If you step on a dog’s tail and it yelps, does it feel pain? Are some intellectuals so thickheaded that they cannot see the obvious? Yes and Yes.
People in both the ancient and medieval worlds believed that all living things had souls. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the greatest Christian thinker of the Middle Ages, accepted Aristotle’s view that plants have vegetative souls, animals have sensitive souls, and human beings have rational souls. Aquinas would have no problem admitting a dog feels pain when someone steps on its tail. He believed that animals have emotions that parallel human emotions, and although he did not discuss the issue directly, I have no doubt he would have said animals are consciously aware of themselves and the world, especially higher animals such as mammals.
Rene Descartes (1596-1650) believed that only human beings have souls and that only human beings are conscious and aware. For Descartes, animals are automatons, machine. So a dog yelping in what appears to be pain is no different than a mechanical toy with a sensor causing a yelping sound when someone steps on it. It is hard to believe that Descartes actually owned a dog!
A few years ago an article appeared in the scholarly journal Faith and Philosophy that defended God from the charge that He created a world with extreme animal pain–”nature red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson put it. They referred to scientists who defend Neocartesianism, a contemporary view that animals either lack consciousness or their consciousness is so limited compared to us that they experience either no pain or very little. The same would follow for other feelings, emotions, and thoughts.
I must admit that my first reaction on reading the article was fury. These Evangelical Protestant scholars were so intent on getting God off the hook for animal pain that they were willing to deny the fact of animal pain, or at least minimize the amount of feeling a nonhuman animal could have. But in doing so, reality, like an angry dog, bites them in the face.
We share similar brains and nervous systems with animals, especially mammals. Just as an animal withdraws from painful stimuli, so do we. Just as animals cry out when in pain, so do we. Just as some animals become aggressive when in pain, so do some of us. My thoughts are if something looks like it’s in pain, acts like it’s in pain, and cries out like it’s in pain, that is sufficient evidence to say it feels pain. Neocartesian scientists and their defenders accept what C. D. Broad called “a silly philosophy,” that is, a philosophy that would send anyone outside of academia to an insane asylum. I suppose if Neocartesians are consistent, they would support the most violent research on animals; after all, if they are automatons or near-automatons, why not vivisect them–without anesthesia, too! But I doubt the Neocartesians would go this far. One never knows.
Of course we cannot enter an animal’s mind to know for sure what its thoughts and feelings are. But neither can we enter into another human being’s mind in that way. We have to rely on behavioral evidence to identify an animal’s emotions just as we do with human beings. Now humans also have language, but the fact that animals lack a language in the sense that humans have one does not imply that they are without thoughts and feelings.
In defending God from the charge that He created a world with excessive suffering, one should never ignore reality. That is intellectual cheating, and that is precisely the crime of which the Christians who wrote the article in Faith and Philosophy are guilty. Reality is what it is no matter how much humans try to deny it. Animals do feel, and without the strong rational sense that humans have in the way, they most likely feel emotions in a rawer and more intense fashion than human beings. Only a Neocartesian is intellectually obtuse enough to deny that.