Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Do Elephants Have Souls? (2013) (thenewatlantis.com)
192 points by seinundzeit on May 5, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 91 comments

Elephants are faszinating creatures with a complex social behavior. My connection with elephants comes from the Zoo of Cologne, which opened a new facility for elephants in 2005. Built from scratch to allow keeping up to 20 elephants in a herd, giving them as much freedom as possible. So it is quite large and set up to keep the elephants with minimal interaction with the keepers (protected contact). Starting with 5 elephants, the herd has grown to 14 today, to a large part by births. Whoever visits Cologne and is interested in elphants, shouldn't miss to visit them.

The elephant facility is equipped with a wide range of cameras, there is a "control room" for running the camp. In the first years, there was a web stream (anyone remembers real player?) running 24/7 allowing everyone to watch the elephants close up. Especially after in the hours after the zoo is closed for the public, a lot of highly interesting behavior could be observed. The stream for example settled the question: do elephants lie down to sleep? Yes, at about 1am in the morning the would lay down for a few hours, often in a larger group together.

The observations via the web cams gave me a deep impression of the social interaction of elphants. They have a lot of individual personality and the groups have a tight social structure and interaction.

Man, I miss Köln. It was a very interesting winter in 2002, where archaeologists were unearthing an entire underground city (you could see it through a pyramid-like window).

If you ever visit, down some of their Kölsch and get a Kölsch key (their beer-rival is the nearby region of Alt - at the company I was consulting for, many of the folks had replaced their Alt keys with Kölsch ones)

"Descartes reasoned that since animals are not rational, they are not conscious, and since they are not conscious, they cannot even be aware of pain; their piteous howls during the horrible experiments he conducted on them were to him mere reflex, the unfelt expression of material reactions akin to the shrieking of a teakettle."

The Cartesian world view on biology has been catastrophic to our fellow mammals and even today aspects of this perspective survives. Physiologically, humans are not very different from other mammals, even if we want to be. We all have a limbic system and that means we all have the same emotions. Animals have feelings and emotions. When things happen to them, they react with emotions be it sorrow, anger, happiness, fear.

The cartesian view on biology was a necessity to avoid public burning, and essential to make positive science possible.

Before Descartes, it wasn't at all clear and obvious that mere things had no intention, no wants, no "soul". In fact, Aristotelian physics considered that a stone drops because of its "grave" nature, that it somehow wishes to go down (The last gasp of this magical thinking lasted well into the 19th century, until Pasteur finally demonstrated that there is no spontaneous generation).

By excluding everything non-human from any "soul", Descartes made science as we know it possible. It was a paradigm shift of immense conceptual importance.

All: This article is not about souls. It's about elephants, humans, how we relate to elephants, how they relate to us, how humans relate to non-humans. It is erudite and beautiful. It uses the astonishing literature about elephants to ask about ourselves, them, and the world. "Soul" here is a trope for aspects of humanness that we may or may not have in common.

Usually we just edit titles that are triggering people. If I were to do that here, I might rename it "Elephants and Anthropomorphism". But when an article is this rich, moving, even profound, taking away its title would maim it. It bears a much better discussion than the thread has given it so far, so please let's talk about what's interesting.

Completely agree. A very long read, but superbly worth it. Wide-ranging, well-written, informative, thoughtful, and fluff-free. The "soul" in the headline is eye-catching but somewhat distractive from the rich contents of the article.

Btw. - and off-topically - almost shockingly for a magazine style publication these days: The New Atlantis pages stand on their own - they work ouf of the box, without any of the usual reliance on scripts and external crutches. I am hereby a fan.

please let's talk about what's interesting and stay off the metaphysics.

Most would agree there's a point at which moderation goes too far. I can't tell if you're making an appeal as a person, or making a decree as a moderator.

I read the article, and it's absolutely full of metaphysics. From the questions surrounding determinism and free will, to the questions of the moral responsibility of those in dominant positions, to the nature of love and pain and grief.

These metaphysical topics interest me, and apparently they interested the writer, even if they don't interest you.

That's fair, and if you want to respond to the actual article on that basis, as opposed to just reflexing on the title, there's certainly nothing wrong with that. I've taken out the bit about metaphysics from my comment above, since it isn't necessary. The point is simply that the article deserves a better discussion.

I'm making an appeal as a moderator person. When the delta between an an article's quality and the HN discussion's quality gets that severe, it's proven helpful.

At first I rolled my eyes at your point, but then I thought about it more.

And I realized that the fact is probably for most of HN the question of "Do souls exist?" is just more interesting to them than "Emotional bonds with 1 out of the X million species." And I realized there was a time in my life when those philosophical topics didn't seem exhausted.

That big gap between in ways of looking at the world ("Wow what a beautiful emotional article about connection" vs "Human connection is just some evolutionary detail, let's look at Objective Big Picture (TM)") is something worth minding; it can help us understand each other.

I agree. This article is a philosophical text delving into the mind, soul, consciousness, determinism, ethics, etc and the difference and similarities between humans and animals. It references Nagel ( "What is it like to be a bat?" ), Descartes ( Mind, Body dichotomy ), etc. The article pretty much addresses what first year philosophy majors discuss.

There are references to literature ( Pope ) and scientists ( Darwin ) and elephant researchers, but the central themes of this article is a philosophical one. The ethical and metaphysical questions that cannot be answered by science or emotions.

Don't let religion hijack the word. The word soul in non-religious meaning (which more than often is referring to an "immortal soul", or a soul independent of a body), is referring to your "you-ness", the fact that you are greater than the sum of your parts. It's referring to the program running on the hardware, rather than the hardware.

Cogito, ergo sum

I've spent a lot of time with a lot of elephants in the wild over the last 3 years driving around Africa.

I strongly believe that anyone who believes a human has a soul would believe an elephant has a soul if they observed them for as long as I have. They are incredible, extraordinarily intelligent and as the article says, capable of very sophisticated social structures like empathy, justice and vengeance.

I think you underestimate the human ability to ignore that which challenges our world views. I've known people who loved their dogs but still felt that their dogs didn't experience the world, only acting as if they did. Not just that the dogs lacked self-awareness or something, but that the dogs did not experience anything, because they don't have magical metaphysical souls like we obviously do. I've known these people, and discussed this topic with them at length. If somebody can have a loving relationship with a social animal and still feel this way, I have a hard time believing that spending three years with a significantly more intelligent non-human animal would necessarily change their mind.

Well the obvious response is that those individuals are also soulless.

It could be argued that dogs have evolved to elicit more empathy from humans than would be objectively proportional to their cognitive capabilities.

I agree with this view of the effects of domestication, but that's a nuanced view of much dogs experience like we do; going from this to "dogs don't experience anything at all" (which I don't think you're doing, but correct me if I'm wrong) is more than a bit absurd, it actually undermines the whole sliding scale of experience that the original notion is based on.

Perhaps less about worldview and more about how some people just love their pets for the unqualified affection and nothing more. That is, not actually loving the pets, just loving _having_ a pet.

For these people, it’s just a shallow and transactional relationship masked with pretty words.

I really think it's the worldview, with the caveat that this particular worldview, "x doesn't feel," allows people to exploit x without remorse. If everybody suddenly believed that x experiences love and pain, factory farming would make a lot of them feel really bad. I say this as somebody who thinks x does feel, still hunts x, and still eats x even when it's factory farmed. If I felt like my individual actions affected the market place enough to prevent a single individual from species x from being factory farmed, I wouldn't buy x from the grocery store, but I would still hunt it in the wild. Having spent half a decade as a vegan before ever hunting x, I'm pretty certain of my convictions there. I've grappled with this conundrum, and come to terms with it. I know an avid hunter who also grapples with this conundrum, and hasn't come to terms with it; he doesn't eat factory farmed meat on principle, loves hunting animals, and gets simultaneously really happy and really sad when he successfully kills one. "I acquired this duck," he says with a smile, "but it had to die," he says with a frown.

Edit: I'll add this quote from Upton Sinclair: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"

They certainly seem to have concepts of empathy and justice, and retain memory of people as distinct individuals and acts of good or bad intent by same in past times.

What they don't seem to have is a grasp of the nuances of language in the way we do. They undoubtedly communicate but it's hard to see a sense of analogy and synthesis of new ideas in anything elephants communicate to us.

Of course on the same measures we fail to communicate these metanconstructs back to them and since overwhelmingly our treatment of elephants lacks evidence of empathy and concern and shows no sense of justice perhaps the real question is:

Do we?

There are lots of ideas floating around today regarding what is a soul and what makes humans different from other animals. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century had a very clear conception of this, rooted in Aristotle, that I believe is still relevant today.

First of all, he said all living things have souls because a soul is the principle of life. By definition, it is the thing that is the difference between something that is alive and something that is not. Although we know a lot about the mechanisms of life today and how that breaks down as something dies, I think it's safe to say we still don't know exactly what makes a thing alive, and we certainly don't know how to create or restore life. If nothing else, soul is a useful label for that principle.

According to Aristotle and Aquinas, what makes humans different from other animals is not the existence of a soul, and neither is it consciousness or emotions. What makes us different is that we have a rational soul, which means we are capable of recognizing universals and dealing with abstractions, which is connected with our use of language that can express and communicate these concepts.

I recommend biologist and theologian Rev. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P. [1] for an explanation of how this developed and how the biblical idea of Adam fits in with modern evolution. I also recommend philosopher Dr. Michael Augros [2] for a very rich explanation of how we can understand that we have a rational soul, and what are its characteristics. Both of these men draw heavily on Aquinas, but they bring his ideas into modern biology and philosophical discussion.

1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3MsJ67qtHYY 2: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0746R3TXN/

This article makes a few statements that are currently being demolished;

>"Also a matter of conventional wisdom is the idea that human beings are on one side of a great divide while all animals are on the other"

>"To modern science it is, if anything, the hard problem of consciousness, also commonly thought to be the province of just one species."

My usual response to these kind of assertions is to direct people towards, 'The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness' - http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConscious...

Here's the summary;

>"“The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and manyother creatures,including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

Also, I'd add something to the section on anthropomorphism. One that is touched on by the first paragraph in that section;

>"Though thanks to Darwin (if not Aristotle) it should come as no surprise that animals seem to experience in some way many of the same things we do, physically and emotionally, in science the supposed imposition of “human” characteristics on non-human animals is a powerful taboo."

I have long thought that from an evolutionary perspective it would be incredibly surprising if the characteristics of humans appeared in some catastophic development, such as in Julian Jaynes' book, 'The Origin of Consiousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind'. Anthropomorphisis of animals is often dismissed as being an arrogant practice that serves the person and not the animal. I would argue that a flat denial of 'human' attributes to other animals is far more so.

Cartesian metaphysics has been problematic and disastrous in many ways, but many modern philosophers hold fast to some variation of Cartesianism. For instance, materialists are still Cartesians in the sense that they still hold to a Cartesian view of matter, having dispensed with the Cartesian view of mind. This has left them either seeking in vain for a way to account for things like so-called qualia within matter while preserving an essentially Cartesian view of matter, or left denying the reality of things like qualia altogether (eliminativism).

On the other hand, Aristotle (who is only mentioned by the author in passing) and his philosophical heirs like Aquinas do not deny the common sense view that animals are conscious, have emotions, show affection, etc. However, Aristotelians and Thomists (A-T) don't always appear to be comfortable with the word "soul" perhaps because of the connotations it has acquired in the modern era, Cartesian or otherwise (think ectoplasm or ghost in the machine). For A-T philosophers, the "soul" is the form of the organism, that is to say, that which makes the organism what it is (by analogy, the form of a bronze sphere is sphericity). Thus, at the moment of death, the form is no more and what we have is not an organism nor even a body but the remains of the organism (here, A-T philosophers would say that the substantial form had ceased to enform the organism while the accidental form may persist and hence why the remains of the organism continue to hold the shape and structure of the living organism for some time after death).

In any case, according to this view, all living things have "souls" because the soul is just the form of the organism. However, what A-T philosophers do accept is that the known non-human animals lack immaterial faculties like the intellect (i.e., the faculty by which humans beings abstract univerals from particulars). Thus, animals do not possess general or universal concepts like "Man" or "Number" or "Triangularity". But none of this is to deny that non-human animals are conscious, experience emotion, form bonds, and so on.

We want it to be binary. Does or doesn't. It probably isn't. The right question is probably "How much soul do elephants have?"

And by that, we probably just mean (in the most roundabout of ways) how much of ourselves do we see in them.

Depends on the person. Ignoring the metaphysical question, some people mean "how much of ourselves do we see in them?" Other people mean something like "how much of a theoretical limit of intelligent capacity do we see in them?" The distinction here is that if we use ourselves as the definition of 100% soulfull then anything more intelligent than us has less of a soul simply because it deviates from our norm, whereas if we use some theoretical limit of intelligence we allow ourselves to potentially recognise something else as being more soulfull than us. What we mean by intelligence, and whether we care about specific types of intelligence (e.g. social intelligence) more than others, is left as an exercise for the reader.

I'm actually quite certain we would experience a superior intelligence with inscrutable motives as "soulless".

What about a loving, benevolent intelligence that was only three times as intelligent as the smartest human, never lied or cheated, didn't turn us into paperclips, and liked to write poetry more beautiful than anything we'd ever read before? Inscrutable motives are not necessary for this thought experiment if you accept the orthogonality thesis, or if you limit yourself to conceiving of intelligences so close to our own (while still superior) that their motives don't degenerate into whatever you think the motives of sufficiently advanced intelligences degenerate into.

Based on historical precedent [1] they’d find a religion founded around them, and then their followers and some other peer’s followers would use their godliness as an excuse for a pious-measuring contest in the form of war.

Sufficiently intelligent beings may be inscrutable, but our aggregate responses are fairly predicable.

[1] if you’ll permit “really smart” rather than “three times as smart as anyone else” — it’s not like smart is defined in a way that permits the multiplier anyway

Well I'd say that those limitations would bring us back around to recognizing ourselves in them with the small superiority pegging our "soulfulness meters" as it were. (I doubt I'd be able to gauge the difference between say a 3x and a 6x. They'd both seem maximally soulful)

As far as sufficiently advanced intelligences go, I'm not sure I'd even be able to tell if they're alive, much less soulful.

I like Socrates take on this, from Phaedrus;

"The soul through all her being is immortal, for that which is ever in motion is immortal; but that which moves another and is moved by another, in ceasing to move ceases also to live. Only the self-moving, never leaving self, never ceases to move, and is the fountain and beginning of motion to all that moves besides. Now, the beginning is unbegotten, for that which is begotten has a beginning; but the beginning is begotten of nothing, for if it were begotten of something, then the begotten would not come from a beginning. But if unbegotten, it must also be indestructible; for if beginning were destroyed, there could be no beginning out of anything, nor anything out of a beginning; and all things must have a beginning. And therefore the self-moving is the beginning of motion; and this can neither be destroyed nor begotten, else the whole heavens and all creation would collapse and stand still, and never again have motion or birth. But if the self-moving is proved to be immortal, he who affirms that self-motion is the very idea and essence of the soul will not be put to confusion. For the body which is moved from without is soulless; but that which is moved from within has a soul, for such is the nature of the soul. But if this be true, must not the soul be the self-moving, and therefore of necessity unbegotten and immortal?"


I think I particularly like it for being a proto-physics and non-religious attempt at a proof for the immortality of soul.

Assuming we can artificially enhance our own intelligence to 3x, would you agree that you would then be able to distinguish between a 3x and a 6x? If so, would your soulfulness meter then be recalibrated? And so on for 6x, 9x, nx, and (n+1)x? If our soulfulness meter gets recalibrated as we get intelligent enough to recognise the soulfulness of of more intelligent entities, it seems like we're talking about something super subjective and mushy that will probably change with time. That's what my comment-before-last was getting at: some people try to phrase this in a less subjective, less mushy manner that allows it to scale for arbitrary intelligence. It's all just labels, and I don't really have a dog in this fight, but I do think it's an interesting distinction.

Answer: Yes. Elephants have souls. Or, at least, they have the same exact thing humans have, if humans can safely agree that a human can possess something worth referring to as a soul.

But there is no social consensus thereof (whether or not they have the same thing we seem to have), between them or us, because they cannot speak, write or use sign language, to communicate their subjective experience to each other or any other species.

We are the only species to represent a best bet for noticing their sentience, and we would not have contemplated such a thing in a meaningful way that overrules to collective preference among humans, to hunt and poach for things like sport and trophy ivory, at least not until roughly the middle of the 20th century.

Answer: We don't know!

are we trying to justify torture?

i can think of some others doing similar things that were jailed and not applauded. if we do it for science its ok? or only sometimes?

No, I'm trying to state facts about history of philosophy and history of science.

First, you're obviously applying your current world view to 1640, which doesn't make any sense. OK, all people from the past were barbaric, racist, violent, misogynistic, credulous so whatever they did and say should be dismissed without any further reflection, is this your point?

Second, I don't even understand what you're trying to convey. Did Descartes advise to torture puppies for science?

all i picked up from your original comment was... its ok to think animals don't have souls because then we can torture them and call it science? And the first person to make that leap should be applauded?

sorry, i don't subscribe to his nonsense, never will. and i wasnt trying to make any point, i was asking you a question about yours.

have a good day.

Humans were torturing animals and each other long before Descartes. We basically don't need a justification for it, it is a natural tendency, just look at small children (among all animals really, we are just so much better at everything).

If anything we need a justification _against_.

There are a few possibilities.

No souls: you take a definition of "soul" as something supernatural and reject it's existence.

Binary souls: souls exist in some beings in an absolute way either existing or not. A body gains a soul at some point during birth or development and loses it at death. Some creatures have them others do not.

Continuous souls: everything has one, some more than others. A rock has a tiny bit, a tree some more, an intelligent animal more, and a human the most. Soul develops as you gain consciousness in childhood. A philosopher has more soul than a comatose person.

Souls can be an emergent phenomenon out of certain kinds of complexity like consciousness. Souls can also be something outside physics as we understand it now. You can accept or reject either one.

Whatever elephants have, there is quite a lot of it. You wouldn't be so wrong calling it soul.

I will assume below that soul = conscience = first person experience of reality

> No souls: you take a definition of "soul" as something supernatural and reject it's existence.

This position is technically called eliminative materialism, that consciousness or the first person experience of reality is an illusion. I find this to be the most absurd idea in the history of ideas, for the simple fact that I have direct experience of consciousness (my own). Or, to quote Descartes: I think, therefore I am.

> Continuous souls

This is a version of Panpsychism. I do not hold this view, but a lot of people that I respect do (for example, Ben Goertzel, the AGi researcher).

> Souls can be an emergent phenomenon out of certain kinds of complexity like consciousness.

This is known as emergentism. It is more or less the mainstream view nowadays with the scientifically literate. I consider it to be pseudoscience, because it uses the term "emergence" to hide a magic step. It is a complicated and technical discussion, but long story short, things emerge from building blocks. Markets emerge from individual transactions. Swarms emerge from certains behaviors of birds, and so on. What are the building blocks of consciousness in this model? I am not saying that they do not exist, but just saying "well it emerges somehow" is the same as believing in the supernatural, but hiding it in scientific language (aka scientsim).

The list above only contains hypothesis based on physicalism (a not super rigorous definition: the belief that matter is the fundamental stuff of reality). Physicalism seems obvious to the current status quo, but if you become more sophisticated with the mind-body problem you will see that it does not really rest on a sold foundation. For example:


What the list omits are the idealistic or neo-plationist hypothesis: that consciousness is the fundamental stuff of reality and matter is a second-order phenomenon. I am not defending any sort of supernatural or religious idea, I am simply pointing out that people assume too much out of a lack of philosophical sophistication. Idealism is perfectly compatible with all of modern science, and there is no particular reason to assume physicalism. The absolute belief in physicalism is akin to a modern religious dogma and it does violence to science and extends logical reasoning and empiricism beyond its current limits.

> This position is technically called eliminative materialism, that consciousness or the first person experience of reality is an illusion. I find this to be the most absurd idea in the history of ideas, for the simple fact that I have direct experience of consciousness (my own). Or, to quote Descartes: I think, therefore I am.

What is an illusion, but a thing that can be experienced yet is not real?

> Physicalism seems obvious to the current status quo, but if you become more sophisticated with the mind-body problem you will see that it does not really rest on a sold foundation.

The ability to induce altered states of consciousness (such as death) through entirely physical means demonstrates that consciousness is a physical phenomenon.

> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophical_zombie

The logical possibility argument for philosophical zombies is essentially flawed. It posits that the conceivability of a philosophical zombie is sufficient to demonstrate meaningfulness, but plenty of conceivable things are not meaningful. Suppose I conceive instead of a person who knows a counterargument to mind-body dualism. Accepting the philosophical zombie argument requires accepting its refutation.

I guess this goes into definitions of consciousness, which I don't have the background nor inclination to do. But if we define it, as the grandparent does, as "first person experience of reality", then there is something special about this particular illusion. Usually, one would reject the interpretation of an experience, not the experience itself. For instance, this could go as follows: "yes, from your vantage point, the experience was that a rabbit was pulled from an empty hat, BUT what actually occurred was that the rabbit was pulled from a hole in the table below."

With consciousness, "the experience of the trick" and "the trick" are one and the same: if I have a "first person experience of reality" (which I have), then I struggle to see how it can be viewed as a trick. Due to the property of consciousness being a subjective state, it seems that eliminative materialists claim that even the EXPERIENCE of the rabbit being pulled from the empty hat is an illusion, which to me is just nonsensical (but I assume that with suitable definitions you can work around that).

>This is a version of Panpsychism. I do not hold this view, but a lot of people that I respect do (for example, Ben Goertzel, the AGi researcher).

Certainly you can successfully argue that a tree doesn't have a soul, but what is impossible, I think, is drawing a line somewhere that says this thing has a soul and this other thing doesn't.

Humans 4,000 years ago? 40,000? 400,000? How about the closely related hominids Homo Sapiens interbred with and extincted? Find me the child who had a soul whose parents did not. I think finding and binning animals into soul and no-soul is absurd. The only alternative is some sort of continuum.

>I consider it to be pseudoscience, because it uses the term "emergence" to hide a magic step.

I get it, the objection to the hand-waving non-explanation of "emergence". I see it differently as a zoomed out understanding that we just have yet to fill in the details. Many mundane things are emergent. "Temperature" and "pressure" don't fundamentally exist, they are bulk properties which emerge from the physics of quantum electrodynamics (QED) of large numbers of atoms. We can fully derive and explain that emergence. We can't do that with consciousness, but the conjecture is that there is one.

>onsciousness is the fundamental stuff of reality and matter is a second-order phenomenon

I see this as a restatement of 'you take a definition of "soul" as something supernatural' or seeing it from a different angle. Perhaps what is missing is "Yes souls: you take a definition of "soul" as something supernatural and accept its existence. 'Supernatural' meaning nothing more than something which cannot be explained by current physics.

>The absolute belief in physicalism is akin to a modern religious dogma and it does violence to science and extends logical reasoning and empiricism beyond its current limits.

No disagreement. Mythos underlies everything, and "scientific" understanding of the universe rejecting all religions is based just as much in mythos as any of them.

> just saying "well it emerges somehow" is the same as believing in the supernatural, but hiding it in scientific language (aka scientsim).

I'm not sure I agree here. Nothing strikes me as unreasonable to hypothesize that consciousness can be something that "emerges somehow", say from a certain system of computations. Yes, it does hide a magic step, but is that not the crux of it? We don't know enough about consciousness to say otherwise. To so thoroughly dismiss this possibility as supernatural from the one statement seems undeserved.

Emergentism isn't simply saying that we don't know the steps, it's saying that the steps are not fundamentally knowable by studying the base reality underneath; you have to study the higher-order system at it's own level of supervenience. The building blocks don't feel, the thing that emerges from the interactions between the building blocks is what feels, which isn't really a "thing" at all in the sense that the thing we've labelled as an electron might be a thing. That which we have labelled as an electron may or may not be a piece of the most fundamental, real reality (it could be implemented on some arbitrary hardware another level of supervenience down, but we could only theoretically discover that it is, not that it isn't). You and I, we're just labels put on the interactions between loosely defined collections of things, and those collections are just made up social constructs with no basis in base reality. We were useful to the patterns that repeat themselves many levels of supervenience below us, so we got made up.

I oscillate between believing that electrons probably feel, believing that multi-electron systems with any level of information processing (i.e. any implementations of any functions besides the identity function and the constant functions) probably feel, and believing that some more complex, not yet fully understood subset of implemented functions are all that feels. I'm not actually trying to argue for or against emergentism, I'm super undecided about it. I've been leaning more towards it since my last acid trip, but the one before that had me going the other direction.

> Souls can be an emergent phenomenon out of certain kinds of complexity like consciousness.

This is the one I like. If you have a self, then you have a soul.

> If you have a self, then you have a soul.

So, Ruby has a soul and Javascript doesn’t. Makes sense ;)

JavaScript has a thoul, much like Lisp, but for different reasons.

JavaScript was inspired by Self. Does Self have a soul?

My neighbor has a Soul. Cute little car.

A soul is just the unique arrangements of neurons in a brain and body constructed by evolutionary impacts and those learned from the environment.

It's there and it's real.

In that regard, the more different you "think and react" the most unique your soul is. This is largely based on observation. Since we can't observe, typically, differences in behavior among chickens, we think they have no soul.

Own chickens and observe them for a little while and you'll see otherwise if you allow yourself.

I guess the answer is do you believe you have a soul? If you get that far do you think that extends to animals? Some? An elephant or a whale, but not an ant? all?

One part of the anthropomorphism part they touched on (but I'm not sure the last line is universally agreed to)[1], is that humans will do that to more than living things. We once talked about the souls of ships and lately a piece of metal, mechanisms, and circuits was mourned like family member when it lost its battle against the conditions on the next planet over. We pack up and form tribes with other humans, animals, and even inanimate objects that we claim have lives of their own. We invest in things. To the point, I'm pretty sure someone, somewhere added retrieving our lost probe to the must do immediately upon getting their ourselves list. I get the feeling if we have souls, then we invest little parts of them in the things we value.

1) from article: Meanwhile, on our end, we the human race are masters of projection, from the teddy bears (or in my case, stuffed raccoons and walruses) that we befriend as children to the humanoid robots that we may build or purchase as adults, engineered to cue us to respond to them like sentient beings. We like to feel that these inanimate objects have reciprocal affections for us, although we always know at some level that they do not.

The soul is defined to be an "incorporeal" part of you. But what is it?

Is it your memory? No.

Is it consciousness? No.

Is it your cognitive ability or creativity? No.

Is it your what defines your emotions? No.

Drink enough or hit your head hard enough and you'll see that all of those get affected in one way or another. So they're not incorporeal.

So what is the "soul" really? It is an ambiguous and archaic term.

If souls are real then "surviving" becomes much easier. That's why people like the concept.

Do humans have souls?

If that's a sincere inquiry and not witty criticism of the implicit assumption in the title that they do, you might look for the book written by/about the first heart-lung transplant recipient.

I saw an interesting interview with her many years ago. She talked about experiences where she seemingly channeled the personality and preferences of the donor for a time following the surgery.

That's an interesting example of information being stored in parts of our body besides our brain which is a theory gaining more popularity. I wouldn't be surprised if further study confirmed this.

A soul usually implies a religious / supernatural energy that survives our death. It's an inherently non-testable theory.

I think the question if "do humans have souls?" is just an example of how the question "do elephants have souls?" can have no testable answer, just personal opinion based on your belief system.

She also had interesting dreams about the guy who donated her organs and similar. Some belief systems would see that as in line with souls being real.

It's all a simulacra in 4D anyway. I think it's fine to go with whatever mental models float your boat in that regard.

(Mind you, I reserve the right to do the same thing and don't feel compelled to agree with anyone else about such topics.)

Seems to me that mind alteration due to an organ transplant is solid evidence against the existence of the soul.

I didn't chime in to initiate debate on the subject. I was merely suggesting a potential resource for someone potentially interested in exploring the topic for themselves.

I generally do not debate such things.

Thanks, I think it was a relevant anecdote.

I don’t think “souls” are stored in a hunk of meat. Sounds like religious people searching for evidence.

You are entitled to your opinion. And religious people are equally entitled to look for evidence that supports their world view, if they so desire.

I feel like having evidence of faith undermines the idea of faith.

And some folks feel like having evidence that corroborates their beliefs is good for their sanity. Or they simply enjoy learning about such things.

Different strokes for different folks.

But it’s not evidence... so what does that say about their sanity.

Please don't do religious flamewar on HN. It's tedious, and leads to worse.


Two things need to be answered in order to answer this question, in my opinion. 1.) Define a soul, and 2.) how much of a human can you remove, or how far can you zoom in before what you're looking at doesn't have a soul?

I would argue that cells don't have souls, and by extension, humans don't have souls. But if you disagree, do atoms have souls? If no, and humans are made of cells which are made of molecules which are comprised of atoms, where does the soul come in? At any rate, I accept that's a very scientific perspective - but it's my perspective.

> I would argue that cells don't have souls, and by extension, humans don't have souls.

It must be an emergent property. Cells don't have nationality either, but through some complex interactions people have nationality.

Nationality is just something we made up though. Nations are also something we made up. Only the earth exists, and its geography.

We could give cells nationality if we wanted to.

What's your definition of a soul?

Cells don't have intelligence, but people obviously do, so it's possible for all of something's parts to lack something that the whole has.

I don’t believe in a soul in the classical sense. I believe consciousness (which many people attribute as being part of the soul) is just a complicated loop of observe-interpret-act-reflect, which I suppose is programmed by our experiences during our life.

Intelligence in the sense that you’re describing it is basically the increasing complication of a system that adapts to its environment.

So I would say cells by that definition do have intelligence, but it’s not complex.

I do think an emergent property of complexity is consciousness, but the “soul” as many people think of it is more than just consciousness. The idea of the soul as something detached from the body and non-transient is just wishful thinking.

The article says, "To modern science it is, if anything, the hard problem of consciousness, also commonly thought to be the province of just one species."

That's as good a definition as any, doesn't require religious belief, and it doesn't depend on whether Chalmers is right, Dennett is right, or whether your soul (i.e. phenomenal consciousness) survives your death.

Do any scientists claim only humans are conscious though? I can't think of any.

The elephant is one of my favourite creatures on this earth

We haven't even been able to define the meaning of what a soul is, measure it, find it, or anything. On top of that, we don't speak elephant, and our tools to assess whether they have souls don't exist (since we can't even define them, as per above). So... Who knows?

They sure show a lot of empathy and emotions.

"Soul" is a religious concept, not a scientific one. Religion doesn't care about "the meaning of what a soul is, measure it, find it, or anything".

I'd say it's a mystical concept, not specifically religious (some religions are viewing it the same way). And it's incorrect that the meaning doesn't matter.

In short, most mystical schools view the soul as something that defines the being. It's not a physical thing, but rather spiritual, or in other words - informational.

I believe the person above was saying that those who are most inclined to believe in the concept of a soul would find the importance of a definition of what a soul is to be on the low end of the totem pole.

I'm not a huge fan of things that get that close to all or nothing, but I do know quite a few religious people and they aren't particularly concerned with the definition of it so much as what it represents. Whether it is a fear of questioning something or just finding it of minimal value, I do not know.

> I believe the person above was saying that those who are most inclined to believe in the concept of a soul would find the importance of a definition of what a soul is to be on the low end of the totem pole.

Not in my experience though. But I agree that it depends on religion.

Ya dang right!

Mu. (Unask the question.)

Define "soul".

Define "spirit".

Define "consciousness".

Now show me how to measure them in some capacity.

We cannot make informed decisions without a way to measure these things. Without measurement, is no science. It is belief, not science.

Came to say this. Asking "Do Elephants Have Souls?" is the same as "Do avocados have mana?" or "Does yeti catch cold?"

> let's talk about what's interesting and stay off the metaphysics

Assumption: metaphysics isn't interesting.

Clearly many in the HN community disagree.

I've detached this comment from https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19836524 and marked it off-topic.

Yes, that's a case I'd make quite strongly. Internet metaphysics isn't interesting in the way the HN guidelines use that word. Such comments tend to be generic, predictable, and self-referential. They're rarely motivated by the article at hand—this case being a perfect example, since it was only the word "soul" that triggered the discussion, not anything the article actually says. They're not inspired by curiosity, and don't gratify it. They're mostly about rehearsing philosophical scripts, and the internet comment is too trivial a format to support genuine reasoning about those.


HN is moderated, not democratized.

etxm on May 6, 2019 [flagged]

No. And neither do you.

Edit: How dare I have an opinion on opinions.

what? this is like asking, do elephants go to heaven?

isn't the proper question, phrased scientifically (albiet a nascent science), whether elephants have consciousness?

EDIT: skimming the article i see it's quite literary so i think the choice of words was meant to reflect more humanism than merely saying "concsious" would capture: ie, meaning or purpose, emotion, etc

I don't know if elephants go to heaven, but I do know how you can tell if there's an elephant hiding under your bed:

Your face is pressed up against the ceiling.

Do souls even exist?

Likely, elephants are more intelligent then humans in that they realize there's no reason to think they have souls.

Why is such an unscientific question so high on HN?

Or to rephrase, if we don't know what a soul is, how can we hope to answer it WRT elephants? So how and why should a reasoning person rate an article like this?

Three answers: unscientific things are welcome on HN; the title is not to be taken literally; a good comment reacts to more than just a title.

Plus elephants make really great floppy disks, because they never forget.



The brand was originally devised as an inexpensive, mass-market product. Its imposing pachyderm logo, designed by Rollin Binzer was often paired with bright orange or yellow and black packaging, which was in stark contrast of the more conservative silvers and blues used by competitors like IBM. Shane's advisers feared this would undermine the credibility of the product. However, Elephant eventually became viewed as a premium product, eventually becoming one of the highest-margin floppies on the market and one of the best-selling media brands in history.

Now I get the Postgresql logo, and Hadoop too, even though the latter was named after the creator's boy's toy elephant.

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact