Monday, 19 December 2011

Animal pain and a basis for their ethical treatment on atheism

I recently watched a video on YouTube of a presentation given by William Lane Craig on the subject of Stephen Hawking's book "The Grand Design". For those unaware of who Craig is, he is a Christian apologist and research professor of philosophy from the US. He is perhaps best known here in the UK for Richard Dawkins refusing to debate him. In the presentation, he claimed that when scientists speak on matters of philosophy and theology, they are "speaking outside of their area of specialisation and their opinions have no more value than the opinions of an untutored layman". Given this, I found it to be hypocritical that Craig should derive his views on animal pain (views which he uses to respond to the problem of evidential evil or 'gratuitous suffering') from Michael Murray, a Christian apologist and philosopher with no credentials in any scientific area relevant to animal pain and whose views on the matter must therefore be of "no more value than the opinions of an untutored layman".  I thought I'd challenge Craig on this by submitting a question on his website, "Reasonable Faith". He responded to this question and since I found much to object to in that response (including the view that there is no basis for morality if atheism is true), here is a rejoinder:

Dear Dr Craig,

Thank you for responding to my question on animal pain (question 243). As a committed vegetarian who is appalled by the ways in which the human species treats non-human animals, this is an issue that is of particular concern for me. Before proceeding to respond to your answer, I should declare that I am neither atheist nor theist; rather, I’m agnostic. I therefore have no interest in exaggerating animal pain in order to strengthen the evidential problem of evil (or ‘gratuitous suffering’). Nor do I have an interest in diminishing animal pain in order to reduce the weight of this problem.

You state that “the question of animal suffering has nothing to do with theology - it’s all about neuroscience”. Assuming it is true that the conscious mind and subjective mental states (including negative affective states such as pain) are caused by the physical matter of the brain, it would appear that the question of animal suffering is indeed one to be answered via neuroscientific methods. However, given the serious epistemological difficulties associated with this area of inquiry, I am doubtful that neuroscience will ever be able to provide an authoritative account of animal suffering. Neuroscientific research on humans, which has benefited from the human ability to report linguistically on subjective internal experience, has failed to provide an explanation of consciousness or a complete and uncontroversial account of pain. Since animals lack this ability, research of this kind on animals must rely on observable behaviour or neurological activity in order to make inferences about possible mental states. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that “no systematic neuroscientific investigation of animal consciousness has yet been undertaken” (Edelman & Seth, 2009). There is, therefore, no robust and comprehensive body of neuroscientific research on this particular issue, and so the kind of consensus that you imagine to be represented by Murray simply does not exist.

Rather than being based on any actual knowledge of, say, what it is like to be a cat or what it is like to be a cat that is being skinned alive (knowledge that is arguably impossible to acquire), Murray’s views are derived from crude neuroanatomical comparisons between human and non-human brains. Although you assert that “his book contains citations of the literature which the interested reader may pursue”, it really does not. A cursory examination of the bibliography reveals that most of the citations are philosophical or theological and that very little scientific work specifically on consciousness and pain in animals has been referred to in the book. This is to be expected, given that the book, of which the full title is “Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering”, is a theological one.   Where the specific question of the ability of animals to experience pain is concerned, Murray appears to rely heavily on Bermond, but importantly “Arguments such as those of Bermond actually play only a limited role in scientific thought” (Weary et al, 2006).

On this basis, therefore, my criticism of your use of Murray as a source on the issue of animal pain stands. Not only is Murray a Christian apologist with no credentials whatsoever in neuroscience, neuropsychology, pain research, or any other scientific area directly relevant to the issue of pain in humans or animals, he also has a clear theological interest in diminishing the issue of animal pain and relies upon controversial minority views in order to support his position. If a more relevant and authoritative source for this viewpoint existed, it would surely be preferable to use that source in order to avoid this kind of criticism.

You describe Murray’s position as being that “sentient animals do experience pain, but they (apart from the higher primates) are not aware that they are themselves in pain”. In response to questions 242 and 113 on this website, however, you and Murray, respectively, have claimed that pain in animals is analogous to the phenomenon of blindsight in humans. Assuming that blindsight is indeed a genuine phenomenon and not a methodological artefact, it refers to the ability of individuals with visual field deficits (caused by damage to the striate cortex) to respond to stimuli presented to the ‘blind’ area(s) of their visual field despite having no conscious experience or awareness of having seen those stimuli. The important fact here is that blindsight does not involve the conscious experience of visual perception, or seeing, but rather involves the detection of visual stimuli below the level of conscious awareness or that accessible to introspection. To argue that pain in animals is analogous to blindsight in humans therefore makes it nonsensical to say that animals do “experience” pain. Since pain refers to the affective mental state actively produced by the brain rather than the nociceptive act that causes it or the physiological responses that occur simultaneously with it, and since experience is defined as “personally encountering or undergoing something”, to say that an animal can experience pain is to say that an animal can personally experience the quality of pain. I do not get the impression that this is what you and Murray actually believe. Indeed, Murray’s position is much stronger than you’ve stated it here. In response to question 113, Murray asks “might the behaviors that we associate with animals that look to be in pain constitute something like “blindpain”--showing all the behavioral symptoms of real pain, but without the conscious awareness?”.

The ethical implications of the view that “sentient animals do experience pain, but they (apart from the higher primates) are not aware that they are themselves in pain” depends on what is meant by “experience”. If it is meant that animals experience pain in the same way that blindsight patients experience visual stimuli presented to the ‘blind’ areas of their visual field - that is, entirely below the level of conscious awareness - then the ethical implications of this view are profound. Any act committed upon an animal, which if committed upon a human would be expected to cause pain, could no longer be opposed on the grounds that it would cause the animal to feel pain. Acts of animal cruelty, which most people consider to be morally reprehensible because of the pain and associated distress they believe to result from such acts, would no longer be acts of cruelty at all, since cruelty requires "wilfully or knowingly causing pain or distress to others". Pain in farm animals would also become a non-issue. Debeaking, tail docking, and castration all performed without anaesthetic, intensive procedures, and even brutal methods such as Halal and Kosher slaughter would all of a sudden become very difficult to oppose if animals are not able to experience pain. Denying that animals experience pain might also represent a slippery slope of progressively diminishing their mental life. After all, if animal pain is “blind pain”, do they also have “blind fear” rather than fear, “blind anxiety” rather than anxiety, “blind discomfort” rather than discomfort, and so on? It is implications such as these which I expect will have caused the “emotional” response you have received.

As an agnostic I live my life without a belief in God or a religion, which is something I share in common with atheists. I would therefore like to take issue with your view that there is no basis for the ethical treatment of animals if atheism is true. For me, the basis on which people should favour the ethical treatment of animals, or refrain from doing harm to them, is very clear. As you rightly point out, a lion doesn’t murder a zebra, it kills it. To the best of our knowledge, such an act is an instinctive one that is devoid of a moral dimension. Human beings, however, are endowed with higher-order cognitive faculties, which allow us, amongst a range of other things, to understand the existence of other minds, to anticipate how our actions will affect the mental states of others, to reflect upon how we would feel if subjected to such treatment, and to deliberate on such information as part of a complex behavioural decision making process. It is these abilities that provide the basis for people to refrain from causing harm to others, whether the other is human or non-human. While people might assign words such as “right” or “wrong” to particular actions, that is not what determines how the vast majority of people behave. For example, most people do not torture their domestic pets, not because they perceive that there is an objectively existing value which ordains that to do so is “wrong”, but because they expect such behaviour would cause pain and distress in the pet and they simply have no desire to bring about such a situation. To my mind, there is something rather disconcerting about the person who refrains from such behaviour because of external pressures (whether from perceived divinely ordained values, state legislation, anticipated disapproval from others, etc) and not because they truly do not desire to cause pain and distress in another sentient being. The same applies to acts against humans, such as rape, torture, and enslavement.

The theist could of course argue that, on atheism, there is no objective reason for people to value the information made available to them by the cognitive faculties previously mentioned and no duty to refrain from intentionally causing harm to others. This objection, however, appears to presuppose that people inherently desire to do harm to others, or are at least indifferent to doing so, and that external pressure is required for us to be “good”. It is to say that if it could be shown that there is no objective morality, we would all of a sudden go out killing, beating, or raping others, either through a desire to do so or as a means to furthering our own personal interests. The large proportion of irreligious people in Europe, who do not believe in divinely ordained moral values, do not tend to behave in heinous ways towards others. It could of course be suggested that these people have come to learn of such objectively existing moral values and that they live their lives by those values, but this is exceptionally difficult to prove. To do so would first require proving the existence of objective moral values. Merely pointing to those behaviours which are almost consensually held to be abhorrent (perhaps as a consequence of evolution), such as child rape, is insufficient, since the moral relativist could point to the lack of consensus on many significant issues such as abortion and the death penalty as evidence that morality is not objective.

The theist might also argue that, if atheism is true, life is ultimately pointless and so it doesn’t matter how we treat others. Again, I consider this objection to presuppose a desire to harm others, or a mere indifference to doing so. It also neglects the tremendous significance of the present moment for us and presumably other sentient beings. The possibility that our existence is ultimately without meaning or purpose does nothing to diminish the personal significance of conscious experience. Consider the following example in which it is assumed that you are an atheist. If you were required to attend a dental appointment to have a filling and were offered the choice of having it done with or without local anaesthetic, would you think “There is no God, life is pointless, nothing matters, therefore it doesn’t matter whether or not I experience excruciating pain during this procedure” or would you think “If I don’t have local anaesthetic I will almost certainly experience excruciating pain and since I don’t want to experience excruciating pain I will only undergo the procedure if given local anaesthetic”? No one would take the former view on the situation. So, regardless of the ultimate fate of us as individuals or as a species, or of the universe as a whole, the way in which we behave towards others really does matter. Just as it would matter to you if someone inflicted pain upon you, it matters to others if someone inflicts pain upon them. Since human beings (at least those who are not psychologically or neurologically damaged in some relevant way) are able to understand that others are able to experience a range of emotions and states (from pain and fear through to joy and love), and that our behaviour can cause those states, we have a very powerful reason to refrain from causing harm to others and arguably to seek to improve the lives of others if we can. This, I believe, is precisely why words such as “right” and “wrong” can be ascribed to behaviour.

In the case of the ethical treatment of animals in particular, I know of no good reason for not applying to animals the empathic thought that decent people apply in their interactions with other humans. Arguments that are based upon an unfounded denial of the ability of animals to experience pain and other negative affective states do not succeed. Precisely what animals might or might not be able to experience is unknown and perhaps unknowable, but since we have good reasons to suspect that they can experience pain (e.g. their behavioural response to nociceptive stimuli) it is preferable to err on the side of caution and treat them in ways that we would not expect to cause pain. Arguments based upon the view that “might is right” are also unsuccessful, since they do not explain why such a view is acceptable where behaviour towards animals is concerned but disapproved of where inter-human behaviour is concerned. Since becoming a vegetarian and taking an active interest in animal welfare, I have not encountered any argument that has shaken my view that I and others should treat animals ethically and refrain from unnecessarily inflicting harm upon them. Indeed, for as long as I can recall, I’ve held this belief and it required witnessing the harm that is done to animals in order to produce meat to cause me to instantly become vegetarian.

At risk of stating the obvious, in discussing issues such as these we should all be conscious of the fact that we are products of our genetics, culture, and unique life experiences, and therefore that our beliefs may not only be very different from those of others but quite possibly very different to reality. Reflexive thought on why we hold the views that we do on these matters is therefore very important.

In this relatively short response, I hope to have shown two things. First, it is simply not the case that there is a neuroscientific consensus on pain in animals. Since you state that the question of animal suffering is “all about neuroscience”, it follows that you should reject Murray’s view and wait for a robust body of neuroscientific evidence on the matter to accumulate. Secondly, there are very good reasons, rooted in the abilities afforded to us by our brains, for treating others in ways that would not cause them harm. If someone would still ask “but if there is no objective morality, what is disagreeable about skinning a cat alive or intentionally starving a dog to death?”, then perhaps our worldviews are so radically different that no amount of discussion would ever bring us to agreement.

Mark, London (England)


Edelman, D.B., and Seth, A.K. (2009). Animal consciousness: A synthetic approach. Trends in Neurosciences. 32(9):476-484

Weary, D. M., Niel, L., Flower, F. C. and Fraser, D. (2006). Identifying and preventing pain in animals. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 100: 64-76.


  1. Did you send this to Dr. Craig? I'd be very curious of his response. Your arguments are very convincing.

  2. Craig Uses "Science" to back up his claims. However Craig is not a scientist and so does not objectively review the facts. He picks and chooses the "science" to suit his needs. He provides logical internal arguments based on false premises (therefore rendering them redundant in reality).

    Craig is frustrating, he is persuasive and rhetorical, he appears to win debates, but when you breakdown his arguments, especially this one on animal pain, it's a load of bullshit

  3. "The theist might also argue that, if atheism is true, life is ultimately pointless and so it doesn’t matter how we treat others. Again, I consider this objection to presuppose a desire to harm others, or a mere indifference to doing so"

    How does this objection predispose a desire/indifference to harm others/animal?

    Rather, the argument (correctly:) points out that a Godless universe does not "oblige" us to treat animals in any particular way at all. You response (quoted above) only shows your predisposition to painting theists in a negative if we would be out senselessly torturing animals if for some reason it was proven that God doesn't exist.

    As your rejoinder is convoluted, I like to hear a more pithy response to why we have any obligations to animals, based on an agnostic worldview. I just don't get why your opinion on this matter is anymore thoughtful or morally significant that say...Michael Vick.

    On your view, Vick has done nothing morally wrong, he's just acting a bit naughty. If fighting dogs makes him warm and fuzzy inside, and he was able to get away with it (legally), then (on atheism) what should be his over-ridding reason for stopping this behavior....because you and PETA say so, or because animals really do feel 3rd order pain? Why should he care about either?

  4. @RiceBowlHaircut

    I think you might have missed my point. I don't for one moment think that theists would go out torturing animals if it was conclusively shown that God doesn't exist. I don't think they'd have any desire to commit such acts - just as most atheists and agnostics do not.

  5. Craig and Murray display their lack of scientific credibility through the false premise that only "humanoid primates" have pre-frontal cortexes. Ridiculous! Virtually all mammals (including marsupials) have a prefrontal cortex!

    "For the awareness that one is oneself in pain requires self-awareness, which is centered in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain—a section of the brain which is missing in all animals except for the humanoid primates." William Lane Craig,

    "Furthermore, these cases confirm that in human beings the 'affective' pathway terminates in the prefrontal cortex, a region of the mammalian brain which was the last to evolve (and so occurs only in humanoid primates)." Michael Murray, 'Nature Red in Tooth and Claw', page 68, 1st paragraph