Do animals suffer in the same way humans do

Do animals suffer in the same way humans do

Do animals suffer in the same way humans do? How does this apply to the Problem of Evil?


Transcript Do animals suffer in the same way humans do

Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, there is a video making the rounds, which came out of your debate with Stephen Law.[1] During that debate the issue of animal suffering came up as part of a longer argument on the problem of evil. Have you seen this video that is a response to that?

Dr. Craig: Yes, I have seen it, and I've asked Michael Murray to do a response to it as a guest question of the week columnist. Micheal is an expert in mind-body problems in philosophy and has done the scientific research that undergirds his position. And he's agreed to do a response to this video in a future question of the week[2], but here I think we can talk about some of the philosophical aspects that are raised in the video.

Kevin Harris: The video was put together by someone named Skydive Phil: “Can Animals Suffer? Debunking the Philosophers Who Say No from Descartes to Craig.”

Dr. Craig: And immediately you see in the title a misrepresentation of the position that Micheal Murray is defending. No one has said animals cannot suffer.

Kevin Harris: What are the issues here?

Dr. Craig: The question would be answered, yes, of course they suffer. The issue here is what kind of suffering animal suffering is, or pain? And in the debate with Law I followed Murray in distinguishing three levels of pain awareness. The lowest level would simply be the reaction to noxious stimuli – the way an amoeba will recoil if poked with a needle. The second level of pain would be the kind of pain awareness that sentient life has – conscious animals who have mental states and who feel pain. The third level awareness would be an awareness that one is in a second-level awareness of pain – the awareness that I am myself in pain. And the evidence suggests that animals may not have the neural capacity for that third-level pain awareness apart from the higher primates, which are most like man, and if that's the case then that would mean that the large majority of animals don't suffer in the same way that humans suffer. Yes, they suffer, they have pain awareness, but it would be second-order pain awareness. They wouldn't have the third-order pain awareness that I am myself in pain. And this is significant because I think that those who use animal pain to push the problem of evil tend to think of animals as being in this third-order sort of pain awareness. And if they don't really have that kind of pain awareness I think that makes the problem of animal suffering and pain much more tractable. They don't suffer in the same way that humans do.

So what the atheist who’s pushing the problem of evil based on animal suffering would have to show, I think, is that animals have this third-order pain awareness. The burden of proof doesn't lie with me. It lies with the person who is pressing the problem of animal pain as something incompatible with the existence of an all-powerful and all-loving God. He's the one who would need to show that animals have this sort of third-level pain awareness that is significant enough to say that it would be morally unjustified for God to permit it.

Kevin Harris: Do you think that this video has accurately represented the issue?

Dr. Craig: Well, sometimes it does, but not always. For example, the title of the video is misleading. “Can animals suffer?” That's not the question. And, again, many times the woman in the video will say things like this: “It's hard to believe that a conscious being is not looking back at you.” Well, no one denies that when you look into the eyes of a dog or a cat or your pet. Of course this is a conscious being, a sentient animal. Or when she says, for example, that the view that we're defending is that animals have no awareness of pain. That's not correct. The question is: do they have this third-level order of pain-awareness, not the second-level order pain awareness. Or later on in the video she says, “We shouldn't say that animals are unaware of pain. That they have an awareness of pain.” And several of the people that are interviewed in the video seem to interpret the question as simply being: do animals have an awareness of pain? And they say it's ridiculous to think that they do not. Even fish, it's claimed, have pain awareness,[3] and that of course is not the issue. The question is: do animals have this third-level pain awareness, the awareness that I am myself in pain? And that requires that animals be selves, that they have first-person conscious states of awareness, and that is highly controversial, I should think.

Kevin Harris: This is the work of Micheal Murray, his book Nature Red in Tooth and Claw. Extensive research in this. If anybody wants to get the issues they need to work through this book.

Dr. Craig: Yes, I think it's unfortunate when the video makers say, “Murray is a philosopher and that this article wasn't published in a peer-reviewed journal.” Murray's book is filled with footnotes to the scientific literature and you can look up the literature and read it, and they don't interact with that literature with perhaps the exception of the articles on pain awareness in fish. Even that is very controversial. They have just cited one side of the evidence in this video; for example, with regard to fish and their awareness of pain – whether they even have this second-order awareness. The scientific literature is divided on these subjects and the video presents a very one-sided view. So Murray is not at all just philosophizing about these things. He is citing the literature just as Skydive Phil is. Skydive Phil is not an expert in these things either. He is simply citing literature or interviews, which is what Murray did as well.

Kevin Harris: And he's doing a lot googling, too. Sometimes you have to go a little beyond that.

Dr. Craig: Fair enough, that's right. You can't just show listings on a Google page and think that you've reviewed the literature.

Kevin Harris: Not that it won't point you to some resources, but, you know, that's really not the way to do it. This book by Micheal Murray – what? – it's published by Oxford Press.

Dr. Craig: Yes, oh, it's a very fine work of scholarship. And frankly, here, Kevin, I do think that a scientifically informed philosopher is going to be more trustworthy on this issue than a philosophically naïve neuroscientist And I say that because these issues of mind-body problems are involved in this question – what it means to be a self; to have intentional states; to be self-aware – these are philosophical questions which neuroscientists may not be equipped to deal with. For example, I noted in some of the literature they cited, it said that the evidence shows that animals could have functional parallels to self-awareness. Now that might just go by the average viewer very quickly, but to have a functional parallel to self-awareness is not to have self-awareness. It's to say the thing is functioning as though it were self-aware, but that doesn't show self-awareness. It is a functional parallel. And so these kinds of subtleties, I think, are more apt to be spied by someone who is not only scientifically informed but philosophically informed about the concepts that are involved.

Kevin Harris: They call this view from Micheal Murray neo-Cartesian. Is that what it is?

Dr. Craig: No, that, again, is a misrepresentation. Descartes' view was that animals are essentially machines who have no pain awareness of any sort, not even second-order pain awareness. When a dog or a cat is shrieking in pain Descartes thought this was just like a machine squeaking like a squeaky hinge or a rusty bolt squeaking, but it wasn't really pain at all. And Murray's view, or the view that he's examining, isn't neo-Cartesian at all. It's saying, yes, animals have pain awareness but they don't have, perhaps, that third level pain awareness that I am myself in pain.

Kevin Harris: What about this accusation from the video that a non-expert, according to studies, is more influenced by an argument if it has neuroscience in it; in other words, if it's dressed up in neuroscientific argument.

Dr. Craig: Yes, I was a little amused about that because that's sort of like the pot calling the kettle black. [laughter] Skydive Phil is doing exactly the same thing. He is not an expert in these things, and he has gone out on a fishing expedition to try to find experts to support the point of view that he has, and he's actually left an email trail that you can find on the internet. And he just simply chooses to ignore the evidence from respondents to his inquiries that were on the opposite side. So if this is true then he falls into the same problem of being influenced by neuroscientific evidence, even if it's not relevant to the issue at hand.[4]

I can say that in my case the reading of Micheal Murray's book was so stunning because it tended to provide neuroscientific evidence for conclusions that I had already largely come to based on just philosophical reflection. You see, the idea that animals have this third-level pain awareness requires that animals be selves – that they be persons, in effect – and that an animal can do what Immanuel Kant said a person could do, that is to say prefix one's mental states with the notion: “I think that . . . .” So any mental state that I have, that I am self-aware of, I can say “I think that.” And to have these sort of third-level pain awarenesses, animals would need to be able to prefix the “I think” in front of their mental states, and that's far from clear that they do. I think it's very implausible to think that when the cat or the dog goes to the bowl it is saying, “oh, I think that there is some food in my bowl; I will go look,” or if there's a knock at the door and they run to the door that they are thinking, “I think someone is at the door.” I suspect that this is anthropomorphizing, ascribing human traits to animals based upon behavior. So philosophically, already, the idea that animals are selves, I think, is very implausible and this would fit right in with that notion. So the scientific evidence for me in this case was simply confirmatory of something that I already suspected philosophically about animals, that there are not selves.

Kevin Harris: So we have a human tendency, then, to anthropomorphize animals, especially our pets.

Dr. Craig: Oh, very much so. And I think that emerges in the last part of the video where you have this very touching story about the rescued whale nudging up against the chests of the swimmers that rescued him, and he compares it to the way the pet will come to your hand and nudge your hand with his head to be stroked. Then there is this sort of anthropomorphizing that is just almost inevitable for us human beings, to think of these animals as selves like us because they exhibit empathy and other forms of affective behavior. And it's that tendency that, I think, can get in the way of an objective assessment of the hard evidence.

Kevin Harris: The video shows lots of tests done on animals for self-awareness. What about those?

Dr. Craig: And that would be very relevant. This is what third-level pain awareness would require – that the animal is aware of himself as a self, that he can say, “I think that I am in pain.” That's the real question. And here what they didn't explain is that these tests are very controversial. For example, this so-called mirror test that is referred to by the Emory researcher. The question here isn't, do some animals pass the mirror test, where the chimpanzee, looking in the mirror with a mark on his forehead, can reach up and touch his forehead and try to remove the mark. The question isn't whether the animal passes the mirror test, it's whether the mirror test itself is a test of genuine mental states of self-awareness or whether this is just a certain behavior pattern that is exhibited. So that was never discussed in the video, and yet these tests are very, very controversial, even among the neurologists who conduct them. So I think that one needs to have some discussion here of the tests on which these conclusions are based. I thought one of the most ridiculous examples in the video was the claim that ravens know what each other is thinking, and what the lizard is thinking that they are hunting for. And the reason for this was that the ravens work cooperatively to hunt down the lizard. And when the lizard is trying to escape two will block its path and the other will swoop down and get it. And this is taken to be evidence that they know what the other ravens are thinking and what the lizard is thinking, as though lizards have mental states of self-awareness (“I am going to try to go in the hole;” “I am fleeing from these ravens.”) And of course that doesn't suggest that at all. The test here is not at all indicative that ravens have the sort of mental capacity to know what each other is thinking and that they know what the lizard is thinking, or even that the lizard is thinking at all.[5]

Kevin Harris: Part of Murray's research is that he says there could be something here, the reason that lower animals . . . and by the way, nobody has ever said that only humans have this capacity. I mean, Murray himself points out that there are higher primates that would have a developed pre-frontal cortex and so on. The video did keep going to, “Is it true that only humans have this?” Well, nobody ever said that only humans have it.

Dr. Craig: No.

Kevin Harris: So, that's one thing. But he says that some of this research might involve the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. And then he says that lower animals, other than primates and then human beings, don't have the pre-frontal cortex or that pre-frontal cortex is not as developed.

Dr. Craig: Right, and Micheal will address this in his response, I think. It's a matter of great controversy what part of the brain would even constitute a pre-frontal cortex. And there isn't anything outside the great apes that is homologous to the human pre-frontal cortex that could serve as a mechanism that would help to produce self-awareness, that one is oneself in pain. So this is, again, very controversial, and some of the scholars quoted in the video did not say what they were represented by the video as saying, if you listen to them carefully. For example, the one gentlemen says, “of course animals have an awareness of pain, they suffer in one way or another,” he said, “and to deny that is ridiculous.” Well, of course, and everyone agrees that they suffer in one way or another. The question is: Do they have this kind of third-order pain awareness? Or, again, the Emory researcher said that the pain receptors are very low-level devices that are found throughout the animal kingdom, and she says every animal therefore feels pain, and they went into the discussion of fish. And, again, that's not the question. The question isn't whether animals have pain receptors. The question is whether or not there is this capacity to think about oneself as oneself, first-person awareness. Do animals have this kind of first-person awareness? “I am going to the door,” or, “I am going to my dog bowl,” or something of that sort; “I am now in pain.” And that is a very, very controversial question.

Kevin Harris: The video gives the impression, Bill, that for anyone to hold to any kind of dualism, mind-body dualism in modern times, they ridicule it, like, “that is a ridiculous view, that is a view that no one should hold.” Well, my soul, (no pun intended) there are a multitude of philosophers, historically and today, who hold to substance dualism and a mind-body dualism. I mean, you can't write it off.

Dr. Craig: Yes, yes, in fact most recently the atheist Thomas Nagel has argued that naturalism is on its last legs because it simply can't explain the awareness of mind, consciousness, intentionality, and so forth.[6] Now, he's no theist and he's not ready to go toward dualism, but he is trying to raise the red flag that the naturalistic views that dominate in the academy are not adequate to explain these phenomena. And I think that the woman in the video was quite misleading when she said that if the mind is not dependent upon the body then why not think that animals, if they're minds, have the same sort of pain awareness? Well, I think what she fails to understand is that in dualism interactionism the mind and the brain function together. Sir John Eccles, the great Nobel Prize winning neurologist and the author of the book The Self and Its Brain said that the relationship between the self and the brain is rather like the relationship between a musician and a piano. If the piano is damaged or broken then the musician cannot produce the music. If the piano is out of tune the music will be discordant, if it's nonfunctional there will be no music at all. Similarly if, as Eccles believed and argued, the self or the mind uses the brain as an instrument for thought then if the brain is impaired or completely damaged then there wouldn't be the ability to think just as the musician wouldn't have the ability to produce music. The brain is the instrument that the self uses to think. And so it wouldn't be surprising, then, that lower-level brains that don't have the sort of complexity that human brains exhibit wouldn't be attended by these third-level states of self-awareness,[7] in fact that's what one would rather expect. For example, take this Cambridge declaration on consciousness that they close with. This sounds so impressive. But if you look carefully at what it says, it simply affirms that animals have affective mental states, that they have conscious states that result in intentional behaviors, and that therefore they have states of consciousness. And no one has denied that; that's not the question. The question is whether or not they have these third-order states of awareness of first-person states of consciousness.

Kevin Harris: Bill, as we end today, first: if it turns out that animals do experience this third-level pain for whatever reason. If it is discovered that animals do in fact have this third-level pain, does that damage the problem of evil or the answers to the problem of evil?

Dr. Craig: It would mean that one would need to provide explanations for animal suffering that would be much like the explanations for human suffering in that case, because in the case of human beings we do have this sort of pain, and what we would argue is that the atheist cannot show that God lacks morally sufficient reasons for allowing this pain to occur. And the atheist would have to show the same thing in the case of animals. It's just striking that in the case of animals there may not be this problem at all; it may not exist. So the atheist who wants to press animal suffering as the centerpiece of his problem of evil has a lot greater burden of proof than the person who wants to turn to human suffering as a basis for presenting the problem of evil.

Kevin Harris: Okay, thank you Dr. Craig, and for anyone who’s interested in pursuing this further we have some questions of the week in our Q&A archives that you can read: number 113; number 242; and number 243. Just go to the questions of the week, the Q&A archives, and go to question number 113, question number 242, and question number 243. And we'll see you next time on Reasonable Faith.[8]



[1] For a transcript of this Craig-Law debate, see http://www.reasonablefaith.org/does-god-exist-the-craig-law-debate (accessed February 8, 2014).

[2] To read Michael Murray’s response, see Q&A #355, “Animal Pain Re-visited.” See http://www.reasonablefaith.org/animal-pain-re-visited (accessed February 8, 2014).

[3] 5:00

[4] 10:00

[5] 15:09

[6] Thomas Nagel, Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[7] 20:10

[8] Total Running Time: 22:32 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)