(and The Soul of an Octopus)
Every two weeks this summer I’ve been preaching on a book from my summer reading list. You’re all invited to read along and to join me in a discussion group before I preach on the book. This summer I’ve picked four sciencey books and the book I’m preaching on this week is “The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness” by Sy Montgomery.
Sy Montgomery is a literary naturalist who has written about all kinds of animals—tigers, and moon bears, and a pig named Christopher Hogwood, O my! Her books aren’t dry biology texts, they’re zoology mixed with memoir. The Soul of an Octopus isn’t about octopuses in general, it’s about four specific octopuses—Athena, Octavia, Kali, and Karma. It’s about Montgomery’s relationships with them. And it’s about the aquarists, the marine biologists, the divers, the student volunteers, and the aquarium janitorial staff who also bond with these octopuses. It’s a book about how human lives and work and hearts intersect with octopuses.
There’s Bill, who’s the main aquarist at the New England aquarium and he can smell fish stress through glass and he carries great personal stress worrying about the welfare of his beloved octopuses. There’s Wilson, a retired engineer who builds the octopuses challenging toys and who visits with them even while his wife is in hospice. There’s Anna, a high school junior with Asperger’s who’s kept fish tanks since she was two-years old and who’s processing the suicide of her best friend in the company of the octopuses. And there’s Danny, who has a developmental disorder and wants nothing more than to meet a real, live octopus—and he gets his chance!
On the surface, it may seem incredible that human beings can bond with these eight-armed, underwater aliens. Human beings diverged from octopuses on the tree of life more than half a billion years ago. Instead of fingers, an octopus’ eight arms are each covered in hundreds of suckers that can exert thousands of pounds of force. If an arm gets bitten off, it can grow back. To swim they don’t use their arms. Instead they suck water up into their head and squirt it out a little funnel to propel them through the ocean on a jet of water. They taste and smell through every inch of their skin—even their eyelids. They have a beak for a mouth like a parrot’s beak inside their armpit and their bite is poisonous. Their brain is distributed through their body and they have more neurons in their arms than they have in their heads. They have three hearts and blue blood. They can squeeze themselves through a hole just a few inches wide. They can change colors and often do to express their mood. But they can also camouflage their skin by changing its color and texture to perfectly match their surroundings. If they’re threatened, they can squirt out a cloud of dark ink. They are solitary. They are cannibalistic. And they only live a few years.
As Montgomery writes, “Octopuses represent the great mystery of the Other.” It’s hard to imagine creatures more different than us. But octopuses are also smart, curious, and playful. They enjoy solving problems and puzzles and are renowned escape artists. Octopuses appear to be self-aware and to understand that other creatures have minds and motivations separate from their own. Each octopus has its own unique and varied personality. Their complex behaviors are more than instinctual and suggest that they have something like thoughts and feelings. When you look them in the eye, it feels like someone is in there looking back at you. And the people who care for octopuses in aquariums or meet them in the wild can feel deeply emotionally connected to them.
Montgomery learns to scuba dive in the book so she can meet octopuses in the wild on coral reefs. On one diving trip to Tahiti she goes to worship one Sunday morning at an eight-sided church. It has eight sides for a reason—it was built on the site of a much older temple to the local octopus god. And this is what she writes about the experience:
“The service is conducted in Tahitian, a language I don't understand. But I understand the power of worship, and the importance of contemplating mystery—whether in a church or diving a coral reef. The mystery that congregants seek here is no different, really, from the one I have sought in my interactions with Athena and Kali, Karma and Octavia. It is no different from the mystery we pursue in all our relationships, in all our deepest wonderings. We seek to fathom the soul.
“But what is the soul? Some say it is the self, the ‘I’ that inhabits the body; without the soul, the body is like a lightbulb with no electricity. But it is more than the engine of life, say others; it is what gives life meaning and purpose. Soul is the fingerprint of God.
“Others say that soul is our innermost being, the thing that gives us our senses, our intelligence, our emotions, our desires, our will, our personality, and identity. One calls soul ‘the indwelling consciousness that watches the mind come and go, that watches the world pass.’ Perhaps none of these definitions is true. Perhaps all of them are. But I am certain of one thing as I sit in my pew: If I have a soul—and I think I do—an octopus has a soul, too.”
The traditional Christian view of things is that, yes, God created all living things, but God created humans to be different and we’re the only living things who were given souls. Obviously, we are different from other animals—we have science, technology, language, culture, literature, art, and religion. But our growing understanding of evolution, genetics, and animal behavior forces us to ask if the difference between human beings and animals is one of kind or one of degree. Are humans and animals two different kinds of things on totally different trajectories? Or are humans with our incredible brains capable of reshaping the planet just one interesting branch on a tree of life full of complex, interesting creatures—and sometimes maybe even thinking, feeling creatures.
The Bible says that God created human beings in God’s own image. But it doesn’t say exactly what that means. And it doesn’t say that other animals or other parts of Creation don’t also reflect God’s image in some way. I believe we were created in God’s image, but I also think that God’s image is way bigger than us. Could the octopus be another reflection off another piece of God’s great big mirror?
If science is telling us that animals are more like us than we’ve previously wanted to admit, is it possible this similarity could extend beyond the boundaries of what science can tell us and go all the way to the soul? Is it possible that the belief that we’re the only ones with souls is just another example of misguided human exceptionalism—like thinking that the Earth is the center of the solar system?
Our scripture reading this morning says that on the sixth day God breathed the breath of life into the dust of the ground and the man, Adam, became a living soul. The word being translated as “soul” is the Hebrew word nephesh.
And our scripture reading says that on the fifth day God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm... And the word translated into English twice here as “creature” is the Hebrew word nephesh, the very same word translated as “soul” when it was referring to Adam. So, even when we translate the Bible, we sometimes like to separate ourselves from the animals.
Of course, we still haven’t defined what a soul is. Is it a supernatural part of you that is eternal and flies off somewhere when you’ve died? Is it your conscious experience living inside the phenomena of your material brain? Is it the great struggles and questions of your life? Or is it the simple enjoyment of a sunny day or the simple satisfaction of offering kindness to a stranger? Or is it a little bit of all these things?
I think sometimes words like “soul” and “spirit” can be too big to define. You could talk about them all day, you could write whole books about them, and the more you talk, the more you write, the bigger they grow. Sometimes, soul is just something you need to feel—feel without words: know, experience.
Sometimes, I just want to pray silently. And in my silent prayers I sometimes feel God more fully, more accessibly than I do when I’m preaching a sermon. All of God can be present in silence. But a sermon can only contain the tiniest little reflection of God. I think it may be the same for soul—for our own souls and the souls of other people and any other souls there may be in the other living creatures. Sometimes we need to stop thinking, quiet down, and just be present. If there is such a thing as soul somewhere, it won’t be defined by words or discovered by science. It happens within and between us.
As Montgomery writes, “While stroking an octopus, it is easy to fall into reverie. To share such a moment of deep tranquility with another being, especially one as different from us as the octopus, is a humbling privilege. It’s a shared sweetness, a gentle miracle, an uplink to universal consciousness.”
Perhaps we have been reluctant to assign souls to animals, especially squishy, slimy animals like octopuses, because we haven’t spent enough time with them—quality time, building meaningful relationships. It was only in the 1960s when Jane Goodall began studying our closest relatives, chimpanzees, in the wild by living with them that she learned that chimps made simple tools, and communicated, and (she asserted) were conscious beings more like us than different from us. Until she went to live with the chimps, we had no idea what or who they really were.
One of the things we have to consider when evaluating our beliefs is the consequence of those beliefs. The consequence of thinking of animals as soulless I believe has led to a reluctance to think morally about how we treat the animals in our care and how we treat animals in the wild. We often don’t think about the needs of animals at all because as soulless creatures we don’t imagine that they can be truly harmed, or if they can be harmed, then that harm doesn’t really matter morally because being soulless, animals don’t rise to a level of human or divine concern. We can mistreat them. We can wipe them out. Their suffering isn’t true suffering.
What would be the consequence of granting animals the benefit of the doubt? How might the world look if the birds and the fish and the wolves and the pigs were creatures with at least a little soul or the possibility of a little soul? Would we be kinder to the environment that animals need to survive? Would we work harder to protect endangered species? Would we stop animal testing? Would we raise the welfare standards for animals in factory farms?
Could animals with souls make the world a little better? I think they might. And I could even imagine a walk through the woods with your dog could become an even more beautiful, more spiritual, more God-filled experience. Imagine if a walk in the woods was not just an opportunity to spot living creatures, but an opportunity to meet and to get to know living souls.
Listen to how Montgomery describes one of her scuba dives:
“At last, in the warm embrace of the sea, breathing underwater, surrounded by the octopus’s liquid world, my breath rising in silver bubbles like a song of praise, here I am.
“There follows a parade of wonders: A splendid toadfish hides beneath a rock… It’s pancake flat, with thin, wavy, horizontal blue and white stripes, Day-Glo yellow fins, and whiskery barbels. A four-foot nurse shark sleeps beneath a coral shelf, peaceful as a prayer. A trumpet fish, yellow with dark stripes, floats with its long, tubular snout down, trying to blend in with some branching coral… A school of iridescent pink and yellow fish slide by inches from our masks, then wheel in unison like birds in the sky.
“I have known no natural state more like a dream than this. I feel elation cresting into ecstasy and experience bizarre sensations: my own breath resonates in my skull, faraway sounds thump in my chest, objects appear closer and larger than they really are. Like in a dream, the impossible unfolds before me, and yet I accept it unquestioningly. Beneath the water, I find myself in an altered state of consciousness, where the focus, range, and clarity of perception are dramatically changed.”
What if we altered our perceptions the way that Montgomery has? Because I think her description of that scuba dive is a description of a world filled will soul as diverse as life. Maybe that’s a world we’d all like to live in.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations