A note on human and animal feelings and God

Julian O’Dea PhD

One of the problems in philosophy is that of why consciousness and “qualia” exist. That is, why does a colour like green look like something? Why does pain hurt? Why do we feel something as intangible as love or as uncomfortable as envy?

As material beings, how can humans and animals feel such things? How can matter feel?

In my opinion, it is impossible. Matter, no matter how complexly organised, cannot be expected to feel emotions and sense pain and the like. If one were to build a computer, no matter how complex, it is impossible to imagine it feeling pain when you hit it with a hammer. It could reason well and gather information about the environment, but not feel joy or despair. Matter simply isn’t that kind of substance.

So, since we are also made from matter, how are we able to feel emotions?

Of all the arguments for theism, this point seems to me to be one of the strongest. And from a specifically Christian perspective, I think we can say a few relevant things. One is that matter is good in the Christian understanding. When God had made creation, He “saw that it was good”. So, believers cannot retreat into some kind of Idealism or Gnosticism and say that matter is an illusion or evil, and that our emotions and feelings are not tied to matter in some way. On the other hand, as I have said, it seems very unlikely that matter itself is capable of feeling “qualia”.

I have never seen a satisfactory atheistic explanation for the existence of consciousness and qualia. I suppose one could argue that they are a kind of “emergent property” of sufficiently complex systems. However as I suggested above, it is hard to see matter as the kind of thing that could feel emotions, for example.

What kind of being feels emotions, including hatred, love, envy and pride? In the Christian system, the most obvious answer is spirits, including God. God feels emotions of love and anger. Angels, also spirits, also feel emotions, including those felt by Satan and the rebellious angels: namely, pride and envy. And the fallen angels suffer in Hell.

The existence of qualia and consciousness in human beings seems most easily explained by their being a gift from God, to bring human beings situated in the realm of matter into the realm of the spirit as well. In other words, as an effect of ensoulment. One question that immediately arises is, what of animals then? Few people would deny these days that animals feel pleasure and pain, anger and fear, and even affection and love. Did God also give them souls or spirits to feel these things?

I don’t see why not. In the story of Noah, God wanted Noah to take the animals on board. The story implies that the animals had some intrinsic value. And in the New Testament we find “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.” God is apparently cognizant of individual animals.

In summary, feelings, emotions, and perhaps consciousness itself, are most easily explained in the Christian system as spiritual qualities with which God invests us. He wants us to live in a good, material world; but also to experience it emotionally in our spirits.


69 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Julian O'Dea on June 15, 2015 at 8:24 am

    A later version of this paper is now on Academia.edu here.


  2. Posted by Slumlord on June 21, 2015 at 3:49 am

    David, I think one of the big problems with science (Positivism more specifically) is that it rests on the assumption that everything in the universe is empirically accessible.

    There may be quite likely entities and realities, even facets of ourselves that just simple aren’t empirically able to be sensed. What the positivists are trying to do is trying to explain consciousness in a way that a blind Positivist would try to explain colour, in terms of the senses they can access, rather than the reality that it is.


    • Posted by Julian O'Dea on June 21, 2015 at 4:51 am

      My impression is that materialists simply “bracket” (which is academy-speak for “ignore”) the problem of qualia. If there is a good materialistic explanation for qualia, I have yet to see it.


      • Posted by Julian O'Dea on June 21, 2015 at 5:31 am

        One question that is troubling is, why should animals suffer pain because of the Fall of Man? I have been told by a priest that if the man (Adam) had not succumbed to temptation, Man in the general sense would not have fallen. That is, Eve’s sin was not crucial. It was the man’s sin that was the real fall, because the man was the head of creation.

        Therefore, woman would not have suffered her “curse” if the man had not also fallen. Presumably.

        However, when Adam, as the lord of creation, fell, so did all of creation. The sufferings of animals would therefore be a result of the fall of Man.

        I should say that I do not believe in the literality of the story in Genesis. However, as a priest, a different one, once said to me, all scripture is revelatory.

  3. https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/02/21/natural-selection-and-evolution-material-blind-mindless-and-purposeless/

    This argument tends to ignore the possibility that God saw intrinsic value in the evolution of animals, as well as man.


  4. http://www.cell.com/current-biology/pdf/S0960-9822(15)00658-2.pdf

    Interview with Melissa Bateson, touching on emotion in animals.


  5. Posted by Julian O'Dea on August 24, 2015 at 7:30 am

  6. Posted by Julian O'Dea on August 30, 2015 at 3:40 am


    Definition of “sentience” in terms of qualia.


  7. Posted by Julian O'Dea on September 20, 2015 at 1:03 pm


    “The very Father is not without suffering. When He is prayed to, He has pity and compassion; He suffers something of love and puts Himself in the place of those with whom He, in view of the greatness of His nature, cannot be. -Origen, Word as Flesh”


  8. Posted by Julian O'Dea on September 20, 2015 at 2:16 pm

    Psalm 84:3

    “Yea, the sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O LORD of hosts, my King, and my God.”


  9. Posted by Julian O'Dea on September 26, 2015 at 1:34 pm

    Touches on the variety in souls:


    ” … nor is this precluded by the fact that even then there was a diverse dignity of souls according to the diversity of bodies, since it is necessary for the soul to be proportioned to the body, as form to matter, and as mover to moved … “


  10. Posted by Julian O'Dea on November 24, 2015 at 6:19 am


    “Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness?”


  11. Posted by Julian O'Dea on December 1, 2015 at 11:53 pm


    “Is the material world all there is? Arguments for the existence of God
    William Lane Craig”


  12. Posted by Julian O'Dea on December 4, 2015 at 10:58 am


    “How does matter make mind? More specifically, how does a physical object generate subjective experiences like those you are immersed in as you read this sentence? How does stuff become conscious? This is called the mind-body problem, or, by philosopher David Chalmers, the “hard problem.”

    I expressed doubt that the hard problem can be solved–a position called mysterianism–in The End of Science. I argue in a new edition that my pessimism has been justified by the recent popularity of panpsychism. This ancient doctrine holds that consciousness is a property not just of brains but of all matter, like my table and coffee mug.

    Panpsychism strikes me as self-evidently foolish, but non-foolish people—notably Chalmers and neuroscientist Christof Koch—are taking it seriously. How can that be? What’s compelling their interest? Have I dismissed panpsychism too hastily?”


  13. Posted by Julian O'Dea on October 1, 2016 at 11:35 am


    “World’s smartest physicist thinks science can’t crack consciousness.”


  14. Posted by Julian O'Dea on November 8, 2016 at 5:15 am


    Call to update animal welfare codes after neuroscience proves animals experience a wide range of emotions.


  15. Posted by Julian O'Dea on November 18, 2016 at 12:37 pm

    David Papineau:


    “Comments on Galen Strawson: ‘Realistic Monism: Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism”


  16. Posted by Julian O'Dea on December 16, 2016 at 8:12 am


    “Study suggests rats smile with their ears.”


  17. Posted by Julian O'Dea on February 9, 2017 at 6:57 am

    Lemurs “getting high” on millipedes:


  18. Posted by Julian O'Dea on April 5, 2017 at 9:12 am


    “Can software suffer? Death and pain in digital brains.

    One day we will create virtual minds. Could they feel pain, asks Anders Sandberg of the Future of Humanity Institute.”


  19. Posted by Julian O'Dea on April 16, 2017 at 10:02 am

    Not strictly relevant perhaps but interesting.


    “No one really knows how the most advanced algorithms do what they do. That could be a problem.”


  20. Posted by Julian O'Dea on May 11, 2017 at 7:25 am



  21. Posted by Julian O'Dea on May 24, 2017 at 5:54 am


    “Scientists discover nature’s algorithm for intelligence”


  22. Posted by Julian O'Dea on June 3, 2017 at 12:21 pm


    “Lucid dreamers may help unravel the mystery of consciousness.”


  23. Posted by Julian O'Dea on November 25, 2017 at 8:54 am

  24. Posted by Julian O'Dea on December 11, 2017 at 2:59 am

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