12/17/2014 06:59 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2015

Soul Search: Why Pope Francis Is Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Pope Francis has opened the Pearly Gates to Blue Heelers. The Pope said that "all creatures...will be vested with the joy and love of God, without limits." He quoted Pope Paul VI saying that "Paradise is open to all creatures." However, little Rover should not yet get too excited about a supply of perpetual dog treats and slow postal workers in shorts. There seems to be some papal problems with this pronouncement, some disagreements among the papal powers. Previous church leaders, like Pope Benedict, formally denied animal entry to heaven with the pronouncement that, "For other creatures, who are not called to eternity, death just means the end of existence on Earth." Benedict forever condemned his beloved cats to something less than eternal bliss. But Pope Paul VI before him implied otherwise, claiming that "one day we will see our animals in the eternity of Christ." God is sending a mixed signal to his primary spokesmen.

The Menagerie

In spite of the confusion from above, let us assume for the moment that the pro-animal contingent of the papacy is right. Who among life's menagerie will be admitted to heaven? I suspect the Pope did not think this through. For example, what exactly is meant by "all creatures" and "our animals"? Those two descriptors mean very different things; "creatures" is all inclusive, while "animals" excludes the other major life forms of plants, fungi, archaebacterial and bacteria. But even if we restrict ourselves to the animal kingdom, we cut a wide swatch through life. Are we restricting ourselves to mammals? If so, are we including naked mole rates? Are Rhinos going to heaven? And by what rationale would we even restrict ourselves to mammals since they are only a small subset of animals? We should not forget alligators or birds. Why stop there; what about insects and spiders, which of course are animals. Tarantulas are pretty smart. We certainly have no reason to exclude sponges, which are defined as sessile animals. And why just animals; how about bacteria and viruses? How heavenly is heaven going to be if you have to worry about catching Ebola? Each and every one of these beings is one of "god's creatures." I can see no reason to send a German Shepherd off to the angels but deny that same ride to a platypus or groundhog. Even within primate there exists a huge variety of behaviors and intelligence: does the diminutive lemur get a raw deal while the great apes get a coupon to heaven?

Pope Francis is trying to weasel out of a problem that cannot be solved using sleight of hand and questionable biology. However clever Francis may want to be about this, nothing is mentioned in the bible about Fido having a soul that ascends to heaven. His religious teachings as traditionally interpreted do not accommodate the obvious -- that creatures other than humans are sentient beings. Which brings up the self-evident question why would only humans go to heaven? No matter what the answer or how it is justified, religious doctrine is clear: only humans are made in god's image, only humans can know god.

Soul Search

The sense we have that a dog might qualify for heaven but a jumping spider might not mainly comes down to the difference we assign to their brain power. Delving a little deeper, we would have greater expectations and hopes for eternal bliss for animals that are intelligent enough to be self-conscience and self-aware. So in order to begin addressing the question of soul, we need to be more precise in our thinking about intelligence, self-consciousness and self-awareness. Without this distinction we would soon be talking about plants going to that great garden in the sky. Face it; we all know that viruses, bacteria, plants and some animals like sponges are not going to heaven. And we know that because of our instinct for what it means to be intelligent, self-conscience and self-aware. But because those concepts are so critical to understanding what animals make the cut, let's define them more formally. A rough hierarchy exits among these concepts, so we'll take them in order.


One must be intelligent to be self-conscious, and in turn, one must be self-conscious to be self-aware. Finally, self-awareness must be present to feel empathy. So we begin with intelligence, which can be thought of as the ability to learn from experience (acquire and retain new knowledge), and to subsequently apply that new knowledge with flexibility to manipulate or adapt to a changing environment. Or we can view intelligence as the ability to create abstract thought, beyond instinct or responses to sensory input.

We need to recognize that smarts are situationally dependent. You would be severely challenged to teach a porpoise to climb a tree. You may well be able to solve math problems, but your dog will learn more quickly and more effectively than you ever could to sniff out the drugs in your colleague's suitcase, and to notify you of the contraband. An animal's intelligence, or more precisely, its ability to manifest its intelligence, is tightly correlated with its natural environment, and its evolutionary adaptations. That reality complicates our soul search.


The definition of self-consciousness can be distilled to: understanding that you as an individual are distinct from the external environment, and at the same time recognizing that others are similarly aware of you as an individual. I can only recognize Ralph as a unique person if I first understand that I too am an individual.


Self-awareness is a further refinement of the concept of self-consciousness in that you not only recognize yourself as an individual relative to others and the physical environment, but you are aware of your own mental state, including your own internal thoughts independent of the external world. Your thoughts are unavailable to anybody but you until you decide to expose them to the external world either through behavior or some type of communication. Self-awareness depends on no other creature but you. You would be self-aware even if you were the last person on earth, with no other sentient being to recognize your presence. Self-awareness is your brain acknowledging its own existence.

Dualism and the Center of the Universe

We have now in our hand the minimum requirements for heaven; but being smart is not enough. In publishing his seminal work, the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, in 1670, Baruch Spinoza established himself as the first modern philosopher, and therefore an early target of Christian wrath. The Church quickly denounced Tractatus as "the most vile and sacrilegious book the world has ever seen." His biggest crime? Spinoza believed the bible to be nothing but a tale told by man, and that the soul dies with the body; that there is no afterlife. This has implications for all other Church teachings. So enjoined the battle that rages today. (For this full story and references, see Beyond Cosmic Dice: Moral Life in a Random World). But unlike in years past, science now has something to say about this matter.

Until recently, most scientists treated any study of intelligence or self-awareness as the third rail of academics -- touch it and die. That attitude has changed over the past decade, however. Neuroscience (the field in which I have my Ph.D.) is moving beyond the old and false dualist arguments that posit that the mental and physical are different in kind, or that understanding the brain will not lead to an understanding of the mind. Dualism (separating mind and brain) arises from the deep human need to offer an explanation for what is not yet understood. We have difficulty just saying, "we don't yet know" while searching for the answer. From the ancients trying to explain the rising and setting sun to modern efforts to understand the beginning of the universe, humans simply make up comforting explanations when nothing more is available, with little regard to objective truth. What could be more comforting than knowing that the earth is the center of the universe, around which everything revolves? This geocentric ("earth-centric") view was taught as an absolute truth for almost 1500 years until Copernicus and Galileo proved instead that the earth revolves around the sun. We don't yet know the neural mechanisms underlying consciousness, so we make up the notion that it is somehow a mysterious entity separate from the brain. Dualism is nothing more than the neurobiological equivalent of geocentrism -- a false doctrine created out of a deep need to understand something that is not yet understood. Instead of admitting we don't know we make up a comforting but answer false answer that the mind is separate from the brain.

And now we come to the crux of the matter. Dualism also contributes to the persistent idea that humans have souls, something beyond the body, just as the mind is something beyond the brain. By rejecting dualism, the notion of a soul becomes equally insupportable. So the question of who goes to heaven is mute. We no longer have to go through the tortuous exercise of counting the number of angels on a pin head.

Why Humans?

For the sake of continued argument, let's say that the concept of soul is valid. In spite of what Francis said the Catholic Church, and in fact most of Christianity, still teaches today that only humans have souls. In 1990 Pope John Paul II was perhaps the first church leader to concede that "animals possess a soul" and are the "fruit of the creative action of the Holy Spirit and merit respect." While these are kind words, they are but a few in the face of 2000 years of contrary history; and the idea was contradicted by subsequent popes. Moreover, his words conflict directly with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states:

Of all visible creatures only man is "able to know and love his creator." He is "the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake," and he alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God's own life. It was for this end that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity. (CCC #356)

Would a chimpanzee sharing 97 percent of our genome not have a soul? Does this mean that the soul, and the entirety of our human dignity, resides in the differential 3 percent? Would a chimpanzee have a soul, but not an elephant because their genome is less human?

We have this conundrum of who has a soul and who goes to heaven because the basic premise on the question is rather absurd. The concept of a soul is fatally flawed, just as is the idea of dualism. We avoid this silly debate entirely by admitting that nobody has a soul and nobody is going to heaven. But Francis can't have it both ways: if all creatures can go to heaven, it trivializes the very idea of a soul (really, bacteria have a soul?); if Benedict is right, then we can't allow an exception for dogs or other animals we deem worthy based on squishy logic. In the world of biology, intelligence, self-consciousness and self-awareness are on a continuum; and our ability to assess these characteristics is limited by an animal's ability to manifest them in the right environment. There simply is no way pick and choose who goes and who stays other than to admit the choices are completely arbitrary, hardly worthy of god's work.

Pope Benedict almost got it right when he said, "For other creatures, who are not called to eternity, death just means the end of existence on Earth." He just needed to include one more species, humans, and he would be absolutely correct.