Book Review: Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Pain by Michael J. Murray
In Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Pain, Michael J. Murray outlines and assesses the adequacy of various defenses of theism in light of ‘the Darwinian picture’. The Darwinian picture consists, roughly, of the following claim:
For hundreds of millions of years—long before man arrived on the scene—non-human animals capable of experiencing real and morally significant pain have inhabited the earth.
The conflict between the Darwinian picture and theism I shall henceforth call ‘the problem of animal suffering’ (or PAS). PAS is, in Murray’s estimation, worth investigating because it a version of the problem of evil that has been relatively untouched in philosophy, because it makes suffering a central component of the development of life[i], and because he thinks that the standard responses to other versions of the problem of evil are largely impotent when it comes to animal suffering.
Murray then provides a brief but informative overview of the ‘current state of play’ regarding the general problem of evil. He does this to (a) underscore how the PAS fits within the general problem of evil (b) demonstrate how many of the standard responses to the general problem of evil fall short when facing PAS (c) rebut the objection that it is somehow improper to provide explanations for evil and (d) describe standards which a successful explanation of evil must meet and. Brevity requires that (a) be left as it stands, and (b) will crop up in discussing later chapters. Turning to (c), Murray opines that skeptical theism[ii]successfully rebuts the standard problems of evil. Some thinkers go further and argue that skeptical theism implies that we should not bother offering explanations for evil.[iii] Murray rejects that stance for the following reasons. First, the traditional texts of monotheistic faiths claim to have knowledge of some of God’s reasons for permitting certain evils (e.g., punishment). Second, if theism is true then it is incumbent upon us to make a strong case against atheism. This case is made all the stronger if we can “demonstrate to him the error of his reasoning and the falsity of his conclusion”.[iv]
In addressing (d), Murray argues that a successful explanation[v] for evil must demonstrate the compatibility of the specified evil with theism[vi] and that the explanation be something that we are warranted or justified in accepting.[vii]
Murray then outlines four broad categories of explanation: ones that deny the reality and/or moral significance of animal suffering, those that identify PAS as a species of moral evil and a result of the Fall, those that argue that animal pain is a necessary condition for various outweighing goods which the animals themselves experience, and those which argue that general features of the universe (e.g., law-like regularities and the gradual development from chaos to order) enable overriding goods which the animals themselves do not experience.
Neo-Cartesianism (named after Descartes) challenges the assumption that animal suffering is both real and morally significant.[viii] Murray examines but quickly rejects two versions of neo-Cartesianism, but finds hints in the personal correspondence of Rene Descartes which he feels furnish more defensible arguments. He notes that while some of Descartes’s arguments against the reality of animal suffering presuppose substance dualism[ix], there are many non-Cartesian views in philosophy of mind which lend support to a Cartesian distinction between animal consciousness and human consciousness. Murray examines four neo-Cartesian variants. The central thread among all four is that there are different kinds of consciousness which have been proposed. For example, one can discuss creature consciousness (where mental states play a role in controlling body movements), access consciousness (states of awareness of something), and the most crucial form—phenomenal consciousness (perception of qualia-smells, sights, sounds, and pain). Combining these distinctions with various theories of mind (e.g., functionalism) leads to different ways of arguing that animals may possess one or other (or both) of the first two levels without having phenomenal consciousness.[x] Murray judges that each of the four views, if true, would successfully undercut the PAS. The four views vary in terms of the ‘gulf’ they propose between animal consciousness and human consciousness. No doubt some will strike people as much more plausible than others. To ensure that these views pass muster (see footnote viii below) Murray then examines how well these views fare in light of counterarguments drawn from various disciplines including ethology, neuroscience[xi], and evolutionary theory. In the end, he claims that the counterarguments are not successful. He also addresses concerns that adopting a Neo-Cartesian explanation of evil would give rise to mistreatment of animals. However, he admits that critics of Neo-Cartesianism will probably remain unconvinced.[xii]
Animal Suffering and the Fall
One of the most commonly given explanations for animal suffering is that it was an inevitable byproduct of the Fall (whether of Adam or Satan). One variant of this family of arguments denies the existence of pre-human animal suffering by adopting a Young Earth position. Ultimately Murray rejects this approach not only because such a position seems to contradict warranted acceptances from science, but also because it does nothing to explain why God would create a world in which moral evil would so distort the rest of creation. Murray briefly considers a few variations of the above view, but ultimately concludes that the standard for an acceptable explanation are met by proposing that Satan may have guided the course of biological development in such a way as to make the PAS possible or even inevitable. [xiii]
Nobility, Flourishing, and Immortality: Animal Pain and Animal Well‐being
Murray then turns to explanations which attempt to justify animal pain in terms of outweighing goods which benefit the animals themselves. There are two main types: one involves ‘this world’ greater goods and the other involves ‘hereafter’ greater goods i.e. animal immortality
‘This world’ greater goods. One version of the ‘this world’ greater good argues that there are various intrinsic and extrinsic goods attached to being embodied intentional agents in a certain kind of environment[xiv]. The basic problem with this defense is that these intrinsic and extrinsic goods could be had without animal suffering actually occurring (in other words, even if Neo-Cartesianism were true these goods would still be attainable).[xv] The second variant of the ‘this world’ greater good occurs in a remarkable passage entitled ‘The Gift of Pain’. Here, Murray discusses the findings of a leper expert and an intriguing set of experiments which indicates that humans often remain unmotivated to avoid damages to ‘organismic integrity’ in the absence of actual felt pain. Murray judges that this explanation meets the required criteria for being successful.
‘Hereafter’ greater goods. The first version of a ‘hereafter’ greater good simply posits that the afterlife awaiting animals is of such great weight[xvi] that the evils of this life will pale in comparison. However, this raises a familiar failing: it doesn’t demonstrate the necessity of animal suffering. Why couldn’t such an afterlife be given to the animal in the absence of such suffering? This brings to the other variant of a ‘hereafter’ greater good: a soul making explanation[xvii]. Murray then turns to consideration of greater good explanations where the goods do not occur directly to the animals themselves.
Overriding Cosmic Features
Nomic regularity. Murray then examines an explanation which posits that a ‘law-like’ universe functions as either an intrinsic good or an extrinsic (instrumental) good and in doing so necessitates animal suffering. He judges that there is some plausibility in seeing a ‘law-like’ universe as an intrinsic good but that, yet again, there appears to be no necessity for animal suffering. (To rephrase as before, the obtaining of this intrinsic good seems compatible with the truth of Neo-Cartesianism.) The intrinsic goods that a law-like universe bring about includes (a) free and effective choices (b) intellectual satisfaction and (c) created-order goods.[xviii] He notes that a case can be made that (a) is possible only by living in a predictable universe (b) the intellectual satisfaction of, say, science again presupposes a predictable universe and (c) there is a good to be had from a ‘great chain of being’ wherein a variety of individuals is had. All three fail in various ways to meet the criteria for a successful explanation.
Nomic Regularity Plus Chaos-To-Order Progression. While the ‘nomic regularity’ explanation has some merit, it generally fails to explain why there should be pre-human animal suffering. By adding Chaos-To-Order (CTO) conditions, Murray proposes that it is good for there to be a universe which moves from chaos to order by nomically regular means[xix]. If this can be defended, then a successful explanation for evil will be found, as such a universe entails that there be necessary ancestors to humans which progress from simpler to more complex forms of cognition.[xx] Murray then considers whether this CTO explanation is an intrinsic or instrumental good. He eventually concludes that all of the attempts to argue that CTO is an instrumental good fail[xxi], but that the CTO as an intrinsic good meets the standards for a successful explanation. As with some of the other explanations (see Footnote xiii), the CTO as an intrinsic good explanation is not ad-hoc: it was discussed prior to Darwin. This explanation has been proposed in various forms by figures as diverse as Augustine, Descartes, and (more recently) Howard Van Till.[xxii] Here, unfortunately, the defense of the CTO as intrinsic good appears to rely on primitive intuitions about value. That is, it is hard to see how to further assess such claims that do not already fall along theist/atheist lines. In the end, Murray judges that this meets the minimal standards for a successful explanation: given the problems in assessing such deep questions (in line with the skeptical theism gambits) we are not warranted in rejecting this explanation.
In wrapping up, Murray notes a variety of factors which the proponent of PAS must take into account. First, Neo-Cartesian arguments should lessen our confidence in our ability to accurately assess how ‘bad’ the PAS is. Second, while life has been around for billions of years, life capable of experiencing pain has been around much less time. Third, even those capable of experiencing pain may not experience it in a very robust way until a certain level of complexity (i.e., humans and higher primates) is reached. Fourth, those levels of complexity also allow for experiencing pleasures (a counterbalancing good) in a more robust way. And finally, there are various ways in which these explanations can be combined to address PAS. [xxiii] Murray notes that in one sense his book has been ‘artificial’ in that it took the explanations one at a time when evil (a multifarious phenomenon) will inevitably require a multi-front explanation. Even if we are not in an epistemic position to say that these explanations (singly or in combination) do show that God and PAS are compatible, he judges that we are not warranted in rejecting them. So:
“Where does all this leave us? It leaves many theists in the position of being able to offer a variety of successful CDs[xxiv]for animal pain and suffering. It may further leave some nontheists in the position of being unable to sustain a reasonable commitment to atheism on the evidence of apparent animal pain and suffering. “[xxv]
There are a variety of ways in which the theist can defend the reasonability of belief in the face of animal suffering. Whether or not other readers agree will depend on the extent to which they are open to a variety of value judgments, some of which may fall along theist / atheist lines and others which may not. Regardless, this is a well-written and informative book. Highly recommended.
Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Latter Day Inkling is a U.S.-based research psychologist for the military. He is especially interested in epistemology and natural theology.
[i] “It thus appeared that the natural order was hatched via a mechanism fraught with evil at its very core.”-page 2
[ii] ‘Skeptical theism’ is a misleading term. It does not imply skepticism about theism, but rather this: by the very nature of the case, we finite humans are not in a good epistemic position to be reasonably confident that we would know that there are (or are not) morally sufficient reasons to allow some evil. If this is correct, then the problems of evil described by Murray cannot be successfully put. “But what could make us think we are likely to know such things? After all, none of us thinks that we are in a position to describe all of the, say, causal consequences of the occurrence of any event…..Absent omniscience, it is hard to know how we could grasp which events are necessary conditions for other particular events which are distant in time and space.”—page 25
[iii] “If our capacities for explaining….are as meager as this reply suggest they might be….there is not much incentive to look for connections between evils and outweighing goods.”—page 30
[iv] Page 34
[v] Murray distinguishes among defenses (used to rebut the logical problem of evil by sketching a possible state of affairs which implies the co-existence of God and evil), theodicies (which claim to provide the known truth about why God permits evil) and what Murray calls a ‘causa dei’ (a defense of God). I stick by the term ‘explanation’. It needs to be understood why Murray is making these distinctions, however. The PAS is an evidential argument against theism, and hence defenses won’t do the trick. (An evidential argument against evil claims merely that evil counts against the existence of God, not that it logically precludes it.) Nor is Murray offering a known reason for why God permits PAS to occur.
[vi] ‘Compatible with theism’ also requires some unpacking. This requires that the explanation meet the necessity condition (the good brought about by allowing the evil could not have been gained without permitting some equal or even greater evil to occur), the outweighing condition (the good outbalances the evil), and the rights condition (God is morally justified in allowing the evil to occur).
[vii] Murray makes no clear delineation between justified and warranted. He prefers to say that the explanation is one that we are not justified in rejecting in light of our ‘warranted acceptances’. Basically, this means that we do not already justifiably or warrantedly hold to a belief or beliefs which provide sufficient ‘defeaters’ for the proposed explanation. Because what people warrantedly accept varies from person to person, this makes the sufficiency of a proposed explanation of evil somewhat relativistic. Murray addresses this indirectly by attempting to provide explanations that are consistent with deliverances of contemporary philosophy and science (page 39). This implies that explanations might perform two functions: either preserving reasonable belief in God in the face of evil (and thus working for theists) or showing that evil does not provide sufficient evidence for rejecting theism (and thus working for nontheists).
[viii] Since this is not so much an explanation of evil as a denial of the reality of evil, some of the criteria given in footnote vi will not apply. However, for neo-Cartesian approaches to work, the proposal must still not be something we are warranted in rejecting. Thus Murray will rebut counter-arguments from ethology and other disciplines.
[ix] Descartes argued in various places that what made human suffering qualitatively different from animal suffering was the fact that the human immaterial soul allowed for morally significant and real suffering. Given that animals do not have souls, there suffering is either not real or not morally significant or both.
[x] Murray demonstrates the intuitive distinction between some of these states by citing various human phenomena: driving along a road while on ‘auto pilot’, ‘blindsight’ and ‘deafhearing’, avoidance of noxious stimuli prior to conscious awareness of pain, etc.
[xi] Neuroscience itself offers some reason for thinking that animal and human experiences of pain may be very different—the basic idea is that ‘phenomenal’ consciousness may reside in parts of the brain which are unique to humans and higher primates. There also cases in which pain is know to be pain but not experienced as pain. Lobotomized patients, for example, can tell you when a noxious (painful) stimulus is present, but report being unmotivated to stop the stimulus.
[xii] “One explanation for its lack of convincing power might be that human beings are so strongly inclined to attribute mindedness to nonhuman entities….Still, we must remain mindful of the fact that one need not believe the neo-Cartesian views to be true…one need only believe that our acceptances do not warrant rejection of the view. Neo-Cartesian explanations at least live up to this minimal challenge.”—page 72
[xiii] This will strike non-theists as utterly unbelievable-or at least ad hoc. A few replies are therefore in order. First, I’ve already noted that ‘warranted acceptances’ is a somewhat relativistic term (see footnote vii). Second, the standard for being an acceptable explanation is rather minimal-revisit the last few lines of footnote xi above. One could underscore this point by pressing the non-theist to provide an item in their belief inventory (a deliverance of science, say) that warrants them in rejecting the Satan Fall explanation. Third, this explanation is not ad-hoc on the grounds that it was proposed prior to Darwin—it is not just an attempt to ‘save’ theism at all costs.
[xiv] An argument put forward by Richard Swinburne in Providence and the Problem of Evil.
[xv] This does not mean that this argument has no role to play in a cumulative defense, as will be seen later.
[xvi] In line with the famous Pauline passage ‘a weight of glory’. See also C. S. Lewis essay of that title.
[xvii] The essential idea behind a soul-making theodicy is that there are short-term evils and the goods or evils that result from them emerge only in the long run and only in terms of our responses to those short-term evils. At first blush this makes a soul making theodicy more applicable to humans than animals, at least to the extent that one is more likely to accord meaningful (libertarian) freedom to humans but not animals. Murray responds to this by nuancing the nature of the soul-making theodicy with regards to animals. This is accomplished by a series of thought experiments illustrating how an appreciation of being forever in the Divine Presence is heightened by the bad nature of the earthly life. See pages 125-127.
[xviii] Murray also examines arguments from problems with massive irregularity and the role that animal suffering plays in providing humans with knowledge. These are, while interesting, in some sense ‘rabbit trails’.
[xix] Murray helpfully draws a parallel between nomic regularity / chaos-to-order progression and the synchronic (order at a time) and diachronic (order across time) distinctions drawn in the works of Richard Swinburne.
Murray notes that “Current science gives us reason to believe that the universe is highly diachronically ordered right from the start. The forces and laws of nature operative in the universe from very shortly after the big bang seem to be calibrated in a way that makes it possible if not probable that our universe will come to have the ingredients necessary to sustain all sorts of subsequent synchronic order, including the synchronic order necessary for life. As a result, there is no interesting sense in which the universe moves from diachronic chaos to diachronic order over time. When it comes to synchronic order, however, the opposite is true. The diachronic order in the universe in fact makes it possible for the universe to exhibit pockets of increasingly complex synchronic order.”—page 167
[xx] Marilyn Adams argues that any explanation of evil which does not provide ‘outweighing goods’ to the victims of the evil as a non-starter. Murray addresses that argument in this chapter. But again, this is another interesting rabbit trail. In addition, Murray notes that such arguments fall prey to ‘skeptical theism’ complaints already covered. (See Footnote 13, page 19.)
[xxi] Murray considers what other goods the CTO could serve as an instrumental good: exhibiting progress, providing a narrative structure, and keeping God appropriately hidden.
[xxii] “The fundamental claim defended by all of these figures is simply that a universe which acts as a machine-making machine, producing substantial amounts of aesthetic, moral, and religious value over time, is of greater value than creation of the finished project by divine fiat.”—page 183
[xxiii] Restating all the possible combinations is pointless here, but note that not all are compossible. One cannot sensibly combine the CTO explanation with Neo-Cartesianism, as the former attempts to demonstrate the compatibility of animal pain with theism while the latter denies that animal pain exists.
[xxiv] For CD (causa dei) read ‘explanation’ as used throughout the rest of the review. For explanation, see Footnote v.
[xxv] Page 199.