Animals Have Feelings: Against Neocartesianism

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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.

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“Creating” Reality vs. Respecting Reality

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Women go against the natural impulse to care for their offspring and kill their children via abortion. Academics and the media deny that marriage and the family are natural institutions and believe that marriage and the family are whatever we make them. The tradition, dating back thousands of years, of marriage being between male and female is denied by academics and judges. Children no longer have a mother at home and are reared in day care centers, and academics and the majority of the media rejoice. Pundits talk about “designer babies” created through genetic engineering. Weapons of mass destruction are created out of thin air, and a Bush administration official says that “Reality is what we decide it to be.”

Most ancient and medieval philosophers believed in a natural order that human beings were required to respect. A violation of the set order of nature would lead either to societal chaos and the destruction of the proper natural order. That began to change in the modern era, with Rene Descartes (1596-1650) moving the direction of philosophy away from nature to the self. The idea that things had real natures was cast off by William of Occam’s nominalism in the fourteenth century, so it was easy to move from the emphasis on self to the notion that categories in the mind account for the general structure of the world we experience. This was Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) position. But Kant believed these categories were the same for all rational beings, so we all experience the same world. Once this assumption was abandoned, then reality was thought to be what man willed it to be. In this view, there is no natural order that exist prior to man; it is man who makes reality what he wants it to be.

I offer a long-term empirical test of the idea that we can manipulate reality to be what we wish it to be. America and Western Europe are trying to mold reality in a way that supports an overly-individualist, self-centered, and materialistic lifestyle. If a pregnancy gets in the way, kill the fetus–after all, life begins when we say it begins. If old people get in the way, kill them–after all, life is meaningful when we say it is meaningful. If politicians want to profit from war, they should go ahead–they will invent reality to justify starting a war. If the family gets in the way of our desires, there is divorce, and for those who prefer lovers of the same gender, they can adopt, too. Reality is what me make it.

My proposal for an experiment is this: Let society go the direction of trying to create reality in the image of its desires. If my belief that the actions resulting from that view violate the natural order is correct, society will inevitably descend to chaos and ruin. Either social order will disappear into crime and chaos, or a strongman will take power to restore order through dictatorial force. If I turn out to be wrong, I am willing to stand corrected. Deal?