Animal Suffering, William Lane Craig, and Christian Apologetics

Animal Suffering, William Lane Craig, and Christian Apologetics May 1, 2021

Animal suffering is a thorn in the side of Christian apologists because no theodicy adequately justifies its existence. This is due to the fact that most theodicies revolve around the pain and suffering of humans and attach the blame for such suffering solely to humans themselves. In some way, they get what they deserve. If not seen in this light, then it is a necessary corollary for something like free will or soul-building. Either way, it’s very anthropocentric.

But when it comes to animal suffering, is really rather distasteful to transfer retribution for human malfeasance onto the animal kingdom, and onto organisms that had absolutely nothing to do with whatever it was that humans were supposed to have done.

Considering the difficulty in providing a reasonable theodicy that justifies pain and suffering inflicted upon animals, Christian apologists are forced to take another course: they try to minimise or deny animal suffering. This is something that William Lane Craig, amongst other apologists, has done on a number of occasions in the past. In fact, he was taken to task by the YouTube couple under the moniker of skydivephil (who have created some’s absolutely superb videos, often high-quality documentary videos on the creation of the universe with the world’s greatest theoretical physicists). Here, in a video from eight years ago, they take Craig to task:

Indeed, William Lane Craig only uses one source for his arguments: Michael Murray and his book Nature: Read in Tooth & Claw. Craig’s claim is that animals have pain but they don’t know it because they don’t have a prefrontal cortex. In this book, Murray establishes this as one of a set of four different Neo-Cartesian arguments that look to minimise animal pain and suffering. In this way, Christian apologists look to skirt around the issue of animal suffering when it is presented as this iteration of the problem of evil.

The above video is very good, and this led to skydivephil having a formal debate with Michael Murray on Unbelievable? on Premier Christian Radio:

Not content with giving Murray a bashing in debate, skydivephil has now co-written a journal paper on pain and suffering in animals and heavily criticising the Neo-Cartesian approaches employed by Christian apologists. It is kindly available for three months for free:

Against Neo-Cartesianism: Neurofunctional Resilience and Animal Pain“,  & Philosophical Psychology

It is worth the read because this argument alone is enough to disprove the OmniGod of classical theism.

As they start off:

The ‘Neo-Cartesianism’ (NC) of our concern is the view that animal pain1 is either merely apparent or otherwise morally insignificant. Notable NCs of the last century, including C.S. Lewis (1969), John Hick (1966) and Peter Harrison (1989), like some of their Cartesian predecessors, were attempting to develop a theodicy that solves the problem of animal suffering, a special case of the problem of evil that cannot be addressed by appeal to characteristic human capacities (e.g., free will). However, non-religious thinkers like Peter Carruthers (1992), Daniel Dennett (1997), and Bob Bermond (1997) advanced similar positions. In the last 20 years, NC has been promulgated, on the religious side, by Michael Murray (2008) and John Hick’s student, William Lane W.L. Craig (2011). On the secular side, we find Peter Carruthers (20002005), while Jim Rose (Rose et al., 2014), Brian Key (2016) and others have argued for NC with respect to fish.

More recent NCs typically appeal to differences between the human brain and animal brains, citing specifically the former’s enlarged pre-frontal cortex (PFC) or, in the case of fish, the lack of an anterior insula or anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). We argue that NCs are mistaken in claiming a unique role for the PFC or the ACC in pain perception in humans. We discuss recent experimental evidence that bears negatively on these claims and relate it to the ongoing debate over fish pain, arguing that the case for fish pain is reasonably strong.

We then briefly outline some evidence for self-awareness in the animal kingdom before discussing first higher-order thought theories of consciousness, to which some NCs have appealed,then blindsight and the consequences of frontal lobotomy, which have both been cited as motivating analogies and evidence for NC. We show that such attempts to ground NC in contemporary neuroscience and philosophy of mind founder, and we show that new findings offer further support to Evolutionary Continuity (EC), the view that humans are on a nonhierarchical continuum with other species and are thus not likely to be unique in consciously experiencing negative pain affect.

That many animals consciously suffer negative pain affect remains well supported by a general analogy argument and, in turn, this provides a parsimonious explanation of many animal behaviors. Proponents of NC have not offered good evidence to the contrary. Taken together, the considerations canvassed here constitute a strong empirical, cumulative case against NC or, at the least, shift the burden of proof to the NC camp.

The article does a number of different things. First of all, it looks at the claims concerning prefrontal cortices in other animals as compared to humans, before looking at self-awareness and pain perception. In the section “II.3 Neurofunctional resilience and the epistemology of algedonic distribution”, they observe:

As Godfrey-Smith (2016, 94 f.) notes, flexible behaviors and preference changes related to pain avoidance and analgesia-seeking (observed in both fish10 and chickens) in entirely evolutionarily novel situations and perhaps certain grooming and protecting behaviors associated with bodily damage are arguably best explained in terms of the presence of consciously experienced negative pain affect. And when one considers the overall behavioral, affective, and cognitive repertoire of, for example, cephalopods, as Godfrey-Smith does at length, the notion that such an animal, whose nervous system is so different from ours, does what it does in the absence of consciousness begins to look implausible and continued commitment to it perversely skeptical.11

It seems more reasonable to follow the approach of Segner (2012, p. 78) who, in considering fish pain, looks at seven relevant properties: (1) nociceptors, (2) pain related brain structures homologous or analogous to those found in humans, (3) pathways connecting peripheral nociceptors to higher brain regions, (4) endogenous opioids and opioid receptors in the CNS, (5) analgesic-mediated reduction of response to noxious stimuli, (6) complex forms of learning, including avoidance learning of noxious stimuli, and (7) suspension of normal behavior in response to noxious stimuli. Humans and fish, Segner concludes, unequivocally share all but item (2), which is partially shared: we share subcortical structures with fish but not the neocortical structures. However, given the evidence reviewed in this section, it is clear that the neocortical structures commonly thought to be necessary for pain affect are not required in any case (cf., Merker, 2007; Ginsburg & Jablonka, 2019) Surely the other similarities are sufficient to make reasonable the inference to the presence of consciously felt fish pain (cf., Tye, 2017, 91ff.). For mammals, as we have seen, all of these similarities are in place.12

Segner codifies the basic analogy argument for the presence of negative affect in animals that goes beyond the one we all spontaneously draw from our admittedly fallible raw intuitions. On our view, this basic analogy argument coupled with the considerations about neurofunctional resilience (and evolutionary analogies) we have adduced yield a reasonably high probability for the claim that negative pain affect is present in mammals, avians, fish, and cephalopods. Even if we are mistaken about the latter three, however, these considerations make the claim that it is present in mammals so probable that the more ambitious NC thesis of M. Murray and W.L. Craig is cast into nearly insurmountable doubt.

More specific probes for negative affect in animals can be plausibly seen as sources of evidence that further bolsters this broader inductive argument. To illustrate, one approach in particular, based on the work by Johansen et al. (2001), is to use formalin-induced conditioned place avoidance (CPA) as a measure of learned behavior that reflects the affective component of pain that is not dependent on a stimulus-evoked response (LaBuda & Fuchs, 2001, see for discussion). The thought is that since formalin injections produce a CPA, this is an indication that the formalin is aversive to the rat, similar to a noxious response in humans. Another approach, based on the work by Sufka (1994) and more recently by King et al. (2009), is to look for conditioned place preference (CPP) to determine if drug-induced relief from neuropathic pain itself is positively reinforcing. The underlying hypothesis is that the relief of pain serves as a signal to the animal (in this case rats) that an analgesic drug that is paired with a unique environment will increase the animal’s preference for the area associated with the pain relief (place preference). Evidence for CPP for presumed pain relief is thought to reflect ongoing spontaneous noxious processes independent of stimulus-evoked processes. The use of CPA and CPP approaches highlights the complex nature of affective pain processes and their relation to the anticipation of outcomes signaled by changes in behavior, and suggests that a pain response is not merely a “mechanical” reaction but does include an affective component.13

The relationship between pain affect and mechanical pain discrimination is probed by disabling the areas of the brain responsible for mechanical pain discrimination, which may not itself include pain affect, and seeing if the animal still shows signs of pain affect. If animals only engage in mechanical pain discrimination, we might expect to see no signs of affect after a procedure that eliminates discriminative capability. Human patients who have lesions in the somatosensory cortex are unable to identify the location or the intensity of painful stimuli, yet they still report it to be unpleasant. Uhelski et al. (2012) conducted experiments in which they gave either sham or real lesions to the hind limb area of the somatosensory cortex in rats. The study showed that the lesions removed the mechanical response to noxious stimuli, but it did not change the animal’s preference for avoiding areas they associated with the noxious stimuli. The rats do not withdraw the affected hind limb, but when freely moving about, they will avoid the locations associated with the noxious stimulus.14 These sorts of of behavioral observations are highly probable on the hypothesis that the rats consciously experience negative pain affect; it can reasonably be taken as confirmatory in the Bayesian sense. And while, of course, we cannot rule out every possible alternative explanation of such behaviors, the more general inductive analogy argument outlined by Segner, bolstered by our considerations on neurofunctional resilience, secures the hypothesis a high enough prior probability that, absent new, disconfirmatory evidence, there is no good reason to seek a less parsimonious alternative.

The paper then discusses fish pain in some depth before then going on to detail work on and robust evidence of self-awareness, and higher-order thought theories and consciousness in other animals. This forms the main bulk of the excellent paper. They conclude:

Many contemporary NCs have rested much of their case on the idea that there are certain fixed structures in the brain that are required either for SA or negative pain affect and that these are missing in certain other species. For M. Murray and W.L. Craig, it is the PFC supposedly only found in “humanoid primates”, for Bermond it is an enlarged PFC only found in adult humans, for Rose and Key it is the ACC and insula, apparently missing in fish. But new evidence, reviewed above, casts serious doubt on all of these claims.

Moreover, the brain is neurofunctionally resilient in preserving pain perception and SA, and these specific areas are not required for the implementation of either.27 The cognitive and affective importance of these functions suggests that the neural circuitry required for them may well be more fundamental than any neocortical structures. If that is so, then, at least for vertebrates, it would make sense to look for the basis of these functions in subcortical structures (see Merker, 2007; Damasio et al., 2013, p. 833) and, more generally, in more abstractly characterized features of neurocomputational architecture yet to be fully described (but see Rudrauf, 2014; Rudrauf et al., 2017, cf., Key & Brown, 2018).

Or… Murray and Craig, If you don’t believe that animals can properly feel pain, then please let me come around and touch your animals. I mean, to trot out outdated Cartesian thinking is an insult not only to our intelligence, but the intelligence of the animal kingdom at large.

For lots of other ruminations about the god of classical theism, please grab a copy of my very reasonably priced book The Problem with “God”: Classical Theism under the Spotlight. [UK]


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