Thursday, June 18, 2009

Nature raw in tooth and claw

In this post I’m going to review a review:

The reviewer (Mylan Engel) is reviewing a recent book which tries to construct a Christian theodicy for animal suffering. From what I’ve read, the reviewer is an atheist and a “moral vegetarian.” As such, he uses the book as a foil to promote the argument from evil based on animal suffering. In consequence, there’s some value in reviewing the review since the reviewer uses the medium of a book review as a pretext to attack Christian theism.

Michael Murray's provocative book addresses 'the Darwinian problem of evil' for theism. In Murray's words: "the Darwinian problem consists in the vast and unquantifiable array of nonhuman-animal suffering that is endemic to the evolutionary machinery -- machinery which has been winnowing unfit organisms from the planet (often kicking and screaming) for nearly three billion years" (pp. 1-2). Murray then cites Darwin's poignant explanation of the problem: "'the sufferings of millions of lower animals throughout almost endless time' are apparently irreconcilable with the existence of a creator of 'unbounded' goodness" (p. 2). Darwin is not alone in expressing this worry. It has seemed to many that the magnitude, variety, intensity and duration of animal suffering provides compelling evidence that God[1] does not exist.

Several problems:

i) Murray’s book is predicated on the factuality of Darwinian evolution. But if you reject the Darwinian narrative, then, to the extent that the book is uniquely keyed to that specific paradigm, you reject the problem of evil to which this book is a solution.

ii) Even if you accept theistic evolution, this doesn’t commit you to the proposition that animal suffering is pointless. If, for the sake of argument, we grant theistic evolution, then animal suffering is not wanton suffering. It’s not an aimless phenomenon. Rather, it’s a means to an end.

Naturalistic evolution can’t accept teleological explanations, but theistic evolution can.

iii) I don’t see that Darwinian evolution, even if you believe it, adds anything fundamental to the problem of animal suffer–assuming that is a problem.

If animal suffering is unjust to animals, then it doesn’t matter how many animals suffer. It doesn’t matter if animals have been suffering for a million years or a billion years.

So it seems to be that recasting the problem of animal suffering in Darwinian terms represents an effort to contrive a new, “scientific” objection to the Christian faith. Prescientific Jews and Christians used to believe in God because they didn’t know any better, but evolutionary biology has made us aware of a moral objection to God’s existence which leaves a modern-day Christian without the excuse of blissful ignorance.

But if that’s the incentive, then it’s fraudulent. Assuming that animal suffering counts as evidence against the existence of God, Darwinian evolution contributes nothing distinctive to the problem. Ancient Jews and Christians were aware of animal suffering. If the argument from animal suffering has any merit, its merit is independent of specialized refinements like evolutionary biology. Prescientific examples of animal suffering should suffice. If they fail to suffice, then the Darwinian version will likewise fail.

The Darwinian evidential problem maintains that the magnitude of animal suffering in the world provides compelling evidence that God does not exist and that theism is irrational in light of that evidence. The evidential arguer begins with the following definitions:
D1. Gratuitous evil is evil that serves no God-justifying good.
D2. A good g is a God-justifying good for evil e only if (i) g could not have been secured without permitting either e or some other evils equivalent to or worse than e, (ii) g is sufficiently outweighing (i.e., g is a positive good sufficiently valuable to outweigh the disvalue of e), and (iii) it is within God's rights to permit evil e.[4]
It is generally acknowledged by theist and atheist alike that a 3-omnis God[5] would prevent the occurrence of any gratuitous evil whatsoever and that, therefore, gratuitous evil is incompatible with God's existence.[6]

Here I take issue with Engel’s implicit definition of gratuitous evil as unnecessary evil. I don’t see why we should adopt that definition. I’d define gratuitous evil as pointless evil. Wanton evil. An evil which serves no greater purpose. No ultimate good.

Given the incompatibility of God and gratuitous evil, the atheologian argues as follows:
Evidential Argument from Evil (EA)
(1) If God exists, there would be no gratuitous evils.
(2) There are gratuitous evils.
(3) God does not exist.

i) This is simplistic. For one thing, we might have many independent reasons for believing in God. Even if we’re confronted with some apparently gratuitous evil which counts as prima facie evidence against God’s existence, that doesn’t negate other evidence in favor of God’s existence.

ii) There is also the illicit shift from suffering to evil. Pain is a natural phenomenon. But evil is a moral category. Engel needs to explain, especially from his atheistic standpoint, how his objection is exempt from the naturalistic fallacy. How does he derive moral properties from physical events? What makes one natural outcome morally right while another natural outcome morally wrong?

He thinks that the inscrutability response to evidential arguments succeeds in showing that we aren't justified in accepting (2),[8] but he thinks the theist can strengthen her inscrutability response by providing what he calls a 'Causa Dei' explanation.[9] A Causa Dei [CD] explanation is a case offered on behalf of God's innocence in light of the evidence (p. 40). In the present context, a CD is an attempt to show that in light of our justified acceptances, we aren't justified in believing that animal suffering is gratuitous and thus aren't justified in taking such suffering to be evidence of God's nonexistence.

Crucial to a successful CD-explanation is that the reasons constituting it be such that we aren't justified in rejecting them given our justified acceptances. Since people differ with respect to what they justifiably accept, tying a CD's success to its compatibility with one's justified acceptances introduces a relativistic element to Murray's approach. Since theists and nontheists will presumably differ with respect to their justified acceptances, an animal-suffering-CD that is successful for the theist might not be successful for the nontheist.

i) It seems to me that the person-variable response to a Christian theodicy is inevitable and unavoidable. To some extent, and often to a great extent, believers and unbelievers lack a common value-system.

ii) At the same time, this doesn’t mean we simply assert our respective value-systems. It’s possible to argue for your value-system.

In Chapter 2, Murray draws on recent work in philosophy of mind to develop four neo-Cartesian CDs according to which animals lack the sort of phenomenal consciousness needed to experience pain.[10] One representative neo-Cartesian explanation that Murray proposes appeals to the higher-order theory of phenomenal consciousness. On this view,
“For a mental state to be a conscious state (phenomenally) requires an accompanying higher-order mental state (a HOT) that has that state as its intentional object. The HOT must be a thought that one is, oneself, in that first-order state. Only humans have the cognitive faculties required to form the conception of themselves being in a first-order state that one must have in order to have a HOT.” (p. 55)

If the HOT-account of phenomenal consciousness were correct and if animals lacked the capacity for HOTs, then animals would be incapable of experiencing pain.

We also have independent evidence that many animals are capable of experiencing pain, evidence that parallels the evidence we have for thinking our fellow humans are capable of feeling pain: We witness pain behavior, not just reflex actions to noxious stimuli (protective pain), but subsequent pain-induced behavioral modification caused by bodily damage (restorative pain); we observe significant anatomical and neurophysiological similarity between humans and many animals (including all mammals and most vertebrates); endogenous serotonergic and opioid pain-control mechanisms are present in all mammals[11] [Why would organisms incapable of feeling pain have endogenous pain-control systems?]; efferent and afferent nerves run throughout their bodies; analgesics and anesthetics stop animals from exhibiting pain behavior, presumably because these substances prevent the pain itself in much the way they prevent pain in humans; and there is compelling experimental evidence that the capacity to feel pain enhances survival value in animals, based on the self-destructive tendencies displayed by animals that have been surgically deafferented.

Several more issues:

i) As a physicalist, Engel needs to address objections posed by eliminative materialism. Do animals suffer?

I myself don’t doubt that there’s prima facie evidence for animal suffering. But is that consistent with Engel’s other philosophical commitments?

ii) Assuming that his summary of Murray’s argument is accurate, I agree with Engel that Murray’s argument is overstated.

However, there is still some truth to Murray’s argument, even if you reject his particular formulation. For even if you reject neo-Cartesianism, it’s still the case that sentience ranges along a continuum, from higher animals to lower animals. You can’t ascribe the same pain-states to all animals viz. sponges, anemones, corals, crickets, lice, termites, beetles, spiders, scorpions, shellfish, snakes, snails, sharks, cows, crows, frogs, crocodiles, monkeys, parrots, dogs, dolphins, elephants, &c.

Pain-states correlate with mental states. You can’t ascribe the same mental states to all animals regardless of their mental capacity.

iii) In addition, we can’t assume that all animals have the same pain tolerance. Wild animals seem to have a pretty high pain tolerance. Indeed, they seem to have a pretty high pain threshold.

iv) Moreover, treating animals as analogous to human beings is a double-bladed appeal. One stock objection to animal suffering is that animals are innocent victims. If, however, you treat animals as analogous to human beings, then why not regard some animals as evil, mean, or vicious or cruel?

Chapter 3 explores whether Fall-CDs might succeed in reconciling animal suffering with divine goodness. Murray notes: "[F]or almost every major Christian thinker reflecting on evil, the Fall [of Adam] has played a central role in explaining both the origin and persistence of evil in the universe" (p. 74), but Fall-CDs face the problem of pre-Adamic pain [PAP]. Sentient animals pre-date the first humanoids by hundreds of millions of years, and trillions of the unfit among them suffered terribly as natural selection mercilessly eliminated them. After rejecting a young-Earth-CD and a precursive-conditions-CD, Murray defends the Satan-CD. On this CD, all the natural evil in the world, including animal suffering, is the result of the Fall of preternatural beings with morally significant freedom, viz., Satan and his cohorts. Murray contends that our justified acceptances do not justify us in rejecting the Satan-CD. Is the Satan-CD "as plausible as not, overall" given our justified acceptances? To see that it's not, consider a question Murray poses: "Could these beings [Satan and his cohorts] be to blame for the fact that human beings often have bad backs, myopia, liability to cancer and heart disease?" (p. 103). It's logically possible, but that's not the relevant question. What matters is whether we're justified in denying that that possibility is actual, and we are. We have good, scientifically-confirmed, naturalistic explanations for all of the conditions and diseases Murray mentions. We know, e.g., that heart disease is caused by diets high in saturated fat and cholesterol and is exacerbated by a sedentary life-style. We also know that the other diseases mentioned have naturalistic causes,[14] and so, we're justified in rejecting that Satan is their source. The point generalizes. We needn't appeal to Satan to explain any natural phenomenon, and since it's unreasonable to postulate entities beyond necessity, we're justified in denying that Satan exists. Do we know for certain that Satan does not exist? No, but that is not the standard that is required for rejecting a CD. To reject a CD, we must be justified in believing that it is false, and since we're justified in believing that Satan does not exist, we're justified in rejecting the Satan-CD.[15]

I have several disagreements with this, both in reference to Murray as well as Engel:

i) Whether Satan exists, and whether Satan is responsible for some or all natural evils, are two separate questions.

ii) To say we don’t need Satan to explain any natural phenomenon is simply an expression of Engel’s secular prejudice. It has no argumentative weight.

iii) I think that human liability to disease is a consequence of Adam’s fall. To say these have natural causes misses the point. The fact that they have natural causes doesn’t mean we have a natural liability to these diseases. Our liability could be (as is) a result of the Fall.

iv) Engel’s objection is, once again, predicated on the Darwinian narrative–which I reject.

v) Even if I accepted the Darwinian narrative, Engel is in no position to assume the viewpoint of a trilobite (to take one example) and assure us that trilobites “suffered terribly” as a result of natural selection. That’s a purely anthropomorphic projection.

vi) I don’t attribute animal pain to either the fall of Adam or the fall of Lucifer. And I don’t think it’s necessary to do so. For theodicean purposes, we only need to show that animal pain serves a legitimate function. And I don’t think that’s a problem. To take one example, the ecosystem is based on a food chain, and the food chain is cyclical:


Producers (e.g. plants)

Consumers (e.g. herbivores, carnivores, parasites)

Decomposers (e.g. scavengers, detritivores)

Since the trophic network is obviously functional and purposeful, I don’t see that it requires any further justification. Given its teleological structure, this is not a gratuitous. And if it’s not gratuitous, it can’t be gratuitously evil. Indeed, it’s a natural good. It yields many goods.

vii) Both Murray and Engel also overlook the theodicean dimension of the cultural mandate. God designed the natural world in such a way that it would pose a challenge to man. Man has a calling to cultivate the wilderness and tame the wild kingdom. To make the whole world a garden of Eden.

viii) Apropos (vii), there’s a distinction between the Garden of Eden and the surrounding wilderness. That’s in large part what made banishment from the garden a punitive action.

ix) Finally, God designed the sensible world in such a way that animate and inanimate creatures symbolize good and evil. That’s why the Bible uses natural metaphors to illustrate moral and spiritual truths.

Murray seems to recognize this point, for he seeks CDs that are consistent with the "common set of justified acceptances endorsed by individuals who are reasonably well-educated in matters of contemporary philosophy and science" (p. 39).

Here Murray might retreat to the claim that at least theists aren't justified in rejecting the Satan-CD, but then he will have abandoned all pretense of providing a CD that comports with the "common set of justified acceptances endorsed by individuals who are reasonably well-educated in matters of contemporary philosophy and science." I suspect that the Satan-CD will even fail for most theists, because given what they justifiably accept, it is not "as plausible as not, overall" that Satan is the source of pre-Adamic animal suffering.

That does introduce a point of tension into Murray’s monograph. It leaves him open to some of Engel’s objections. For it’s clearly impossible to offer a theodicy of animal suffering which is equally convincing to both an orthodox Christian as well as Peter Singer (to take one example).

In Chapter 4, Murray defends two CDs that attempt to justify animal pain in terms of benefits to the animals themselves. Since both CDs are open to the same objection, I'll only address the first. CD1: Animal pain and suffering are necessary to preserve the integrity of sentient physical organisms engaged in intentional action. The problem with CD1 is that it doesn't take seriously God's omnipotence. The evidential problem of evil is only a problem for rational belief in a particular kind of deity, namely, a 3-omnis God. An omnipotent God can do anything logically possible for God to do that is not inconsistent with any of God's essential divine attributes. All that's required to be justified in rejecting CD1 is that we be justified in believing that it's logically possible to create successful sentient organisms that don't experience pain. Conversely, for CD1 to succeed, pain and suffering must be logically necessary for preserving animal life. It's irrelevant how animal pain happens to function in the actual world. What matters is whether it's logically possible to create thriving sentient creatures that either aren't capable of feeling pain or aren't in environments where their capacity for pain is ever realized. Do we know that this is logically possible? No. But we're justified in believing that it is, since creating such beings and placing them in non-hostile environments involves no contradiction. To think otherwise is to deny that the Garden of Eden is even logically possible. Since we are justified in believing that it is logically possible to create sentient beings and place them in non-hostile environments, the Necessity Condition (see note 4) is not met, and consequently, CD1 fails.[16]

i) Once again, I disagree. This is not a question of logicality, but teleology. As long as a natural evil is purposeful, then it’s not gratuitous.

ii) Moreover, it’s very lopsided to accentuate animal pain and suffering. What they have are nerve endings which conduct either pleasant or unpleasant sensations. Without a capacity for pain, there’s no capacity for pleasure.

iii) Furthermore, there’s a fundamental tension running through Engel’s entire line of objection. Animals don’t share his viewpoint. For example, carnivores don’t lament their lifestyle. They don’t view themselves as the victims of some cosmic injustice. From what I can tell, a well-fed lion is a happy lion. Except when they’re eaten, herbivores seem to enjoy their lifestyle as well.

Engel is superimposing a human viewpoint on the subhuman viewpoint of the animal kingdom Lower animals don’t even have a viewpoint. So that’s a purely anthropomorphic projection. His attitude is quite elitist and condescending.

If Engel had his way, most animals wouldn’t even exist, since he thinks their existence is so horrendous. But do most animals think their existence is horrendous? Obviously not. Many animals seem to thoroughly enjoy their bestial existence. And many other animals hardly think that all. Apart from the possible exception of a few higher animals, most animals don’t reflect on their quality of life.

I end with a moral worry. In Chapter 2, Murray admits that we don't know that neo-Cartesianism is true, and there, he offers an argument from moral caution that since we don't know the neo-Cartesian view is correct, it would be morally reckless to act as if we knew animals were incapable of suffering. But in Chapter 7, he downplays the significance of animal suffering. There, he claims that we have reason to believe that animal pain and suffering is not as bad as human pain and suffering, and returning to the neo-Cartesian CDs, he claims that "it is hard to know how 'bad' those states are" (p. 193). Human psychology is such that the less bad we think some evil is, the less we're willing to do to prevent it. Downplaying the moral significance of animal suffering makes it likely that some readers will be less inclined to take conscious steps to avoid contributing to such suffering. It would be both sad and ironic if Murray's attempt at explaining away the evidential problem of animal suffering had the evil end result of making theists more inclined to contribute to that very suffering.

i) Secular ethics can't even lay a solid foundation for human rights, much less animal rights.

ii) From a Christian perspective, animals are divine artifacts. We should treat them with the same respect that we treat all of God’s handiwork. Not every type of creature should be treated the same way. But we should avoid inflicting wanton harm on a creature. It’s wrong to vandalize God’s handiwork.

[18] Elsewhere in the text, Murray admits that a good that could only be attained by permitting "creatures to live lives that were perpetually and unrelentingly filled with pain, misery, and devastation . . . would not be outweighing, but would rather be outweighed" (p. 87). For billions upon billions of unfit organisms, their brief lives are filled with unrelenting pain, misery, and devastation. Accordingly, even if a CTO-universe is intrinsically good, we are justified in believing that this good is not sufficiently good to outweigh all of its attendant animal suffering.

Unless you can argue that animals suffer some injustice, then I don’t see that animals must be individually compensated for their pain and suffering. It’s sufficient that there be an overall good which comes of some individual suffering.


  1. Given the incompatibility of God and gratuitous evil, the atheologian argues as follows:
    Evidential Argument from Evil (EA)
    (1) If God exists, there would be no gratuitous evils.
    (2) There are gratuitous evils.
    (3) God does not exist.

    As van Inwagen has demonstrated, (1) is false.

  2. What are the major categories of theodicies? Thanks.

  3. Major theodicies include the freewill defense, greater good defense, soul-building theodicy, and best possible world (Leibniz).