Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Animal consciousness

I wonder if a non-theist can be reasonably confident that non-human animals feel pain.

Start with functionalism. The precise functional system involved with feeling pain in us has no isomorph in non-human animals. For instance, in us, damage data from the senses is routed through a decision subsystem that rationally weighs moral considerations along with considerations of self-interest prior to deciding whether one should flee the stimulus, while in non-human animals there are (as far as we know) no moral considerations.

We can now have two hypotheses about what functional system is needed for pain: (a) there needs to be a weighing of damage data along with specifically moral consideration inputs, or (b) there just needs to be a weighing of damage data along with other inputs of whatsoever sort.

We cannot do any experiments to distinguish the two hypotheses. For the two hypotheses predict the same overt behavior. And even self-experimentation will be of no use. I suppose one could—at serious ethical risk—try to disable the brain’s processing of moral data, and prick oneself with a pin and check if it hurts. But while the two hypotheses do make different predictions as to what would happen in such a case, they do not make different predictions as to what one would remember after the experiment was done or how one would behave during the experiment.

Similar problems arise for every other theory of mind I know of. For in all of them, it seems we are not in a position to know precisely which range of neural structures gives rise to pain. For instance, on emergentism we know that pain emerges from our neural structures, but it seems we have no way of knowing how far we can depart from our neural structures and still get pain. On Searle-style biologism, where functionalistically irrelevant biological detail is essential for mental properties, it seems we have no way of figuring out which biological biological details permit mental function. And so on.

I know of only one story about how we can be reasonably confident that non-human animals feel pain: God, who knows everything, creates us with the intuition that certain behaviors mean pain, and in fact these behaviors do occur in non-human animals.


Martin Cooke said...

On the other hand, it would be good if non-human animals do not feel pain, and are only biochemical machines. So, can a theist be reasonably confident that non-human animals feel pain, given that they exist in the creation of a perfectly good God? The story that you give does not apply to characters in movies.

Martin Cooke said...

As for non-theists, they do have a lot of evidence that we are highly evolved primates. What pain does for us, in terms of fight-and-flight and so forth, it presumably does for other primates, and presumably for lots of other animals too. Lots of animals seem to be quite clever, and pain makes us focus our thoughts. Basically, there seems to be a lot of evidence for a non-theist to be reasonably confident that non-human animals feel pain. The theories you go through may have problems explaining that, but that is prima facie a problem for those theories, not for the non-theist's confidence.

Michael Gonzalez said...

I didn't understand the connection between "feeling pain" and this matter of calculating moral concerns to decide how to respond to the pain....

In any case, we don't need an account of how nervous systems give rise to pain. They don't. Pain is not the result of computation or data processing, nor is it a neurological event. Animals feel pain because they have sensitive bodies. And no one can deny the pain behaviors of limping when one leg has been injured, whimpering, crying out, etc. They are part of the conceptual basis for the very meaning of the term "pain" and its associated concepts. When something hurts us, we often cry out. And we naturally recognize behaviors similar to our own pain behaviors. Indeed, given that those behaviors are part of the conceptual basis for the meaning of the term, we cannot (on pain of irrationality... no pun intended) deny that animals feel pain.

Atno said...

I don't know if God is directly necessary to account for our intuition there.

I recall Robert Koons writing that an Aristotelian could hold that in grasping the forms and essences of things, one's intellect gets in direct contact with the modal facts and other essential properties of that form. (Of course, that implies the physical is not causally closed, and probably that there is a soul too, so one could argue for God from this point).

I wonder if this model works without the need for God instilling any particular sensibilities or intuitive predispositions in our souls, however. It is an interesting question how to account for the reliability of our intuitions.

If the story works, in any case, it might serve as another nice bonus for having forms in one's ontology: it might account for the reliability of intuitions through intellect's grasp of forms.

Martin Cooke said...

Hi Michael, sorry if I'm missing your point, but I think that we need more than just "pain behaviors" because those could be exhibited by characters in movies. They are indeed part of the conceptual basis, but cannot be the whole story.

Also, pain is clearly a neurological event, because there are anesthetics which prevent the triggering of just such events, and because one can, I gather, feel pain in an amputated limb.

Michael Gonzalez said...


No, of course they are not the whole story. But they form part of the conceptual basis on which all talk of "pain" has any meaning. When an animal manifests characteristic pain behaviors in response to the very things that also hurt us, it seems to me the default position is that they are hurt. I think it would take some sort of strong argument against their being in pain, to properly convince us otherwise.

Chemicals or other things that inhibit relevant parts of our brains and CNS can also inhibit us from walking; but I don't think anyone would call walking "a neurological event". The matter of phantom limb is interesting, but that a person can be in pain but mistaken or hallucinating about where the pain is does not show pain to be a neurological event.

Predicates about the feeling of pains apply properly only to the living animal as a whole. They are an animal event.