So what about the animals? What are we to make of their “suffering?” If the accepted history of the world is to be believed then they’ve been around a lot longer than we have, living and dying (diseases, eaten alive, you get the picture) for millions of years before the first humans ever did. Surely all that animal suffering is impossible to reckon with from a Theistic point of view. What a senseless horror!
The epistemic barrier
Some time ago the philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote an interesting essay in which he pondered what it might be like to be a bat (here is a copy if you care to read it, though it is not necessary for the remainder of my argument.). It has been a fairly influential essay in philosophical circles precisely because it raises a question that not too many people really think about. Do we really know what it is like to experience life from any perspective other than our own? Even when it comes to other humans we are somewhat limited. I cannot stand the smell of coffee but other people absolutely love it. I have no idea what it is like to experience the pleasure (so I’m told) of sipping a cup of coffee. I have no idea what it would be like to be a soldier, though I am grateful for those who are. I cannot imagine being a doctor who delivers babies. I just don’t like all that blood and stuff.
Between humans there is what we might call an “epistemic barrier” in that there are certain aspects of the experiences of other human beings that I do not have. Philosophers call these “first person” perspectives. Indeed, not only do I not have those experiences of others, I never could, even in theory. When another person sees the color red, that is their experience of the color red, not mine. In all likelihood our experiences are remarkably similar, of course, but in other cases the experiences will be quite different (sipping coffee, for instance).
So what about animals? Can I imagine what it might be like to be a bat as Nagel mused? Of course not. I could not even begin to conjure up an accurate image of how a bat experiences the world around them. I’m not always a fan of the dark but no bat would ever care about the lack of light. Flying? Only in an airplane.
[To be clear, Nagel was not writing on the subject of animal suffering and I have no idea what his views are on the subject. I’m just using his acknowledgement of the epistemic barrier as a handy launching point for these observations.]
But there must be some overlap, right? More to the point of this series of articles, animals must experience pain and suffering. I went for a walk during a rainy day and I saw worms stretched out on the sidewalk. They were dying, or would be soon when the robins got them. Were they in pain? I’m not so sure they were. Frankly whatever tiny brain they have hardly seems up to the task of really processing pain. Were they terrified? Was there a sense of horror at their own impending demise similar to what we might experience? I’m not convinced they understand enough about the world around them and their place in the world to really be terrified by anything.
Ok, so maybe we shouldn’t worry about the really simple forms of life, but surely the higher forms of life have experiences similar to ours. Surely dogs, cats, horses, lions, elephants, dolphins and so many other forms of advanced life have broad overlap in their mental and emotional (even moral?) capacities as we do. We’ve all played with dogs and cats and there certainly seems to be a high level of understanding and interaction that they are capable of. [Unless otherwise noted all subsequent references to animals are directed at the so-called “higher forms” of animals.]
It seems to me that this is the root of the issue; to what extent are the experiences of humans and advanced animals similar? Broadly speaking it seems we have two possibilities, either there is substantial similarly between humans and advanced animals or there is not.
Suppose animals are like humans
First let us suppose there is broad overlap between humans and the higher forms of animals. Let us suppose that animals feel pain. Not just pain, they feel horror at the possibility of their own demise (if it ever came to that). They feel empathy and even understand some simple form of right and wrong. In other words, let’s assume animals are quite a bit like us, even if the overlap is not perfect. The basic ingredients are there but in a much simpler form.
If that is the case then it seems to me that whatever “problem of suffering” exists in humanity also exists (in a similar form) in animals. We have this problem that we have to deal with and, if animals are similar to us, then so do the animals. If there is a solution to the problem for humanity, it seems to me that there would probably be a relatively similar solution for animals. For instance, if suffering offers humans the possibility for heroism then animals probably have something similar going on, though at a simplified scale. We know the difference, for instance, between the heroism of a police dog and the barbarism of those ravage beasts that guard the junk yard.
If that is the case, though – if animals and humans have broadly overlapping emotional and moral realities – then do we really add anything to the conversation by bringing animals into the discussion? It seems that we do not. Animal suffering, then, falls into roughly the same category as human suffering and the philosophical discussion has gone nowhere by bringing up animal suffering. Whatever insights we glean from our own suffering are sufficient to inform the conversation; no animals needed.
Suppose animals are unlike humans
But what about the other option; what if the animal experience of the world is very dissimilar to our own? Indeed, as the article on animal suffering at Wikipedia points out, the question of animal suffering is an extremely wide open question with no obvious answer.
However, for non-human animals, it is harder, if even possible, to know whether an emotional experience has occurred.
Animals without human language cannot report their feelings, and whether they are conscious and capable of suffering has been a matter of some debate.
…Although it is likely that some animals have at least simple conscious thoughts and feelings, some authors continue to question how reliably animal mental states can be determined.
[The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy dives in at a little more depth in its article on animal consciousness. Even there the debate appears to be far from settled.]
Even though it appears as though animals are suffering when their bodies are damaged, the reality is that even the simplest forms of life (amoebas for instance, as Wikipedia points out) also appear to “writhe” if exposed to harmful chemicals. Surely amoebas are not emotionally tormented if they are harmed. If they are not, then higher life forms may also be devoid of suffering as we understand it. It is possible that even the highest non-human life form has an experience of pain that is wildly different from our own, if they experience pain at all. They might just have an awareness that something is wrong without ever actually “feeling” the pain as an emotional experience. When injured, their body simply reacts and their reaction looks, on the outside, like what we might do if we were in pain.
If their experience is so different from ours that we cannot understand it, once again I ask what value there is in discussing animal suffering vis-à-vis human suffering? Indeed, they may not even suffer at all in the sense that we are familiar with and if they do, what do we really know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, about their experience of suffering? In this case animal suffering adds nothing to the conversation because we have absolutely no hard data to work with. Zilch. Only speculation and assumptions. Until some human can answer the question of “what is it like to be a bat?” the question of animal suffering does not really add any clarity to the picture that human suffering does not already provide.
Until we do know, any conclusion we may draw from animal suffering, it turns out, is nothing but a “suffering of the gaps” argument. We can get mad at God for animal suffering only if we draw conclusions about animal suffering that go far beyond all the available data. Arguments based on animal suffering are arguments from ignorance. That is not a very responsible form of arguing. We should deal with what we know rather than speculating about what we may never, even in theory, be able to know.
There is a certain phenomenon in humanity that may shed some light on this subject; it is called blindsight. A person with this ailment is partially blind, at least in part of their field of vision. If you place a glass of water on the table in front of them they would not be aware of it. You might ask them what is on the table in front of them and they would say that they have no idea. You might suggest that they reach out and grab the cup, they would naturally resist; “what cup?” If you were to push the issue, and if they were to agree to “try” they would (often, not always) reach out and successfully grab it.
What’s going on here? How can they fail to see the glass of water, yet reach out and grab it when they decide to give it a shot? The nature of the ailment is fascinating because the light signals from the glass of water are being received by their eyes and transmitted to their brain, and even processed by their brain, but that information is not passed along to their consciousness. In other words, their brain is well aware of the glass of water, but their mind is not. When they push themselves to reach for something their mind is unaware of, their brain figures out what’s going on and does what it needs to do. It controls the rest of the body and makes it do what is necessary in order to accomplish its goal. All of that occurs without any conscious awareness of the glass of water. Here is a video that explains this phenomenon in a little more detail.
This illustrates the possibility that actions of the body may be controlled by the brain without consciousness getting involved. The brain is obviously quite active in the whole process, but the mind is being kept out of the loop. The person has no experience of the external stimuli. What is critical in all this, however, is the fact that the actions of the body controlled only by the brain (no conscious input) appear virtually identical to what the actions of the body would have been if the person’s mind were in charge. From the outside we would not know whether it was a conscious mind reaching for the glass, or an impulsive brain reaching for the glass.
Consider the implications of this with respect to our conversation about animal suffering. If it is possible for a human brain to “respond appropriately” to external stimuli without the need for conscious awareness, then it certainly seems plausible that animal brains may be able to respond appropriately to external stimuli without the need for conscious awareness. In other words it is possible that animals do not experience the world in the same way that we do, but their brains control their functions in a manner similar to humans with blindsight. With respect to pain, this could easily mean that the nerve endings throughout their body are sending signals to their brain which are being interpreted by the brain, appropriate response actions are determined by the brain and reaction signals are sent back to the appropriate body parts, all without any conscious experience of pain. If the animal steps on something sharp, it pulls back its leg but it might do that in the absence of any experience of pain. It may be the case that the animal brain processes the inputs but the animal’s mind (if it has one) experiences nothing, in the same way that the brain of a person with blindsight processes the sensory data while the person themselves experiences nothing of what the brain is dealing with.
In fact, I can supply an example from my own experience. I was framing houses one summer and I accidentally shot myself in the thumb with a nailgun. You can still see the scar today if we ever meet in person (left thumb, just below the knuckle). What I describe next all happened within a fraction of a second. The nailgun went off twice (this happens sometimes with amateurs like me) and the first nail shot into the piece of lumber, the recoil caused the nailgun to move “bounce” to the edge of the lumber, and the second nail missed the lumber. It flew through the air and impacted my thumb. My first brief impression (I hadn’t enough time to formulate a full thought yet) was a sense of concern because it’s always dangerous when the nailgun fires twice. My second brief impression (again, too soon for a thought) was curiosity about why my left arm was flailing about. At this point I (as in my conscious self) took back control of my body, moved my left arm so my eyes could see, and there was a nail, lodged in my left thumb. Now that I knew (as in, my mind knew, not just my brain) what the problem was, I mentally flung my left arm around all the more vigorously to dislodge the nail, which worked.
Of course, if calmer heads had prevailed I would have known that flinging the nail out probably wasn’t the best idea, but this all happened before the calmer head wandered on to the scene.
Interestingly, it didn’t hurt. Not before and not after it came out; it lodged in the bone without hitting any muscle. Even without pain, though, my brain knew something had gone wrong, knew it had to do with my left thumb, and knew what to do about it. It knew all of this before “I” did. My mind was playing catch-up the entire time.
Again, none of this is intended to prove that animals do not experience pain, but to simply remind us that agnosticism on the subject is the best conclusion given the available evidence and the possibility that their brains are causing their bodies to respond to pain without any conscious experience of pain. In this case there is not enough data to reasonably extrapolate from human experiences to animal experiences with any real confidence.
Possible or plausible?
But we should ask ourselves whether the mere fact that it is possible that animals appear consciousness but are not makes that a truly plausible option? After all, just about any strange explanation of reality is “possible.” It is possible, one could argue, that we are all brains in vats instead of really alive in the world. Possibility alone counts for very little unless we have reason to take these “possibilities” seriously. I have little reason to take seriously the idea that I am really just a brain in a vat. So the question needs asking, even if we cannot prove whether animals do or do not experience pain (as opposed to merely responding to dangerous stimuli) do we have any good reason to think animals are all that different from us? They have brains and we have brains. Some of their brains are really quite similar to ours. If the structure is similar and the reactions are similar (from the perspective of the third-person observer) it seems reasonable to conclude the experiences are similar.
First quick comment, the same thing could be said of blindsight. The brain structure is similar and the response (reaching for the glass) is similar. However, even with these similarities we would obviously be wrong if we drew the conclusion that the experiences are the same. What blindsight should teach us is that similarity in external behavior is not proof of similarity in conscious experience.
But more to the point, do we have reason to believe that humans are in some sense uniquely separate from other animals? I would suggest we do have reason to think that humans are unique. In fact, I would suggest we have multiple reasons to suspect (though, again, not enough evidence to conclude anything with certainty) that the line of consciousness may be at the level of humans and not below. For starters, humans create zoos to house animals, but no animal has ever created a zoo to house other animals or humans. Furthermore, we have multiple languages with hundreds of thousands of words, whereas the smartest animals can be taught a bit of sign language and that’s it (the scientists who conducted the study ended up doubting that animals could ever “form sentences and express ideas“). We have built the Hoover dam to generate electricity; beavers just need a place to swim. We have flown faster than the speed of sound and landed a man on the moon; no ground-based animal has ever created a flying machine. We have the Sistine Chapel, Handel’s Messiah, the works of Shakespeare and Aristotle, the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Hubble telescope, the Hadron collider and so much more.
Intelligence in the animal kingdom seems to roughly increase with the size of the animal’s brain, but that last step from any other animal up to humans is, frankly, a really big step. Something is going on in our consciousness that sets us apart from anything else in the animal kingdom. And the margin is anything but slim. The difference has been history-changing.
Intelligence, of course, is not necessarily connected to the experience of pain, and I am not claiming it is. All I am saying is that we can see that something fairly significant goes on in the minds of humans that is not found, except in trace quantities, in the rest of the animal kingdom. If these kinds of substantial differences exist in one area of our minds and consciousness it is not unreasonable to speculate that other differences may also exist, and the conscious experience of external stimuli (including pain) may certainly be quite different.
So, again, we have no solid data to conclude either way with respect to animal pain, but we have several lines of reasoning that lead us to conclude that
The data is too fuzzy to draw any solid conclusions, and
It is certainly plausible that the animal experience of reality is fundamentally different from the human experience of reality.
The only reasonable conclusion is agnosticism (though one may lean this way or that). However, given the absence of irrefutable evidence either way about animal pain and suffering, drawing solid metaphysical conclusions is presumptuous at best and downright laughable at worst. The entire discussion of the possibility of animal suffering is a pointless red herring founded on speculation and theories, never on hard data. Let’s stick to what we know rather than trying to draw conclusions from what we do not know.
So if animal suffering is like human suffering then the solution to the problem of suffering for animals will be similar to the solution to the problem for humans (if there is a solution). No value is added in discussing animal suffering. If animal “suffering” is unlike human suffering – and we have reasons to believe this is a plausible (though unproven) scenario – then we have no grounds on which to draw any firm conclusions of any kind. No value is added in discussing animal suffering. Either way animal suffering, it turns out, is a red herring. We will not learn anything new from animal suffering that we would not have learned from human suffering. We might as well just focus on that subject about which we have a fairly high degree of certainty instead of idly speculating on a subject that we may, in fact, be wildly wrong about anyway.
Now, don’t go drawing a whole bunch of unwarranted conclusions based on what I’ve just said. I don’t flog cats or anything. As humans I believe we have a duty to preserve life on this planet to the best of our ability and if our duty to manage the planet requires us to end animal life (or if we just want to eat) then we should treat animals as though they are fully capable of experiencing the same feelings we have. In other words, given our state of relative uncertainty we ought to err on the side of ethical caution. However, assuming they have experiences like ours, for the sake of erring on the side of caution, does not mean we should assume they have experiences like ours in order to draw philosophical conclusions. Eco-responsibility looks vastly different from philosophical responsibility.
God, on the other hand, is not ignorant of animal experiences and will have dealt with the situation appropriately. Any attempt on our part to draw firm conclusions about God’s character based on what we see in the animal kingdom is speculation, as wild as many of the animals we are discussing.