December 05, 2011

Animal Suffering

Dear Dr. Craig,

I really wish you take a look at these two questions.

I am confused by your response to Stephen Law's point that raised animal suffering. You had said that animals do not suffer in the same sense that humans suffer. I was wondering if you could further explain this because I know people who also misunderstood what it was you really meant. You had said that animals lack the capability of understanding any "self-awareness" during suffering and points raised against that are: "Well, how could an animal not be aware of their suffering if they're yelping/screaming out of pain?" and "If you beat an animal wouldn't it try to avoid the source of pain so that way 'it' wouldn't suffer. Isn't that a form of 'self-awareness?'" I believe these points are interesting and I hope you elaborate on them, please.

My second question is this: If certain methods like Game Theory can predict altruistic behavior in animals where, say, an animal giving their life for the herd, even though it is not beneficial for the animal dying but beneficial for the entire herd, then what does that say about human behavior and morals? If things like altruistic behavior can be left to mathematical applications that, in result, predict these acts in the animal kingdom, where a Christian would say "animals don't have morals," then how can we say that human behavior is any different despite us being more complex than animals? Can we really say that there is an objective morality knowing these things? I have been especially troubled by this and I hope you can answer it!

I really respect all you do and I wish you well in defending Christianity! You have really shown many people how rational it is, especially myself.



United States

I’m grateful for your question, AJ, because it affords me the opportunity to clarify what I meant concerning animals’ experience of pain. In his book Nature Red in Tooth and Claw, Michael Murray explains on the basis of neurological studies that there is an ascending three-fold hierarchy of pain awareness in nature:i

Level 3: Awareness that one is oneself in pain
Level 2: Mental states of pain
Level 1: Aversive reaction to noxious stimuli

Organisms which are not sentient, that is, have no mental life, display at most Level 1 reactions. Insects, worms, and other invertebrates react to noxious stimuli but lack the neurological capacity to feel pain. Their avoidance behavior obviously has a selective advantage in the struggle for survival and so is built into them by natural selection. The experience of pain is thus not necessary for an organism to exhibit aversive behavior to contact that may be injurious. Thus when your friend asks, “If you beat an animal, wouldn't it try to avoid the source of pain so that way 'it' wouldn't suffer? Isn't that a form of 'self-awareness?'," you can see that such aversive behavior doesn’t even imply second order pain awareness, much less third order awareness. Avoidance behavior doesn’t require pain awareness, and the neurological capacities of primitive organisms aren’t sufficient to support Level 2 mental states.

Level 2 awareness arrives on the scene with the vertebrates. Their nervous systems are sufficiently developed to have associated with certain brain states mental states of pain. So when we see an animal like a dog, cat, or horse thrashing about or screaming when injured, it is irresistible to ascribe to them second order mental states of pain. It is this experience of animal pain that forms the basis of the objection to God’s goodness from animal suffering. But notice that an experience of Level 2 pain awareness does not imply a Level 3 awareness. Indeed, the biological evidence indicates that very few animals have an awareness that they are themselves in pain.

Level 3 is a higher-order awareness that one is oneself experiencing a Level 2 state. Your friend asks, “How could an animal not be aware of their suffering if they're yelping/screaming out of pain?" Brain studies supply the remarkable answer. Neurological research indicates that there are two independent neural pathways associated with the experience of pain. The one pathway is involved in producing Level 2 mental states of being in pain. But there is an independent neural pathway that is associated with being aware that one is oneself in a Level 2 state. And this second neural pathway is apparently a very late evolutionary development which only emerges in the higher primates, including man. Other animals lack the neural pathways for having the experience of Level 3 pain awareness. So even though animals like zebras and giraffes, for example, experience pain when attacked by a lion, they really aren’t aware of it.

To help understand this, consider an astonishing analogous phenomenon in human experience known as blind sight. The experience of sight is also associated biologically with two independent neural pathways in the brain. The one pathway conveys visual stimuli about what external objects are presented to the viewer. The other pathway is associated with an awareness of the visual states. Incredibly, certain persons, who have experienced impairment to the second neural pathway but whose first neural pathway is functioning normally, exhibit what is called blind sight. That is to say, these people are effectively blind because they are not aware that they can see anything. But in fact, they do “see” in the sense that they correctly register visual stimuli conveyed by the first neural pathway. If you toss a ball to such a person he will catch it because he does see it. But he isn’t aware that he sees it! Phenomenologically, he is like a person who is utterly blind, who doesn’t receive any visual stimuli. Obviously, as Michael Murray says, it would be a pointless undertaking to invite a blind sighted person to spend an afternoon at the art gallery. For even though he, in a sense, sees the paintings on the walls, he isn’t aware that he sees them and so has no experience of the paintings.

Now neurobiology indicates a similar situation with respect to animal pain awareness. All animals but the great apes and man lack the neural pathways associated with Level 3 pain awareness. Being a very late evolutionary development, this pathway is not present throughout the animal world. What that implies is that throughout almost the entirety of the long history of evolutionary development, no creature was ever aware of being in pain.

Viewed theologically, this discovery magnifies the mercy and goodness of God. God has shielded almost the entire animal kingdom throughout its history from an awareness of being in pain! For those of us who are pet owners and lovers of animals, this is a tremendous comfort and a cause of praise to God for His goodness and wondrous, even ingenious, care of creation. Who would have guessed that God had done such a thing? These neurological insights, documented by Murray, greatly reduce the force of the problem of evil posed by animal suffering.

Your second question can be more quickly answered. The facts you mention support the claim that if there is no God to serve as the transcendent source of moral values and duties, then human moral behavior has no more objective validity than similar behavior exhibited by social animals. Such behavior is useful to a species in the struggle for survival and so gets programmed into us by natural selection. So given atheism, I think your scepticism about the objectivity of human morality would be entirely justified. On the other hand, if there really is a God who is the paradigm of goodness and the source of our moral obligations and prohibitions, then morality is securely grounded in a transcendent reality beyond the evolutionary process. Indeed, one of the advantages of theism is that the moral realm and the natural realm are both under the sovereign hegemony of God, so that the accord between the moral realm and the natural realm need not be viewed as an unbelievable coincidence.


i Michael Murray, Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).