Last week brought an interesting cluster of prompts for this topic.
(1) On Wednesday, in the course of delivering the lecture “Ken of Kin: Aesthetic Experience of the Forest” I said I found reason to agree with Vine Deloria on a wide range of metaphysical issues, but not his view on the inner life of animals. I said Deloria said, “…animals have an intellectual and spiritual life similar to our own,” and went on to disagree with him. After the lecture, an Indian friend questioned my reasons for disagreeing with Deloria. I said it is impossible to imagine what it’s like to be a bird, because all we can do is imagine our own consciousness in the bird’s situation, a human mind in a bird’s head. Putting aside any ‘bird-brained’ jibes, it seemed to me the lives of animals are so different from our lives, their conscious experience must be quite different as well. I didn’t (and never) dispute animals have conscious experiences – Descartes got that completely wrong.
(2) The next day, a wide array of news organizations reported gleefully that Pope Francis opined dogs might go to heaven (presumably, if they don’t sin too much). Rick Gladstone, for example, wrote Dogs in Heaven? Pope Francis Leaves Pearly Gates Open for the New York Times, including:
Pope Francis has given hope to gays, unmarried couples and advocates of the Big Bang theory. Now, he has endeared himself to dog lovers, animal rights activists and vegans.
During a weekly general audience at the Vatican last month, the pope, speaking of the afterlife, appeared to suggest that animals could go to heaven, asserting, “Holy Scripture teaches us that the fulfillment of this wonderful design also affects everything around us.”
The story went through the Internet like corn mush through a goose. Obviously, the liberal media took joy in poking conservatives in the eye – notice the dangling of gays, unmarried couples, and Big Bang advocates in front of their noses. Conservatives, for their part, relished the idea of showing, once again, this liberal pope doesn’t know his Bible from his booty theology-wise. “Did Pope Francis open a doggy door to heaven?” Fox outlets wondered. Then, when the story proved bogus, they relished again showing how the liberal left media once again got it all wrong. Soon, the New York Times and many others corrected this holiday- season story:
Correction: December 16, 2014
An article on Friday about whether Pope Francis believes that animals go to heaven — a longstanding theological question in the church — misstated the pope’s recent remarks and the circumstances in which they were made.
Finally, (3) when collecting materials for upcoming novel Lost Words, I searched Amazon for books about birdsong, and found Born to Sing, by Charles Hartshorne. Hartshorne was professor of philosophy at the University of Texas when I studied there. I ordered it at once. Turns out, Hartshorne makes the case that some birds sing because they enjoy the beautiful songs. I don’t know if he goes further than that, only read the first chapters so far, but it’s an easy logical toe-dance from some birds aesthetically appreciate birdsong, to some birds appreciate beauty, and from there, who knows? A consciousness capable of aesthetic appreciation might be capable of other conscious feats thought by many to be exclusively human. In fact, there might be sufficient consciousness there to posit post-mortem perpetuation.
So, where do these three prompts lead? Obviously, I’ll finish Hartshorne’s book to see how far he takes the idea of aesthetically appreciative birds. He was a panpsychist (he preferred psychicalist , so it seems likely we’ll go there. Pope Francis appears to have been the object, not the instigator, of the recent fracas around animal heaven. We are all better served considering how we treat animals in this world and stop worrying about the next. Saint Francis, patron saint of ecology, (is saint higher rank than pope?) in legend said, “…wait for me while I go to preach to my sisters the birds.” Back to the first prompter – I’m often struck by correlations between Pragmatism (of the Peirce, James, Dewey sort) and Deloria, or generally many of the views I hear expressed by Indian friends, especially since reading Scott Pratt’s marvelous book, Native Pragmatism: Rethinking the Roots of American Philosophy. In particular, my friend’s suggestion I observe birds more carefully to see what that tells me is an example of the radical empiricism Deloria (and many Indian philosophers before him) and the Pragmatists endorsed. So, I’ll try that.
Another argument occurs to me, though. Consider consciousness. We are never simply conscious; we are always conscious of something. Clearly, animals, even plants, are conscious of their surroundings. Maybe aware is a better word in the case of plants. Does this show that when a bird (for example) is conscious of a tree, her consciousness is similar (perspective notwithstanding) to my consciousness of the same tree? Humans have more going on in their heads, including some language-dependent stuff (internal monolog, and so on), but it seems this sort of consciousness is quite similar, human and bird, because it is mainly defined by its content, not its source. The same might be said for remembering and imagining, when derived from this sort of consciousness. It seems my friend is right – I need to watch the birds more carefully.
 He actually said, “Increasingly, studies show them to have as complete an emotional/intellectual life as we do.” – Vine Deloria, Power and Place Equal Personality (coauthored with Daniel Wildcat), p.
 which was well attended by an engaged audience with interesting comments and questions, a terrific time. Thanks to the College of Menominee Nation for sponsoring.