God’s creatures? Divine nature and the status of animals in the early modern beast-machine controversy

International Journal of Philosophy and Theology 74 (4):291-309 (2013)
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In early modern times it was not uncommon for thinkers to tease out from the nature of God various doctrines of substantial physical and metaphysical import. This approach was particularly fruitful in the so-called beast-machine controversy, which erupted following Descartes’ claim that animals are automata, that is, pure machines, without a spiritual, incorporeal soul. Over the course of this controversy, thinkers on both sides attempted to draw out important truths about the status of animals simply from the notion or attributes of God. Automatists – led by Nicolas Malebranche and Antoine Dilly – developed six such arguments, appealing to divine justice, providence, economy, glory (twice) and wisdom, while opponents to animal automatism developed two arguments, appealing to divine wisdom and goodness. In this article I shall examine the substance of all eight of these arguments, along with their origins, patronage, and variations, and the objections they elicited from opponents, with the aim of determining their suitability for use in contemporary debates about animal sentience and consciousness, and hence their relevance for contemporary philosophers.

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Lloyd Strickland
Manchester Metropolitan University


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