Reductionist dogs and the near death experience.


One of the experiences that many of us share, is having our hearts melted by the way that dogs look at us. Of the different news stories this week, dogs have provided some of the most colourful. Or at least the look on dogs faces that melts our hearts. That, ‘are you going to love me’ look. or even ‘I love you very much will you love me back?” It could, of course, be something more basic and needy like an ‘are you going to feed me’ look?

Dog–people love their dogs for that look of mutuality. It’s wordless, of course, but it speaks volumes and touches our hearts. 

Except that according to Juliane Kaminski of Portsmouth University, it doesn’t. The look is not communicating love, need, mutuality and vulnerability. “Instead you are being manipulated by thousands of years of canine evolution, which has changed the facial structure of dogs, so that they can inveigle their way into your affections.”

It seems that creating the look is down to an evolutionary and rather cunning muscle that creates this raised eyebrow. We like it. We respond by thinking that when a dog raises its eyebrows it does it for similar reasons that we do. Wolves haven’t developed it, so we don’t like them. Domestic dogs have, so we love them.

Why does this matter? Because it exposes two very different ways of looking at world, and even two ways of looking at or being unable to see, love.

I have always liked the computing acronym GIGO; garbage in, garbage out, because I think it works to reminder us that if you ask the wrong question you get the wrong answer; or perhaps more accurately, the kind of question you ask will affect the kind of answer you get.

The great chasm between science and religion has always been that scientists ask ‘how’ questions’ and the religious or spiritual, ask ‘why’ questions. 

We usually get trouble when the ‘how’s’ and ‘why’s’ get mixed up. The trouble with the dog research is that seems to ask a ‘why’ question but wraps it in a ‘how’ process. This becomes the proposal that because evolution tells us ‘how’ the capacity of a dog to look meaningfully developed, the answer to ‘why’ is it looking at me so meaningfully can’t be love, it must be about the survival of the fittest. 

The same approach has been applied by scientists to Near Death Experiences.  When I was teaching psychology at university this was one area I found particularly interesting. It was fascinating to look at some of the explanations that a more hard-nosed experimental psychology was offering.  I had some personal reasons for this interest. I had experienced one myself, aged 19. I had drunk a litre of vodka in a rapid binge. One effect this has is to impair the respiratory reflexes. It’s very likely that my breathing was at the very least, seriously impaired for some hours.   

And in those hours I thought I saw myself leaving my body, floating upwards and ending up in the presence of the courts of heaven, facing some form of tribunal, to be judged. It seemed to me at the time that the Light, (God?) was so intensely pure and so terrifyingly just, that there was a very real chance of my being sent away from his presence into hell. I remember thinking ‘if that happens at least I will have the satisfaction of knowing that there was justice in the universe ’

So it came to me as a surprise to find the tribunal ending withmy being declared forgiven and being sent back. What was just as much of a surprise was to find that instead of being ill and sick for days after a serious bout of alcohol poisoning, I came to, feeling extraordinarily well, both physically and psychologically. Even if I had imagined the Light, could I have imagined the good health?

Some of the more interesting research work in the world of psychology suggested that what people who had these experiences were encountering was not God, as they thought, but their own nervous system. The classic dark tunnels and bright light associated by so many who have these experiences were not taking place out there, but were instead an experience of the hard wiring of our own nervous infrastructure. ‘How’ in this more biological script blocks out what we would otherwise approach as a ‘why’.

The moral seems to be that if you assume that everything that happens to us can be reduced to either biology or evolution, then forgiveness is only a offshoot of electrical synapses we have misread; and a dog’s loving look is only a very particular evolved muscle that changes the shape of a dog’s eye to ensure that a human being is sufficiently hoodwinked to feed him. 

Is the dog man’s best friend or man’s most effective parasite? Does the look mean ‘this will make you feed me’ or something more reciprocal? Science v religion may not come down so much as to ‘how’ versus ‘why’, or even empiricism versus faith. 

It may also come down to the difference between a world that recognises and prefers the experience of love to the assumption of manipulation.