Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Murray's first reply to the argument from non-human suffering (minor upgrade)

Murray’s first suggestion as a reply to the argument from animal suffering is that perhaps, non-human animals do not have what he calls “phenomenal consciousness” of the pain, but only what he calls “access consciousness”[1]

On this proposal, basically non-human animals would be in pain sometimes, but they would not be aware that they’re in pain – something similar to blindsight, going by Murray’s example.

So, on this proposal, non-human animals would experience pain, but wouldn’t feel it – not in the sense of “feel” that would be relevant if this understanding of pain were correct.

Craig, referring apparently to this suggestion, says that one of Murray’s strongest points is that (non-human) animals do not have “first person” view of their experiences, cannot “adjoin to their experiences” expressions asserting that one thinks or feels that something is the case.

I will argue that the suggestion fails, for the following reasons:

1. There seems to be no good reason to believe that what Murray calls “higher order thought” is required to feel pain in a way that would be morally relevant. One plausibly does not need to think ‘I am in pain...' to actually feel the pain, it seems to me.

2. Leaving 1. aside, many animals are capable of passing the mirror test, including chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, Asian elephants, European magpies, orcas, and bottlenose dolphins. That seems to be good evidence that they are in fact self-aware, and if so, they would seem to meet the requirement for higher order thought, and in particular for being aware that they're in pain.

3. With respect to language, there seems to be no good reason to think that it’s required for self-awareness, and actually there are good reasons to conclude it’s not. That includes both the evidence I mentioned above in 2., and the fact that, for example, deaf humans who develop before sign language was invented, or humans who grow in a feral state, are self-aware even if they have no language – and moreover, it’s clear that those humans can feel pain in the morally relevant sense.

4. Craig outlines Murray’s argument in his website[2], explaining that according to Murray’s suggestion, awareness that one is in pain – what Murray calls “level 3” awareness – is associated with a neural pathway that only appears late in evolutionary history, and is only present in humans and (other) great apes. Moreover, he claims that the classification and the claim about the pathways are based on neurological research.

However, there is no research suggesting that other animals that pass the mirror test – for example – would not have awareness of being in pain just because their brains do things differently from the brains of humans.

Moreover, even if some pathway is a recent development in evolutionary terms, and it’s present not only in humans, but also in chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans, one may reckon that it was present also in Homo Habilis and australopithecines as well. But if australopithecines, etc., experienced pain in the relevant way, that’s millions of years of entities suffering. That’s surely more than enough to run an argument from suffering; a far shorter period would suffice too.

Now, it might be suggested that even if the pathway is required for being aware that one is in pain, it’s not sufficient, and furthermore, that perhaps chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, Homo Habilis, australopithecines, etc., are/were not aware of being in pain, even if they have/had the pathway.
However, in that case the objection to the argument from suffering is obviously not based on any research, or any knowledge of the brain. It’s just skepticism about the mental states of other animals, regardless of what kind of brains they have. And it’s quite implausible at that, given the fact that other non-human animals seem to react to pain like humans do. On that note:

5. Let’s consider a present-day human, say Alice, who feels pain normally. So, she can be in pain, and be aware that she’s in pain. Let’s now consider her mother, then her grandmother, and so on, up till the time of our most recent common ancestor with chimpanzee (CHLCA), about 5-8 million years ago.[3]

In that scenario, if their experiences of pain had changed considerably from one of the mothers to her daughter, then we would expect also a significant shift in the way they react to pain, but given the similarity between the reactions to pain by chimpanzees and humans, and given that the brains of the mother and the daughter would be extremely similar, that appears to be very implausible – i. e., one should give it a negligible probability.

Now, a reply to the argument from suffering – Murray’s “response 1” or any other – that distinguishes between humans and non-human animals and suggests that the pain of the latter is not morally significant, runs into this problem of gradual changes in brains, and gradual changes in behavior.

More precisely, we have the following alternatives:

5.a. There is a situation in our evolutionary past after CHLCA in which the pain of a daughter is as morally significant as the pain of humans, but the pain of her mother is morally irrelevant, even if their brains are almost the same, and their behavior in reaction to pain is also essentially the same.

5.b. That is not the case, and the pain of the mother is morally relevant, but the pain of the mother is still much less morally relevant than that of the daughter.

5.c. Changes in moral significance of the pain from mother to daughter are always gradual.

5.a. is untenable. Why would the mother’s pain not be morally relevant, if everything – from behavior to brain – indicates she experienced pain in the same or almost exactly the same way as her daughter did?

Granted, someone might suggest that appearances may be deceiving, but for that matter, someone might suggest that people who lived before writing didn't experience morally significant pain, or that fossils, etc., were planted, and Yahweh created the Earth with apparent age. Such suggestions are not contradictory, but they should be given a negligible probability.

On the other hand, 5.c. is lethal for any response to the argument from suffering that attempts to deny the moral significance of the pain of non-human animals, since there is pain that is not as morally significant[4] as that of humans – so, it’s not the pain of humans -, but it’s still morally significant. Moreover, it’s morally significant in increasing degrees as we approach the present, so there is pain in non-human animals that is very significant, morally – almost as much as that of humans.

As for 5.b., it’s also untenable, and for essentially the same reasons as 5.a, even if those reasons are present to a somewhat lesser degree. Why would the mother’s pain be much less significant morally, if everything – from behavior to brain – indicates she experienced pain in the same or almost exactly the same way as her daughter did?

Additionally, 5.b. has the problem that on 5.b, there is also morally significant pain in non-human animals, even if not to the same extent as in 5.c.




[4] I'm using the expressions “morally relevant” and “morally significant” as synonyms.