Pharyngula

Kitties experience pain and suffering, which turns out to be a theological problem. If a god introduced pain and death into the world because wicked ol’ Eve was disobedient, why is god punishing innocent animals? It seems like a bit of a rotten move to afflict the obedient along with the disobedient — shouldn’t god have just stricken humanity with the wages of sin (or better yet, just womankind)?

William Lane Craig has an answer. His answer involves simply waving the problem away — animals don’t really feel pain — and he drags in science to prop up his claim. Basically, Craig is playing the creationist gambit of abusing the authority of science falsely to support his peculiar theology.

So Christian theologians of all stripes have to face the challenge posed by animal pain. Here recent studies in biology have provided surprising, new insights into this old problem. In his book Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering, Michael Murray distinguishes three levels in an ascending pain hierarchy (read from the bottom up):

Level 3: a second order awareness that one is oneself experiencing (2).

Level 2: a first order, subjective experience of pain.

Level 1: information-bearing neural states produced by noxious stimuli resulting in aversive behavior.

Spiders and insects–the sort of creatures most exhibiting the kinds of behavior mentioned by Ayala–experience (1). But there’s no reason at all to attribute (2) to such creatures. It’s plausible that they aren’t sentient beings at all with some sort of subjective, interior life. That sort of experience plausibly does not arise until one gets to the level of vertebrates in the animal kingdom. But even though animals like dogs, cats, and horses experience pain, nevertheless the evidence is that they do not experience level (3), the awareness that they are in pain. For the awareness that one is oneself in pain requires self-awareness, which is centered in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain–a section of the brain which is missing in all animals except for the humanoid primates. Thus, amazingly, even though animals may experience pain, they are not aware of being in pain. God in His mercy has apparently spared animals the awareness of pain. This is a tremendous comfort to us pet owners. For even though your dog or cat may be in pain, it really isn’t aware of it and so doesn’t suffer as you would if you were in pain.

As is usual upon reading any argument by William Lane Craig, I find myself wondering if we shouldn’t, in the name of common decency, have him locked up or in some way isolated from the sane human population. He makes bad arguments, he makes dishonest arguments, and he seems opportunistically willing to sacrifice moral reasoning on the altar of his barbarian god. Or at least, maybe we should confiscate his pets and put them in a safer home.

A few objections popped instantly into my head when I read his essay.

  • An assertion built on a false premise is likely to be false itself. Craig (or possibly his source, Murray), misrepresent the science. They claim that the prefrontal cortex “is missing in all animals except for the humanoid primates.” This is simply false! I’ve personally done histological work and surgery on the prefrontal cortex of cats, many years ago, and you can find papers describing the prefrontal cortex of opossums, and just about any common mammal you can think of. Craig has made a truly bizarre claim, like declaring that only people have noses or something.

    Primates do have a unique histologic feature of their primary cortices, an internal granule layer that is developed to varying degrees. But it’s also present in prosimians as well as all primates, so you can’t argue that it is unique to ‘humanoid primates’, and you can’t claim that it’s necessary and sufficient for self-awareness. If a bushbaby is going to be declared self-aware because it has an internal granule layer, it seems ridiculous to argue that other mammals with a similar or greater degree of cortical development are excluded from the club on the basis of this one detail.

    Scientists are supposed to talk about the evidence. Theologians are apparently not only exempt, but they get to fabricate their evidence. Also, I’m used to hearing theologians babble about the nonexistent as if it were real, but this is the first time I’ve heard one argue that a real structure is nonexistent.

  • There is a real issue here: we can identify pain neurons in insects and fish and all kinds of animals — they’re ubiquitous. But you could ask about the slippery problem of consciousness, and wonder whether there is a real difference between reflexive aversion to a noxious stimulus and a more substantial awareness of pain. There are people who argue that non-human animals are not thinking and self-aware like we are, and so their perception of pain is qualitatively different.

    Unfortunately, you can’t make a binary distinction here. If we accept that humans are all aware of pain (there have been people who don’t accept that: Nazi-types and racists have argued that Jews and blacks, for instance, are subhumans who have blunted sensitivities), it’s hard to argue that chimpanzees aren’t also aware — they exhibit all the signs of stress, of learning aversion, of memory and recall of unpleasant experiences, and their behavior is identical to ours: they make it known that they don’t like needles or fear snakes or suffer pain and distress at their discomfort and the discomfort of others. And if you admit chimps, where do you draw the line? Dogs also exhibit all of those behaviors; they even show empathy when people are injured or unhappy.

    How can anyone who has known a dog deny that they are capable of perceiving pain in fairly complex ways?

    But it really is a continuum. I haven’t been able to tell if cats feel much empathy — they don’t show it, but I have no way to see what interesting (or terrifying) cognitive wheels are spinning in a cat’s brain. I know they react to their own pain in very emotional ways, and I’ve seen mother cats respond with what looks like affection and protectiveness to their kittens…and I would not assume that a cat’s aversive reaction to getting cut is all a superficial reflex, and therefore anesthesia is unnecessary in operating on them. That is the road of the psychopath.

    Again, scientists rely on the evidence: if I see an animal struggling and making frightened noises and fighting to avoid a painful experience, and if it shows recognition of the circumstances of that pain in the future, I’m going to assume that it feels pain and is in some sense aware of its situation. Theologians are apparently able to see a cat or dog in the throes of agony and declare that it isn’t really suffering, no, not like you or me. Hey, theologians and psychopaths have something in common!

  • Let us consider the implications of Craig’s worldview. If this property of awareness sets humans apart from animals, making our suffering have a greater moral significance than that of animals, and if that awareness is a product of a specific neuroanatomical structure, the prefrontal cortex (or more specifically, a well-developed internal granule cell layer in that cortex), then what is the status of a human that lacks that all-important, very specific pattern of neuronal connectivity?

    I’m thinking, of course, of the embryo. The internal granule cell layer does not pop into existence at the moment of fertilization — it arises much later, gradually, as the brain matures. Cortical wiring is an ongoing process after birth, as well — the microstructure of the human brain changes amazingly during the first couple of years of life. If we’re going to claim that an adult dog, despite appearances, isn’t really aware of pain, shouldn’t we be saying the same thing about the embryo?

    I mean, sure, babies squall and scream and flail about at the slightest discomfort, but how do you really know that they’re actually conscious? Maybe they’re just bio-reflexive hunks of meat until the final bits of their cortical cytoarchitecture snap into place, and we should be unperturbed by their struggles. They’re not really human yet, after all — god hasn’t given them that second-order awareness that they need in order to be conscious of their deontological status as the product of original sin, you know.

    I don’t know of any scientist — or sane human being — who could make that argument seriously. Again, it’s about the evidence; they exhibit the symptoms of feeling pain, they have some complex cerebral machinery that we think is likely capable of processing experiences in complex ways (but we don’t know for sure — we don’t have a parts list of neuroanatomical correlates that are sufficient to generate consciousness), so the humane assumption is that yes, babies perceive pain. Apparently, this is a much more ambiguous issue for theologians, if they had any consistency in their views. Oh, but wait — theologians. Evidence, consistency, reason are not highly valued properties of theological arguments. If they were, it would suggest that Craig ought to rethink his dogmatic anti-abortion stance.

Sorry, Mr Craig, but pain is still a big problem for your religion, and you don’t get to shoo it away or drag in the mangled, bleeding body of a butchered science in agony to act as a scarecrow and distract people from your absence of evidence.

(Also on FtB)