There are any number of circumstances in which one might confuse heaven and hell, including when one is in the latter but thinks they are in the former. For example, in A Nice Place to Visit, Rocky thinks he is in heaven for quite a while before he puts in a request to go to “the other place.” The request is denied, because he is already in the other place. Ontological confusion also occurs in “The Hunt,” when Hyder Simpson, accompanied by his hunting dog Rip believes they’ve arrived at the entrance to heaven, when they are actually at the gates of hell.
It might seem counterintuitive that anyone could confuse heaven and hell, since we understand them to have incompatible properties. Heaven, if it exists, is occupied by good people, hell, by bad people. In heaven, everyone is happy. In hell, everyone is unhappy. But the idea that we could be confused about which is which just mirrors our confusion about good and bad in this world: A plentiful supply of fossil fuels through the twentieth century appeared to be a wonderful thing. We had an inexpensive supply of energy to support the the rise of the industrial world, raising the standard of living for many. But the good of that energy supply appears to be outstripped by the negative effects it has had on our environment. The good turned out to be a bad, at least on balance. And there are plenty of examples of human actions, on the individual, group, and even global scale that have at one time appeared to be good, while on reflection being very bad. So our assessments of the goodness or badness of actions, states of affairs, whether natural of human-induced, are fallible. We are susceptible to short-sightedness, deception, biases, both cognitive and moral, and various limitations on our judgment and predictive powers.
When Hyder Simpson and Rip arrive appear in the afterlife, Hyder doesn’t know where he is, and that’s understandable, since it’s not clear that heaven and hell have a location. When he guesses that he’s at the gates of heaven, the gatekeeper doesn’t correct him. Rip growls, sensing that something isn’t right. When Hyder finds out that the membership rules exclude Rip, he refuses to to enter himself. He doesn’t doubt that this is heaven. But he also knows that it’s not for him, and he is confused at the injustice of his dog’s exclusion. As he puts it: “Dog has a right to have a man around, just as man has a right to have a dog around.”
In the decades since this episode aired, there has been an explosion of interest in animal rights. Regan’s 1983 book was among the first, and many have followed. The interest in animal rights resulted in part from work on the problem of consciousness in the philosophy of mind. It had long been argued, by Descartes and others, that non-human animals cannot think. But denying conscious states, such as states of pain, and other perceptual states, is much harder to maintain. And if other animals feel pain, what is the moral status of inflicting such pain? There may be a big gap between avoiding the infliction of unnecessary pain on animals and insuring their right to a place in heaven, but it’s a start.
Contemporary philosophers and other theorists, including cognitive ethologists, have argued, against Descartes, that some non-human animals have cognition as well as consciousness, reviving and furthering the anti-Cartesian position of Montaigne and Hume. In life, Rip was a hunting dog, with responsibility for flushing out raccoons so that Hyder could shoot them. Which hunter – non-human animal or human animal – has the more impressive skill set? Rip is no less impressive in the afterlife. He was suspicious at the gates of hell, growling at the gatekeeper, while Hyder was easily duped by the gatekeeper, and was prepared to walk right in. As the representative from heaven puts it: “A man – he’ll walk into hell with both eyes open. But even the devil can’t fool a dog.”
Rene Descartes, Discourse on the Method (1637)
David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, (1748, 1777) “Of the reason of animals”
Michel de Montaigne, Essays (1999)
T. Regan, The Case for Animal Rights (University of California Press, 1983)
Peter Godfrey Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016)