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An Interesting and Important Topic
on January 6, 2012
Originally published in 2008 by Oxford University Press, Michael Murray's "Nature Red in Tooth & Claw" examines the relationship between animal pain and theism. The following comments pertain to the 2011 paperback edition.
The issue of animal pain is an important and increasingly popular topic within the so-called evidential problem of evil. The evidential argument contends that while evil is not logically incompatible with theism, certain types of evil make the existence of God unlikely. The argument can be formulated as:
Premise A. Gratuitous evil is inconsistent with God
Premise B. An all powerful God could and would eliminate gratuitous evil
Premise C. Gratuitous evil exists
Conclusion. It is unlikely that God exists
Within the evidential argument animal pain is often used as a paradigm example of gratuitous evil (evil which does not serve any greater good). This is particularly seen to be the case with animal pain and suffering that occurred prior to man's arrival on the scene and thus not clearly amenable to certain theistic arguments such as `The Fall'.
In the text, Murray provides a detailed discussion of the relationship between animal pain and theism looking at many of the different challenges and responses it has triggered. From my perspective the most interesting aspect of the book is the chapter that discusses the relationship between cognition and pain (based on a 2006 article co-authored with Glenn Ross `Neo-Cartesianism and the Problem of animal suffering'). In considering the relevant contemporary philosophical and scientific thought, Murray suggests that animal pain and suffering is linked to neurological complexity - greater the complexity greater pain awareness. While this is not a particularly new idea, Murray's discussion does highlight the question as to whether or not the problem of animal pain is as significant as many of us are initially inclined to think. That is to say, that while all creatures appear to exhibit pain behaviour when exposed to the appropriate pain inducing stimuli, many simple life forms such as (protozoa, invertebrates etc.) are unlikely to be sentient to the degree that they `experience' pain. And, while more neurologically complex creatures experience first order pain (the feel) only humans, and perhaps other primates to lesser degree, are likely to experience second order pain awareness (suffering), i.e. knowing, anticipating and reflecting on their pain experience. This question of the continuity/discontinuity between animal pain and human pain in an important issue that warrants further research and reflection.
While the book is a worthwhile addition to the literature on this important issue I found it to be slightly disappointing. Murray's prose while not terrible are plodding at times, and, despite some excellent parts the book is somewhat unfocused and in need of editing, occasionally getting lost in weeds of some rather specious side arguments (e.g. the intellectual argument for an Old Earth deception). Some of this material while not uninteresting came across as filler.
Overall, this is a solid work on an interesting subject that may be worth a look for those interested in the evidential argument from evil. That said, arguably the strongest part of the book (article co-authored with Ross) is available on-line at no cost.