Do Dogs Have Souls?

Originally printed in HP #150: Mike Matthews takes a light-hearted look at an issue that seems to vex some non-humanists. The subject is raised again by one of our letter writers.

Originally printed in HP #150: Mike Matthews takes a light-hearted look at an issue that seems to vex some non-humanists. The subject is raised again by one of our letter writers.

Can a dog have a soul? From Simon of Syracuse to John Ralston Saul, philosophers have pondered this question. Simon said they unquestionably do have souls; Ralston Saul is doubtful.

I explore the question by comparison. He has four legs; so have I. We have them jointed, proportioned and arranged a little differently. We use them similarly. When I’m working at my desk and he comes, stretches up on his hind legs and puts his arms around me, fondling my shoulder expectantly, imploring me to respond with some dog-friendly activity, I know that the only real difference between us is language. That is a tragic difference, but it is not an essential difference. It is not a difference that has anything to do with souls, or the presence or lack thereof.

True, there are signs that this dog of mine may have connections with the spiritual side of things. His coat is white, with some distinct black markings that certainly appear to be evidence of design rather than happenstance, or accidental genetical frolic. In fact these black markings, the ring round the tail, the patch over the eye, seem to be a kind of tribal marking, hinting of some special association, in some favoured dogs. But the followers of Mendel and Galton, those evil geniuses, tell us, no doubt, that it’s just the play of genetics, the tumbling of dice down helical stairs and through a few generations, be they of mutts or of men.

Mike Matthews and Victor, Newcastle Island, BC, August 10, 2010. Photo by Alex Taylor

I myself have no soul. Oh, you say, isn’t soul just a word for something in you, your “Centre” let’s say, some irreducible part of you, or thing, that you boil down to? But I do not have such a part, or thing.

I am, fairly proudly, a bundle of contradictions, a huddledy-scuddle pile of odds and ends. In none of the expeditions I’ve made have I managed to make my way down to the centre, to the region of the ineluctable. I’ve never been within spitting distance of the infinite, pissing distance of the pith, you might say. I’ve never been near any soul I could be said to possess. I doubt very much if it’s actually there to be found.

Anyway, suppose I find the thing? What then, what happens? Does my soul say to me, “Well, Mike, you’re a bit of a disappointment, to be frank.” As if I haven’t heard that before, from just about everyone, starting with Mum.

Do dogs need souls?

The concept of the soul could have some meaning when applied to a lovely dog. It is true that Victor, like most dogs except the blue-eyed ones, has extraordinarily soulful eyes. (Is not this sharing of eye colours, by the way, a clue about the common ancestry of humans and dogs?) But the essence of Victor is his physicality. It is not just that he is good-looking. He is dynamically good-looking; his physical being expressed in action is marvelous. He is about living, not mere being. He takes advantage of every opportunity to be physical, to be in motion. There are whoops of glee, sounded or unsounded, in every bound, every bounce, every lunge, every frantic scuttle into the salal thicket to roust the quail, the pheasants. (When there are no quail or pheasants, he rousts the robins.)

When Victor visits Maggie Mae, his playmate across the road, they make galvanized dashes after one another, all over the yard. Victor beetles and streaks, Maggie scuttles, and then Victor seizes Maggie’s stick and she chases him, and the game gets faster, goes wilder, and becomes, as inexorably as one of those graduated treadmills, a carnival of speed. Then, because these dogs are equal in speed, it becomes a figure eight, a moving infinity figure. The motion is caused by inspiration from the other dog; the blur that we see is dogmotion, not two dogs chasing each other

Even in repose, when Victor sits quietly, though erect and alert, on a small pine bench, gazing out at a white-gold triangular spike of a sail against a deep blue screen of mountain and ocean, this small and solid dog is a testament to the primacy of matter in our world. There is no need for anything more. Mary Oliver suggests that “…maybe just looking and listening is the real work. Maybe the world without us is the real poem.”

Where would Victor’s soul go after death? To dog heaven? Now that’s beyond corny, beyond cheesy. And any such popcheese is surely confounded by my pointing out that he’s an atheist. No dog heaven for Victor; they wouldn’t let him in. No more than they would let me in. And we wouldn’t want to be there. ♦