Monday, February 29, 2016

Murray and William Lane Craig on Animal Suffering

I once saw this YouTube video a while back titled, “Can animals suffer? Debunking William Lane Craig and other philosophers who say no.”

This is in response to William Lane Craig’s (and Michael Murray’s) bad argument attempting to mitigate the problem of evil with respect to animal suffering. The problem is, it doesn’t quite get Craig’s argument right. Neither William Lane Craig nor Michael Murry claim that animals don’t suffer; they say that animals don’t suffer as human beings do. The YouTuber wastes most of her time arguing that animals suffer or can’t feel pain, which was never quite really the issue. (They sometimes address the self-awareness aspect, but even then the people in there don’t always seem to correctly understand the claim.)

William Lane Craig speaks of these three levels of pain:

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.
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.

Best I can tell, by “Level 3” pain William Lane Craig is talking about the sort of pain that requires (among other things) being self-aware. It has been argued that while many brain-having species are sentient (capable of perceiving, having consciousness) relatively few are self-aware.

Suppose it’s true though that animals don’t have this “Level 3” plan. There’s still a big problem: Namely, by Craig’s own admission, the animals still suffer! A dog or cat might not have the self-awareness while suffering, but so what? As anyone who witnessed a beloved pet mewling in pain knows, these animals really suffer! Noting they lack self-awareness thereby preventing them from suffering in the same way we do does very little to resolve the problem.

It’s worth mentioning that Murray does claim that in addition to having merely Level 2 pain, it might be that animals don’t have the “negative-feeling” aspect of pain. Quoting Murray:

Finally, even if non-primates have PFCs, the human PFC is completely different from every other type of organism. Indeed one recent survey of primate neuroanatomy describes the human PFC as “absolutely, obviously, and tremendously” different (Rilling, Trends in Cognitive Science, vol. 18, no.1 (January 2014)). If those differences (which are destroyed in a lobotomy) are what makes negative-feeling-pain possible, then perhaps animals do not have such pain.

But I don’t buy it; empirical observation of suffering pets strongly suggest that the negative-feeling-pain exists even if only at a Level 2 state.

While we’re here though, I’ll address the issue of whether certain animals have a “pre-frontal cortex” (PFC) and whether animals other than the higher primates have it. The YouTuber says yes, Murray and William Lane Craig say no. The confusion seems to come down to (at least in part) different definitions as to what the “pre-frontal cortex” is. Quoting Michael Murray:

Second, it is not obviously correct that animals outside of humans and higher primates have PFCs. As even the folks at skydivephil note, there have been different ways of demarcating the PFC over time. For those not familiar with neuroanatomy it is worth pointing out that identifying regions of the brain is not like opening up the abdomen and distinguishing the stomach and kidney and liver. Brain regions are contiguous with each other, and there are different criteria that can be used to discriminate between regions. In the early twentieth century, the PFC was demarcated by location and cell type. Humans and higher primates have a certain cell type (known as “granular”) that composes a specific cortical layer, and the PFC was identified with this layer. Some later anatomists discarded this criterion for demarcating the PFC, in part because it made it hard to find a PFC in non-higher-primates. Thus, later anatomists defined the PFC functionally as the projection zone from another part of the brain known as the thalamus.

So the part of the brain that Murray was calling the PFC isn’t necessarily the same part that the YouTuber was calling the PFC. Was it a good idea to use a different, older definition of PFC? I think not. For what it’s worth here’s one peer-reviewed article they cited that I was able to confirm; quoting from the abstract Do rats have a prefrontal cortex?:

The lateral MD-projection cortex of rats resembles portions of primate orbital cortex. If prefrontal cortex is construed broadly enough to include orbital and cingulate cortex, rats can be said to have prefrontal cortex. However, they evidently lack homologues of the dorsolateral prefrontal areas of primates. This assessment suggests that rats probably do not provide useful models of human dorsolateral frontal lobe function and dysfunction, although they might prove valuable for understanding other regions of frontal cortex.

So evidently it does get at least a little bit messy.

For those who want to see a debate between Phil Harper (of SkyDivePhil) and Michael Murray on this issue (I know I did) see this Unbelievable podcast. Who won? In my opinion it wasn’t Murray, but you make your own judgment.