The Expanded Problem of Animal Suffering

Phil Halper (aka SkydivePhil) has produced a hard-hitting new video titled, “Atheism’s Best Argument? The Problem of Animal Suffering & The Neuroscience of Pain,” in conjunction with philosopher of consciousness Ken Williford, neuroscientist David Rudrauf, pain expert Perry Fuchs, as well as ethicists Peter Singer and Mark Bernstein, and philosopher Joe Schmid and Within Reason host Alex O’Connor (the artist formerly known as cosmic skeptic). Here’s a brief excerpt from the video’s description:

The problem of animal suffering (a version of the problem of evil) has recently been described as the biggest problem for Christianity. However, a new paper in the International Journal for Philosophy of Religion suggests that the problem is far worse than imagined. Here, we explain why and counter attempts by theists to reply.

I’ll be putting out a TSZ post on the problem of evil later this year. In the meantime, I’d like to ask viewers what they think of SkydivePhil’s latest video. Comment is welcome.

41 thoughts on “The Expanded Problem of Animal Suffering

  1. I made it to 14:05 and was flabbergasted by William Lane Craig’s rationalization of God’s commanding the Israelites to slaughter the innocent Canaanite children:

    …if these children had been allowed to live, especially in a Canaanite culture, they would have been infected with the same poison as the adults and most of them would have been lost. So their deaths would actually mean their salvation and those children once in heaven would be grateful that God had issued such a command to the Israeli armies to wipe them out. So, it seems to me that there isn’t anybody that God has wronged in this case. The adults deserve the punishment. The children are delivered from evil…

    William Lane Craig is by no means a brilliant man, but he’s smart enough to recognize that argument for the horseshit it is. Good grief.

    More on this tomorrow.

  2. There’s so much wrong with Craig’s argument.

    If slaughtering those kids was an act of mercy that protected them from the “poison” of Canaanite society, then why was this mercy limited to them? Why was it withheld from earlier generations? Why weren’t they slaughtered by the magnanimous Yahweh? Those Canaanite adults that Craig depicts as unredeemably evil were once children who were born into Canaanite society. Why did God permit them to be “poisoned” and lose their salvation?

    For that matter, why doesn’t a perfectly loving God kill every kid in the world before they have a chance to grow up and go astray?

    In fact, why don’t we do so? Think of all the good we could do by going out into the world and murdering every kid we run across. They would smile down upon us from heaven and thank us for the great gift of death that we had bestowed upon them. Right?

    Plus, the whole rationale for the genocide is bogus. Are we really to believe that every single Canaanite adult deserved to die? That there was not one good person in the lot?

    If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, he could have just snapped his metaphorical fingers, causing all of the bad Canaanites to drop dead but leaving the good ones standing. (He could have done something similar instead of causing a global Flood that wiped out the innocent (including animals) along with the guilty.) There was no need to slaughter everyone indiscriminately. And why involve the Israelites at all? An all-powerful God wouldn’t have needed their help.

    Modern evangelicals like Craig have to spin the story so that it doesn’t depict God as a genocidal maniac, but their tortured rationalizations would be unnecessary if they would simply accept that the God of the Canaanite genocide is not the God of modern Christianity. Gods evolve over time along with the societies of the people who invent them, so it isn’t surprising that Yahweh has metamorphosed into a deity that the ancient Israelites wouldn’t recognize.

    To understand the biblical story, just let the text speak for itself. Here’s what’s really going on: Yahweh is a tribal god. The Israelites are his chosen people. They are on team Yahweh. Anyone who gets in the way of team Yahweh is subject to annihilation. It has nothing to do with the guilt or innocence of the individuals (or of their animals). It’s simply Yahweh saying to the Canaanites “You aren’t on my team. Neither are your kids or your animals. So screw you all.”

    Yahweh is acting just like a tribal chief might, which is no surprise when you consider that he was invented by tribal people whose human chiefs behaved in just that way.

    Yahweh isn’t the modern Christian God. Instead of squirming to insist that he is, Christians should embrace the fact that he isn’t. Why would they want to worship a creep like Yahweh?

  3. Another problem with Craig’s argument:

    If the slaughter of the Canaanite children was an act of mercy, then preventing them from being born in the first place would have been an even greater act of mercy. Why didn’t God simply render all of the Canaanites infertile, or cause all of their pregnancies to end in miscarriages, or arrange for the children to be born to non-Canaanite parents? Why needlessly subject those innocent kids to traumatic deaths at the hands of the bloodthirsty Israelites?

    Also, there’s an implication of Craig’s argument that he hasn’t recognized or wrestled with. He maintains that those slaughtered kids, had they been allowed to live, would have lost their salvation after being “poisoned” by Canaanite society. Those same kids, if they had they been born into other circumstances, would not have been poisoned and at least some of them would have ended up in heaven. The inescapable conclusion is that some people are in hell due merely to bad luck, and some (perhaps most) people in heaven are there due merely to good luck. Seems rather capricious of God, and not very loving.

  4. I just watched the part dealing with the possibility of a compensatory afterlife that makes up for the suffering that animals endure here on earth. Apologists use that argument as a way to justify the earthly suffering of humans, too.

    There are a number of problems with it. Mentioned in the video is the fact that historically, Christians haven’t believed that animals enjoy an afterlife. Many (most?) still don’t. For them, the compensatory afterlife argument is unavailable, obviously.

    Another is that the compensatory afterlife is an assumption, not something that follows from the evidence. It’s pulled out of thin air in order to rescue the idea of a perfectly loving God. The question is “How do you know that God is good, given the horrendous animal and human suffering we see in the world?” The theist’s answer is effectively “Well, we already know that God is good, so there must be an afterlife that compensates for the suffering. Otherwise our assumed conclusion would be false, and we can’t have that.” Assume your desired conclusion — that God is loving — and then postulate something for which there is no evidence — a blissful compensatory afterlife — solely for the purpose of immunizing your assumed conclusion against the evidence that we actually do have. That’s poor reasoning.

    As with many arguments for the goodness of God, this one can be flipped on its head. Let’s follow the theist’s lead but assume the opposite conclusion — that God is evil and wants us to suffer. The theist asks us “How do you know that God is evil, given all of the goodness, pleasure and joy we see in the world?” Our answer: “Well, we already know that God is evil, so there must be a horrendous afterlife that compensates for the goodness. Otherwise our assumed conclusion would be false, and we can’t have that.” We assume our desired conclusion — that God is evil — and then postulate something for which there is no evidence — a horrendous compensatory afterlife — solely for the purpose of immunizing our assumed conclusion against the evidence that we actually do have.

    The logic is the same as the theist’s, just inverted.

    Theists will naturally want to reject the second argument, but to be consistent they must also reject the first, since it depends on the same logic. They can’t have their cake and eat it too.

    A third problem is with the idea that a good afterlife can fully compensate for earthly suffering. It can’t.

    Imagine two possible scenarios. In scenario A, humans and animals lead blissful earthly lives free of suffering. Then they die and experience an eternity of bliss in heaven. In scenario B, they lead lives of horrendous suffering. Then they die and experience an eternity of bliss in heaven.

    Which scenario is preferable? Scenario A, obviously. But that very fact shows that a blissful eternity can’t fully compensate for earthly suffering. If it did, there would be no reason to prefer scenario A over scenario B.

    To make the point particularly vivid, imagine that you live for trillions of years in unspeakable agony — the worst kind of pain that a human can possibly experience, for trillions of years, without a single microsecond of relief. Then you die, and God grants you a blissful afterlife, saying “All better now. No harm, no foul.” Would that mollify you? You’d certainly be glad that the suffering had ended, but would your eternal afterlife erase the unspeakable suffering you endured for trillions of years? No way.

    The same principle applies to the actual earthly lives of humans and animals. Bliss followed by eternal bliss is always going to be better than suffering followed by eternal bliss. The bliss can never fully compensate for the suffering.

  5. Consider yourself lucky that life has been good to you so far. Alternatively, if life hasn’t been good to you so far, which given your present circumstances seems more likely, consider yourself lucky that it won’t be troubling you much longer.

  6. Alan Fox:
    petrushka,

    I miss that guy.

    I consider myself lucky to have heard the broadcast radio plays. Presumably delayed a bit in the US, but not by much. I have tapes of them. A lot changed over time. They had to delete the Pink Floyd music.

  7. Yet another problem. Suppose my trillion-year example persuades a theist that full compensation is not possible in that particular case. They might nevertheless assert that compensation works for certain lesser amounts of suffering, including the amounts of suffering that we (and animals) actually endure on earth.

    That raises a question. What is the threshold amount beyond which suffering can’t be compensated for, and how do you justify that particular threshold? What are the principles behind that determination?

    I can’t think of a principled reason for setting any particular threshold. It seems like an all-or-nothing proposition. Either a blissful afterlife can fully compensate for all finite amounts of suffering, or it can’t fully compensate for any of them.

    If you acknowledge the force of my trillion-year example, it seems like the second of those must be true: full compensation is not possible, and so the compensation argument fails.

  8. keiths:
    J-Mac:

    Watch the video in the OP.

    I could only suffer for 5 seconds of the video…How do you sense animals, or other, suffer unless they can communicate that?

  9. J-Mac:

    I could only suffer for 5 seconds of the video…How do you sense animals, or other, suffer unless they can communicate that?

    I’m not going to spoon-feed you, J-Mac. If you want an answer to your question, be a big boy and watch the video.

    Your question is addressed starting here.

  10. keiths:
    J-Mac:

    I’m not going to spoon-feed you, J-Mac. If you want an answer to your question, be a big boy and watch the video.

    Your question is addressed starting here.

    This is all about consciousness. Since animals aren’t conscious; i.e. they are unlikely to perceive reality they way most humans do, it is unlikely they can feel or process suffering the way most humans do.

  11. J-Mac:

    This is all about consciousness. Since animals aren’t conscious; i.e. they are unlikely to perceive reality they way most humans do, it is unlikely they can feel or process suffering the way most humans do.

    How have you managed to equate “is conscious” with “perceives reality the way humans do”?

  12. The discussion of neo-Cartesianism in the video reminded me of a horrifying story I once read about Descartes. He allegedly nailed his wife’s dog to a table and dissected it alive, reasoning that it was just an automaton incapable of suffering and that its cries of pain were just a consequence of the way the machinery operated.

    Hopefully the story is apocryphal, but I know that vivisection has been all too common in the history of science.

  13. Rumraket: How do we know you actually suffer?

    Psychopaths are not rare. They are useful, in moderation. Less useful when in power.

  14. Rumraket, to J-Mac:

    How do we know you actually suffer?

    Or that he’s actually conscious? Can there be consciousness in the absence of brain activity?

  15. Jokes aside, none of us can be certain that other humans are conscious. Their subjective states are invisible to us, so we have no way of directly verifying that “the lights are on” inside their heads. We just assume (justifiably, IMO) that since other people look like us, behave like us, and have nervous systems similar to ours, that they are conscious just like us.

    Most mammals are so much like us that it seems perverse to doubt that they’re conscious and capable of suffering. I’m suspicious of the motives of those, like Craig, who assert that they are not. The evidence doesn’t support Craig’s conclusion. He’s obviously grasping at excuses for his God’s shortcomings, and his arguments regarding animal suffering are no more convincing than his tortured rationalization of the slaughter of the Canaanite children.

    It becomes harder to judge whether animals that are less like us are conscious, but as is pointed out in the video, their nervous systems can differ significantly from ours yet still contain structures that perform analogously to ours. An example they gave was the “avian prefrontal cortex”, which isn’t a prefrontal cortex at all but is responsible for similar functions to ours. Octopuses have nervous systems that are wildly different from ours, but their intelligence and behavior convince me that they are conscious. (I’ll take this as another opportunity to plug the Oscar-winning documentary My Octopus Teacher. Well worth watching.)

    Indeed, there is a stance in the philosophy of consciousness known as “functionalism”, which posits that if two systems A and B are functionally identical, and A is conscious, then B must be conscious too, regardless of how differently its functions are implemented. This is why people take seriously the possibility that AI systems might someday become conscious.

    Consciousness and the ability to suffer likely fall on a spectrum, with no sharp demarcations, which raises the question of where to draw the line above which we consider suffering to be morally significant. I think we should err on the side of caution. If we draw the line too low, the only cost is that we might restrict ourselves unnecessarily. If the story I related above is true, then Descartes drew the line far too high.

  16. As I said, obliquely, empathy is not universal. Like other traits, it exists on a continuum.

    If you have children, you can watch empathy emerge, and you can reinforce it and discuss it. This, and other behaviors, like self control and multilingualism, are best established by age six.

    Far more effective than trying to bring about world peace through politics.

  17. petrushka: Far more effective than trying to bring about world peace through politics.

    Not to deny that political solutions usually make problems worse, but…

    Young people get completely disillusioned, disenfranchised and dismissed before they can have an effect anywhere. Apparently, around a quarter of otherwise eligible voters in London under 25 lack photo ID which is now required to be able to vote.

  18. Alan Fox: Apparently, around a quarter of otherwise eligible voters in London under 25 lack photo ID which is now required to be able to vote.

    The US solved that by not requiring ID.

    But youn people not voting is not a recent thing.

  19. Alan Fox:
    petrushka,

    It never used to be a requirement. The current Tory government have recently brought it in.

    Tell you what. Eliminate the requirement for citizenship, the requirement for identification, the requirement for signature verification, the requirement for ballots that can be audited and recounted, allow private individuals to go door to door creating absentee ballots that are not tied to ballot requests, allow these special absentee ballots to be delivered after everything else has been counted, allow facility managers to vote for profoundly retarded people, or for dementia patients, then top all that with a system that does not purge voter rolls of dead people or people who are registered in multiple states — then you’ll have the American system.

  20. There is one other detail. Most elections are not close, but the sciences of polling, marketing, and voter herding have reached a point where really important elections are decided by a few thousand votes in a handful of districts.

    To my knowledge, the first time this happened was in 1962. It has become the norm.

  21. The neo-Cartesian position (at least as Craig presents it) is quite odd. He acknowledges that animals experience pain, but argues that they do not suffer since they are unaware that they are experiencing pain. Experiencing pain is neutral; only the awareness of themselves as entities experiencing pain is aversive. The myriad outward signs of an animal’s apparent suffering are misleading. Animals are effectively zombies, at least with respect to pain, akin to the hypothetical “philosophical zombies” that philosophers of mind like to discuss.

    The first definition of “pain” that comes up when you ask Google is “physical suffering or discomfort caused by illness or injury”, which matches the way I (and I suspect most people) use the word. By that definition, pain is a variety of suffering; you cannot have pain without suffering. That rules out neo-Cartesianism. The neo-Cartesians need a different definition of pain, but what could that definition be?

    And if neo-Cartesianism rules out suffering, it would seem to rule out genuine pleasure and happiness as well, so that all the signs of contentment that animals exhibit are just as bogus as the signs of suffering. And what about the rest of the emotions? Would these folks argue that animals don’t experience emotions?

    Would they deny that infants are capable of suffering? Children don’t develop a sense of self until around age two. Prior to that age, they can’t be aware that they are entities in pain, and so by neo-Cartesian logic they do not suffer. Parents, there’s no need to keep your infants comfortable. Don’t worry if they’re cold or hungry. Don’t try to soothe them when they seem to be in distress. Don’t worry when they cry; it’s just noise.

    Neo-Cartesianism doesn’t follow from the evidence, which points in the opposite direction. It seems to be motivated purely by a desire to maintain preexisting beliefs about God — beliefs that theists maintain despite the evidence, not because of it.* I don’t think it’s an accident that it’s guys like Michael Murray and Craig who advocate neo-Cartesianism, or that they deploy it primarily as an apologetic tactic.

    I wonder how many of these neo-Cartesians actually grew up around animals. It’s hard for me to imagine how anyone experienced with animals could truly deny their ability to suffer, when the signs are so obvious and match up so well with the indications of human suffering.

    In the video, Craig says he is an animal lover, but you have to wonder why. As a neo-Cartesian, one might love an animal as you would a beautiful painting, or an engaging computer game, but how could you love it as an actual being with whom you could have a meaningful relationship? Animals would be objects, not beings. You couldn’t have an “I-Thou” relationship with them (to borrow Buber’s phrase); instead you’d have an “I-It” relationship.

    * I suppose there might also be nonbelievers who would use neo-Cartesianism to justify the neglect or abuse of animals, or inhumane conditions for farm animals.

  22. I personally wish for technology that would allow me to be a vegetarian and still have meatlike foods. I’m not impressed with fake meat and cheese. I’m hoping for GMO stuff that would have natural meat and dairy flavors and textures.

  23. petrushka:

    I personally wish for technology that would allow me to be a vegetarian and still have meatlike foods. I’m not impressed with fake meat and cheese. I’m hoping for GMO stuff that would have natural meat and dairy flavors and textures.

    It’s on the way:

    Lab-Grown Meat Approved for Sale: What You Need to Know

    Cultured meat, grown from real animal cells, will soon be available in restaurants in San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

  24. We just had some beef from Matthieu, who is a small farmer trying to make a living from vines, wheat, sheep, donkeys and lately a steer. The steer ran in the company of a herd of Scottish Highland cattle, living a carefree life (I assume, knowing little of the inner life of cows) until a visit to the local abattoir resulted in neat packages of vacuum-packed beef being available. The burgers were excellent. It is a question of scale.

  25. Rumraket: How do we know you actually suffer?

    Good question!
    One possible way is we can communicate it, especially the emotional suffering, which clearly animals neither perceive nor can communicate…
    Thoughts?

  26. keiths:
    Rumraket, to J-Mac:

    Or that he’s actually conscious? Can there be consciousness in the absence of brain activity?

    Why would you write something like this? Would you like a conversation?

  27. Rumraket: How do we know you actually suffer?

    You can see the evidence of it in the operating room. When under general anesthesia
    all brain functions are normal but one: consciousness. That’s how anesthesiologists know the patient is not suffering, or feeling the pain. Once the consciousness activity resumes, he/she/them need to inject more anesthetic or the patient will suffer during surgery. That’s just one way of detecting suffering related to pain…
    Emotional suffering, or pain, are harder to detect or read but psychology and psychiatry made some progress there…

  28. J-Mac:

    Why would you write something like this?

    Don’t play the victim. If you’re going to dish it out, you should be willing to take it.

    Plus, it was just a joke.

  29. keiths,
    However, you should try, at least, to think what you are trying to establish, or accomplish here.
    What is your goal, or purpose here? Can I ask?

  30. J-Mac:

    However, you should try, at least, to think what you are trying to establish, or accomplish here.

    Thank you, J-Mac. In the decade I’ve been posting here, it never once occurred to me to ask myself that question.🙄

    What is your goal, or purpose here? Can I ask?

    A recent comment of mine:

    Speaking strictly for myself, I find the discussion worthwhile for a number of reasons. I subscribe to the adage “If you really want to understand something, teach it”. The discipline of arguing for my position has made me aware of subtleties that I might otherwise have missed. It’s also been good practice at expressing myself clearly, and I’ve found that blog discussions in general have noticeably improved my writing over the years. It’s also recreation, in the sense that debating is a sport. It’s fun to spar with these guys. Lastly, it’s entertainment. I’ve gotten some good laughs during the discussion.

    Here’s another:

    Is time spent in debate at TSZ worthwhile? I suppose that depends on your reasons for participating. Some people spend hours wandering the landscape, knocking white balls into holes, purely for fun. Others argue on the internet. Is recreation a waste of time?

    Also, some of what we discuss here at TSZ actually matters. It matters whether ID is regarded as science and taught to our children in school, and it matters whether we teach them to use a new number system and new notation to express measurements when the current system works just fine. Granted, no one is likely to seriously consider incorporating the “measurement-derived reals” into the curriculum, but it’s still worth stating why Flint and Jock’s proposal is a bad idea.

    The topic is also intellectually interesting and pedagogically valuable. Flint and Jock didn’t (and seemingly still don’t) know that all real numbers are exact, and that despite this it is nevertheless perfectly fine to use them to express approximate measurements. That’s a worthwhile lesson.

    Finally, there’s the entertainment value of seeing two adults, both technically trained, seriously arguing that we can’t say whether “3.0 = 3.0” is a true statement, and earnestly contesting the idea that the real numbers are single-valued and infinitely precise, despite the consensus of the mathematical community.

  31. J-Mac:

    One possible way is we can communicate it, especially the emotional suffering, which clearly animals neither perceive nor can communicate…

    Why have you concluded that they don’t “perceive” emotional suffering? Consider Koko the gorilla and her kitten:

    Koko cared for the kitten as if he were a baby gorilla. Researchers said that she tried to nurse All Ball and was very gentle and loving. They believed that Koko’s nurturing of the kitten and the skills she gained through playing with dolls would be helpful in Koko’s learning how to nurture an offspring.

    In December 1984, All Ball escaped from Koko’s cage and was killed by a car. Later, Patterson said that when she signed to Koko that All Ball had been killed, Koko signed “Bad, sad, bad” and “Frown, cry, frown, sad, trouble”. Patterson also reported later hearing Koko making a sound similar to human weeping.

    Also, the fact that (most) animals can’t communicate suffering by speech or gestures is hardly evidence that they don’t suffer, especially given all of the other indications that they do. I distinctly recall you describing how you watched a dog of yours dying and in pain, and I remember being appalled that you didn’t euthanize her. Do you really think she wasn’t suffering?

  32. keiths: The neo-Cartesian position (at least as Craig presents it) is quite odd. He acknowledges that animals experience pain, but argues that they do not suffer since they are unaware that they are experiencing pain. Experiencing pain is neutral; only the awareness of themselves as entities experiencing pain is aversive. The myriad outward signs of an animal’s apparent suffering are misleading. Animals are effectively zombies, at least with respect to pain, akin to the hypothetical “philosophical zombies” that philosophers of mind like to discuss.

    I can see this as a version of neo-Cartesianism but it’s not what Descartes himself would have said.

    Descartes thinks that what distinguishes the mind proper from “beast machines” is the capacities of intellect and will. By intellect he means the capacity to entertain an abstract idea & by will he means libertarian freedom.

    Notice that neither is required for awareness of pain.

    In fact, consciousness and self-consciousness are not important concepts for Descartes at all.

    Since it is only in intellect and in will that we exhibit anything that goes beyond what can be explained in mechanistic terms, a mechanistic explanation for animal pain cannot be a reason to dismiss animal pain — if that were the case, it would be a reason to dismiss human pain.

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