifiable) evidence that animals have souls in a traditional sense. We’ve learned more about the brain in the last 25 years than we’ve known throughout human history, and yet there is so much we still don’t know and have to learn.
Related questions worth asking are: How do we define the soul? Can the soul even be defined? At what point on the evolutionary cycle would a soul develop? What do we hope to know by asking about evidence for or against a soul?
From the Zen Buddhist perspective there are no individual, discrete, separate souls. Rather there is existence of which we all are a part. In western philosophy the soul is usually conceived of through a dichotomous, separate view of existence. When we view ourselves as separate, as removed, we tend to suffer. When we experience the true interconnection of all beings (including animals) we are on the path of overcoming suffering and cultivating abiding joy. Emptiness and oneness are really the same thing. We, humans, animals, and all life forms, are all notes in the enduring symphony of existence.
Thank you Larry for your great question and please continue to participate the in the Deily community. Also, feel free to visit my website http://www.drdavidzuniga.com/ for more resources on the intersection of Buddhism, psychology, and religion.