I ended up reading this article about animal suffering by this Christian apologist called William Craig. Forgive the source, please.
In his book Nature Red in Tooth and Claw, Michael Murray explains on the basis of neurological studies that there is an ascending three-fold hierarchy of pain awareness in nature:i
Level 3: Awareness that one is oneself in pain
Level 2: Mental states of pain
Level 1: Aversive reaction to noxious stimuli
Organisms which are not sentient, that is, have no mental life, display at most Level 1 reactions. Insects, worms, and other invertebrates react to noxious stimuli but lack the neurological capacity to feel pain. Their avoidance behavior obviously has a selective advantage in the struggle for survival and so is built into them by natural selection. The experience of pain is thus not necessary for an organism to exhibit aversive behavior to contact that may be injurious. Thus when your friend asks, “If you beat an animal, wouldn't it try to avoid the source of pain so that way 'it' wouldn't suffer? Isn't that a form of 'self-awareness?'," you can see that such aversive behavior doesn’t even imply second order pain awareness, much less third order awareness. Avoidance behavior doesn’t require pain awareness, and the neurological capacities of primitive organisms aren’t sufficient to support Level 2 mental states.
Level 2 awareness arrives on the scene with the vertebrates. Their nervous systems are sufficiently developed to have associated with certain brain states mental states of pain. So when we see an animal like a dog, cat, or horse thrashing about or screaming when injured, it is irresistible to ascribe to them second order mental states of pain. It is this experience of animal pain that forms the basis of the objection to God’s goodness from animal suffering. But notice that an experience of Level 2 pain awareness does not imply a Level 3 awareness. Indeed, the biological evidence indicates that very few animals have an awareness that they are themselves in pain.
Level 3 is a higher-order awareness that one is oneself experiencing a Level 2 state. Your friend asks, “How could an animal not be aware of their suffering if they're yelping/screaming out of pain?" Brain studies supply the remarkable answer. Neurological research indicates that there are two independent neural pathways associated with the experience of pain. The one pathway is involved in producing Level 2 mental states of being in pain. But there is an independent neural pathway that is associated with being aware that one is oneself in a Level 2 state. And this second neural pathway is apparently a very late evolutionary development which only emerges in the higher primates, including man. Other animals lack the neural pathways for having the experience of Level 3 pain awareness. So even though animals like zebras and giraffes, for example, experience pain when attacked by a lion, they really aren’t aware of it.
To help understand this, consider an astonishing analogous phenomenon in human experience known as blind sight. The experience of sight is also associated biologically with two independent neural pathways in the brain. The one pathway conveys visual stimuli about what external objects are presented to the viewer. The other pathway is associated with an awareness of the visual states. Incredibly, certain persons, who have experienced impairment to the second neural pathway but whose first neural pathway is functioning normally, exhibit what is called blind sight. That is to say, 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. Obviously, as Michael Murray says, it would be a pointless undertaking to invite a blind sighted person to spend an afternoon at the art gallery. For even though he, in a sense, sees the paintings on the walls, he isn’t aware that he sees them and so has no experience of the paintings.
Now neurobiology indicates a similar situation with respect to animal pain awareness. All animals but the great apes and man lack the neural pathways associated with Level 3 pain awareness. Being a very late evolutionary development, this pathway is not present throughout the animal world. 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.
He continues the argument here.
How decent do you think this argument is? I don't know where to look to evaluate the core claim, as I know very little neuroscience myself. I'm quite concerned about animal suffering, and choose to be vegetarian largely on the basis of that concern. How much should my decision on that be affected by this argument?
EDIT: David_Gerard wins by doing the basic Google search that I neglected. It seems that the argument is flawed. Particularly, animals apart from primates have pre-frontal cortexes.
Voted up for giving us an argument to chew on that's both important and terrible :-)
The punchline is, of course, "and therefore God exists." Craig is trying to solve theodicy here - he's trying to show that animal suffering doesn't exist, therefore doesn't count as God allowing evil.
The obvious Google search turns up a string of refutations of Craig's argument and, indeed, his bogus neuroscience. This one and this one go over a pile of the obvious errors. PZ Myers, who, as well as being an obnoxious atheist sceptic, just happens to be a professor of developmental biology, gets stuck into both Craig's bad science and his odious ethics. (For the philosophy, Myers also points out that Craig has just made an argument in favour of freedom of abortion. Philosotroll notes that Craig's argument rejects dualism: "Does God then have a prefrontal cortex?")
Also, the mirror test is interesting.
In general, if William Lane Craig publicly says the sky is blue, he's going to follow it with "and therefore God exists."
Related: the Discovery Institute (the organisation formed to push Intelligent Design; Craig is a Fellow of the DI) has started a newsletter called The Huma... (read more)
I notice both of the objections to this mention that they don't like the implications (animal "cruelty" is okay) as if it's part of their counter-argument. That's hardly relevant. You might as well argue that animals don't feel pain because that would imply there's no omnipotent, omnibenevolent, god.
Also, they talk about other animals having pre-frontal cortex. This would mean that the argument is more specific than it states, but would still imply that many animals do not feel pain.
This is why cruelty to animals is useful as an indicator of sociopathy in humans.
There's a lot of cultural variation there-- the animal fights in the Roman coliseum, bull-fighting,, and bear-baiting are all examples of culturally supported use of animal suffering as part of entertainment.
One commenter on PZ Myers' post notes that the argument that animals don't feel pain as humans know it is not at all original with Craig:
I'm not aware of the history of the argument - anyone else familiar with it? Another commenter notes the similarity to the claim that humans, even severely brain-damaged ones, have souls, and smart animals just don't.
I don't feel like getting into a debate about preferences. But this comes up so often that I want to state my preferences for what its worth.
I would deem it extremely tasteless if someone was going to eat a raven, parrot, orca or octopus if they could as well survive by eating other lower animals. There are other examples of animals that show a lot of signs of characteristics that we normally only associated with being human. I would further deem it extremely tasteless if someone was going to torture animals just for fun, animals that can feel pain but might not be aware of it in the same sense that humans are. And if people argue in favor of those acts by claiming that I am biased and that my preferences depend on anthropomorphizing those animals, then I can only say that I believe that they are overcompensating and that I won't revisit my preferences until they can show me that a raven or parrot is no more affected by torture than Microsoft Word.
This is about preferences, about what we want. That's why I signal mine. And if you share those preferences but fool yourself into believing that they don't apply to animals because that's "biased", then you might be confused ab... (read more)
Well, it has to do with ethics insofar as ethics is about preferences and expected utility calculations.
Craig responds to some criticism on his argument here. Craig agrees the question is theologically neutral, and then defends the existence of God through the standard Moral Argument, by appealing to the fact that atheists do not have a basis for moral obligations to animals (including humans), which is, of course, false.
I think that should clear up some of the misconceptions about what Craig thinks his argument is really doing -- it's not proving God directly, but rather answering an objection to Christianity based in the Problem of Evil, and responding with the Moral Argument.
That being said, I'd like to mention something else: there was something in his second response that really interested me. Craig says:
To me, this seems to suggest that if whether or not animals actually suffer is dependent upon our personal beliefs about the issue -- if we give up the objection to theism, then animals won't have to suffer... (read more)
When a bee is stuck flying against the window desperately trying to get free, I help it.
When a spider is in some place where I know it will starve to death or get crushed, I put it outside.
When an injured bird needs some time to pull itself together and avoid being eaten by the cat, I'll spend hours babying it.
As a human, I feel empathy for other beings, and I project a conscious sentient being on them. Even though I know that there is no such conscious being, it still gets constructed and empathized with, whether I like it or not. Faced with this, I have a choice:
Act on my feelings of empathy, thereby practicing the habit of doing the right thing, and using a bit of time.
Put on my murder face and ignore the imaginary suffering, thereby practicing moral indifference, to save a bit of time.
From a purely instrumental perspective, I think choosing #1 is a good idea. Practicing morality seems much better than practicing indifference, even if the practice situation is imaginary.
That's how I like to think about animal suffering.
Citation needed for most claims, but the core distinction between avoidance, pain, and awareness of pain works. Systems that have negative reinforcement pathways exist even if not all invertebrates are examples. David Gerard points out that neurological similarities make animals almost certainly aware of their pain, but there can be (we could create) exceptions.
But why on Earth would we care about awareness of pain rather than just plain pain?
Amanda Baggs, The Summer Thing
Craig's argument implies that if we partially relieved Amanda's pain, if would be bad, because she'd be aware of her pain. That doesn't sound right.
Is that argument related to saying that animals are p-zombies?
It isn't saying that animals have no qualia, but I think it's saying that some types of qualia matter more than others, and that animals can behave like people in terms of reacting to and avoiding pain, but the behavior means something very different from what it would if a person were doing it.
It's been asserted here that "the core distinction between avoidance, pain, and awareness of pain works" or that "there is such a thing as bodily pain we're not conciously aware of". This, I think, blurs and confuses the most important distinction there is in the world - namely the one between what is a conscious/mental state and what is not. Talk of "sub-conscious/non-conscious mental states" confuses things too: If it's not conscious, then it's not a mental state. It might cause one or be caused by one, but it isn't a mental... (read more)
Stating right at the beginning that the argument comes from Craig was probably a bad idea. Maybe others didn't have this problem, but I immediately disagreed with the argument's conclusion and rigor after reading who its author was.
It's hard both to document your sources and avoid framing effects, but maybe you could have put the author's name at the end?
I think the argument is both true in some ways, and flawed. I agree that it takes a man (or perhaps the higher apes) to form the thought "I am in pain", and that most mammals don't bother with this type of reflexive thinking.
The flaw in the argument is that the "I am in pain" thought isn't the painful bit.
A No True Scottsman argument that animals don't 'really' suffer. I reject the nomenclature used to the extent that anyone attempts to apply it when considering this conclusion.
I'd probably identify three levels (or, at least, mark three areas on a continuum) but for different reasons. There's the class of organisms so far removed from us that analogies are difficult to make even if they do exhibit reactions to noxious stimuli (single cell organisms, worms, insects, etc). Then there's the continuum of animals from, say, simple vertebrates to mammals to primates, where their form of life is increasingly similar to our own, and it becomes much easier to identify when they're in pain. However, all such pain-identifications are atten... (read more)
Let's take his argument in the quote true as given (I don't know the relevant neuroscience here either). So we'll assume that all non-human animals only have level 1 or 2 awareness of pain. Now you need to figure out which sort of pain it is that you value preventing - level 1, 2, or 3 (presumably if you value preventing 1, you value preventing 2 and 3 as well). If you only value preventing level 3 pain, then eat away. If level 2, then don't eat vertebrates. If level 1, don't eat any organism that reacts to negative stimuli (all organisms?). This is ultima... (read more)
Only in primates? Not in any other animals, including ones capable of passing the mirror test? Given the amount of convergence that's apparent in the intelligence of humans and, say, elephants, I'm pretty skeptical of this.
Why doesn't he consider what he calls Level 2 pain and suffering? It seems to me that it's the very definition of pain.
Animal behavior (including that of insects) changes in reaction to pain, and not just while they're feeling it. They can be trained. They can remember pain, and act to avoid it in the future. In whatever sense they have knowledge, they know to avoid that. Pain is an awareness that you don't want to do something anymore, not an awareness of that awareness.
I would agree with the basic idea that there are three levels of pain, and also that only great apes are aware that they are in pain.
In fact humans may be in pain, but not be aware of it. I recently had a moderately serious accident, and cut my thumb deeply ( the tip of the bone was sliced off, to give you an idea ). I then probably cycled home ( I don't remember that well due to concussion, of which I was completely unaware ), and was quite unaware that I was in pain. I did know that I had cut my thumb. You might argue that I wasn't even in pain, that's d... (read more)
'"Empirical studies conducted by social psychologist Daniel Batson have demonstrated that empathic concern is felt when one adopts the perspective of another person in need. His work emphasizes the different emotions evoked when imagining another situation from a self-perspective or imagining from another perspective. The former is often associated with personal distress (i.e., feelings of discomfort and anxiety), whereas the latter leads to empathic concern."
Perhaps people just rationalise their feelings till it's conceptualised and construed into a socially acceptable ethical positions - even if that means a 'rationally'' defendable one.