Epiphenomenalism and the problem of animal pain
May 29, 2011 — 8:45

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Uncategorized  Tags: , , ,   Comments: 24

Assume (a) dualism and (b) that the correlation between physical properties and mental properties is metaphysically contingent.

Now, epiphenomenalism about human conscious states is not a very plausible position.  It seems extremely plausible that some of our second-order beliefs about our conscious states, and indirectly many of our reports of these, are caused the conscious states.  But in the case of non-human animals, this argument is not so compelling, because it is not clear that non-human animals have second-order beliefs about their conscious states.  This can be true even if the non-human animals have beliefs about the mental states of other animals.  So, given dualism, epiphenomenalism about non-human conscious states seems to me to be a live option, though it becomes less plausible the higher up the cognitive scale we go.

Say now that “epis” are those animals in principle capable of feeling pain and for which epiphenomalism about pain states is true.  Then all the overt behavior of an epi can be explained without making reference to any pain states of it.  Let’s say Bambi is an epi, and let E be the evil, actual or not, of Bambi being in horrible pain in forest fire F at t1.  

Now, suppose that E would be gratuitous, in the sense that God would not have sufficient moral reason to permit E.  Since God would not have sufficient moral reason to permit E, he’d have to prevent it somehow.  How?  There are two options:

A. Prevent Bambi from being burned.

B. Prevent Bambi from feeling pain while being burned.

Which would we expect God to do?

Well, let’s consider A first.  How could God do that?  Well, there are many possibilities.  God could set up very different laws of nature.  It’s not clear whether that would be a benefit to Bambi, since with very different laws of nature, surely Bambi’s species wouldn’t have evolved, barring some weird miracles.  Or God could prevent the forest fire, whether by inspiring the campers not to leave a smoldering fire or by causing a rainfall or in one of many ways.  Or God could prevent Bambi from being in the forest fire, for instance by ensuring that Bambi finds nice leaves to eat on the other side of a river.  Or God could prevent fire from burning Bambi, with Bambi being in the midst of the fire and unharmed (a type of miracle reported in the case of a bush and in the case of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the Old Testament).  Or God could just painlessly kill Bambi.  There are many ways of God’s doing A.

But there is another thing God could do, and that’s B.  He could apply a dualist anelgesic, leaving the neural functioning of Bambi intact, but just ensuring that the correlated pain simply does not occur.  In case B, Bambi behaves exactly as if in horrible pain, but isn’t.  
Which would we expect God to do?  There is a kind of elegant minimalism about B: it precisely targets the problematic aspect of the situation, while leaving intact the rest of the causal nexus, without any kind of fixing up of the causal nexus.  I think we have the intuition that Providence would proceed by some economy of miracles principle that makes B elegant.
On the other hand, there is a consideration against B if there are human observers, in that the human observers will have the justified false belief that Bambi is pain.  But that some action will give rise to a justified false belief in someone is a pretty weak (though real, I think) reason against the action.  
I am not saying we should positively expect God to do B.  But it wouldn’t be very surprising if B turned out to be the best option at least on occasion.
This means that if one wants to argue that a particular instance of Bambi’s <em>apparently</em> suffering horrible pain in a forest fire is a gratuitous evil, one needs to both argue that (a) the horrible pain would be a gratuitous evil, and (b) that if God existed, he would respond in manner A rather than in manner B.  And the theist need only defend the disjunction: either there is a theodicy for the pain or God has prevented the pain.
But what if epiphenomenalism is false?  Well, the elegant minimalism of B together with the fact that it is empirically just as we observe didn’t require epiphenomenalism.  It required the disjunction of epiphenomenalism with causal overdetermination.  If pain behavior is causally overdetermined by pains and neural states, that’s enough, because if God takes away precisely the pain, the pain behavior will remain.  
However, I think we can modify the point to work, albeit less well, even without this disjunction.  Let’s grant that we’re dealing with a species where pains really make a difference to overt behavior.  Nonetheless, we do not know exactly how much of a difference it makes.  It may only make a difference by contributing to second order beliefs about one’s own pain states.  But I would expect it is rare for a non-human animal’s behavior to be observably affected by such second order beliefs, especially in the case of severe pain (which is surely the most problematic case).  An animal in severe pain is surely not primarily moved by second order beliefs.  
And it might be that even given physicalism (about non-divine minds) something like the above might work.  For God would know the true physicalist theory, and would know exactly what would need to happen for a neural state to be a pain.  Then the analogue to option B would be God’s making the minimal modification to Bambi’s neural state so as to ensure that that neural state is not a pain.  And it is quite epistemically possible that the resulting neural state would be very hard for us, and perhaps impossible for us, to distinguish from a pain.
So, what’s the upshot?  It’s just that I think in the problem of animal pain we really need to ask ourselves: How would we expect God to prevent gratuitous pains?  And then the argument from animal pain needs to take these answers into account.  
  • Matthew Baddorf

    That’s very interesting. One implication that occurs to me concerns human infants/very young children. You mentioned that epiphenomenalism is very improbable among humans, but if it is as plausible as you think for animals like Bambi then presumably it could be true for very young humans (or any humans who do not consistently have the capacity for second-order beliefs about their conscious states). So this could also have baring for discussion about some human pain.

    May 29, 2011 — 17:58
  • That could well be right, especially given my final remarks which weaken the assumption of epiphenomenalism.

    May 29, 2011 — 22:02
  • I should forestall one objection that I could imagine someone making.
    Objection: If the argument is right, then:
    (*) If I poke a non-human animal with a sharp stick, either (a) the animal doesn’t feel pain, or (b) the pain is non-gratuitous.
    So what’s wrong with poking an animal with a sharp stick?
    Response: Yes, the argument commits me to (*) (on an appropriate understanding of “non-gratuitous”). But that’s not special to my argument. Every theist is committed to (*), and in fact one can drop “non-human” from (*), since, necessarily, if theism is true, there are no gratuitous pains (on an appropriate understanding of “non-gratuitous”).
    But “E is non-gratuitous” in this context has to mean: “God is justified in permitting E.” And it does not follow from the fact that God is justified in permitting E that I am justified in causing E. The reasons that justify God in permitting E need not apply to justify my causing E, and there are multiple explanations of why they need not apply. Here are three examples: First, God’s role as creator may give him rights I don’t have. I think that’s true and important, but I want to put no stress on it here. Second, God’s justification for permitting E could be that it gives me scope for an effective exercise of free will, but that fails to justify my causing E, since I could just as well exercise free will be refraining from causing E. Third, we can sometimes permit what we must not cause.

    May 29, 2011 — 22:12
  • Option A should add the disjunct “or prevent the neural correlates of pain”.

    May 30, 2011 — 12:16
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Perhaps we should not expect God to prevent gratuitous evils. Theism does not entail that each evil be morally justified, but only that the whole of creation be morally justified, in the sense of being such as the greatest conceivable being would want to actualize. If it is the case that a creation in which gratuitous evils exist is morally justified, then theism is compatible with the existence of gratuitous evils. Thus the atheologian who wants to argue from the existence of evil carries a heavy burden, for she must prove both that gratuitous evils exist and that a world in which gratuitous evils exist is not morally justified.
    Now if God does wish to prevent E then I think there is a third option, namely (C) Not create Bambi as a subject. (Here by “subject” I mean an “experiencer” of some experience.) We people are subjects of the experiences which correlate with our bodies, but I don’t see any good reason to assume that the same obtains in the case of animals. We are persons made in the image of God and thus are subjects, but there is no good reason I can see why animals should be subjects too. In the case of animals I assume that the subject of their experiences is God alone. A mind who is the metaphysically ultimate will be a subject of all experiences there are, and I assume that in the case of animals that this is all there is to it.

    May 30, 2011 — 14:20
  • Wes Morriston

    Alex: Suppose that God is in fact an “elegant minimalist.” Then Bambi would feel no pain if you poked him with a sharp stick. So what, in that case, would be wrong with poking him that way?

    May 30, 2011 — 14:49
  • Wes Morriston

    Dianelos: So if I poke Bambi with a sharp stick, God (but not Bambi) feels a sharp pain?

    May 30, 2011 — 14:52
  • Wes Morriston

    Alex: I want to explain what I had in mind in my previous comment/question. After all, you might just say that if God were an “elegant minimalist” (who regularly makes it the case that fawns feel no pain when they are poked with sharp sticks), then there would indeed be nothing wrong with poking Bambi with a sharp stick.
    Here’s what worries me about this answer. Commonsense says that it’s wrong to poke fawns with sharp sticks because it hurts them. But if I were sufficiently impressed by the points you make in favor of elegant minimalism, I’d have to say that for all I know Bambi feels no pain when poked with a sharp stick. It might still be wrong to poke fawns with sharp sticks, but our reason for thinking so would have to be significantly messier than the one suggested by commonsense. We could end up having to say things like this: “It might cause pain, and (all else equal) one should not do things that might cause pain.”

    May 30, 2011 — 17:12
  • Dustin Crummett

    Dianelos, I’m not really sure that solves the problem. Perhaps it gets God off the hook morally, since the pain isn’t being experienced by his creatures. But it seems like it just changes the question from “Why does God allow animals to suffer so much?” to “Why does God allow himself to suffer so much?” I don’t know that the second question is necessarily easier than the first.
    Wes, I assumed that we weren’t talking about God preventing all animal pain, but only all gratuitious animal pain. Maybe he lets the fawn feel pain when you poke because that “gives you scope for an effective exercise of free will?”

    May 30, 2011 — 22:18
  • Wes:
    1. I’d prefer to go with Dustin’s response here. It’s only the pains that would be gratuitous that God needs to prevent, and it is valuable for God to give us scope for effective exercise of free will, so in this case the fawn’s suffering could well be non-gratuitous. (However, it might be that God will limit the amount of suffering for the fawn, if the degree of suffering is significantly higher than it needs to be to serve this purpose.)
    2. Still, I think common sense acknowledges that God or another agent might well prevent some of our evil actions from having bad effects, but says that we have no right to count on that. The Catholic tradition talks of the “sin of tempting God”. This is a kind of illegitimate demanding of a miracle from God. Sometimes this could be done by means of some sort of blackmail–trying to produce a situation which will be morally intolerable unless God works a miracle. This is the sin to which the devil was tempting Jesus when he was telling him to throw himself from the high place in the temple so that God might catch him. So even if God were sure to intervene, the situation would still involve the sin of tempting God. Granted, this would go against the commonsense answer.

    May 30, 2011 — 23:24
  • Dianelos:
    Consciousness seems to be a valuable thing, in human and beast. My confidence that animals have it is moderately high, based in part on an argument Richard Gale once gave me. Back in my Cartesian days, he told me that if one gazes into the eyes of a dog, one can see it’s conscious. So, I gazed into the eyes of his dog, and saw it was conscious. Or so it appeared to me. 🙂

    May 30, 2011 — 23:29
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Right, that’s what I meant. Indeed I am inclined to believe that this is how things stand. The principle of simplicity says that we should not assume more entities than necessary. Now I know that I am a subject, and I have good reasons for believing that other people are subjects too. (In particular the belief that people have freedom of will entails that they are subjects.) But I see no reason whatsoever to assume that animals too are subjects.
    Incidentally, given the metaphysical distance between God and us, we should probably not assume that God experiences the pain of an animal being poked with a sharp stick in a way that is analogous to how it is like for us to being thus poked. In particular I think that God does not experience any evils. There is after all such a thing as a “good pain”. For example, the mountaineer may experience sore muscles, but that pain is not experienced as an evil but rather as part and parcel of the good experience of climbing the mountain. On the Christian view it is only by undergoing kenosis and incarnating in Jesus that God experiences evil, which fact in turn renders Jesus’ sacrifice real.

    May 31, 2011 — 7:51
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    I think that as long as the atheologian does not justify the premise that animals are subjects, the argument from animal suffering fails. For if it is only God who experiences the suffering of animals then that suffering is not gratuitous, but is one more price that God willingly pays for the type of world S/He chose to actualize. On the view suggested the question “Why does God allow himself to suffer so much?” has a natural answer, namely “God allows himself to suffer because that’s a consequence of the world God wants to create.” Clearly, the greatest conceivable being will not let its own personal suffering keep it from doing the greatest conceivable thing. There are greater things than the attainment of pleasure or the avoidance of pain, and that’s true for all persons.

    May 31, 2011 — 7:56
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    I do not hold that consciousness is a good thing by itself, but only as long as it is a meaningful thing within the context of a good creation. Now consciousness entails the presence of both content and subject. If animals were subjects then their experience of life would be meaningless, and this, I believe, would render that experience not a good thing.
    Please observe that I am not in any way defending Cartesianism here. I too see feelings behind the eyes of a dog. What I am suggesting is that God alone is the experiencer of these feelings. So my view does not in any way imply that it’s OK to poke a sharp stick into an animal because, as Descartes would have it, an animal is just a complicated machine with no consciousness or feelings of pain. (Incidentally, even if Descartes were right it would still be wrong to poke an animal with a sharp stick. Machines, as well as stones, are proper objects of moral concern, because they are all part of creation and thus intrinsically valuable.)

    May 31, 2011 — 7:58
  • The life of a dog seems quite meaningful. It just doesn’t have the sort of meaning the life of a human does.
    I agree that if animals weren’t conscious, it would be wrong to damage them without sufficient reason, just as it is wrong to damage every organized things without sufficient reason. But:
    1. Poking with a sharp stick causes minimal damage apart from pain.
    2. The moral weight of the ceteris paribus wrongness of destroying machines is low. It doesn’t take a very strong reason for such destruction to be justified. Unless the machine is extrinsically valuable (and that’s another issue), little more than mere curiosity is needed to justify destructive experimentation. Not so for experimentation on conscious animals.

    May 31, 2011 — 8:18
  • Wes Morriston

    Alex: Thanks for the clarification. Let me see if I understand.
    Your idea is that it might be the case that EITHER

    A. God is justified in allowing a particular animal’s pain


    B. It’s only an apparent pain because God prevents actual pain in this case without preventing either pain behavior or the usual cause of pain.

    If that’s right, then an atheist defending something like Rowe’s argument needs to show that both A and B are false.
    As an example of B, we have Bambi blundering into a very sharp object, exhibiting the usual pain behavior but feeling no pain.
    As an example of A, we have somebody poking a sharp stick into Bambi’s flesh. The justification might be that it’s good for us to be free to do things that cause pain (and not merely the appearance of pain) in non-human animals — though you qualify this a bit by saying that there might be limits on the degree of severity of the pain we are free to cause non-human animals to suffer, and also by acknowledging that God might sometimes intervene to prevent our “evil actions” from having “bad effects.”
    In view of the above, why shouldn’t I poke a fawn with a sharp stick? Well, it might hurt the fawn; but even if God were sure to prevent it, we shouldn’t count on that because it’s a sin to “tempt God.”
    I hope I have all of this more or less straight now.
    I don’t have a knock-down argument against any of this. However, it does seem to me to introduce a strangely selective skepticism about the mental life of non-human animals. If God frequently intervened to prevent animal pain, he would be introducing quite a large gap between appearance and reality, and our normal ways of forming beliefs about when an animal is in pain would be extremely unreliable.
    At the very least, the proposed view would complicate our commonsense rationale for thinking that poking fawns with sharp sticks is wrong. I also wonder about the implication for animal euthanasia. Are we really sparing them pain when we have them put down? The answer would seem to depend on what God is doing down at the level of what Hume called “the secrets springs and principles of nature!” And who is to say what that might be?

    May 31, 2011 — 14:34
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    I think I would agree that under (B) the life of animals is meaningful. Thus there are at least two non-cartesian ontological views which defeat the argument from animal suffering on the level of individual apparent evils, namely (B) and (C). Among the two I find (C) to be more probably true, because in my judgment it is more economical, it does not give rise to a justified false belief (Bambi’s pain is as real as it seems, even though the subject of that pain is God alone), and it helps me understand the nature of Christ.
    I mean the latter in the following sense: The distinction between content and subject of a conscious life helps me understand in what sense Jesus was fully human and fully God, namely in the sense that the content of Jesus’ conscious life was fully human while the subject of Jesus’ conscious life was only God. When any other human person comes into existence God creates a new person in a fallen spiritual state. In the case of Jesus God did not create a new person but became Him/Herself the subject of that human life assuming all the physical limitations (i.e. undergoing kenosis) but not the spiritual debasement of the human nature in its current condition. In particular the will that governed Jesus’ was the will of God. Thus Jesus’ life exemplifies (indeed metaphysically instantiates) the perfection and thus maximal value which can be achieved by us. Which in turn explains to me why Jesus in the Gospels commands us to follow Him, and why it is not so much that salvation comes from becoming like Christ, but rather that salvation *is* becoming like Christ. As it says in John 15 it is those who follow Christ who are with Him. In conclusion, besides its beauty, it is the conceptual fruitfulness of (C) which inclines me to think that it is more probably true.

    May 31, 2011 — 16:43
  • Sorry, I could only get as far as “barring some weird miracles.” What is a “weird” miracle? Are they more weird, or less weird than the ones at the core of your preferred brand of monotheism? And if it takes a “weird miracle” for creatures to avoid unproductive suffering, why don’t these miracles occur all the time?

    May 31, 2011 — 20:34
  • Wes:
    “If God frequently intervened to prevent animal pain, he would be introducing quite a large gap between appearance and reality, and our normal ways of forming beliefs about when an animal is in pain would be extremely unreliable.”
    I don’t think a good case has been made that most instances of animal pain are unjustified. If most instances of animal pain are justified, we don’t have extreme unreliability.
    That said, I am fine with saying that there may be more complexity behind the scenes due to miracles. I am inclined to think the world may have lots of miracles we don’t have any idea about. It could be, for all I know, that many accidents and diseases are miraculously averted by ordinary prayers for the wellbeing of individuals and of humankind.
    It may also be that we’re quite reliable at identifying that an animal is in pain but not reliable at identifying that an animal is in severe pain. For it could be that God sometimes miraculously limits the degree of the pain to a point at which the pain is no longer unjustified.

    May 31, 2011 — 23:21
  • Teapot:
    The weird miracle I was thinking of would be one where God ensures that, despite the laws of nature being very different, somehow something like Bambi’s species evolves. So, maybe, there is no law of gravitation, but God still ensures that animals with legs evolve by some set of miracles. I want to say: That’s weird. Miracles aren’t pointless. Yeah, that’s a judgment that’s hard to formalize. But I think we can develop a feel for it, say by reading the Scriptures and getting a feel for the character of God, just as we can get the feel for the character of a human person. For instance, God could miraculously turn the “D” in the “DELL” logo on my laptop into a “B”. But there would be a weird pointlessness to it, barring some special context (e.g., if it were a reminder to contact someone named “Bell”). It would be out of character, just as it would be out of character for my wife to come with a permanent marker while I was away and change the “D” to a “B”.

    May 31, 2011 — 23:28
  • It seems to me that much of the general sense of the argument here hinges on how much of a nonhuman animal’s pain is gratuitous. Frankly I’m at a loss as to how all the pain an animal feels is not gratuitous. To suggest otherwise would be to suggest that an animal has brought on an evil themselves, that they have by what they have done earned their pain. If so, then they are in a cognitive class higher than that generally ascribed to them, in which case, the analgesic dualism could very well be problematic in the same way as it would if used to understand human second order conscious states. The only way I can imagine nonhuman animals living without gratuitous pain is if there is a dualist wedge driven between the easily detected pain behavior physically instantiated and the impossible to verify/falsify pain experience psychically instantiated.
    (On a side note, I wonder whether it would be (as) or nearly as elegant if we acknowledge not only that the animal exhibits pain behavior and experiences mental pain states connected to its physical pain behavior, but also that the mental pain states are experienced in a nonhuman form. I suppose I’m something like a spectrum of pain experience that at one end is value-laden and at the other end is merely sensory. Perhaps that will leave open some space should it be found that there is a corresponding physical difference in pain receptors and neural fibers that suggest such a qualitative difference in pain experience between humans and animals.)

    June 5, 2011 — 8:24
  • Whether animal pain is gratuitous or not depends on what the nature of pain is. I think of the felt pain as the quale corresponding to the perception of damage. But the correspondence between qualia and what they are qualia of is non-arbitrary. If red objects had the qualia of green, we would be misperceiving the world, I think. So on this view, correct, conscious and quale-ful perception of damage necessarily involves pain. But to see things as they are is good. So pain, when it is pain associated with bodily damage, has an intrinsic value to it–the value of correct, conscious and vivid perception of how things are. (I don’t actually know if the quale-fulness of the perception is an additional thing over and beyond the conscious perception. I am friendly to views on which qualia reduce to conscious contents.)
    At the same time, sometimes the pain is not veridical–phantom limb pains in amputees are an obvious case, and cases of pains that are disproportionate to the damage also apply. Those pains won’t be covered by the above remarks. Moreover, even in cases where the pain is veridical, it can detract from mental peace to such a degree that it becomes extrinsically bad, and in such a way that it isn’t automatically justified.
    Now, of course, one might have another theory of what pain is, and I would be happy to discuss the pros and cons of the two theories.

    June 5, 2011 — 9:22
  • Here’ something I’ve been trying to wrap my head around about this ‘epi’ animal analgesic:
    If I know that God will not allow any animal to experience gratuitous pain (taking scenario ‘B’ as operating here), and if in a particular instance I know I can prevent a person from hurting an animal gratuitously (in other words, if I have a reasonable expectation that the animal’s physical pain will be only, or at least primarily, gratuitous), then it would seem I have no obligation to intervene, as well as no good reason even to interfere, for no wrong is being done, and no pain is being felt by the animal. Moreover, if the animal’s pain apparatus is in good working order, then it is good that it is physically sensing the damage presumably being done to it, given that there is an intrinsic value to perceiving the world properly. Thus, intervening would not only be unwarranted, because the person isn’t causing the animal any felt pain, it would also positively remove the intrinsic value of experiencing things as they are, in this case, the experiencing of the creature’s body. But these observations seem prima facie counterintuitive.
    (NB: The above is meant to be submitted in the form of a Devil’s advocacy, not as anything approaching a serious critique. Especially the part about the intrinsic value of pain perception!)

    June 6, 2011 — 0:47
  • Let’s take these separately.
    First, with regard to intrinsic value, while there is intrinsic value in the pain, it may nonetheless be causing inner turmoil to the animal, and hence poor functioning, and in that case there will be reason to stop the pain. And there is extrinsic reason to stop the pain, so that we not become inured to pain and turmoil in sentient creatures. (I get the inner turmoil idea from Mark Murphy’s idea that pain disturbs the good of “inner peace”.)
    Second, with regard to gratuitousness, we’re rarely if ever going to know if a pain is gratuitous. In fact, our ability to prevent the pain is itself evidence that the pain is not gratuitous–it provides us with an arena for the exercise of free will.
    It is, nonetheless, an interesting fact that nobody takes it as a life mission to prevent lions from causing pain to their prey, e.g., by encouraging people to go on safaris where you watch until the lion is about to get her prey, and then killing the prey with a well aimed shot to the head or shooting it with a tranquilizer dart. (If it was our own pet that was being attacked by a lion, we might do something like that, of course.)

    June 6, 2011 — 8:17