William Lane Craig and the problem of animal suffering: why it’s a poor argument for atheism, but an excellent argument against scientism
|February 10, 2013||Posted by vjtorley under Intelligent Design|
I’d like to invite my readers to take a look at the following three quotes on animal suffering:
1. “[A]nimals like horses, dogs, and cats … do not experience … the awareness that one is oneself in pain… Even though your dog or your cat may be in pain, it really isn’t aware of being in pain, and therefore it doesn’t suffer as you would when you are in pain.”
(Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, in a debate held at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, 17 October 2011, in Westminster Central Hall, London, U.K., on the topic, “Does God Exist?”)
2. “[N]onhuman animals may indeed feel pain but cannot suffer in the way that we can.”
(New Atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett, Kinds of Minds: Toward an Understanding of Consciousness, Basic Books, 1996, p. 164.)
3. “[F]rom a scientific view, we understand so little about animal consciousness (and indeed our own consciousness) that to make the claim that we do understand it, and that we now know which animals experience emotions, may not be the best way to make the case for animal welfare. Anthropomorphism (seeing animals as just like humans) and anecdote were assuming a place in the study of animal consciousness that, it seemed to me, leaves the whole area very vulnerable to being completely demolished by logical argument…
It is, perhaps, not a comfortable conclusion to come to that the only scientific view of consciousness is that we don’t understand how it arises, nor do we know for certain which animals are conscious.“
(Marian Stamp Dawkins, Professor of Animal Behavior and Mary Snow Fellow in Biological Sciences, Somerville College, Oxford University, writing in an online article entitled, Convincing the Unconvinced That Animal Welfare Matters, The Huffington Post, 8 June 2012.)
In her recently published book, Why Animals Matter: Animal consciousness, animal welfare, and human well-being (Oxford University Press, 2012), Marian Dawkins adds that “there is no proof either way about animal consciousness and that it does not serve animals well to claim that there is.” (p. 112)
The three quotes listed above all highlight the danger of anthropomorphism when talking about animal suffering. The authors of these quotes are all professors who have published widely in their fields: the first two are prominent philosophers, while the third is an eminent biologist. Yet the author of the first quote, despite being a devoted pet-owner, is widely scorned by secular humanists for his alleged insensitivity to animal suffering, while the authors of the second and third quotes have kept their reputations unscathed. I have to ask: what motivates this curious inconsistency?
The Atheist’s Dilemma regarding Animal Suffering
In this post, I’m going to argue for two propositions: first, that the problem of animal suffering is a poor argument against the existence of God; and secondly, that Craig’s atheist critics cannot consistently defend their claim to know that many animals are indeed capable of suffering, without giving up their belief in scientism, or the view that the only genuine knowledge we have is scientific knowledge. On strictly scientific grounds, we don’t know that any non-human animals suffer at all, as I’ll demonstrate below. In fact, we can’t even show that animals probably suffer, on purely scientific grounds. Craig’s critics therefore face a tough choice: they have to either concede that animal pain does not constitute a powerful argument against the existence of God, or they have to give up scientism, and accept the fact that there are some forms of genuine knowledge, outside of science.
Some readers will want to know my own views on animal suffering. Personally, I firmly believe that many (and perhaps all) mammals and birds are capable of suffering. I don’t eat meat for ethical reasons, although I do currently eat seafood, eggs and dairy food, after living for 18 years as a near-vegan. (I don’t claim to be perfectly consistent in my ethical conduct; and I acknowledge that much cruelty in the world could be avoided if we all stopped eating eggs. The ethics of dairy farming leave a lot to be desired, too.)
I should also mention that I regard the theological problem of animal suffering as a real one, if we accept that animals do indeed suffer – although I would add that using animal suffering as an argument for atheism is downright silly, given the extent of our ignorance on the subject. I don’t buy the “macho” solution put forward by certain Christians, who contend that God doesn’t have empathy for the suffering of creatures. Nor do I think Professor Craig’s solution – that animals lack self-awareness – works for all non-human animals. (Even Craig admits that the great apes may be self-aware.) Personally, I’m inclined to think that some non-human animals do have a rudimentary awareness of themselves and of others, although I also think science cannot show that they do: it’s the sort of thing we could only know by intuition and from interacting with animals. However, I may be mistaken on this point: perhaps there are no animal “selves,” after all. Finally, there is nothing in principle to prevent an omnibenevolent, omnipotent God from granting some kind of immortality – but not Heaven – to any non-human animals that are self-aware. (Incidentally, John Wesley and C. S. Lewis both believed in a kind of immortality for animals.)
Many of my readers may be wondering how the controversy over Professor Craig’s views on animal suffering got started, in the first place. To answer that question, we need to step back in time to 2011.
A brief history of the controversy regarding William Lane Craig’s views on animal pain
The philosopher and Christian apologist, Professor William Lane Craig, has been the object of fierce criticism on the Internet during the past 16 months, for some remarks he made on animal suffering in October 2011, in a debate with the atheist philosopher Dr. Stephen Law, on the topic, “Does God Exist?” In his opening statement, Dr. Law argued that the existence of God is rendered unlikely by the fact that “[t]here’s a great deal of bad stuff in the world.” The world we live in is “staggeringly cruel and horrific”: for example, “[e]ach day millions of animals are … forced to tear each other limb from limb in order to survive, and this has been going on for hundreds of millions of years.” In his first rebuttal, Professor Craig drew heavily on arguments put forward by the Christian philosopher Professor Michael Murray in his book, Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Oxford University Press, 2008). Following Murray, Craig claimed that there are three levels of pain awareness in animals. On the first and lowest level are animals which react to noxious stimuli without being aware of anything. These animals don’t feel pain. Scientists have a name for an animal’s ability to react to noxious stimuli: it’s called nociception. Virtually all animals have it. Craig was quite right in claiming that nociception and pain are two very different things: all neurologists would agree that you can have nociception without pain.
On Craig’s second level of pain awareness are sentient animals, which are capable of experiencing pain. In the debate, Craig didn’t say precisely which animals he regards as sentient, although he mentioned horses, dogs, and cats. However, in another online article of his, entitled, Nature’s Flaws and Cruelties, Craig addresses the question of which animals are sentient, and concludes: “That sort of experience plausibly does not arise until one gets to the level of vertebrates in the animal kingdom.” In other words, he appears to regard fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals as sentient.
Being aware that oneself is in pain constitutes Craig’s third and highest level of pain awareness, and Craig contends that this level of awareness is found only in the higher primates.
In his debate with Dr. Stephen Law, Professor Craig acknowledged that sentient animals (such as cats, dogs and horses) have “an experience of pain,” but denied that they suffer in the same way that human beings do, as they lack the neurological wherewithal for self-awareness. Citing a work titled, Nature Red in Tooth and Claw (Oxford University Press, 2008) by the philosopher Michael Murray, Craig asserted that self-awareness is “centered in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain”, and then added (erroneously, as it turned out) that this section of the brain is found only in “the higher primates and human beings.” Craig then concluded that since most sentient animals lack self-awareness, they are incapable of possessing “the awareness that one is oneself in pain”; hence they “do not suffer as human beings do” (italics mine). This point would have been sufficient to address Law’s argument; but Craig did not stop there. He also made the more controversial claim that “even though animals are in pain, … [t]hey are not aware of pain” (italics mine) – a remark for which he was subsequently criticized.
Shortly after Professor William Lane Craig’s debate with Dr. Stephen Law in 2011, two prominent atheist bloggers criticized Professor Craig’s paper on both scientific and philosophical grounds: evolutionary biologist P. Z. Myers in his post, William Lane Craig and the Problem of Pain (8 November 2011) and the atheist philosopher Austin Cline in his post, William Lane Craig: Animals aren’t aware of their pain (22 November 2011).
Around the same time, an ex-atheist blogger named Stan wrote a post entitled, Anthropopathism: A failure right out of the box (8 November 2011), in which he ridiculed Craig’s assertion that most animals “don’t know that they are in pain,” but then went on to argue that the so-called “Problem of Pain” is not a valid argument against God’s existence. (Unlike Professor Craig, Stan doesn’t think God has any empathy with our pain, let alone animal pain. God, according to Stan, is radically unlike us: He’s good, but He’s not “into” empathy of any sort.)
After these three online posts in November 2011, the online brouhaha regarding Professor William Lane Craig’s views on animal suffering died down for the next eleven months. That all changed on October 3, 2012, with the release of a high-quality video on Youtube, which was made with the assistance of several neuroscientists. The video, which was entitled, Can animals suffer? Debunking the philosophers who say no, from Descartes to William Lane Craig, was produced by an online skeptic called Skydivephil (whose real name is Phil Harper) and his friend Monica, who presented the video and made her case in a very clear, polite and professional manner.
The very next day, on October 4, Dr. Stephen Law blogged about the video in a post entitled, William Lane Craig: “Animals aren’t aware that they’re in pain”, in which he dismissed assertions made by Craig about the prefrontal cortex of the brain being unique to higher primates in his October 2011 debate with Law as “a load of pseudo-scientific rubbish,” and concluded his post with the words: “Hopefully Craig is a straight enough guy to issue an unqualified mea culpa on this one. He’s just got the science very wrong.” Professor Craig’s scientific assertions about the brain were indeed mistaken, and Professor Craig would do well to admit that fact. However, as we’ll see below, Craig’s contention that sentient non-human animals don’t suffer in the same way as we do falls well within the scientific mainstream.
Finally, on the same day, Professor Jerry Coyne put up a post over at his Website, Why Evolution is True, entitled, William Lane Craig argues that animals can’t feel pain. I should note here that while other critics of Professor Craig had (correctly) represented him as claiming that “animals aren’t aware that they’re in pain,” Coyne was the only critic who falsely attributed to Craig the view that “animals can’t feel pain,” even though Craig categorically asserted in his debate with Dr. Stephen Law that sentient animals such as dogs, cats and horses do experience pain. To make matters worse, Coyne then claimed that “Craig and others argue that animals don’t suffer,” when in fact, what Craig actually said was that they do not suffer as we do.
In a recent podcast, Professor Craig has finally responded to his critics, prompting a second reply to Craig by Skydivephil’s friend, Monica. Professor Jerry Coyne has weighed in with another post, entitled, William Lane Craig defends his ridiculous claim that animals don’t suffer.
Craig’s scientific errors
Before I go on, I’d like to point out that Professor William Lane Craig (whom I greatly admire) has made five scientific errors in his various writings on the subject of animal suffering, and I think it would be best if he acknowledged them publicly. To err is human, after all, and Professor Craig is not a scientist but a philosopher. Some of Craig’s errors apparently stem from his reliance on secondary sources whom he trusted, rather than consulting the scientific literature directly.
For those readers who may be asking why they should trust anything that I have to say on the subject of animal consciousness, I’d just like to point out that I have a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Melbourne, Australia. My Ph.D. thesis was about the simplest kind of mind that could possibly exist, and about what it would need to possess, in order to qualify as a mind. That’s why I titled my thesis, “The Anatomy of a Minimal Mind.” In the course of doing my research, I did some extensive reading of the scientific and philosophical literature relating to animal consciousness, and I also corresponded with several neuroscientists who are active in the field. In my thesis, I defended the view that a wide variety of animals (including some insects) could legitimately be said to possess simple minds, even though they’re not conscious of anything. That might sound odd, but it makes sense if we think of an animal’s mind as its “map of the world,” which it uses to navigate around and attain its goals. I maintained that the brain of an animal with a simple mind can store a “mental map” showing the animal’s current state, its current goal and the pathway for attaining that goal, and that as it learns more about the world, the animal can continually update this map, even though it lacks consciousness. I also argued in my thesis that probably only mammals and birds are sentient, or capable of having subjective, conscious experiences, including feelings of pain or pleasure – although it’s possible that cephalopods such as octopuses may turn out to have feelings too. However, the fact that only a few animals are sentient – 13,000 species of mammals and birds, and possibly 800 species of cephalopods, out of at least 7.7 million species of animals – doesn’t mean that non-sentient animals don’t matter. Sentient or not, animals are still magnificent creatures: they are highly complex, sensitive organisms with a “good of their own” (or telos). As such, they warrant our respect.
Very briefly, Professor Craig’s five scientific errors are as follows:
1. Professor Craig’s assertion about the prefrontal cortex being unique to higher primates is factually incorrect, according to current scientific thinking. (Until about 50 years ago, the term “prefrontal cortex” was defined more narrowly by many neuroscientists, in a way that would restrict it to primates – but even this definition would still include the so-called “lower” primates, or prosimians, as well as the “higher” or “humanoid” primates.) In any case, it is now universally agreed among neurologists that all mammals possess a prefrontal cortex. Additionally, a structure in the brain of birds, known as the nidopallium caudolaterale (NCL), is now regarded as an avian analogue (not a homologue) of the mammalian prefrontal cortex (see M. Milmine, J. Rose and M. Colombo, Sustained activation and executive control in the avian prefrontal cortex, in Brain Research Bulletin 76 (2008), 317–323), although I should add that a scientific consensus on this point did not emerge until 2005.
2. Professor Craig appears to be unaware that the term “higher primates” includes not only humans and great apes, but also gibbons and monkeys (i.e. both New and Old World monkeys). In a recent Q & A response (number 242) to a reader’s question on animal suffering, Dr. Craig wrote:
All animals but the great apes and man lack the neural pathways associated with Level 3 pain awareness.
As we saw above, Craig defines Level 3 pain awareness as the awareness that oneself is in pain. Craig’s statement here that this awareness is confined to man and the great apes conflicts with the statement he made in his October 2011 debate with Dr. Stephen Law:
For that sort of pain awareness requires self-awareness, and this is centered in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, a section of the brain that is missing in all animals except for the higher primates and human beings.
I repeat: “higher primates” is a much broader category than man and the great apes.
3. Professor Craig’s claim, in a recent Q & A response (number 242) to a reader’s question on animal suffering, that there are two independent neural pathways associated with the experience of pain – one giving rise to the experience of pain and the other giving rise to the awareness of that experience – is an extremely puzzling one, which I have been unable to substantiate in the neurological literature. There are indeed some eminent neurologists who would agree with Craig’s position that relatively few animals (e.g. apes and dolphins) are aware of pain, but these neurologists would not describe other sentient animals as not having an experience of pain, since pain is by definition something you are aware of. As the International Association for the Study of Pain states in its widely used definition: “Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage”.
4. Professor Craig likens animal awareness to the strange condition known as blindsight. Here is how he describes people afflicted with the condition, in a Q and A response (number 242) to a reader’s question on animal suffering:
…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…
Craig goes on to argue that the awareness of most non-human animals is like that of a human patient with blindsight. After discussing blindsight, he continues: “neurobiology indicates a similar situation with respect to animal pain awareness.” Craig concludes: “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.”
The central problem facing Professor Craig is this: either patients with blindsight have phenomenal awareness of objects in their visual field, or they do not. If they do, then Craig’s analogy between non-human animals and patients with blindsight would prove too much for his case: it would show that most non-human animals do not experience pain at all – a view which Craig has repeatedly declared that he does not hold.
But if Craig understands blindsight to merely mean having phenomenal experiences without an accompanying awareness of “oneself” having them, then he is faced with another problem. Some animals suffer from blindsight, too, including monkeys. If, as Craig maintains, all sentient animals except for the great apes are incapable of self-awareness, then what is the difference between the experiences of a monkey with normal vision and the experiences of a monkey with blindsight? Self-awareness cannot be the difference, as monkeys presumably have none, on Craig’s view.
5. Professor Craig’s contentious claim that sentient animals experience pain but are not aware of pain does not correspond to the way in which neurologists talk about primary consciousness, which is the most basic kind of consciousness they recognize. Neurologists commonly distinguish between two kinds of consciousness: primary consciousness and higher-order consciousness. Dr. James Rose explains the distinction in his widely cited article, The Neurobehavioral Nature of Fishes and the Question of Awareness and Pain (Reviews in Fisheries Science, 10(1): 1–38, 2002):
Although consciousness has multiple dimensions and diverse definitions, use of the term here refers to two principal manifestations of consciousness that exist in humans (Damasio, 1999; Edelman and Tononi, 2000; Macphail, 1998): (1) “primary consciousness” (also known as “core consciousness” or “feeling consciousness”) and (2) “higher-order consciousness” (also called “extended consciousness” or “self-awareness”). Primary consciousness refers to the moment-to-moment awareness of sensory experiences and some internal states, such as emotions. Higher-order consciousness includes awareness of one’s self as an entity that exists separately from other entities; it has an autobiographical dimension, including a memory of past life events; an awareness of facts, such as one’s language vocabulary; and a capacity for planning and anticipation of the future. Most discussions about the possible existence of conscious awareness in non-human mammals have been concerned with primary consciousness, although strongly divided opinions and debate exist regarding the presence of self-awareness in great apes (Macphail, 1998). The evidence that the neocortex is critical for conscious awareness applies to both types of consciousness. Evidence showing that neocortex is the foundation for consciousness also has led to an equally important conclusion: that we are unaware of the perpetual neural activity that is confined to subcortical regions of the central nervous system, including cerebral regions beneath the neocortex as well as the brainstem and spinal cord (Dolan, 2000; Guzeldere et al., 2000; Jouvet, 1969; Kihlstrom et al., 1999; Treede et al., 1999). (PDF, p. 5)
Since, according to Dr. Rose, primary consciousness includes not only “the moment-to-moment awareness of sensory experiences” but also “some internal states, such as emotions,” it follows that on this definition, even animals possessing only primary consciousness would still be aware of their feelings (such as pain), even if they lack the awareness that they are in pain. If, on the other hand, Craig wishes to argue that non-human animals (with the exception of the great apes) lack even this awareness, then he would be better off arguing that they are not sentient at all.
How did Craig get it wrong?
So, how did the usually methodical Professor Craig get his facts wrong on the prefrontal cortex? The simple answer is that he made the mistake of relying on the writings of a philosopher: Professor Michael Murray, of the University of Notre Dame. Although he is not a scientist, Murray has made a real effort to familiarize himself with the scientific literature relating to animal suffering, as the reader can verify by checking the footnotes of his 2006 article, Neo-Cartesianism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Faith and Philosophy 23(2):169-190) which he co-authored with Glenn Ross. However, at one critical point in his discussion of animal pain, Murray unfortunately misread his sources. In his writings, Murray drew heavily on a scientific article by Dr. Bob Bermond, a psychologist who lectures at the University of Amsterdam, which was provocatively entitled, The myth of animal suffering (in M.Dol et al. (eds.) Animal Consciousness and Animal Ethics, Assen: Van Gorcum 1997, 125-147). Murray referenced Dr. Bermond’s work, both in his 2006 article (see footnotes 34 and 36; see also footnote 43), and in his 2008 book, Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Oxford University Press) – see Chapter 2, footnote 41 on p. 62; see also footnotes 43 and 54. (Most of Chapter 2, which deals with animal suffering, can be viewed online here; see also here for an excellent critical review of Murray’s book.) In the abstract of his 1997 article, Dr. Bermond had asserted that “to experience suffering both a well-developed pre-frontal cortex and a right neocortical hemisphere are necessary” (emphasis mine) and concluded that “emotional experiences of animals, and therefore suffering, may only be expected in anthropoid apes and possibly dolphins.” Bermond also concluded that “most animals are unable to experience suffering”, since “the prefrontal cortex is phylogenetically the most recent structure.” In the body of his article, Dr. Bermond went on to declare: “Although a prefrontal cortex can be identified in many mammal species, only higher apes show a well developed frontal lobe (Kolb and Whishaw, 1990; Kupfermann, 1991); in addition, some parts of the prefrontal cortex are specifically human (Luria, 1980).”
Regrettably, Professor Murray seems to have misread Bermond’s article on this point: in his 2008 book, Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering, Murray claimed that “in human beings the ‘affective’ pathway [the neural pathway in the brain which accounts for pain’s psychologically unpleasant feeling – VJT] terminates in the prefrontal cortex, a region of the mammalian brain which was the last to evolve (and so occurs only in humanoid primates)” (2008, p. 68, first paragraph, emphases mine). Bermond did not say that; he said that the pre-frontal cortex, although found in many mammals, was only well-developed in the higher apes, and he also added that “some parts of the prefrontal cortex are specifically human.” Professor William Lane Craig was evidently impressed by Murray’s evident scholarship and his wealth of footnotes, for he did not bother to check Murray’s reference to Dr. Bermond’s article. That was somewhat careless of Craig, to be sure; but it was hardly a hanging offence.
The more profound answer to the question of how Craig got his facts wrong is that philosophers in general (including Craig and Murray) need to acquaint themselves more thoroughly with the scientific literature on primary and higher-order consciousness, the neural correlates of consciousness, and in particular, pain. To put it bluntly, the various kinds of consciousness posited by philosophers in the contemporary philosophical literature fail to “carve Nature at the joints,” and for the most part, obscure rather than enlighten. Philosophers need to return to Nature and study her anew – a point which I came to appreciate while writing my thesis on animal consciousness. Scientists, for their part, need to familiarize themselves with the philosophical literature on consciousness, in order to ensure that they are asking the right questions from the start, that what they are defining is indeed consciousness, and that they are not overlooking vital properties of human consciousness, in their search for an operational definition of the latter.
Has it been scientifically established that any non-human animals are conscious?
A crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) in Lopburi, Thailand. Despite extensive research, it has not yet been scientifically established that non-human primates such as monkeys are actually conscious. Image courtesy of “Chris huh” and Wikipedia.
Surprisingly, there is no conclusive scientific evidence showing that any non-human animals are conscious.
This point is explicitly acknowledged by Marian Stamp Dawkins, Professor of Animal Behavior and Mary Snow Fellow in Biological Sciences, Somerville College, Oxford University, in her recently published book, Why Animals Matter (2012). Dawkins is herself sympathetic to the view that a large number of animals may be conscious. In her book, Dawkins fothrightly accuses animal researcher Marc Bekoff of going in for “full-blooded, genuine anthropomorphism” (p. 21) in his ascription of conscious emotions to animals, and she takes particular issue with a statement made by Bekoff: “To live with a dog is to know first hand that animals have feelings. It’s a no brainer.” In her response, Dawkins describes the deterimental effect that this anthropomorphic way of thinking has had on science: “It began to look as though no further thought or investigation were going to be necessary. Even worse, this new wave of anthropomorphism threatened the very scientific basis of the study of animal behaviour itself, particularly that branch of it known as cognitive ethology.” (p. 26)
Dawkins then goes on to discuss the different areas of animal consciousness. Throughout the discussion, she maintains a skeptical outlook, because the scientific evidence is “indirect” (p. 111) and that “there is no proof either way about animal consciousness and that it does not serve animals well to claim that there is.” (p. 112). Summarizing the data surveyed, she writes:
The mystery of consciousness remains. The explanatory gap is as wide as ever and all the wanting in the world will not take us across it. Animals and plants can ‘want’ very effectively with never a hint of consciousness, as we can see with a tree wanting to grow in a particular direction. Preference tests, particularly those that provide evidence that animals are prepared to pay ‘costs’ to get what they want, are perhaps the closest we can get to what animals are feeling, but they are not a magic entry into consciousness. They do not solve the hard problem for us because everything that animals do when they make choices or show preferences or even ‘work’ to get what they want could be done without conscious experience at all. We have seen (Chapters 4 and 5) just how much we humans do unconsciously and how powerful our unconscious minds are in making decisions and even in having emotions. What is good enough for us may well be good enough for other species.
…In the case of other humans, we use words to ask them what they are feeling, and use what they say as a reasonable working substitute for direct knowledge of what they are experiencing. Preference tests and their variations could be seen as the animal equivalents of asking people in words and it is tempting to say that they are as good as words, if not better. So if we are happy enough to use words as a rickety bridge across the chasm, why not use preference tests, choice, and operant conditioning to do the same for animals? This argument seems particularly compelling when we look at the evidence that animals will choose to give themselves the same drugs that we know have pain-relieving or anxiety-relieving properties in ourselves. Isn’t this direct evidence for conscious experience of pain in animals? Doesn’t this show that their experience of pain is like ours, not just in the external symptoms that they show but also in what they feel?
… The similarity between the behavioral responses of animals and humans to such drugs make it tempting to assume that because the behavior is similar, the conscious experiences must be similar too. Of course they may be, but there is no more ‘must’ about it than in the claim that animals ‘must’ consciously experience thirst before they drink or ‘must’ consciously experience hunger while they are searching for food. They may well do so, as we saw in Chapter 8. But there is no must about it. Animal bodies have evolved by natural selection to restore imbalances of food and water and to repair wounds and other kinds of damage. Neither food deprivation nor water deprivation, nor the symptoms of inflamed joints, are necessarily accompanied by any conscious experiences at all, although they may be. Just as our wounds heal up without any conscious intention on our part and we like certain foods without knowing why, so other animals, too, have a variety of mechanisms, for repairing and restoring their bodies to proper working order. Preference and choice and ‘what animals want’ are part of those mechanisms. They may well be accompanied by conscious experiences. But then again, they may not be. Once again, our path to finding out the answer is blocked by the implacable, infuriating obstacle known as the hard problem.” (pp. 171-174)
Finally, Dawkins argues that since at the present time, scientists don’t know which (if any) animals are conscious, it is better for animal welfare advocates to refuse to commit themselves on the question of which animals are conscious: ” … it is much, much better for animals if we remain skeptical and agnostic [about consciousness] … Militantly agnostic if necessary, because this keeps alive the possibility that a large number of species have some sort of conscious experiences … For all we know, many animals, not just the clever ones and not just the overtly emotional ones, also have conscious experiences.” (p. 177)
Dawkins made her case again, recentlym in an online article entitled, Convincing the Unconvinced That Animal Welfare Matters (The Huffington Post, 8 June 2012):
[F]rom a scientific view, we understand so little about animal consciousness (and indeed our own consciousness) that to make the claim that we do understand it, and that we now know which animals experience emotions, may not be the best way to make the case for animal welfare. Anthropomorphism (seeing animals as just like humans) and anecdote were assuming a place in the study of animal consciousness that, it seemed to me, leaves the whole area very vulnerable to being completely demolished by logical argument. A particular threat is posed by the so-called “kill-joy” explanations that are increasingly appearing in the philosophical and scientific literature. Kill-joy explanations are simple explanations for what have previously been thought to be examples of complex achievements by animals. A classic example is where the exciting claim that a horse or dog can count and do sums is replaced by the kill-joy explanation that all that the animal is doing is taking cues from a human, who is really doing the sums. Kill-joy explanations are now everywhere, “explaining away” many of the clever things animals were supposed to do, such as reading each other’s minds, deceiving each other, and insightfully anticipating their futures.
But kill-joy explanations do not kill off claims of animal consciousness, at least not if we continue to acknowledge how little we actually know about what animals subjectively experience. If we acknowledge that we don’t really know whether a particular behavior implies conscious awareness or not, then all the kill-joy explanations in the world will have no effect. For all we know, a horse that takes its cues from its owner’s body language is just as emotional and just as conscious as a mathematical genius. I personally see no reason at all why only clever animals should be conscious or have emotions, given that it does not take a great intellect to feel hunger or to experience pain. A very wide range of different animals are potentially part of my “consciousness club,” membership of which is still undetermined and therefore unaffected by kill-joy explanations.
It is people who think that we do understand consciousness, and that it is tied to particular abilities, who leave the study of animal consciousness vulnerable to kill-joy explanations…
It is, perhaps, not a comfortable conclusion to come to that the only scientific view of consciousness is that we don’t understand how it arises, nor do we know for certain which animals are conscious. But, paradoxically, this very agnosticism is a better protection against kill-joy explanations than anthropomorphic or ill-founded claims that we definitely do know.
Several prominent “pro-animal” neuroscientists have expressed their agreement with Marian Dawkins’ point that there is currently no proof that any non-human animals are conscious. David B. Edelman is one of the signatories of the 2012 Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. Here is what David B. Edelman, Bernard J. Baars and Anil K. Seth acknowledge this point in their paper, Identifying hallmarks of consciousness in non-mammalian species (Consciousness and Cognition 14 (2005), 169–187):
In the absence of explicit report from a first person point of view, doubt could be cast on the assumption that members of any non-human species are conscious. Such doubt may even exist in the case of primates, where part of the problem is that much of the relevant behavioral research was not initiated with any sort of generally agreed upon definition of consciousness. Over the past two decades, quite rigorous playback experiments were carefully crafted and deployed to tease out evidence of some kind of social awareness, intentionality, or even a “theory of mind” in monkeys in the wild (Bergman, Beehner, Cheney, & Seyfarth, 2003; Cheney & Seyfarth, 1990; Seyfarth & Cheney, 2003). At the same time, sophisticated laboratory-based methodologies were also deployed to test for a theory of mind in apes (Premack & Woodruff, 1978; Premack & Premack, 1984; Savage-Rumbaugh, Sevcik, Rumbaugh, & Rubert, 1985). Although these studies clearly demonstrated a highly sophisticated social intelligence (Seyfarth & Cheney, 2003) and, some might argue, even self-awareness (Gallup, 1970) among certain primates, they did not allow the conclusion that these animals were conscious.
A synthetic approach to assessing primate consciousness requires combining behavioral evidence with neuroanatomical and neurophysiological analyses. Thus, the main point supporting the case for consciousness in monkeys and apes is that they have rich discriminatory behavior along with thalamocortical systems that enable complex reentrant neuronal signaling (Seth et al., 2004). Moreover, even in the absence of the semantic capabilities shown by chimpanzees and bonobos, experiments of the kind performed by Logothetis (1998) on monkeys show that higher cortical processing results in neural responses to reported percepts, not just to sensory signals. The point of the present discussion is to suggest that this sort of synthetic methodology should provide a model for researchers pursuing consciousness studies in non-mammalian species. (pp. 180-181)
In a companion paper by Anil K. Seth, Bernard J. Baars and David B. Edelman, entitled, Criteria for consciousness in humans and other mammals (Consciousness and Cognition, 14 (2005), 119–139), the authors enumerate 17 distinctive properties of consciousness, and then proceed to discuss whether the presence of these properties can be tested in non-human animals, in section 3 of their paper (“Putting it all together”). The authors argue that while many of the 17 properties can be tested for in animals, others cannot at the present time. They also suggest that the list of hallmark properties of consciousness may need to be revised in the future, as scientific knowledge advances.
How, in practice, can these properties be used to test comparative predictions about consciousness? Considering this question raises the issue that the foregoing properties vary considerably in their testability. Those that have to do with structural homologies of neuroanatomy are relatively easy to test; it is not difficult to identify a thalamocortical complex in a monkey or in a dog (criterion #2).4 It is also relatively straightforward to test for neural dynamics generated within these structures; EEG signature (#1), widespread brain activity (#3), informativeness (#5), rapid adaptivity (#6), and neural synchrony underlying sensory binding (#9) all fall into this class. These properties can therefore be treated sensibly as testable criteria.
Empirical data that pass these criteria can establish a beachhead from which others can be evaluated. Since consciousness — whether in humans or in other animals — arises from interactions among brains, bodies, and environments, we might next consider properties that involve a behavioral component. Such properties include whether putative consciousness in an animal facilitates learning (#14), whether it can generate accurate behavioral report (#11), and whether it aids voluntary decision making (#17).
The testability of the remaining properties is less evident. Some may seem difficult to test, but with sufficient ingenuity can in fact be tested. For example, good evidence for conscious seriality (#8) comes from paradigms such as binocular rivalry, in which human subjects report perceptual alterations despite stable sensory input. Application of this paradigm to non-human animals requires a sufficiently reliable means of behavioral report (Cowey & Stoerig, 1995; Leopold, Maier, & Logothetis, 2003). Given such means, neural activity following sensory input can be separated from neural activity that follows a (putatively) conscious percept. Similar approaches can be applied to internal consistency (#7) and perhaps also to stability of conscious contents (#15).
Even so, there are some properties which do not seem currently testable. Most prominently, subjectivity (#12) is not something that seems testable in a given experiment. Rather, subjectivity is a defining property of consciousness to which empirical results may be related. In this case, the best to hope for is to indirectly infer subjectivity from a sufficiently well-validated report in conjunction with a battery of consistent brain evidence…
Along with subjectivity, the wide range of conscious contents (#4), self-attribution (#10), focusfringe structure (#13), and allocentricity (#16) are most likely to remain as properties; they do not describe phenomena that are either present or not present in currently available empirical data…
Finally, we note that the present list should be treated as provisional. Neural theories of consciousness are young, and their further development may lead not only to migrations between properties and criteria, but also to a repopulation of the list itself.
As the authors point out, the capacity for illusions is highly suggestive of consciousness in animals (as opposed to self-consciousness). Work on blindsight also points to the same conclusion. One highly cited paper in this connection is Blindsight in Man and Monkey by Stoerig and Cowey (Brain, 1997, 120, 535-559).
Here’s a quote from my thesis:
“Recent experiments by Stoerig and Cowey (1997, p. 552) have shown that a monkey can be trained to respond to a stimulus in its visual field by touching its position on a screen, and to a blank trial (no stimulus) by touching a constantly present square on the screen that indicates “no stimulus”. The monkey’s ongoing responses fit the requirements for a nonverbal “accurate, verifiable report” (Baars, 2001) indicating “sustained awareness of the environment” (Rose, 2002a, p. 6). Moreover, recent experiments by Logothetis with binocular rivalry have demonstrated that the humans and monkeys make identical reports about what they see when conflicting data is presented to their left and right two visual fields (Block, 2003). According to Stoerig and Cowey (1997, p. 552), lack of awareness has also been experimentally verified in studies of monkeys with blindsight, a condition in which patients with damage to the visual cortex of the brain lose their subjective awareness of objects in a portion of their visual field, but sometimes retain the ability to make visual discriminations between objects in their blind field. It is also interesting to note that pigeons can respond variably to the ambiguity in figures like the Necker cube, which suggests that their subjective impression of its orientation can “flip” (Butler, Manger, Lindahl and Arhem, 2005).
“Two philosophical questions are pertinent here. First, should these nonverbal responses be regarded as introspective reports by the monkeys on the content of their phenomenal experiences, or simply as environmental reports on what they see in front of them, as Block (2005) suggests? The latter suggestion is more parsimonious and accounts for the behaviour equally well. Second, is the ability to report on the objects in one’s environment a sufficient condition for having phenomenal consciousness? Carruthers thinks not; he argues that phenomenal awareness requires an ability on the subject’s part to “draw a distinction between the way things are and the way they seem or appear” (Carruthers, 2004b). Other philosophers (Allen, 2005) have also proposed that any animals which can learn to correct their perceptual errors are phenomenally conscious, but what sets Carruthers apart is that he regards this ability as a necessary condition for possessing subjective awareness. The only findings I have been able to uncover in this field are negative: experiments with monkeys fitted with glasses inverting the retinal image showed that in the monkeys (unlike human beings) this completely disrupted their behavior, and they entered a long period of inactivity (Leontev, 1978).”
Are there any reputable scientists today who think that only human beings are conscious?
Yes. Perhaps the best known is the psychologist Euan Macphail, author of The Evolution of Consciousness (Oxford University Press, 1998). The following quote is taken from a review of Macphail’s book by Johan J. Bolhuis (Trends in Cognitive Sciences – Vol. 3, No. 11, November 1999, pp. 446-447):
Macphail suggests that ‘consciousness’ is difficult to define, rather like ‘beauty’ or ‘truth’ (come to think of it, the last may be the least difficult of the three). He goes on to distinguish between two forms of human consciousness, namely ‘self-consciousness’ and ‘feeling-consciousness’. The former reflects the fact that humans can distinguish their own selves from other selves, and that ‘we know that we know things’. The latter includes such feelings as love, pleasure and pain. The author suggests that whereas the existence of self-consciousness in animals is debatable, most people would accept that most (if not all) animals have feeling-consciousness. At various places in the book, Macphail explores feeling-consciousness in animals, particularly the question of whether (some) animals can feel pain. From a functional point of view, he argues that the evolution of approach, avoidance and learning does not require feelings. Furthermore, he concludes that the similarity of behavioural and physiological responses to pain in animals and humans are not a sufficient reason to conclude that animals have feelings as humans do. Rather than similarities, Macphail points to behavioural differences between humans and non-humans, namely the use of language…
Macphail investigates the relationship between cognition and consciousness, and whether there are differences between animal species in the former that could suggest differences in the latter. As he did in his earlier analysis, he concludes that there are no major differences in cognitive capacities between different animal species. He concedes that animals may have some form of (non-verbal) thought, but that does not mean that they have consciousness. There is a cognitive leap between animals and humans that accompanies the evolutionary leap to the use of language in humans. The suggestion arises that language is a crucial factor in the evolution of consciousness.
An important concept in Macphail’s reasoning is that of an implicit system involving associative processes that can be used – unconsciously – by humans and animals. Macphail argues that, in addition, humans have conscious access to a hippocampus-dependent explicit system. There is an animal forerunner of this system, but it cannot be proved that consciousness is involved here, as animals cannot talk about it…
In the final chapter of the book, Macphail summarizes his main arguments, discusses some contemporary (materialist) philosophies of consciousness, and attempts to reach a synthesis. Two main conclusions are that there is no proof that any non-human organism is conscious, and that only humans possess language. The essence of language is that humans can form what Macphail calls ‘aboutness’ relationships, where an internal representation (the predicate) is about another representation (the subject).
As far as I am aware, Macphail has not revised his views on animal consciousness since writing on the subject in 1998.
Another psychologist who thinks that consciousness may be confined to human beings, and perhaps apes and dolphins, is Dr. Bob Bermond, a psychologist who lectures at the University of Amsterdam. Dr. Bermond wrote a paper in 1997, entitled The myth of animal suffering” (in M.Dol et al. (eds.) Animal Consciousness and Animal Ethics, Assen: Van Gorcum 1997, 125-147). The paper’s abstract is available online here. It reads as follows:
The starting point for this study is whether it has been proven that animals are, in general, able to experience suffering. In order to answer this question, I have reviewed the literature for suitable research strategies and used Romanes’ “analogy postulate.” The research strategies proved unsuitable for the question posed, and a detailed analysis of the analogy postulate forces one to conclude that to experience suffering both a well-developed pre-frontal cortex and a right neocortical hemisphere are necessary. Since the prefrontal cortex is phylogenetically the most recent structure, the analogy postulate leads to the conclusion that most animals are unable to experience suffering. On the basis of additional arguments, concerning characteristics and the fitness functions of both consciousness and emotional experience, it is concluded that emotional experiences of animals, and therefore suffering, may only be expected in anthropoid apes and possibly dolphins.
Among neuroscientists, there is a broad spectrum of beliefs regarding the incidence of primary consciousness in non-human animals, with some regarding it as confined to human beings. According to Dr. James Rose’s paper, The Neurobehavioral Nature of Fishes and the Question of Awareness and Pain (Reviews in Fisheries Science, 10(1): 1–38, 2002):
Because it is known that neocortex is necessary for consciousness in humans, it might also be assumed that other animals with neocortex, that is all mammals, should have some form of consciousness as well. In practice, there is a wide range of beliefs or working assumptions about this matter among neuroscientists. Macphail (1998) has argued that evidence from behavior warrants the conclusion that nonhuman mammals cannot have consciousness of any type. In contrast, some neuroscientists routinely use primates to investigate the cortical neural mechanisms underlying primary consciousness (Edelman and Tononi, 2000; Koch and Crick, 1999, 2000). While many neuroscientists seem to assume the existence of primary consciousness in at least some mammals, particularly primates, extended consciousness is generally considered a uniquely human capacity (Donald, 1991; Edelman and Tononi, 2000). (pp. 12, 13)
What does science have to say about animal consciousness?
I’d like to sum up here. There are still some reputable neuroscientists who believe that non-human animals do not suffer. What’s more, even passionate advocates of animal welfare, such as Professor Marian Stamp Dawkins and Professor David B. Edelman, have conceded in their writings that we cannot know, at the present time, whether non-human animals are conscious.
It might be argued that even if we cannot know whether non-human animals are conscious, surely we can regard the conclusion as probable. After all, is it not abundantly supported by scientific evidence? But the problem here, as Professor Marian Dawkinds points out, is that the evidence in question can be accounted for perfectly well without ascribing consciousness to animals. For precisely that reason, she advocates a “militant agnosticism” on the question of animal consciousness.
On strictly scientific grounds, then, we do not know that any non-human animals are conscious, or even that any non-human animals are probably conscious.
An atheist might object that even if we do not know now that animals are conscious, perhaps science will one day give us the answer. But the problem is that the argument from animal suffering is being advanced on the basis of what we allegedly know now.
The Atheist’s Dilemma: The case of Professor Coyne
Professor Jerry Coyne is a notable exponent of the New Atheism. He is also a defender of the view known as scientism, which states that all genuine knowledge comes from the sciences, and that there is no “extra-scientific” knowledge. In a post enetiled, The trouble with “The trouble with scientism”, Coyne defends this claim, defining science as “the use of reason, empirical observation, doubt, and testing as a way of acquiring knowledge.” In response to the claim by a critic that the humanities (including history) have yielded valuable knowledge, Coyne replies:
Who among scientists denigrates these achievements? Not I! But all of these achievements rest on observation, questioning, reason, and testing—the methods of science. There is in fact no strict demarcation between “science” and “non-science” when it comes to the methods for ascertaining what is real. One commenter on this site even noted that the classic chestnut of “another way of knowing” —does my partner love me? — is also amenable to empirical scrutiny.
Coyne is also a great cat-lover. In a post entitled, William Lane Craig argues that animals can’t feel pain (4 October 2012), Professor Jerry Coyne argued that it was “well established” that some non-human animals do indeed feel pain, and regard it as unpleasant:
It’s pretty well established now that many species do experience pain as an unpleasant sensation…
Really, if you step on a cat’s tail, you don’t think it feels pain?
To add insult to injury, Coyne included a cartoon at the bottom of his post, showing a mother cat with blue eyes blazing in anger, presumably addressing Professor Craig with the words of the caption: “OF COURSE mah kittehs feel pain! … moron.”
Finally, Coyne contends that animal suffering is inconsistent with the existence of an omnibenevolent God. In a recent post entitled, William Lane Craig defends his ridiculous claim that animals don’t suffer (9 February 2013), he wrote:
Even if animals aren’t conscious of their individuality, they still suffer, and suffering hurts. It is unpleasant. Is there anyone who doubts that a benevolent God would be justified in exhibiting complete indifference to the suffering of (supposedly) nonconscious animals?
I have used the example of Professor Coyne to illustrate what’s wrong with the atheistic argument against God’s existence, based on animal suffering. The problem here is that the atheist advancing this argument claims to know that animals suffer, and to know that a benevolent God would not allow this to happen. He also (typically) claims that all genuine knowledge comes from the sciences. But as we have seen, the sciences cannot tell us, at the present time, whether non-human animals suffer or not. It cannot even tell us that animals probably suffer.
The atheist who wishes to argue against God’s existence, on the basis of animal suffering, faces a difficult choice: concede that the argument does not work, or claim knowledge of animal suffering on non-scientific grounds – e.g. intuition. I don’t wish to knock intuition for a second. But if we are going to allow it as a source of knowledge, then what about the religious intuition that there is a God? Isn’t that a form of knowledge too. And if not, why not?
I hope I have said enough here to show that the atheistic argument against God’s existence based on animal suffering rests in tatters, and I don’t think it can be successfully amended. The ball is now squarely in the atheist’s court: he must “put up or shut up.”