Don’t miss Edward Feser’s continuation of this discussion, “Don’t Let Rhetoric Overwhelm Reason: A Response to David Bentley Hart.”

Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart has some kind of hang-up about Thomism. It leads him to do strange things. Two years ago, in First Things, Hart put forward a poorly reasoned critique of the Thomistic natural law approach to ethics. As his critics pointed out at the time, among the foibles of the piece was Hart’s conflation of the “new natural law” theory of thinkers such as John Finnis and Robert P. George with the “old natural law” approach of writers such as Ralph McInerny and Russell Hittinger. When the difference between these views is understood, Hart’s critique collapses.

Rather than trying to answer this objection and extricate himself from the hole he’d gotten himself into, Hart kept digging, relentlessly reiterating his fallacious conflation in a series of sometimes dyspeptic replies to his critics. I responded to Hart in a piece at First Things, in an article here at Public Discourse, and in a couple of follow-up posts at my own blog.

Two years later, it seems that Hart is still stinging. In the March 2015 issue of First Things, he briefly revisited the controversy, complaining that he “learned . . . that it is perilous to express doubts regarding the persuasive power of most natural-law theory in today’s world.” (I’ve commented on that piece elsewhere.)  Now, in the April issue, Hart laments the influence of Thomism on the youth, recounting a conversation he had with “a young, ardently earnest Thomist.” Hart describes him as follows:

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you know, one of those manualist neo-paleo-neo-Thomists of the baroque persuasion you run across ever more frequently these days, gathered in the murkier corners of coffee bars around candles in wine bottles, clad in black turtlenecks and berets, sipping espresso, smoking Gauloises, swaying to bebop, composing dithyrambic encomia to that ­absolutely gone, totally wild, starry-bright and vision-wracked, mad angelic daddy-cat Garrigou-Lagrange . . .

Even given that Hart is trying to be funny, this is, needless to say, pretty weird.

But it gets weirder. Hart’s beef with Thomists this time around is that they deny that non-human animals possess “characteristics that are irreducibly personal,” that they deny that “many beasts command certain rational skills,” and that accordingly—and worst of all, for Hart—Thomists deny that there will be “puppies in paradise.” Hart, by contrast, affirms the “real participation of animal creation . . . in the final blessedness of the Kingdom,” asserting that Heaven will be “positively teeming with fauna.” To make his case, he insists on “the intelligence, cognitive and social” of the humpback whale, the bottlenose dolphin, and the orca. Alas, Hart failed to mention the shark. Perhaps he was too busy jumping it.

Hart is correct to note that Thomists deny that there will be non-human animals in Heaven. But he gives the impression that Thomists “reject all evidence of intentionality . . . or affection in animals,” and that they are committed to a “mechanistic” account of non-human animals according to which their apparently conscious behavior reduces to “biomechanical stimulus and response.” He insinuates that at least many Thomists maintain an “unsettlingly gnostic picture” of human nature on which “the vegetal, animal, and rational functions of the soul must be segregated into strictly impermeable compartments,” so that the human soul becomes a “Cartesian ghost” inhabiting the physical body.

None of this could be further from the truth. As with his critique of natural law two years ago, Hart’s latest anti-Thomistic salvo is a showy exercise in firing blanks, all shock and no awe. Hart’s piece is long on rhetoric and short on argumentation, riddled with sweeping assertions, attacks on straw men, and failures to make crucial distinctions. The reason why Thomists tend to deny that non-human animals go to heaven has nothing to do with those attributed by Hart. Let’s untangle the mess.

Rational and Other Animals

Following Aristotle, Aquinas and Thomists in general distinguish between three basic forms of life: vegetative, animal, and rational. Vegetative forms of life are characterized by three sorts of activity. First, they transform non-living matter into living matter; second, they go through a growth cycle; and third, they reproduce themselves.

Animal forms of life also engage in nutrition, growth, and reproduction. But animals are also characterized by three additional activities. First, they are sentient, taking in information about their environments and about their own bodily states via specialized sense organs. Sentience involves being consciously aware of what these sense organs reveal—of colors and sounds, shapes and textures, heat and cold, itches and tickles, pleasure and pain, and so forth. Animals may also form images of things they have experienced, such as a visual image of an object previously seen or an auditory image of a sound previously heard.

Second, animals form appetites or inner drives to pursue or avoid various objects or activities. Third, animals are capable of locomotion, as when they move themselves toward or away from the objects sensation reveals, in response to the promptings of their appetites.

These three distinctive features of animals radically transform the vegetative activities they share with other living things. Animals not only take in nutrients, as plants do; they can also actively pursue these nutrients (as when hunting prey), can feel a strong desire for them (as in hunger), and can take pleasure in the process of taking them in (as when enjoying a meal).

Now, human beings are rational animals, and for Thomists both the “rationality” and the “animality” are crucial to understanding our nature. Just as being an animal includes the activities of vegetative forms of life, so too does being human include the activities of animal (and thus of vegetative) forms of life. Thus, human beings carry out the activities of nutrition, growth, reproduction, sensation and imagination, appetite, and locomotion. But on top of this, human beings, unlike plants and animals, are capable of intellectual and volitional activity.

To have an intellect is to be the sort of thing that can grasp abstract concepts (as when we grasp concepts like “being a man” and “being mortal”); can put concepts together into complete thoughts (as when we have the thought that “All men are mortal”); and can reason from one thought to another in accordance with principles of logic (as when we reason from the premises that “All men are mortal” and “Socrates is a man” to the conclusion that “Socrates is mortal”).

Bringing things under concepts and grasping logical relations between these concepts is what understanding or rationality amounts to. To be capable of volitional activity—to have a will—is to be capable of freely choosing in accordance with what the intellect judges to be true, rather than being moved merely by the promptings of sensation, imagination, and appetite, as non-human animals are.

Concepts vs. Sense Images

For the Thomist, intellect, understanding, or rationality differs radically from the sensation and imagination of other animals. The easiest way to see how is to note the differences between a concept on the one hand, and a mere sense image on the other.

First, a true concept is abstract and universal, whereas a sense image is concrete and particular. Consider the example of a triangle. Any image of a triangle that you can bring before your mind’s eye is always going to be of a black triangle, a red triangle, or a triangle of some other color; it is always going to be of a right triangle, an obtuse triangle, or an acute triangle; and it is always going to be of an equilateral, isosceles, or scalene triangle. That is to say, it will always of its nature resemble some triangles but not others. By contrast, your concept of a triangle fits all triangles without exception—whether black, red, or no color at all, whether right, obtuse, or acute, and whether equilateral, isosceles, or scalene. Hence, the concept is distinct from the mental image.

Second, concepts can be clear and distinct even when the corresponding mental images are vague and indistinct. For example, it is very easy to conceptualize or understand the difference between a crowd of 1,203 people, a crowd of 1,554 people, and a crowd of 2,008 people. But it is impossible to form a mental image of a crowd of 1,203 people which is clearly and distinctly different from an image of a crowd of 1,554 or 2,008 people. Hence conceptualizing or understanding the difference is not a matter of forming mental images.

Third, we have concepts of things for which we can form no mental image at all. For example, we have the concept of something’s “being legal,” or of one statement’s “logically entailing” another, or of two claims being “inconsistent.” But legality, logical entailment, and inconsistency are not material objects of which we might form sense images. Again, it follows that having a concept is not reducible to having a mental image.

Now, just as animals incorporate but radically transform the activities of merely vegetative forms of life, so too does being human involve both incorporating and radically transforming the activities we share in common with non-human animals. Hence, like other animals, we have sensory awareness. But unlike other animals, we can conceptualize what we perceive and feel, and this fundamentally alters the character of our perceptual experiences and appetites. A dog can see a tree and we can see a tree, but the “seeing” we do is very different from that of which a dog is capable. For the dog cannot see a tree as a tree—it cannot conceptualize or understand what it is seeing by putting it within the general class “tree”; cannot infer that since this class is itself part of the larger class “plant,” to see a tree is also to see a plant; and cannot grasp that to be a thing of the sort that is seen entails taking in nutrients, going through a growth cycle, etc. A dog can feel pain and we can feel pain, but the “pain” we feel is very different from that of which a dog is capable. For we can conceptualize the pain as indicative of injury or bodily disorder, can infer that long-term health or even life might be in jeopardy, and so forth.

Think of it this way: animals and plants both need water, will flourish if they get it and atrophy if they don’t, and behave in ways that facilitate their getting it—plants by sinking roots, animals by searching for a stream, pond, or dog dish. But it doesn’t follow that plants, like animals, know anything like the pangs of thirst or the satisfaction of quenching that thirst. Similarly, that a dog will snuggle up to a child or wag its tail when its master arrives does not entail that its “love” is comparable to the highly conceptualized love that a rational animal feels for his child, friend, spouse, country, or God.


The telltale mark of the difference between a rational animal and a non-rational animal is language. Here further distinctions must be made, because the term “language” is often used indiscriminately to refer to very different sorts of phenomena.

The philosopher Karl Popper distinguished four functions of language: the expressive function, which involves the outward expression of an inner state; the signaling function, which adds to the expressive function the generation of a reaction in others; the descriptive function, which involves the statement of a complete thought of the sort that might be expressed in a declarative sentence; and the argumentative function, which involves the statement of an inference from one thought to another. Some non-human animals are capable of the first two functions, and in that sense might be said to have “language.” But the latter two functions involve the grasp of concepts, and human beings alone possess language of the sort that expresses concepts, thoughts, and arguments.

You don’t have to be a Thomist to see this. The late American philosopher Donald Davidson presented an influential set of arguments to the effect that thought and language go hand in hand, so that no creature that lacks language (in the relevant sense of “language”) can be said to think or reason in the strict sense. Suppose a dog hears someone jangling some keys outside the door and starts wagging its tail and jumping about excitedly. A natural way to describe what is going on is to say that the dog thinks that its master is home. If what this amounts to is (say) merely that the sound of the keys jangling triggers in the dog’s consciousness a visual image of the master walking in the door, which in turn generates a feeling of excitement, then the Thomist (and, presumably, Davidson) are happy to agree. But what the dog does not have is a thought in the sense in which a human being might have the thought that the master is home. Lacking linguistic expressions like “master,” “home,” etc., the dog does not have the concept “master” or the concept “home,” and thus lacks any mental state with the conceptual content of the thought that “the master is home.”

Of course, it is sometimes claimed that some apes have been taught to use language as well as very young children can. But from a Thomistic point of view, what matters is not whether we can get a creature to mimic certain superficial aspects of language under artificial circumstances, but rather how it naturally tends to act when left to its own devices. And in their natural state, no animals other than human beings ever get beyond what Popper calls the expressive and signaling functions of language.

Thomism Rejects Cartesian Dualism

Descartes held that non-human animals lack language, and he also notoriously held that non-human animals are mere automata—that, appearances notwithstanding, such animals are devoid of consciousness and behave according to entirely mechanical principles. But it would be fallacious to infer that anyone who thinks that animals lack language (and thus lack intelligence) must agree with Descartes’s bizarre view that they are mere insensate mechanisms. For the reasons Descartes held this view have nothing to do with language or intelligence per se, but rather with his account of the nature of material things, both living and non-living—an account that is diametrically opposed to the Aristotelian-Thomistic account.

Following Aristotle and Aquinas, Thomists hold that there are not only radical differences in kind among the three forms of living thing, but also a no less radical difference in kind between living things and inorganic matter. Descartes denied this. For Descartes, all material things— tables and chairs, rocks and dirt, trees and grass, dogs and cats, and human bodies too— ultimately have the same nature. In particular, they are all merely extended things, in the sense of possessing the geometrical properties of length, width, and depth, being located in space, and moving from one point in space to another. In Descartes’s view, these geometrical features exhaust the nature of matter. Material things are entirely devoid of thought or consciousness, and operate according to purely mechanical principles, like bits of clockwork pushing and pulling one another. A living thing differs from a stone only in degree, only insofar as it is made up of more intricate bits of clockwork pushing and pulling against one another in more complex patterns.

Now a mind, for Descartes, is the sort of thing that can utter to itself “I think, therefore I am”—that is, it can know for certain that it exists as a thinking thing even if the entire material world, including the body it is associated with, were a mere hallucination. Hence, the mind’s entire essence just is thought or consciousness, and it has no material properties at all. For it would be just the thing it is even if the body it is associated with went out of existence, or even if that body had never really existed in the first place.

The world is thus bifurcated into two kinds of substances: material substances, which are purely mechanical objects, as unthinking and unconscious as bits of clockwork; and thinking substances, entities of pure thought or consciousness, devoid of length, width, depth, position in space, or any other physical properties. A human being is a composite of these two radically different kinds of object. As the philosopher Gilbert Ryle famously summed up Descartes’s view, the human body is like a machine and the soul like a ghost that haunts the machine.

The upshot of this view is that any material thing that is not conjoined to a thinking substance—to a res cogitans, to use Descartes’s famous Latin expression—is devoid of thought, language, or consciousness. Thus does Descartes arrive at his notorious conclusion that animals, which lack language, must therefore also lack consciousness. They must be purely material substances, which for Descartes entails that they are mere automata, operating on entirely mechanical principles. A dog will let out a yelp when kicked and wag its tail when fed, but for Descartes this is not because it really feels either pain or pleasure. Rather, it is merely wired in such a way that it generates those behavioral responses when prompted by the appropriate stimuli, like a robot but more complex and made of different materials.

Cartesian vs. Thomistic Accounts of Matter

The view is bizarre in the extreme, but it is perfectly intelligible given Descartes’s account of the nature of material substances. It is that account of matter, however—and not anything to do with language per se, nor anything to do with the nature of intellectual powers—that leads Descartes to this conclusion. Now, Thomists and other Aristotelians reject Descartes’s account of matter. They maintain that while matter does indeed have the geometrical properties Descartes emphasizes, its nature is by no means exhausted by these properties. Hence, there is no reason to think that a purely material thing would necessarily be devoid of consciousness. And thus, in denying that non-human animals have rational or intellectual powers, Thomists are in no way thereby committed (as Descartes was) to holding that they are devoid of consciousness altogether. For the Thomist, that a creature cannot “think” in the sense in which we think—that is, by grasping abstract concepts, putting them together into complete thoughts, and reasoning logically from one thought to another—simply does not entail that it cannot feel pain or pleasure or that it lacks appetites, emotions, and conscious experiences.

Indeed, it is, if anyone, modern materialists who have a difficult time accounting for how animals—including human beings—can be conscious. For while materialists reject Descartes’s notion of res cogitans or thinking substance, they essentially endorse (some details aside) Descartes’s conception of matter. The view that there is nothing more to matter than what can be captured in the purely quantitative, mathematical language of physics, is widely held. That is why contemporary philosophers fret over the “problem of consciousness,” the question of how conscious awareness could ever come to exist in a purely material universe. It is nothing about the nature of consciousness itself, but rather the purely mathematical conception of matter they have inherited from Descartes, that generates this problem and makes it so intractable.

The thing to emphasize for present purposes, though, is that Hart’s criticisms of Thomists are aimed at an outrageous straw man. Hart insinuates that those who disagree with him “reject all evidence of . . . affection in animals,” and endorse a “mechanistic” account in which animal behavior reduces to “biomechanical stimulus and response.” But while this is true of Descartes, it is most certainly not true of Thomists, who reject Descartes’s mechanistic conception of material substances. In fact, Descartes’s conception was developed precisely in opposition to Thomists and other Aristotelians!

Similarly, for the Thomist, “the vegetal, animal, and rational functions of the soul” are not, contrary to Hart’s caricature, “segregated into strictly impermeable compartments.” On the contrary, as we have seen, for the Thomist, to be an animal just is in part to incorporate the vegetative functions, and to be a human being or rational animal just is in part to incorporate the vegetative and animal functions. Precisely for this reason, the human soul is not, for the Thomist, a “Cartesian ghost” inhabiting a mechanical body. Rather, for the Thomist, the human soul— which is conceived of as the form of the living human being—is the principle of our vegetative and animal functions no less than it is the principle of our rational activities.

All Dogs Don’t Go to Heaven

So, the reason Thomists deny that non-human animals are destined for Heaven has nothing to do with a Cartesian or “mechanistic” conception of animals. What is the reason, then?

The reason is that non-human animals are entirely corporeal creatures, all matter and no spirit. To be sure, the matter of which they are composed is not the bloodlessly mechanical, mathematical Cartesian kind. Non-human animals are not machines; they really are conscious, really do feel pain and pleasure, really do show affection and anger. But these conscious states are nevertheless entirely dependent on bodily organs, as is everything else non-human animals do. Hence, when their bodies die, there is nothing left that might carry on into an afterlife. Fido’s death is thus the end of Fido.

If human beings were entirely corporeal creatures, the same would be true of us. But, the Thomist argues, human beings are not entirely corporeal. We are largely corporeal—as with Fido, our ability to take in nutrients, to grow and reproduce, to see, hear, imagine, and move about, depends on our having bodily organs. But our distinctively intellectual activities—our capacity to grasp abstract concepts, to reason logically, and so forth—are different. They could not be entirely corporeal.

There are several reasons why, though spelling them out adequately requires complex philosophical argumentation that is beyond the scope of this essay.  For example, some Thomists argue that thoughts can have a precise or unambiguous content, whereas no purely material representation could have such a content — in which case thinking is not reducible to the having of material representations encoded in the brain. (I have defended this line of argument at length elsewhere.)

If human beings do have, in addition to their bodily or corporeal activities, an activity that is essentially incorporeal—namely, intellectual activity or thought in the strict sense—then when the corporeal side of human nature is destroyed, it doesn’t follow that the human being as a whole is destroyed. There is an aspect to our nature—the intellect—that can carry on beyond the death of the body, precisely because even before death it was never entirely dependent on the body. This is why there is such a thing as an afterlife for human beings, as there is not for non-human animals.

Hart, like so many people these days, seems to have an excessively sentimental attachment to non-human animals. Perhaps he simply can’t imagine Heaven being a very happy place without a resurrected Fido to share it with.

Consider this. Christ tells us that there will not be marriage in Heaven, and the clear implication is that there will not be romance or sexual intercourse, either. Young people find it difficult to understand how we could fail to miss all of this, and anyone with an amorous disposition can sympathize. But, in fact, we will not miss it. That’s the thing about the beatific vision: it rather leaves everything else in its dust. And I submit that if you won’t miss sex when you’re in Heaven, it’s a safe bet that you’re not going to give much thought to Fido either.

Edward Feser’s most recent book is Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction. His webpage can be found here, and his blog here.