Do animals have a soul?
Dr. Heike Baranzke / Theological Ethics of Catholic Theology
Photo: UniService Transfer

Do animals have a soul?

Ethicist Dr. Heike Baranzke on the long road of the animal soul debate.

Pino is a three-year-old Italian hunting dog. He loves and lives his life in Wuppertal, not always according to his master's ideas. But one thing is certain: Pino has a soul. But what is that exactly?
At Bergische Universität, ethicist Dr. Heike Baranzke teaches in the Catholic theology department. The subject of animal souls has occupied the scientist for years. The first records of it go back to the pre-Christian period of Western intellectual history, when clever Greek minds created the first texts on the soul, which we still interpret and interpret today.

Animal soul can be thought only with human soul

""I have to start with the concept of man,"" says Baranzke, ""you can't talk about the animal without talking about man. The way we design the animal, we always make a lot of statements about how we actually see ourselves. The question of the animal soul always involves an anthropological debate about identity."" And this begins in the more systematically complex form already with Plato more than 400 years B.C. Plato and his successors thereby fall back on older heterogeneous traditions about the soul, which they had connected with the breath of life or also with the blood as apparent bearers of the experience of aliveness. ""And when people die, whether naturally or on the battlefield, or when one observes that animals are killed, that is, the blood escapes through slaughter, or even the breath escapes, that with it this principle of life, the soul, also escapes."" Plato now expands the soul for the first time to a doctrine of the three soul parts: ""With Plato we still have the nutritive and impulse soul, which sat in the abdomen, the animal courage- affect- and sensation soul in the heart and the intellectual soul, which sat in the brain."" In analogy to this hierarchy of soul parts, Plato had also thought of the structure of the state order. ""The state is led by the philosophers who think, is courageously defended by the brave soldiers, and the merchants and peasants have to provide food at the base."" A generation later, he said, Plato's disciple Aristotle redefined the soul-parts doctrine distributed over the body into a soul-property doctrine with its seat in the heart. ""He was, after all, not only an ethicist but also an avid observer of nature and a physician. He then did embryological studies on the largest cell that could be seen without a microscope, namely the chicken egg, and looked to see what moves first in the course of chicken development, because for Aristotle the soul was considered the life-moving principle, i.e., the principle that moves all organic beings out of themselves."" In ancient times, however, people used a broad, still undifferentiated concept of motion that included not only locomotion but also nutrition and growth as movements. Aristotle saw that in the chicken embryo the tiny heart moved first, which he called the jumping point, a phrase that has survived in the vocabulary of language to this day. ""And there he decided, there sits the soul!"" This natural-philosophical soul faculty theory of Aristotle, according to which plants, animals and humans had different numbers of soul faculties, had been successively, this could be traced in late antiquity as well as in the course of medieval alchemy, physiologized or mechanized, i.e. the vegetative faculties were transferred e.g. into the metabolic biology and hormone theory and the animal sensory faculties in the early modern times into mechanistic, e.g. hydraulic conceptions etc.. What remained for a long time were the intellectual soul faculties of man, which meant that the old very extensive concept of soul was intellectually shrunk in our history of philosophy and ideas and taken as a characteristic distinguishing feature between man and animal: Plants and animals were regarded as soulless automata, while only man was granted an immortal spirit-soul in the body-machine. In our time also the human thinking faculties are now neurobiologically redefined, so that the concept of soul no longer plays a role in the life sciences.

The importance of animals in the Bible

Animals play an important role in human history. In many countries they were even worshipped as gods, and they also have an important function in the Bible. In the Noah's Ark story, for example, they form a covenant with mankind after the Flood, and in the Book of Job it even says: 'But only ask the animals, they will teach you'. At first, this sounds like quite a lot of equality, but it quickly shifts again. This is due to the fact that in the Old Testament, which we share with the Jewish people, a rich wisdom teaching inherited from the ancient Egyptians and a high interest in observations of nature were still handed down in creation-theological texts. Thus, the paradise narrative in the second chapter of the Book of Genesis and Psalm 104 naturally assume the similarity of humans and animals in terms of sentience and aliveness. Humans and animals are regarded as living beings through whose throats the breath of the Creator blows.... In the New Testament, on the other hand, not much thought had been given to the human-animal relationship, and there was a reason for that. According to Baranzke: ""Paul is the first, most effective theologian who writes the first letters around 50 AD after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, whom he knew only by hearsay. He lives in a specific, historical expectation of the near future. I.e. Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified one, is God's son and he will soon come again. Against the background of near expectation, it is psychologically understandable that Paul and his contemporaries no longer expended much energy on the long-term regulation of areas of life that did not seem to be directly related to their own salvation and relationship with God.""

Parousia delay makes rules necessary

In Christian theology, parousia delay refers to the failure of Christ to return. So the near expectation was delayed and the church fathers had to settle into the world with new rules. ""The Roman Empire had long been influenced by Hellenistic Greek thought from the environment, and Stoic philosophy was leading the way,"" the scholar explains. ""It formed the everyday ideological background for most of the citizens*. According to the Stoa, animals are called 'reasonless creatures.' And according to the Stoic theory of natural law, it was then said that contracts or legal and moral relations can only be had with rational beings, and that there can be no regulations with anything that by nature lacks reason."" These ideas were also adopted by Augustine (345 - 430 AD), who denied animals an independent connection to God. ""The intellectualism of Hellenistic philosophy and ethics has the consequence that animals, in the absence of a spiritual soul of reason, fall out of the moral and legal obligation and out of the religious connection to salvation."" This has fatal consequences.

Does he have a soul?
Pino, a three-year-old Spinone Italiano
Photo: UniService Transfer

""I believe that even the Belferlein, the little dogs, will go to heaven and that every creature has an immortal soul."" (Martin Luther)

That animals have feelings was undisputed until the 17th century, Baranzke explains, but these feelings were considered to be merely lower soul faculties of the animal sensory or feeling soul. The vegetative and sensitive soul faculties were rigorously mechanized by the philosopher, mathematician and physicist René Descartes (1596 - 1650), who was the first to propose an automaton theory of animals. ""He really had the monstrosity in the first half of the 17th century to deny animals sentience and any consciousness and to declare them automatons."" In turn, he said, it was mainly Protestant dissident movements such as the Pietists that developed a counter-position. ""Suffering in the world was perceived by them as nothing specifically human, but as something that connected humans and animals,"" Baranzke says. Therefore, the Pietists, who saw humans primarily as sinners who had brought suffering into the world through original sin, would have seen it as man's religious duty to alleviate the groaning of all suffering creatures. ""In the wake of this co-creative ethos of responsibility, the Pietists not only intensively founded orphanages and soup kitchens for the relief of poverty, but equally institutions for the suffering of animals. The first animal welfare societies are of Protestant origin."" The Catholic Church, which is more intellectualistic, did not get involved until much later, he said. One could see very clearly in the development that the Catholic South had not made any efforts in animal protection for a long time.

The Catholic Church rediscovers Francis of Assisi

In the development of animal protection legislation, Martins`s Act of 1822 is an important milestone. England passes this first animal protection law, providing an effective impetus for the development of the animal protection movement in Protestant countries such as Germany, Scandinavia and the United States. This puts the Catholic Church on the spot. ""The strong Protestant animal protection movement strikes in Germany in 1837 with the founding of the first German animal protection society in Stuttgart by the pietist pastor Albert Knapp. Württemberg Pietism also inspired Albert Schweizer's thinking with regard to reverence for life"" says Baranzke. ""The Catholics felt quite pressured by this broad, Protestant movement and slowly dug up their Francis again in the early 19th century and gradually established him as an animal protection saint."" These animal legends of Francis had long been forgotten; he had been known only as the founder of a religious order and a holy mendicant monk. Catholic theology has now followed suit so slowly in the 20th century, he said, that denominational differences regarding animal welfare and creation theology are gradually disappearing. In the secular thinking of contemporary animal ethics, on the other hand, a strong evolutionist worldview has an impact.

If someone can change something in the suffering, then we are it, because we have also caused it.

The existence of the soul cannot be objectively proven or not proven, neither in humans nor in animals, because it simply cannot be perceived by means of the external senses. Rather, since Descartes, soul stands for an inner perspective of experience, according to Baranzke, for the inner perception of our sensations, ideas and consciousness (introspection). Since Descartes, soul is no longer considered a quasi-biological principle of life that moves all living beings, but only a specifically human principle of consciousness.
Then, since the second half of the 19th century, there had been a radical change of world view, which is carried by Darwin's theory of evolution. Now the focus is no longer on the principled anthropological human-animal difference, but the differences between animals and humans are seen only as gradual, and animals and their achievements are brought closer to humans. This inspired animal rights activists in their struggle to grant the mindless creatures a consciousness and even mental achievements after all. ""Important representatives for an animal consciousness and intelligence performances in biology and behavioral research were Max Frisch with his elucidation of communication in the bee dance or Wolfgang Köhler with his observations on Tenerife on the tool use of apes, i.e. the intelligence testing of chimpanzees,"" the researcher explains. In the course of the 20th century, these developments continue to gain momentum.

A pope's name with a signal effect

Statements about the souls of animals in the Catholic Church are rare, yet they do exist. Under Pope John Paul II, the Vatican affirms that ""animals, too, have received a breath of life from God,"" and Pope Francis says: ""Heaven is open to all creatures."" How do such statements, which could be seen as the first harbingers of the recognition of an immortal animal soul, come about? In Baranzke's opinion, the eco-movement of the 1970s and 1980s and the Conciliar Process for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation, which was influentially initiated by the World Council of Churches, certainly contributed. Even politics at that time had frequently spoken of the integrity of creation and thus anchored the topic socially. The Protestant co-creation ethos and the broad environmental movement also changed the perception and interpretation of biblical texts and contributed to a renaissance of creation theology in the teaching canon of university theology. For example, he said, one can read in Genesis II the statement that humans and animals together received their breath of life through God. ""According to a theology and ethics of co-creativity, we are and remain creatures even as God's images, good creatures of God who, like animals and all creation, are sustained in life by the Creator,"" Baranzke says. Seen in this light, we are called to ""live a life of abundance and gratitude in God-image responsibility for creation before the Creator. This is the basic movement of theological ethics.""
The Catholic Church always takes a long time to make changes, he said, because it teaches both Scripture and tradition as principles of knowledge. In the process, tradition can sometimes be a slowing ballast, as in the case of the Hellenistic legacy of an intellectualist anthropology and a Roman Catholic theology long oblivious to creation, she explains. But it is quite remarkable, she says, that the current pope has chosen the name Francis and explicitly linked the encyclical ""Laudato si"" to St. Francis' Canticle of the Sun. ""That is also program with him, that he has taken up this recollection of co-creativity, which began in Protestantism, via the eco-movement continuing effect in Catholic theology and then gave himself this name. With this, the denominational differences are now gradually disappearing.""

England enshrines animal feelings in law in 2021

The metaphor of the immortal soul is also always a metaphor of the special connection between God and man, ""effect-historically, we have always jealously guarded against the fact that we humans are the beings about whom God cares. But theologically and dogmatically, there is nothing wrong with admitting that the Creator cares for all his creatures. Nothing is lost to us if we allow the idea of co-creativity. It's seeping through so slowly now.""
State laws can often implement the idea of co-creativity earlier. On May 10, 2021, the United Kingdom became one of the first European countries to enshrine animal sentience in law. This makes it official that animals are aware of their feelings and that animal cruelty will be punished more severely in the future.
The importance of soul has done good groundwork in this regard. ""We have to have in mind,"" explains Baranzke, ""it is a metaphorical use of speech and we have to ask ourselves, what do we want to express with the question whether animals also have a soul?
My personal opinion on this is, we have to look at both the similarities and the comparabilities of humans and animals, especially in terms of sentience and capacity for suffering, as well as the differences. And the human difference, for me as an ethicist, is in the specific human capacity for responsibility to answer for how we deal with suffering in the world, how we alleviate it, or what reasons we think we have for imposing suffering on sentient beings."" Animals, he said, may not have mind control, but they have a different very sensitive perception. They may not understand the meaning of the word, but perceive the paraverbal and nonverbal parts of our expression, she says, and continues, ""They experience our speech melody, the way we move and, of course, the smells. And based on that, communication is possible.""
The direction the debate will take in the future, history shows, depends on many factors. Nothing seems to be set in stone, and Baranzke sums up, ""We can only ever form a provisional judgment in turn in the here and now with a mind prone to error, always mindful that we will have to revise our judgment.""
A paradox should be mentioned at the end. The English word animal comes from the Latin word anima. And that means soul.

In the meantime, the Italian hunting dog is once again making his rounds in his free-range area, raising his ears at the call, changing direction when his master turns away, blissfully dreaming on his sleeping blanket and having no idea how long we have been dealing with his species.

Uwe Blass (conversation from 27.05.2021)

Dr. Heike Baranzke is a lecturer in theological ethics of Catholic theology in the Faculty of Humanities and Cultural Studies at Bergische Universität."


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