About three years ago, I became a dog owner for the first time. We have a small, fluffy creature who scampers around the house and garden, eats whatever she’s allowed to, and sometimes gets away with snoozing on sofas and sleeping on our bed. Although I had misgivings about taking a canine into the household, I have to say that I’m won over. Our pet has brought great joy to daily family life.

We’ve recently had some posts on artificial intelligence, including Andrew Basden’s thought-provoking piece entitled “Can AI be human?” Following the reasoning of Andrew’s piece leads to a related question that I’ve thought about for a while [1]. In an analogous way to computers taking on human characteristics like intelligence through our dealings with them: can pets be human?

Andrew outlined how our worldview colours the way we interpret the question about computers being ‘human’, or humanoid – most often, people ask about intelligence and consciousness, but sometimes about social roles, moral responsibility, or even spiritual companionship. Ground motives are the way that Andrew, following Herman Dooyeweerd, construes the most fundamental orientation of worldviews, noting how Western culture is driven by dualistic ground-motives: one fundamental category defined over and against another. For example, with a Mind/Matter ground motive (e.g. bearing influences from Aristotle’s form/matter scheme), computers fall entirely on the matter side whereas humans are characterised by minds – and if those are fundamental categories then no explanation really bridges them. If (as is common) matter is taken as ultimately real, the ’emergence’ of mind from matter becomes mystery, paradox or illusion. Similar enigmas can be seen in a (medieval but still popular) Natural/Supernatural scheme, or the humanist Nature/Freedom scheme. Christians needn’t subscribe to any of those since we needn’t (arguably, shouldn’t) look for any fundamental category to explain God’s creation: God is outside of His creation (we can say ‘supernatural’, but this isn’t a biblical category and doesn’t achieve much) – and no part of the creation is a key to understanding the rest.

So Andrew goes on to say that computers can be humanoid insofar as we take them as part of a human system, and restrict the question to a limited sphere of meaning (e.g. analytical or social meaning) – but computers don’t simply have human capacities in an unqualified way. If we take the computer as a thing in itself, our kinship with it stops with quantitative, spatial, kinetic and physical functioning (which we share with all entities).

So what about animals? I find, from having a pet and from what pet-owners tend to say, that other animals can also become human in a limited way, once we adopt them into our domestic system. I referred above to my own pet using personal pronouns “she” and “who”, which is a clear sign of social functioning. Our dog is a member of our family: we buy food for her and sometimes share our own (yes – against our better judgement), cuddle her, talk to her, acknowledge her enthusiastic greetings when we arrive home, and mark her birthday. Perhaps we magnify some of these treatments for the sake of our young daughter, who sees the dog virtually as a sibling, but I find myself treating her (the dog, that is) in quasi-human ways even when no-one else is around – rather to my own surprise. All in all, it’s pretty clear that bringing a dog into the family humanises it in an uncanny range of ways. And the dog’s behaviour adapts to the social role she is given: not only does she seek petting, feeding and games, but we read a great deal of lingual, social and moral functioning into her behaviours. Are we deluding ourselves?

The biologist in me reminds me that this is ‘only’ an animal. In Dooyeweerdian terms, I certainly expect various commonalities in physical, biotic and sensitive ways – perhaps basic analytical and lingual ways too – yet just as with the computer, there should be a limit to the properties we share, family context aside. But the family context is real, and so too, it seems, are the social dimensions of our dog’s life with us. Isn’t that reasonable?

The idea I want to suggest is this: if computers can have (or exemplify) ‘artificial intelligence’ and perhaps even artificial consciousness, then by the same token, my dog can have ‘domesticated social standing’, ‘animal morality’, and other such attributes. In both cases, a non-human creature takes on human properties by virtue of being caught up in human culture. Dooyeweerd offered the term enkapsis for this kind of catching up: the computer becomes more than just a part of a physical environment, and the pet becomes more than a part of a biological community; the computer can be involved in our reasoning, writing, socialising, etc, and the pet can become part of our family life. Indeed, I wonder if there is a model here for how our Creator breathes new life into our bare humanity when we enter into His covenant?


[1] It was Charles Strohmer who first put me onto this idea, with a story about a pet parrot whose passing was a cause of considerable grief in the household.

Photo by Mary Winchester on Unsplash.com

Richard Gunton
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Richard Gunton

Richard is the Director of Faith-in-Scholarship at Thinking Faith Network. He also teaches statistics at the University of Winchester. His current passions include Reformational philosophy, history of sciences, ordination (the statistical sort), and wildlife gardening. He worships, and occasionally preaches, at St Mary's Church in Portchester. [Views expressed here are his own.]

1 Comment

Alicia Smith · November 2, 2023 at 11:08 pm

Fascinating thoughts, Richard – it brings to mind the current emphasis in the critical humanities on human/nonhuman networks / assemblages, a lens which tends to radically decentre the human in its account of the world. The concept of enkapsis perhaps offers us a way to work with some of the power and insight of that area of theory but retain a distinctively Christian anthropology.

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