There seems to have been a fair number of stories related to animals and their suffering as a philosophical/theological issue this year, probably because it is something we all have an intuitive feel about yet it raises other issues.
As a theological problem, under evolution and Darwinian models there had to be billions of years of suffering for creatures for no apparent reason: no heaven for them or helping humans reach salvation; heck, no humans were around for billions of years while countless creatures suffered and died pointlessly it would seem. Couldn’t the Creator have done better? (Why have Darwinian evolution instead of Lamarkian, say?) This sort of problem is well illustrated by John Loftus in “The Darwinian Problem of Evil” in The Christian Delusion.
As a philosophical issue, we have the ethics of how we treat animals if they have consciousness and/or can suffer. If they can suffer, does that mean we need to change how we treat them? This debate will also affect how to treat humans at various levels of mental ability and development.
It seems that the escape some are taking is perhaps the obvious way out: denial. Following Rene Descartes centuries earlier, some have to claim that animals don’t actually suffer. When Stephen law debated Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, the latter argued that animals cannot suffer. Why? According to Craig (and his source book), most mammals and other animals don’t have a pre-frontal cortex, so they are not aware of their pain and so cannot suffer. That claim is amazingly false since cats, dogs, whales, and even rats and mice have this brain feature. And why assume the pre-frontal cortex is necessary for suffering? Cannot another brain architecture produce similar results? It’s all the worse for Craig since he is a substance dualist, so matter is not the thing that is intelligent or aware, but soul-stuff; so why can’t animals suffer if they have the soul-stuff to do it? And Craig prove animals are without this intangible stuff?
As for the science, recently there was a major conference that came to the conclusion that the evidence does say animals can suffer. You can find their declaration here.
Fortunately, the weakness of this line of reasoning is nicely deconstructed in this new video. Enjoy!
Now, does this all mean we should join PETA and stop eating meat or having pets? I don’t think so, but that will have to be discussed another time.