The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the twenty-sixth contribution in the series, submitted by Dr. Sameer Yadav.

Anthropocentrism: A Problem for Neuroethology and Philosophical Theology

As the summer months grow hotter it becomes ant-season inside our home.  In search of food and water, a single scout will inevitably end up discovering the smallest drips of water and crumbs we leave behind, and return in legion.   Despite the nuisance, I can’t help but be impressed with the intelligence exhibited in their behavior — the directional savvy displayed in where and how our morsels are discovered, the complicated path-finding required for a scout to return to its compatriots with the happy news, the incredible detail of signaling and cooperation involved in the transport and distribution of what they find.   Researchers in animal intelligence report that in order for ants to make their way into my house and secure that Nature Valley granola bar, they have to track sun-position, wind direction, and a host of other environmental cues, while choosing the most efficient routes from among various options.  They can detect when they are lost and deploy sophisticated search-patterns that require them to draw on recent memory such as backtracking to their last known location.   How can creatures with such tiny brains (no offense) and comparatively limited neurological resources (as compared with us) exhibit such complex behavior?


A beautiful brain. Photo: Amador-Vargas et al.

Antoine Wystrach (a neuroethologist at the University of Edinburgh) distinguishes between two different approaches to analyzing and explaining an animal’s intelligence.  The first is a “top down” approach that tells us to “start with our own assumptions about human intelligence and then design experiments that ask whether animals posses similar anthropomorphic abilities.”1 But while this approach seems serviceable enough when dealing with mammals that more nearly resemble us, it doesn’t work so well when dealing with insects like ants.  For, as Wystrach notes, while “the complexity of their behavioral repertoire is comparable to any mammal,”2 the mechanisms and processes that enable them to exhibit intelligence are radically different than mammals.   For example, Wystrach observes that mammalian cognition involves integrating all of our sensory inputs into a coordinated mental “map” of our environment, whereas ants manifestly lack the brainpower or anatomy to do that.  A top down approach that identifies the marks of intelligence with the kind of cognitive complexity that we exhibit therefore leaves us without resources to make sense of what certainly looks like intelligent behavior in ant navigation and social coordination. We might find ourselves hastily concluding that their apparent intelligence is in fact illusory.  As long as our approach is anthropocentric — making a distinctively human form of intelligence the paradigm of intelligence per se — the cognitive lives of ants will necessarily elude us.

Instead, Wystarch commends the recent shift toward a more “bottom up” approach that begins by recognizing the simplicity or complexity of intelligent animal behavior as defined by the interactive relationship of the relevant animal to its natural environment.  The kinds of complexity that count as mammalian or human intelligence will depend on the unique ways that we inhabit our environment as the kind of thing we are.   A bottom up approach therefore assumes that an animal “is the simplest it can be, whilst looking for proof of a higher intelligence” where we are not conflating “intelligence” with “human intelligence.” Assessing our relative intelligence as compared with other mammals might thus proceed by comparing the simplicity or complexity of our comportment to our surroundings against a similar background of bodily adaptation to our environment.   But ants are not enough like us to make this sort of comparison.  We cannot simply regard them as displaying a more rudimentary or lesser form of human intelligence without distorting our picture of what they are.  It’s true that ants do not produce cognitive maps, but such maps would not afford them the particular kind of complexity that animals of their sort require to count as intelligent ants. For example, they have adapted to develop many distinct navigational and sensory mechanisms that operate together but independently of one another in order to avoid the potential confusions of cross-talk between them that would be detrimental to their foraging and cooperation. The change in perspective from a top down to a bottom up approach, Wystrach concludes, reveals “an alien complexity, one not driven by anthropomorphic considerations.”3

This methodological point about avoiding anthropocentrism in the study of ants can help to illuminate a significant problem and methodological debate amongst philosophical theologians and philosophers of religion about the role of anthropocentrism in the study of God.  God, according to theism, is an uncreated and perfect being who possesses a perfect mind and will. Creating, sustaining and morally governing the created order are divine actions of a supreme intelligence.  But what sort of intelligence is divine intelligence?  An ant is an ant in virtue of embodying a particular form of intelligent behavior.  How should we properly understand the form of cognitive life in virtue of which God is God?  If a top-down approach to ants misleads us when it supposes that the nature of ant-intelligence is simply a lesser form of human intelligence, then wouldn’t it be similarly misleading to suppose that a divine intelligence is just a greater (even if infinitely greater) version of human intelligence?  If we want to understand what God is in the integrity of God’s own life in a way similar to Wystrach’s desire to study what ants are in the integrity of their own lives, we seem to face the same danger of anthropocentrism that he describes.


Search for intelligence. Image: Andrea Lucky/Myrmecos

Ant researchers can to some degree overcome their anthropocentrism by looking to the way an ant’s life is adapted to its environment in order to assess the kind of intelligence that makes it what it is.  But that strategy is not available to theologians.  There is no wider natural habitat to which God is adapted that theologians could likewise investigate.  On a classical theistic picture, God preexisted creation and was not under compulsion to create at all.  God’s life does not essentially depend upon the unique ways that God acts toward creatures.  The kind of divine intelligent behavior available to us may therefore be consistent with the form of divine intelligence that is essential and defining of God, but it cannot be identical to the form of intelligence that is essential and defining of God.  Rather, whatever characteristic behavior most properly marks out God being whatever God is — behavior that God is compelled to do simply in virtue of the kind of thing God is — must be behavior that takes place eternally beyond and apart from God’s voluntary act of creation.

If there is a “natural habitat” for the manifestations of mind and will that are essential to the divine nature that is parallel to the navigational and social behavior of ants, it can only be an eternal, uncreated and transcendent habitat apart from God’s relation to any creature.  A divine environment of that sort could only be the life of God itself.  But as a matter of definition, God’s life as it is independently of creatures is not available to us for a bottom up approach to the divine intelligence.  We cannot cross the boundary of creation to study God in God’s “natural” environment. Theologians therefore seem to be stuck with a top down approach to God — one that forces us to investigate the divine mind and will according to God’s contingent relationship to creation, and by way of the concepts of intelligence we can derive from creaturely modes of intelligence.  Philosophical theologians are divided about how to properly respond to the fact that we are stuck with a top down approach to God.

On the one hand there are those who suppose that the way God shows up to us in creation is sufficient for us to say what God is “really” and essentially like and on the other there are those who deny this.  Those affirmative of a top down approach to characterize the essential nature of the divine mind and will we can call “cataphatic” theologians (from the Greek kataphasis meaning “affirmation”), and those denying that a top down approach can get us that kind of understanding we can call “apophatic” theologians (from the Greek “apophasis” meaning “denial”).  Apophatic theologians concede that a top down approach can certainly afford us true characterizations of God’s actions, or even true characterizations of the creaturely manifestations of the divine intelligence, but they insist that what eludes us is a true characterization of the peculiar form of the divine mind or will in virtue of which God is God rather than, say, an ant or a human.  But for our top down affirmations to go beyond this into a strongly cataphatic theology — a claim to comprehend what the divine mind is essentially like “in itself,” and apart from the creaturely ways that it shows up to us — is just as distorting and misleading as claiming to understand ant intelligence on the model of distinctively human intelligence.  More than that, it is what theologians term “idolatry” — the illicit identification of something divine with something created.


A tiny intelligence in its foreign environment. Photo: Alex Wild

Cataphatic theologians have a ready reply.  Notice, they might say, that in the case of the ants, a bottom-up approach continues to require some more general “top down” assumptions.  Ant intelligence and mammalian intelligence are not adapted to the same natural environments, but their distinct comportments still share enough in common to be called forms of intelligence.  Similarly then, we have to think that there is some shared ground between God and us (and ants!) that enables us to apply the term “intelligence” to all of us.

But the apophatic theologians also have a rejoinder.  Granted, we say — and it is high time to reveal that I count myself among their number — God indeed exhibits behavior in relation to creatures that we may rightly call intelligent just as humans and ants exhibit behavior that merits our use of the same term.  Further, we can rightly infer from this that God is capable of relating to us as a mind, according to our ordinary concept of mindedness.  But we cannot infer from this that God is a mind in any sense of that term available to us as creatures.  We can only infer that God shows up to us as minded in our sense.  We might suppose even further that there is something essential about God that enables God to show up to creatures as minded in our sense.  Whatever it is about God that might explain or ground God’s being able to show up to us in this way, however, is not something we could possibly claim to know from within the limits of our way of being minded.

To claim we could possess that kind of knowledge might be something like an ant supposing that what it is to be human is exhausted by what we share with them, and further supposing that our commonality names what is essential about us both being what we are.  In the case of creatures, a bottom-up approach will always lead us back to some common “we” rooted in our shared natures — “we intelligences,” (albeit exhibited in different ways), “we sentient beings” (albeit with different sensory capacities), “we creatures” (albeit of different sorts).  But in the case of God our commonality, our shared “we”, is not a sharing of any common nature.  There is no substantial kinship in the kinds of things we are and whatever kind of thing God is.  Our kinship is not a matter of nature, but rather what theologians call “grace” — a kinship in which God chooses to create a world in which God can show up to and for us in terms of the kind of thing we are.

Theists should therefore take to heart Wystrach’s approach to ants.  We should retain a “bottom-up” interest in God even while recognizing that this forces us to confess that the divine is and must be to us a mystery.  But it is consistent with this to recognize that God’s interest in creatures is “top-down.”  Whatever God is, he is capable of showing up to creation as an intelligence, and God has made creatures variously capable of bearing diverse kinds of intelligence that in their own ways resemble God’s manifestations of mind.  These cognitive resemblances are what theologians have in mind by identifying the embodied mindedness of humans with our being “made in the image of God.”  But why think that God’s top-down interest in created modes of intelligence is limited to a human mode of mindedness, even if it is in a way concentrated there?  As minded creatures, ants presumably bear the divine image too.  As in neuroethology so too in theology we ought to avoid being overly ANThropocentric (sad horn).






SameerYadavDr. Sameer Yadav is Assistant Professor of Theology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA.  He holds a Masters degree in theology from Yale Divinity School and a Doctorate in systematic and philosophical theology from Duke Divinity School.  His scholarly work focuses on theories of religious experience in the Christian mystical tradition and other topics in contemporary theology and philosophy of religion.  Sameer is the author of The Problem of Perception and the Experience of God (Fortress Press, 2015) as well as various articles and is currently working on two monographs, one on apophaticism in theology and another on divine hiddenness.