What About Dogs? Do People Bark?

I opened up the paper on Sunday morning and found it telling me that science may well show us that "dogs are people too" and should possibly be given the same dignity in society and the courts as us humans. Be patient with me: this is not an animal activist telling us that animals have feelings too, so you should treat them with as much respect as your human neighbor. No, this is a neuroscientist who says science is beginning to tell us things we've never seen before about the brains of dogs.

Note: It's still OK to love your pets!!!

 

Professor Gregory Berns says that we can no longer "ignore the striking similarity between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of a key brain region: the caudate nucleus." Don't know what a caudate nucleus is? According to Berns, the caudate nucleus, rich in dopamine receptors, sits between the brainstem and the cortex and plays a key role in the anticipation of things we enjoy, like food, love, and money.

In other words, the chemical pathways in human brains and dog brains are strikingly similar when it comes to sensing and desiring—canines can be compared to small children.

So what does he conclude? Dogs are people, too.

End of Materialism

I have no interest in taking cheap shots at animal activists. I do believe animals deserve a certain amount of dignity based simply on the call for humans to care for creation and work toward its flourishing, not destroy it for our own ends.

However, this argument shows us how materialism eats itself in the end.

Professor Berns argues that if a creature has certain kinds of chemical pathways in the brain, it should be elevated to a kind of dignified status of creature-hood; namely, a person. Notice that he offers no philosophical or theological grounding. He does not argue whether a creature is self-aware or can sense injustice. He makes his conclusions about personhood based only on scientific and materialistic grounds.

For Berns to reach this conclusion, he must first reduce every creature (whether persons or not) to the sum of its material parts and chemical pathways. That's all we are. But when you make such a move you take away your ability to objectively dignify anything.

If everything is reduced to a sum total of material substances and chemical pathways, then it is arbitrary to dignify any creature over another just because one has more consciousness or cultural stability or a sense of pain or loss. For that matter it's not apparent why we should dignify any creature at all.

Someone could respond to my objection and say, "But what about empathy? Certainly that feeling should be enough to dignify both humans and animals."

But if we've been reduced to material substances and chemical pathways, then who says our empathy is real? Why should we act on it? And what if someone doesn't feel empathy toward a creature? Are they obligated to act empathetically despite it? And whose empathetic feelings are more authoritative?

In his effort to elevate dogs to a more dignified status based on chemical pathways in the brain, Berns has removed the basis for dignifying anything at all. That problem is not unique to Berns. It's the problem with materialism altogether. For anything to have objective dignity, there must be something more fundamental than the sum of its parts.

Basis for Dignity

Only the Christian worldview has the resources to accomplish even close to what Berns desires.

Christians base the dignity of a "person" on the imago Dei. Created in the image of God, humans have been given status and dignity above all other creatures in this world. We've been given the ability to make sense of the world and make something of it.

That does not mean human beings are the only creatures with worth and value. Instead, human beings are called to care for creation, like gardeners, cultivating it to bear fruit. Dogs and all other animals have dignity not because of chemical pathways, but because they are created by God for his glory, not merely for our use or ends.

Someone could object to this teaching and say, "Isn't belief in God, the Bible, and an afterlife the problem? Only when we finally believe that this world is all we have will we finally take care of it."

But if this world is everything we have, then it's all going to burn up some day into the sun. So why take care of it at all? If we're all just the sum of our parts, then why can't I rape the environment to make a profit? Why let the chemical pathways of my brain, which produce something we call empathy, get in the way of what I want?

Because Christianity believes in the future restoration of the earth made by God and for his glory, we have every motivation to honor the dignity of all creatures, barking or not.

John Starke is an editor for The Gospel Coalition and lead pastor of All Souls Church in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. You can fol

 

 

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