Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Rosenthal on Murray

Mooch the cat

Following my previous post on William Lane Craig's question of the week, Animal Pain Re-visited, I wondered about the distinction that Michael Murray drew between first order and higher order mental states. I could see that Murray was right in the sense that there is a debate about the distinction, but I couldn't see he was right about what that distinction entailed. In particular he wrote:
Do we know that any of the possibilities I describe (that animal pain is like blindsight—experienced but not felt (response 1)—or like “lobotomy pain”—felt but not undesirable (response 2)) are true in the case of animals? Absolutely not. But do we know that they are not the case? I argue that we don’t. That is, for all we know, animal pain works as described in one of those options. The scientific data do not resolve the philosophical question. And thus we don’t know if we have a problem of animal pain.
Do people disagree about this? Yes. However, I think that most scientists who think about these questions do not have the full range of distinctions that philosophers of mind do when reasoning about these matters. So I think that the scientists who disagree don’t fully appreciate the relevant philosophical subtleties. (However, some neuroscientist/philosopher collaborations have been looking at exactly such issues, indeed suggesting that the prefrontal cortex plays just the sort of role I suggest when it comes to phenomenal consciousness—whether of pain or other sensory states. See for example, Lau and Rosenthal, “Empirical Support for higher-order theories of conscious awareness,” Trends in Cognitive Science, August 2011, vol. 15, no 8.) - my emphasis
Murray says that Lau and Rosenthal's paper suggests that the prefrontal cortex 'plays just the sort of role' he suggests - that is, that pain is experienced but not felt, or felt but not undesirable - so animal pain should not count as evil.

Having read Lau and Rosenthal's paper, I still could not see that it supported this view. However, I may not have understood it (!), so I asked philosopher of mind and co-author of the paper David Rosenthal if he cared to comment on it. He very kindly gave me this response, which I quote in its entirety; I think it speaks for itself:
Mark Jones has kindly called my attention to a blog post by Michael Murray about pain and nonhuman animals, at  In that post, Murray appeals to higher-order-thought theories of consciousness, such as that which I have advanced ( and, in particular, to "Empirical Support for Higher-Order Theories of Conscious Awareness", coauthored by Hakwan Lau and me, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15, 8 (August 2011): 365-373.
I have written a few remarks in that connection and sent them to Mark Jones with my permission to quote them.
The term 'phenomenal consciousness', as currently used in philosophical, psychological, and neuropsychological research, is used to cover both the qualitative character of mental states--e.g., what differs between seeing red and seeing green or between a pain and a tickle--and the subjective awareness that goes with conscious cases of such states.  The point of most higher-order theories of consciousness--including the one I have advanced in many writings and the version Lau and I defend by a very compelling array of empirical findings--is that these two factors do not always occur together.
The appeal to phenomenal consciousness, therefore, is theoretically loaded in an unfortunate way, tying together two mental phenomena--qualitative character and subjective awareness--that need not cooccur.  In the context of Murray's post, it effectively begs the question.
The qualitative character of pain, e.g., can occur without subjective awareness.  The pain, with its qualitative character, would be a first-order mental state; the subjective awareness on our theory--supported by a very great deal of empirical work--can occur distinctly, and is a higher-order state whose content is in some suitable way directed onto the first-order pain state. Genuine pain can, and does, occur without being conscious.
But the qualitative character of pain--even in the absence of subjective awareness--is plainly a bad thing.  It impedes pleasurable activity and enjoyment and other mental processing, it distracts and commands attention, and it impedes a very great many normal bodily processes. Pain can occur without being conscious pain, and because of the effects of such nonconscious pain, it counts by any reasonable definition as suffering, often very intense suffering.  Suffering need not itself be conscious.  
Anybody who insists that pain and its attendant effects are not very bad for the creature even when the pain is not conscious pain seems to me to be looking for an excuse not to bother with what is plainly a significant case of suffering.  There is no sound empirical reason nor any or valid theoretical reason to count pain as suffering only if the pain is conscious.  This is simply a matter of defining suffering away by stipulation.
Lau & Rosenthal appeals to prefrontal cortex in humans as the likely neural mechanism for the higher-order processes that result in subjective awareness.  There is solid empirical evidence that this so for primates generally and likely in many other mammals.  But that finding for humans does not preclude other neural mechanisms' being responsible for such higher-order awareness in other animals.  The studies have not been done so far except for primates.  So prefrontal cortex is not known to be necessary for subjective awareness--of pain or any other types of mental state--for nonprimates generally.
(End quote)

Of course, I understand Murray's point that his appeal is only one suggestion he is making to mitigate the problem of evil, and others may be successful, but I think this one approach, championed by Craig in at least one debate, does not work and should be abandoned.


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