Do animals have spirit animals

Can animals think? Do you have a mind? And what makes them different from humans?

Do animals have a ghost? How close are their intellectual abilities to those of humans? New animal experiments and detailed physiological studies of the human brain have sparked debate. The difference between humans and animals is smaller than expected. But how small is it? Are there intellectual achievements that animals will never master? The answer depends on what position a person occupies among living beings. Philosophers are often better at providing answers than natural scientists, because what spirit actually is has preoccupied philosophy for millennia.

Among the German-speaking philosophers, there is above all one who is dedicated to this topic: Dominik Perler, born in 1965, is a professor of theoretical philosophy at the Humboldt University in Berlin. In 2004 he wrote an essay entitled "The Spirit of Animals", for which he won the Leibniz Prize of the German Research Foundation last year - one of the highest honors in German science.

WELT.de: Professor, do you have any pets?

Dominik Perler: No. I am traveling a lot. Animals should only be kept if they can be looked after.

WELT.de: But you are used to handling animals. What do you think of a dog that sees you and wags its tail?

Perler: Of course I feel addressed, but I mustn't conclude that he really likes me. That would imply that he thinks.

WELT.de: But you want to know if the dog is thinking before wagging.

Perler: Exactly, because this is where the philosophical problem begins. In everyday life we ‚Äč‚Äčobserve animal behavior and interpret it according to human standards. This is called anthropomorphization - the humanization of animals. We have to face this problem.

WELT.de: What's wrong with that? Humanization ensures good relationships between the species.

Perler: Perhaps, but it is also misleading. If we think animals think, we have to ask: Am I interpreting something into this animal? Or does his objectively observable behavior entitle me to really ascribe thinking to him?

WELT.de: If the dog doesn't think he likes you, why is he wagging his tail?

Perler: There is a famous phrase: the Morgan Canon, named after Conwy Lloyd Morgan, the founder of experimental animal psychology. It says this: Before explaining something on a higher level, one should try to interpret it on a lower level. So don't start at the top and conclude from the wagging of the tail that the dog is benevolent.

WELT.de: What could be driving him?

Perler: A very simple stimulus-response pattern.

WELT.de: The dog perceives an optical stimulus and reacts by wagging, like a programmed machine?

Perler: Yes. That must be our initial guess, according to Morgan. Only when one observes an animal for a long time can one ask oneself whether there is more to it than a stimulus-reaction pattern. I give an example. We watch a lioness eating. Suddenly, out of nowhere, she lets go of the antelope. Why? Here we have to search for other stimuli that lead to a change in behavior: Is there a threat? Is the meat bad because the antelope was sick? Is there an even bigger antelope walking around? Only when we have answered this can we ask whether the lioness has completed cognitive processing.

WELT.de: Back to the dog. He wags his tail - what does that mean if it's just a stimulus response?

Perler: He reacts according to his friend-foe scheme. The posture of the tail, head and ears expresses whether he is in the attacking position or not. These are survival mechanisms. One cannot speak of thinking or cognition.

WELT.de: Do you rule out that animals think?

Perler: No, on a practical level there are quite a few cases where I would ascribe thinking to animals, or more carefully, cognition. But always with the warning: Attention, there are different ways of thinking! If one ascribes thinking to a chimpanzee, it does not have to be the same kind of thinking that we ascribe to a fellow human being.

WELT.de: Are there different ways of thinking?

Perler: Yes, we can speak of cognition in animals, but we have to graduate different types.

WELT.de: What is the difference between thinking and mind?

Perler: Having a mind is a prerequisite for thinking. Thinking is the act of a living being that has spirit.

WELT.de: What exactly is mind?

Perler: We use this to describe the skills that control our actions. Emotion and cognition are part of it. There are different skills. We humans are characterized by language and a gift for reason. Other living beings can do other things better. There is not just one form of mind, but each species has its own. The question is not: do animals have spirits? But: which animal has which kind of spirit?

WELT.de: Well, let's give animals their kind of spirit. Do they have a soul too?

Perler: Like Descartes, I would make no distinction between spirit and soul at all. Only the theologian sees a difference, not the philosopher. In the Christian understanding the soul is immortal, the spirit is not. If one believes that the soul outlives the body, one assumes a massive dualism between body and spirit. I see that very critically.

WELT.de: A soul is nothing more than an immortal spirit?

Perler: Correct. Plato already taught the immortal soul. This thesis flourished with the doctrine of immortality and lost its importance the more belief in immortality decreased.

WELT.de: The earth is populated by soulless beings who crumble to dust and of which nothing is left?

Perler: