God’s creatures? Divine nature and the status of animals in the early modern beast-machine controversy

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  In early modern times it was not uncommon for thinkers to tease out from the nature of God various doctrines of substantial physical and metaphysical import. This approach was particularly fruitful in the so-called beast-machine controversy, which
  God ’ s creatures? Divine nature and the status of animals in the earlymodern beast-machine controversy Lloyd Strickland*  Department of History, Politics, and Philosophy, Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester, UK  (  Received 21 August 2013; final version received 17 October 2013 )In early modern times it was not uncommon for thinkers to tease out from the nature of God various doctrines of substantial physical and metaphysical import. This approachwas particularly fruitful in the so-called beast-machine controversy, which eruptedfollowing Descartes ’  claim that animals are automata, that is, pure machines, without aspiritual, incorporeal soul. Over the course of this controversy, thinkers on both sidesattempted to draw out important truths about the status of animals simply from thenotion or attributes of God. Automatists  –   led by Nicolas Malebranche and AntoineDilly  –   developed six such arguments, appealing to divine justice, providence, econ-omy, glory (twice) and wisdom, while opponents to animal automatism developed twoarguments, appealing to divine wisdom and goodness. In this article I shall examinethe substance of all eight of these arguments, along with their srcins, patronage, andvariations, and the objections they elicited from opponents, with the aim of determin-ing their suitability for use in contemporary debates about animal sentience andconsciousness, and hence their relevance for contemporary philosophers. Keywords:  God; animals; beast-machine; soul; mechanism; Descartes; Malebranche;automata I. Introduction Could important insights about animal sentience and consciousness be gleaned from theJudaeo-Christian notion of God? The very thought is likely to strike modern readers as peculiar, so accustomed are we to thinking that only certain kinds of evidence (typicallyempirical and conceptual) is admissible in debates about whether animals are conscious or are capable of thought. Consequently, even those philosophers with deeply-held theolo-gical beliefs  –   and there are many  –   are unlikely to try to determine fundamental factsabout the nature of animals through an examination of the notion of God. Yet in the earlymodern period, when similar questions about animal sentience and cognition were raisedas part of the so-called beast-machine controversy, this is precisely what a number of  philosophers sought to do; that is, they sought to establish facts about the nature of animals through arguments based on the notion of the Judaeo-Christian God. An account of these arguments would be interesting and worthwhile in its own right, not least becausemost of them have somehow escaped the notice of even the best chroniclers of the beast-machine controversy. 1 But such an account may serve an additional purpose, by present-ing these arguments as potentially relevant contributions to the cognate debates of today.In many cases, of course, philosophical arguments do not age well: arguments seen as *Email: L.Strickland@mmu.ac.uk   International Journal of Philosophy and Theology , 2013Vol. 74, No. 4, 291  –  309, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/21692327.2013.858230 © 2013 International Journal of Philosophy and Theology    D  o  w  n   l  o  a   d  e   d   b  y   [   8   7 .   1   1   2 .   1   1   8 .   2   1   1   ]  a   t   0   1  :   4   5   1   0   M  a  r  c   h   2   0   1   4  relevant and compelling in one period of history are often seen as neither when consideredfrom the standpoint of another age, which may use different philosophical frameworksand different terminology, and may even have different concerns altogether. But while thismay serve as a general rule, arguments drawn from the nature of the Judaeo-Christian Godmay be a clear exception to it, because among Western philosophers the nature of theJudaeo-Christian God has remained broadly stable. That is, the typical early moderncharacterisation of the Judaeo-Christian God, as an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectlygood, eternal, omnipresent spirit, accords with that often professed today. It is thereforereasonable to suppose that early modern arguments based on the notion of God may haveretained their force, and relevance, for contemporary philosophers who belong to theJudaeo-Christian tradition. This raises the question: can these arguments serve as a usefulresource for such philosophers today? Further, if the arguments are good, are those whoendorse the Judaeo-Christian notion of God thereby committed to a particular answer inthe debates about animal minds? To answer these questions we need to examine thearguments in greater detail. This shall be the chief purpose of this article. II. The beast-machine controversy In order to put these arguments into context, a few words about the early modern beast-machine controversy are in order. At the heart of the controversy was the question of whether animals had souls, as had traditionally been believed by philosophers and laymanalike in medieval and renaissance times, or whether they were mere automata, asDescartes proposed in his  Discourse on Method   (1637). 2 In that work Descartes cleavedcreation into two separate realms, one of corporeal substance (body, matter, extendedthing), the other of spiritual substance (mind, soul, thinking thing), and argued that human beings straddled both, being composites of soul and body. 3 Descartes did not extend this privilege to animals on the grounds that their actions could be adequately explained on thesupposition that they followed naturally from the arrangements of animals ’  bodily organsin the same way that a watch ’ s actions followed naturally from the configuration of itscomponent parts. In other words, animals were pure machines, without a spiritual,incorporeal soul. 4  Nor was this a lack of an unimportant metaphysical extra, for asDescartes located all thinking, understanding and reasoning in the incorporeal soul, thevery thing animals lacked, it followed that animals were without any kind of mentalactivity. Subscribers to animal automatism typically endorsed Descartes ’  line on this, andso seriously did they take their commitment to rejecting all mental activity in animals that many automatists, in addition to offering direct proofs of the beast-machine hypothesis,often fought for it indirectly as well, by attempting to show that animals did not think, or reason, or even experience sensations (all of which required a soul). Opponents, likewise,often sought to overturn animal automatism by showing that animals can and do engage insuch mental activities.Unsurprisingly, perhaps, those on both sides of the beast-machine debate routinelyappealed to empirical justifications in support of their respective positions. By  ‘ empirical ’ I mean not just observation and experiment, of which there was surprisingly little performed by those on either side of the debate, but also those arguments and claims based on common sense, or which appealed to intuitions. Many of the skirmishes hereconcerned animal behaviour, and in particular so-called animal sagacit y and cunning, that is, the apparently intelligent behaviour displayed by cert ain animals. 5 Automatists urgedthat such behaviour could be explained mechanistically, 6 while opponents insisted that it could not. By way of support, automatists drew detailed analogies between the actions of 292  L. Strickland     D  o  w  n   l  o  a   d  e   d   b  y   [   8   7 .   1   1   2 .   1   1   8 .   2   1   1   ]  a   t   0   1  :   4   5   1   0   M  a  r  c   h   2   0   1   4  animals and those of human-made automata, such as the water-driven mechanisms of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, 7 while their opponents drew detailed analogies between theactions of animals and those of humans. 8 Other skirmishes centred on physiology.Opponents of automatism pointed to the anatomical similarities between humans andanimals, claiming that similar organs suggested similar   ‘ internal principles ’  as well, i.e.souls, 9 while automat ists stressed the dissimilarities between human and animal organs,especially the brain. 10 Aside from these empirical justifications, those involved in the beast-machine debatealso developed a variety of a priori arguments to defend their respective positions. Themajority of these arguments were theological in nature, and can be divided into argumentsfrom: (a) Christian doctrine; and (b) the nature of God. In truth there was really only theone argument from Christian doctrine, and that concerned  immortality . To grant animals asoul (went the argument) is to grant them immortality also, for all souls, being incorpor-eal, are indestructible, having no parts into which they can be broken up. But to grant animals immortality was theologically disastrous, destroying as it did the uniqueness of man. 11 Such an unwelcome consequence could be avoided (so the thinking went) only byendorsing animal automatism. 12 This argument was put forward by Descartes in 1646 andsubsequently rehearsed by many of his followers. 13 In addition to this argument fromChristian doctrine, there were also numerous ar guments from the nature of God: six infavour of animal automatism, and two against. 14 So potent were these arguments taken to be that most of those who engaged in the beast-machine controversy sponsored at least one of them. In what follows we shall examine the substance of these arguments, alongwith their origins, patronage, and variations, and the objections they elicited fromopponents. We start with the six arguments advanced in favour of the beast-machine,and shall consider them in chronological order of development. III. The argument from divine justice The first and by far the most popular argument for animal automatism drawn from God ’ snature was the argument introduced by Nicolas Poisson in 1670 in the followingsyllogism: Without violating the laws of His justice, God cannot produce a creature subject to pain andcapable of suffering which had not deserved it  Now, animals having a soul, are subject to pain and are capable of suffering without havingdeserved it Therefore, without violating the laws of His justice, God was not able to create an animalwith a soul. 15 I shall term this the argument from divine justice. The major premise of this argument,Poisson claims, is drawn from Augustine ’ s principle that   ‘ neque enim sub justo Deo,miser esse quisquam, nisi mereatur, potest  ’  [under a just God there cannot be anyonewretched unless he deserves it], from which the Saint had drawn the doctrine of srcinalsin (on the basis that, if God is just, then any human suffering must be deserved, and sinceevery human suffers, no human can be innocent of sin, even children). 16 As for the minor  premise, it was often noted that the principal explanation for God ’ s permission of humansuffering, namely punishment for sin, could not be extended to account for animalsuffering since, unlike humans, animals are incapable of sin, and of even knowing God,let alone hating Him or disobeying Him. In short, there was no animal fall (and it would  International Journal of Philosophy and Theology  293    D  o  w  n   l  o  a   d  e   d   b  y   [   8   7 .   1   1   2 .   1   1   8 .   2   1   1   ]  a   t   0   1  :   4   5   1   0   M  a  r  c   h   2   0   1   4  hardly be just for animals to be punished because of man ’ s fall). From the combination of the two premises it followed not that animals with souls were impossible per se, but that it was not possible for God to create them on account of His perfect justice.A central assumption in this argument (and which is only partly explicit in the minor  premise) is that pain and suffering can be experienced only by creatures with souls. Thiswas, as it happens, a view widely shared by automatists and anti-automatists alike. Near the end of his life Descartes famously asserted to Henry More t hat he had denied ‘ sensation to no animal, in so far as it depends on a bodily organ ’ ; 17 in other words, heaccepted that the  physiological   conditions for sensation were present in animals, inasmuchas they possessed sense organs which, when triggered, excited their nerves, agitated their animal spirits etc., but that the  phenomenological   experiences of sensation (e.g. the feelingof a pain) were a bsent on account of being mental events which thus required theexistence of a soul. 18 Automatists tended to adopt this position, or some close variationof it (as we shall see later), and so generally denied that animals were capable of sensationunderstood phenomenologically, while opponents of automatism routinely argued that animals were so capable. Therefore, in framing the argument from divine justice Poissonwas entitled to assume that pain and suffering can be experienced only by creatures withsouls, as it was a claim that his opponents would have granted him.After Poisson, the argument from divine justice quickly became a staple of animalautomatists, being rehearsed by thinkers such as André Mart in (1671), 19  NicolasMalebr anche (1674  –  5, 1682, 1696), 20 Antoine Dilly (1676), 21 Jean Darmanson(1684), 22 John Norris (1704), 23 Isaac Jaquelot  (1705), 24 and others. It even appeared inverse form in the work of Louis Racine (1728). 25 The perceived strength of the argument can be gleaned not just from its prevalence in the work of animal automatists, but also inthe amount of fire it drew from opponents. One of the more notable responses was made by Pierre Bayle (1702). His most serious charge was that the supporters of the argument from divine justice were in danger of overturning a key doctrine of Christianity. In makingthis claim he supposes as given: (a) that animals are innocent; (b) that animals suffer, andnotes that together they undermine the  sub justo Deo  principle, which he expresses as ‘ that which has never sinned cannot suffer evil. ’ 26 The undermining of the  sub justo Deo  principle is unwelcome inasmuch as it underpins the doctrine of srcinal sin, and in anycase  ‘ follows necessarily from the ideas we have of the justice and goodness of God, ’ 27 soit is not something that a right-thinking Christian could plausibly question, let alonediscard. The power of Bayle ’ s objections often lies in their rigour, but in the case of thisobjection rigour is not enough to make it compelling, for it could only feasibly sway thoseautomatists prepared to grant him that animals suffer, which  ex hypothesi  none of themwas likely to do.In the decades that followed Bayle ’ s attack, other opponents of automatism also felt moved to address the argument from divine justice. Typically, those who did so believedthat the most effective response was to offer a clear, plausible explanation of how animalsuffering could be reconciled with God ’ s justice. Attempts at such an explanation wereinvariably brief and amounted to much less than a fully developed animal theodicy ( avant la lettre ). In his  Essai Philosophique sur l  ’  ame des bêtes  (1728/1737), David Boullier insisted that God ’ s creation of animals with souls, and which are therefore capable of suffering, does not tell against His justice, which would only be impugned if He hadcreated  wretched   creatures, that is, creatures for whom it would be better, all thingsconsidered, not to have existed at all. But God ensures that no innocent creature (i.e.animal) is ever reduced to this state. 28 Five years later, in his defence of animal souls,Jean-Pierre de Crousaz (1733) insisted that animals  ‘ do not suffer much ’ ; this is partly294  L. Strickland     D  o  w  n   l  o  a   d  e   d   b  y   [   8   7 .   1   1   2 .   1   1   8 .   2   1   1   ]  a   t   0   1  :   4   5   1   0   M  a  r  c   h   2   0   1   4   because they lack the ability to reflect on their lot, and partly because God has soconstructed them as to ensure that whatever disagreeable sensations they do experienceare as nothing in comparison to the pleasures they get from the agreeable ones, which aremore enduring and experienced more frequently. 29 Displaying an even greater penchant for speculation, Guillaume-Hyacinthe Bougeant claimed in his notorious  Amusement  philosophique sur le l an gage des bestes  (1739) that the suffering of animals is just  because it is deserved. 30 He conjectured that the souls of devils which freely sinnedagainst God were punished by being imprisoned in the bodies of animals, wherein theyhave no freedom and a much reduced capacity for rationality. Thus  ‘ every beast is a devilunited to an organized body, ’ 31 and on account of their guilt animals deserve whatever suffering befalls them. Although Bougeant  ’ s work was well-known, and much discussed,few took it seriously. In 1749 Jean-Antoine Guer, the first chronicler of the beast-machinedebate, openly stat ed in his survey that Bougeant  ’ s position was so ludicrous it did not need to be refuted. 32 The fact that the argument from divine justice elicited such poor quality responses from opponents perhaps goes some way towards explaining the wide-spread popularity it enjoyed amongst automatists, which exceeded that of any other argument from the divine nature to animal automatism. IV. The argument from divine providence The second such argument to be developed was initially put forward by NicolasMalebranche in his  Search after Truth  (1674  –  5). This argument   –   henceforth referred toas the argument from divine providence  –   begins with the recognition that all animalactions display regularity, and that regularity signifies intelligence. There is thus a need to posit a principle of intelligence behind animal actions, and here two options are available:first, a principle of intelligence internal to the animal itself, as would be the operation of an animal ’ s understanding or reason; or second, a principle external to the animal, namelyGod. 33 Malebranche endorsed the second option on the grounds that the first leads toabsurdity: if we were to admit a principle of intelligence in animals  ‘ then we should haveto say that there is more intelligence in the smallest of animals, or even in a single seed,than in the most spiritual of men. ’ 34 This is so because animals are more orderly in their  behaviour than are humans, inasmuch as they are less likely to deviate from a particular  pattern of behaviour. But such a consequence of attributing intelligence to animals isabsurd, which means that attributing intelligence to animals is itself absurd. And sincethere  is  a principle of intelligence, it must lie outside animals, in fact in the creator, the onewho has constructed the bodies of animals.This argument from divine providence proved very popular among subsequent auto-matists, though many favoured a reworked version based around the stock examples of so-called animal sagacity which were continually rehearsed in the literature of the time,e.g. the hound which, finding three possible paths in front of it and no scent of its quarrydown two of them, opts for the third as if deducing it syllogistically; the hind which hidesher fawn downwind to thwart pursuing hounds; the spider which spins an intricate web totrap flies, etc. 35 Once these or similar examples of animal sagacity had been laid out, theargument proceeded as per the version developed by Malebranche, i.e. by positing that there were two possible explanations for the behaviour described, namely that animalshave understanding/reason, and therefore a soul, or that God had providentially fashionedan organic machine of such complexity and subtlety that it could behave in such wayswithout the need of a soul and its attendant psychological life. This is the version of the  International Journal of Philosophy and Theology  295    D  o  w  n   l  o  a   d  e   d   b  y   [   8   7 .   1   1   2 .   1   1   8 .   2   1   1   ]  a   t   0   1  :   4   5   1   0   M  a  r  c   h   2   0   1   4
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