Contemplating a journalist’s claim that apes have “spiritual” experiences, neuroscientist Michael Egnor notes a couple of problems. Writing at Mind Matters, he points out that spirituality is necessarily about a reality abstract from our concrete experiences, the spiritual realm. All animals experience heightened emotions, but those all have to do with the concrete reality around them.
No research indicates abstract thought on the part of apes or any other non-human creature. That’s not surprising since animals lack language, which is the prerequisite to contemplating abstractions.
All animals — human and non-human — experience joy and sadness, and all animals have access to the full range of perceptual and emotional experience. Animal perception and emotion may, at times, resemble human contemplation of abstract concepts but it is merely a resemblance; animal experience remains bound to particular things in the animal’s perceptual experience. Abstraction is beyond the reach of animal minds, because abstraction is an immaterial power of the mind, and only humans have immaterial thoughts. Only humans contemplate spiritual things.
Read the rest here. It’s an important reality-check, but of course assertions about ape “spirituality” aren’t about seeking an accurate picture of reality, of the real world and what goes on in it. They are an attempt to knock humans off our exceptional perch and teach us a lesson: That we’re not special after all. The wish to demote, punish, and degrade ourselves this way, a neurosis special to our modern culture, is itself, ironically, a tribute to human exceptionalism. No other animals could be this crazy.