Natural Intelligence

The following article appeared in the September issue of Roqueta, Menorca’s English-language magazine.

I was going to write something about artificial intelligence from a spiritual, theological, or philosophical point of view.  But then a parrot died (not mine, and, no, this is not going to be a reference to Monty Python) and drew my thoughts elsewhere, more towards natural intelligence.  In the case of a parrot, there is more often than not a lot of intelligence.  And having lived with our cat for 16 years, I can attest to the rather specialised form of feline intelligence that is aimed at making humans feel like inferior and inadequate servants. 

Outside the home, we are fortunate in Menorca to find ourselves easily away from urban settings, where we can come across tortoises, snakes, rabbits, amongst others, and abundant avian life, including my beloved hoopoes (paput in Menorquín).  

The pets that we keep in our homes and the creatures that we encounter in the wild all help us to connect to a part of the created order that is not human.  They also give us a taste of mortality – but let’s set that aside for now.  Connecting to something outside of ourselves actually helps us to define what it means to be human, and helps us to understand that we are part of something larger than ourselves: a rich, created universe, in which life is manifest in many different forms.  Which ought to teach us that ‘intelligence’ is something that rather depends upon the circumstances in which it is applied.  

For example, there is a book called The Hidden Life of Trees, which includes a description of the way in which trees communicate, using scent and electrical impulses, together with what the author describes as a ‘wood wide web’ of soil fungi that connects vegetation in an intimate network that can convey information and goods.  And, as he writes, the reason that trees communicate is that they need each other.  So do we.  We need each other – and we need the trees, but we don’t seem to be very good at communicating with them, other than by cutting them down.  Although I have been know to talk to the plants on our terraza, to encourage their growth! 

I once saw a quote from Tracy Snell, who is Garden Manager – Ecology & Woodland, for RHS Bridgewater, who wrote this: ’People aren’t as connected these days to nature and it’s so important. When you go out in to those open spaces you feel your stress levels decrease, you can take time out.’  We really do need to find ways to immerse ourselves in the non-human parts of creation – animal, vegetable and mineral. 

The month of September is, in many churches, a time to celebrate ‘the season of creation.’  The Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios I proclaimed 1 September as a day of prayer for creation for the Orthodox churches in 1989; the Orthodox church year starts on that day with a commemoration of how God created the world.  Following the leadership of the Patriarch and the World Council of Churches, Christians worldwide have come to embrace the season as part of their annual calendar.  

It gives us an opportunity to spend a month contemplating our relationship with the world around us, and the way in which we exercise stewardship of it.  At the end of July, I was invited to speak at an ecumenical forum organised by the Roman Catholic diocese of Menorca focusing on Laudato Sí, the Pope’s Encyclical Letter of 2015 on the ‘care of our common home.’  I mentioned that while we often make decisions based upon economic considerations, our understanding of the word ‘economy’ belies its Greek origins as a word meaning ‘household.’  Economy is not only about money, but about the well-being of the whole home – the home of humanity: doing the right thing for our neighbours, or for the planet itself, for the common good.

The American ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ includes these words: ‘As he died to make men holy, let us live to set them free.’  The Canadian poet Leonard Cohen, in one of his songs, rewrote those words: ’As he died to make men holy, let us die to make things cheap.’  Is that the economy that we really want?  Creation is for us to care for, not to exploit.

So, what about mortality?  We have a cat who is 15 years old.  The parrot who died had been with his owner for 20 years.  Even though parrots have long life expectancies, they quite often pre-decease us.  The hamsters, rats, guinea pigs, even cats and dogs, whom I have taken for a one-way trip to the vet are many.  We live in a culture that eschews mention of death, which is why we have so many euphemisms for it (such as ‘one way trip to the vet!’).  This might lead me back into Monty Python dead parrot territory, but that is a temptation to be resisted.  At least life with our pets gives us an insight into life’s temporary nature, and perhaps allows us to open ourselves to questions about our own mortality and the way it might connect to eternity – and how pets fit into that picture. 

There was a man in my first parish in Carmel, California, who grumbled about my preaching, which seemed to him too radical.  But after one Sunday in October, when the celebration of Saint Francis offered an opportunity to bless animals, he heard me say that I could not envisage any reason why our pets should not be a part of resurrection, or eternal life, as extensions of our own personalities.  Basically, quoting C.S. Lewis, he heard me say that dogs do go to heaven.  He came up to me afterwards and told me that his opinion of my preaching had suddenly improved drastically (he loved his dogs). 

I feel sad for those who for various reasons are unable or unwilling to share their life with a non-human creature, because there is an aspect of sensitivity that develops through our non-verbal communication with our pets.  Or, in the case of our cat, or the recently deceased parrot, communication with a decidedly verbal nature!  I do believe that it is true that our relationship with all of the world around us, but especially those animals who come to share our lives and homes intimately, enriches us, and gives a deeper dimension to human intelligence. 

As for artificial intelligence – well, that will have to wait for another time. 

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