In this brief post—based somewhat on a section of my book The Problem of Animal Pain: A Theodicy for All Creatures Great and Small—I defend the thesis that animals are created in the image of God. I will argue that the notion of bearing the imago dei is “graded.” That is, bearing the image is a property that comes in degrees, of, if it is not the same thing, there are many ways of bearing the image of God, which can be placed along a spectrum from triviality to very substantive.
I write from a Christian perspective, but won’t focus on the biblical data. However, it is very much worth noticing one feature of the Genesis narrative. One frequently hears—including in sermons—that the imago dei doctrine is taught in Genesis 2:7. Man “becomes a living being” when the “breath of life” is “breathed into his nostrils.” God had just said “Let us make man in our image” and nothing follows that is a better candidate for the imaging happening than the instilling of the breath of life. As with the Greek pneuma, the use of the Hebrew neshamah evokes a connection between breath and soul. And it is often thought that the soul, whatever else it is, is the locus of the image of God. But Genesis 1:30 had just abbreviated a long list of animals with the covering phrase “everything that has the breath of life” (1:30). And, like its cousin neshamah, nefesh—used here—is sometimes rendered “soul.” And, again, there is nowhere else in the creation narrative that is a plausible ground for the imago dei. Nowhere in Scripture is a premium put on abstract thought and there’s certainly nothing about it in the creation narrative. (It is perhaps there by implication in the act of speech in the naming of the animals by Adam, but that’s a bit obscure.) And speaking of abstract thought…
Once when presenting a paper at a regional meeting of the American Catholic Philosophical Society in Western New York, I made reference to Sosa’s distinction between animal knowledge and reflective knowledge. A guy pointed out to me than “animal knowledge” might not be an apt phrase, since, in certain respects, apt belief (in Sosa’s sense) is more like God’s knowledge than human knowledge. The relevant respect was that animal knowledge is “direct” in a way that included being non-discursive but also included being “hooked up” to the world in a way that “skips” ratiocination involved in much human knowledge, especially Sosa’s reflective knowledge. This is inchoate, but it points the direction to a way in which animal cognition might be much more in the image of God’s cognition than distinctively human cognition. An extension of this is the fact that humans are plagued by doubt in ways most animals don’t seem to be.
Now I’d like to turn to the “great chain of being.” According to the old Porphyrin tree, the major links in the chain are the material, the living, the sentient, and the rational. These are all quiet loaded terms. “living” refers mostly to the ability to metabolize and reproduce, “sentience” primarily has to do with having sensory faculties (this, it turns out, is quite a grey area), and “rational” primarily aims at the power of abstract thought, both grasping universal concepts and formal reasoning. There is little said about emotion, and most of what is said is negative. But to me, the jump from mere sentience to feeling emotion strikes me as a much greater jump than the jump from feeling emotion to “rational” thought. One reason this is so is that I don’t think so-called rational thought is often much more than a kind of emotion plus an extra awareness. When doing math, for example, one is often simply “moved” by a proposition and attracted to it. This is especially true of the greatest mathematicians. And the impressiveness of human ability to plan does not clearly outstrip to a large degree the impressiveness of the instinctual behavior of many animals. I am especially fond of the way in which certain birds make quite complex nests without any instructions or calculations.
Here’s the upshot: God, conceived of classically as personal being qua being, imparts his image, in a way, to all that is. This may seem trivial, but I think it’s not. To be is amazing. That there is anything is amazing. The act of being is the most miraculous thing anything can be caught up in. So even though I understand why it might be thought trivial that a rock is made in the image of God, I actually think it’s way less trivial an idea after one realizes the magic of being. The question whether God is “alive” in the Aristotelian sense would take us down the rabbit hole, and I’m not going to suggest that many non-human animals have much by way of abstract thought. But I want to leave you with the suggestion that insofar as non-human animals have emotion—and I think some have it in spades—they bear the image of God in a deeply important way. Remember that the doctrine of impassibility isn’t that God doesn’t have emotions, it’s that they don’t change and he can’t suffer in an important sense (which is of course consistent with the thesis that God can suffer in another important sense). I have come to think that empathy is at the core of all virtue. Thus insofar as animals can exercise empathy, they bear the image of God in a very important way. And empathy is tied to what psychologist call “Theory of Mind,” basically the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others. Since the 70’s there has been exciting research on theory of mind in non-human animals, and though it remains controversial, contemporary research points in the direction of much more theory of mind and empathy in animals than one might ever suspect. This will be less surprising for those who have lived closely with animals for a long time.