Dec 18th 2014

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

by Jeff Schweitzer

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology

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, see link to Amazon below). 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.

Dr. Jeff Schweitzer is a marine biologist, consultant and internationally recognized authority in ethics, conservation and development. He is the author of five books including Calorie Wars: Fat, Fact and Fiction (July 2011), and A New Moral Code (2010). Dr. Schweitzer has spoken at numerous international conferences in Asia, Russia, Europe and the United States.Dr. Schweitzer's work is based on his desire to introduce a stronger set of ethics into American efforts to improve the human condition worldwide. He has been instrumental in designing programs that demonstrate how third world development and protecting our resources are compatible goals. His vision is to inspire a framework that ensures that humans can grow and prosper indefinitely in a healthy environment.Formerly, Dr. Schweitzer served as an Assistant Director for International Affairs in the Office of Science and Technology Policy under former President Clinton. Prior to that, Dr. Schweitzer served as the Chief Environmental Officer at the State Department's Agency for International Development. In that role, he founded the multi-agency International Cooperative Biodiversity Group Program, a U.S. Government that promoted conservation through rational economic use of natural resources.Dr. Schweitzer began his scientific career in the field of marine biology. He earned his Ph.D. from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. He expanded his research at the Center for Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine. While at U.C. Irvine he was awarded the Science, Engineering and Diplomacy Fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.Dr. Schweitzer is a pilot and he founded and edited the Malibu Mirage, an aviation magazine dedicated to pilots flying these single-engine airplanes. He and his wife Sally are avid SCUBA divers and they travel widely to see new wildlife, never far from their roots as marine scientists..To learn more about Dr Schweitzer, visit his website at

Click here for ways to follow what's new on Facts & Arts.



This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.



Browse articles by author

More Essays

Apr 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Overall, our review has found that there isn’t evidence to back up the claims that veganism is good for your heart. But that is partly because there are few studies ....... But veganism may have other health benefits. Vegans have been found to have a healthier weight and lower blood glucose levels than those who consume meat and dairy. They are also less likely to develop cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. "
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "This has led some to claim that not just half, but perhaps nearly all advertising money is wasted, at least online. There are similar results outside of commerce. One review of field experiments in political campaigning argued “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero”. Zero!"
Mar 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Father is an extraordinary film, from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play entitled Le Père and directed by Zeller. I’m here to tell you why it is a ‘must see’." EDITOR'S NOTE: The official trailer is attached to the review.
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Picasso was 26 in 1907, when he completed the Demoiselles; de Kooning was 48 in 1952, when he finished Woman I.  The difference in their ages was not an accident, for studies of hundreds of painters have revealed a striking regularity - the conceptual painters who preconceive their paintings, from Raphael to Warhol, consistently make their greatest contributions earlier in their careers than experimental painters, from Rembrandt to Pollock, who paint directly, without preparatory studies."
Mar 26th 2021
EXTRACT: "Mental toughness levels are influenced by many different factors. While genetics are partly responsible, a person’s environment is also relevant. For example, both positive experiences while you’re young and mental toughness training programmes have been found to make people mentally tougher."
Mar 20th 2021

The city of Homs has been ravaged by war, leaving millions of people homeless an

Mar 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "There are two main rival models of ethics: one is based on rights, the other on duties. The rights-based model, which traces its philosophical origins to the work of John Locke in the 17th century, starts from the assumption that individuals have rights ....... According to this approach, duties are related to rights, but only in a subordinate role. My right to health implies a duty on my country to provide some healthcare services, to the best of its abilities. This is arguably the dominant interpretation when philosophers talk about rights, including human rights." ........ "Your right to get sick, or to risk getting sick, could imply a duty on others to look after you during your illness." ..... "The pre-eminence of rights in our moral compass has vindicated unacceptable levels of selfishness. It is imperative to undertake a fundamental duty not to get sick, and to do everything in our means to avoid causing others to get sick. Morally speaking, duties should come first and should not be subordinated to rights." ..... "Putting duties before rights is not a new, revolutionary idea. In fact it is one of the oldest rules in the book of ethics. Primum non nocere, or first do no harm, is the core principle in the Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors, widely attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates. It is also a fundamental principle in the moral philosophy of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who in De Officiis (On Duties) argues that the first task of justice is to prevent men and women from causing harm to others."
Mar 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Several studies have recently compared the difference between antibodies produced straight after a coronavirus infection and those that can be detected six months later. The findings have been both impressive and reassuring. Although there are fewer coronavirus-specific antibodies detectable in the blood six months after infection, the antibodies that remain have undergone significant changes. …….. the “mature” antibodies were better at recognising the variants."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Like Shakespeare, Goya sees evil as something existing in itself – indeed, the horror of evil arises precisely from its excess. It overflows and refuses to be contained by or integrated into our categories of reason or comprehension. By its very nature, evil refuses to remain within prescribed bounds – to remain fixed, say, within an economy where evil is counterbalanced by good. Evil is always excess of evil." ....... "Nowhere is this more evident than in war. Goya offers us a profound and sustained meditation on the nature of war ........ The image of a Napoleonic soldier gazing indifferently on a man who has been summarily hanged, probably by his own belt, expresses the tragedy of war – its dehumanization of both war’s victims and victors."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "A blockchain company has bought a piece of Banksy artwork and burnt it. But instead of destroying the value of the art, they claim to have made it more valuable, because it was sold as a piece of blockchain art. The company behind the stunt, called Injective Protocol, bought the screen print from a New York gallery. They then live-streamed its burning on the Twitter account BurntBanksy. But why would anyone buy a piece of art just to burn it? Understanding the answer requires us to delve into the tricky world of blockchain or “NFT” art."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Exercise is good for your health at every age – and you can reap the benefits no matter how late in life you start. But our latest research has shown another benefit of being physically active throughout life. We found that in the US, people who were more physically active as teenagers and throughout adulthood had lower healthcare costs."
Mar 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "Although around one in 14 people over 65 have Alzheimer’s disease, there’s still no cure, and no way to prevent the disease from progressing. But a recent study may bring us one step closer to preventing Alzheimer’s. The trial, which was conducted on animals, has found a specific molecule can prevent the buildup of a toxic protein known to cause Alzheimer’s in the brain."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The art historian George Kubler observed that scholars in the humanities “pretend to despise measurement because of its ‘scientific’ nature.” As if to illustrate his point Robert Storr, former dean of Yale’s School of Art, declared that artistic success is “completely unquantifiable.” In fact, however, artistic success can be quantified, in several ways. One of these is based on the analysis of texts produced by art scholars, and this measure can give us a systematic understanding of how changes in recent art have produced changes in the canon of art history."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The most politically sensitive option we looked at was the virus escaping from a laboratory. We concluded this was extremely unlikely."
Feb 16th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... these men were completely unaware that they had put their lives in the hands of doctors who not only had no intention of healing them but were committed to observing them until the final autopsy – since it was believed that an autopsy alone could scientifically confirm the study’s findings. As one researcher wrote in a 1933 letter to a colleague, “As I see, we have no further interest in these patients until they die.” ...... The unquestionable ethical failure of Tuskegee is one with which we must grapple, and of which we must never lose sight, lest we allow such moral disasters to repeat themselves. "
Feb 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "In 2010 Carlos Rodriguez, the president of Buenos Aires' Universidad del CEMA, created the world's first - and only - Center for Creativity Economics.  During the next ten years, the CCE presented a number of short courses and seminars.  But the most important of its events was an annual lecture by an Argentine artist, who was given a Creative Career Award."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "It’s not hard to see why. Although AI systems outperform humans in tasks that are often associated with a “high level of intelligence” (playing chess, Go, or Jeopardy), they are nowhere close to excelling at tasks that humans can master with little to no training (such as understanding jokes). What we call “common sense” is actually a massive base of tacit knowledge – the cumulative effect of experiencing the world and learning about it since childhood. Coding common-sense knowledge and feeding it into AI systems is an unresolved challenge. Although AI will continue to solve some difficult problems, it is a long way from performing many tasks that children undertake as a matter of course."
Feb 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "When it comes to being fit and healthy, we’re often reminded to aim to walk 10,000 steps per day. This can be a frustrating target to achieve, especially when we’re busy with work and other commitments. Most of us know by now that 10,000 steps is recommended everywhere as a target to achieve – and yet where did this number actually come from?"