Thursday, February 12, 2015

Epiphenomenalism and the problem of animal pain

Suppose the following epiphenomenalist thesis is true, at least for non-human animals: qualia do not affect behavior. It's interesting that if this is right, then the argument for atheism from animal pain is seriously weakened. The argument from animal pain contends that God would have reason to prevent many instances of animal pain that he does not in fact prevent. However, we have good reason to think that God's interventions would be targeted and hence minimal. Now a minimal intervention for the prevention of pain is simply to suppress the quale of pain. Given epiphenomenalism, however, suppressing a quale of pain does not affect either behavior or neural state. So if God thus intervened, things wouldn't look any the different. And hence the atheist cannot non-circularly deny that God did intervene to prevent the pain.

Of course, this might be taken to be yet another reason to deny epiphenomenalism.


Michael Gonzalez said...

Pruss: Do you mean that God could be suppressing the pain that animals feel but permitting their bodies to give all the outward appearances of being in pain? That might explain how they are deceiving us now (they certainly seem to us to be in pain, but on this epiphenomenalist approach, that's just activity of the body; unconnected to qualia). But it doesn't explain what was going on for millions of years before we got here. It seems to me that your idea here would fit best with a world in which animals gave no indication of pain at all before there were people around to recognize it, and then the immediate question is "Why make them able to feel at all?"

Perhaps one could say that pain helps animals behave in self-preserving and beneficial ways, but then God shields them from the most intense agonies. If that's the case, did they even "put on the show" of suffering before we came along? If so, what for?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Think about it from an evolutionary point of view. There presumably is a fine evolutionary explanation for the neural states correlated with pain. Over the millions of years, God has no reason at all to suppress the neural states, except on account of the correlated qualia. On the contrary, typically these neural states are beneficial to the organism, or else they wouldn't have evolved as they did. Moreover, there is a good of a certain autonomy of nature, and so God has reason to minimize intervention. All this means that over those millions of years it makes more sense for God to suppress the qualia than to suppress the neural states.

There is also the question of the associated behaviors, like writhing. Again there is presumably an evolutionary explanation--perhaps they are a spandrel of some sort. God could have intervened in the evolutionary process to suppress these behaviors. But the behaviors are not seriously harmful (and they may even be beneficial to conspecifics by serving as a warning of danger), and so the principle of minimizing intervention should not lead to God suppressing the behaviors.

(And if there is no good evolutionary explanation of these things, then these things are also a problem for the naturalist, not just the theist.)

Now, there is a deep puzzle for the theist in the vicinity. Why did God make laws of nature on which there are pain qualia correlated with the beneficial aversive neural states?

One possible answer is that it's good for humans to have pain qualia (think of standard soul-building theodicies), and the laws of nature would be simpler if there was a blanket law of nature that whenever any organism has such-and-such a neural state, then it has a pain quale, rather than a law of nature with a specific exception for humans.

What if you say: "There could be an equally elegant law that implies pain quale in humans but not in other animals"? This would only be true if there are significant differences between the relevant human neural states and those of non-human animals. But to the extent that there are such differences, the analogy argument for the existence of animal pain is damaged. And presumably the analogy argument is a good one, or else we have insufficient reason to think there is animal pain in the first place.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Of course, all this is predicated on epiphenomenalism. If epiphenomenalism is false, then preventing pain qualia will lead to a change of behavior, barring further miraculous interventions.

Michael Gonzalez said...

This is extremely interesting. What I keep coming back to in my mind, though, is the sub-problem of predation. I mean, there are other causes of animal suffering, but surely predation is primary. So, couldn't God have created a world of mostly herbivores (at least, a world lacking any animals who would regularly hurt other animals capable of feeling pain)? In such a world, the quale-suppression would be much minimized, and the "good of a certain autonomy of nature" ought to incline God to create such a world, rather than one where he has to keep stepping in numerous times per day to keep animals from suffering from predators. As it is, the horrendous torture of factory farming would be a particularly busy place for God and his quale-suppression. It just seems much tidier to create a world where animals behave as they ought to (even including writhing, if there is an advantage to that) but without any qualia at all....

But then there's a problem of why we have qualia when we work so much like they do. Indeed, if my preferred accounts of perception (a la Alva Noe and Kevin O'regan) are correct, then it may be impossible in principle to divorce the behaviors from the experiences.

I don't know. It seems to me that, if the problem of animal suffering is resolved by making God miraculously step in constantly to take their pain away, then the appearance that nature gives of being more-or-less law-governed, and not in need of constant miracles, is an illusion. The only way I can see this working for the theist is if there was meant to be some end to all animal suffering (perhaps as a project for un-Fallen humans), and so the situation was allowed to get bad so that we'd have something to fix. That doesn't seem too terribly out of line with Scriptures like Isaiah 11:6-9....).

Alexander R Pruss said...

But is predation a major problem apart from pain? If we're going to have a rich, evolving and dynamic ecosystem, it makes sense that most of the organisms die. Apart from pain, is predation a particularly bad way for an organism to go? Eating plants is a form of predation, too, and we have no moral qualms about it.

Granted, a person's preying on another person seems to fail to treat the other with the respect due to persons. But when the victim isn't a person, and there is no pain, is there a problem in general?

As for law-governedness, can't we say that what we have good reason to believe is that there are few divine interventions in the physical world, but the *non-physical* world is a completely different kettle of fish? The Holy Spirit is always at work in our souls. Now this work *may* make use of natural causes most of the time, but it's far from clear that this is the case, and anyway "most" is not "all".

The world of qualia, of course, would not be physical.

Michael Gonzalez said...

My point about predation was that it does seem to be an integral part of the ecosystem and a driving force in evolution, but the beings that have evolved to try to avoid being preyed upon have evolved to avoid pain. Presumable, if it felt good, or even felt like nothing at all, then the prey wouldn't be so adamant about avoiding it!

As for qualia being non-physical, I confess that I'm going to be a bit handicapped in this kind of discussion, since I think that's entirely the wrong vocabulary to use about perception. I think we perceive as matter of dynamic interaction with the world, and that "qualia", if such there are, consist entirely of that interaction. So, to take away qualia, you have to take away the capacities or the circumstances of the interaction.... But all of that would take us far afield of the present problem. Indeed, my view kind of presupposes that epiphenomenalism, as such, is false, so it doesn't fit your conditional anyway. If epiphenomenalism is true, then I suppose God could just make it so that the souls of animals are never in agony, even if their bodies are being ravaged and reacting appropriately to such ravaging. But it still seems like a terribly bizarre way to design things, when God could have just made a world without situations that cause Him to have to constantly be removing the consequences from the actions.

Moreover, it does seem to present an interesting problem for man's responsibility not to abuse animals.... That is, if one thinks that humans have such a responsibility.

Alexander R Pruss said...

"Presumable, if it felt good, or even felt like nothing at all, then the prey wouldn't be so adamant about avoiding it!"

The standard epiphenomenalist disagrees. :-) The feeling isn't doing any explaining of the physical action. The explaining is all done by the neural correlates.

While I'm not an epiphenomenalist, still it's clear that a robot can exhibit strongly aversive behavior without having any feelings of pain.