You will find HER between Bambi and René Descartes.
That’s my mantra in this third installment in a series on animal suffering and the goodness of God. (Read posts one and two if you’re late to the carnage.)
My point here is that one cannot speak to the relative goodness or evil of animal predation until one first determines the extent to which animals actually do suffer.
To adopt what I’ll call a “Bambi perspective” is to overemphasize the continuity between animal and human experience. While to follow Descartes is to underappreciate the extent to which animal pain does seem—at least in some instances—to approach what one may call a “suffering” that raises questions for theology.
Now for the specifics.
1. CARTESIAN CALLOUSNESS
One option in this discussion is to side with René Descartes (1629–1649) in denying the very existence of animal “suffering.”
Descartes’ view was that animals were nothing more than soulless biological machines (automata), devoid of emotion, higher thought, and suffering. This belief led him to perform cruel experiments, including the torture and vivisection of live dogs, to observe their inner “machinery.”
Given today’s standards, this view may (rightly) seem both foolish and barbaric. To take just one example, I have watched what I take to be reliable footage of, say, elephant mothers grieving, sometimes to death, after the loss of a calf. These are not emotionless machines.
Still, one need to not go all the way with Descartes in order to adopt some version of the view that animals do not genuinely suffer. C. S. Lewis famously attempted this in his book The Problem of Pain. In fairness, Lewis was a lover of animals who even campaigned against vivisections. Still, his claim was that while an animal’s nervous system may deliver all the “letters” A, P, N, I – they do not “build it up into the word PAIN” because they lack the consciousness to reflect upon it as genuine subjects.
It is not obvious why Lewis thinks this is so, and later science has tended to disagree with him, even if it is true that animals do not suffer to the extent that humans do (For the scientific argument, see Michael Murray, Nature Red in Tooth and Claw, ch. 2: “Neo-Cartesianism”).
2. SENTIMENTAL BAMBI-IZING
An equal and opposite extreme to the Cartesian denial of animal suffering is the sentimental anthropomorphizing of non-human creatures (“Bambi-izing”). This error is at least partly fueled by cartoons, books, and movies in which the animals are “just like us, only more so.”
Examples of “Bambi-i-zation” (I consulted an English professor on that one) may be found on the radical fringe of the animal rights movement in which little or no distinction is made between the value of, say, a human baby and that of a sea turtle or a golden retriever.
It may also happen in a bizarre form of “forced veganism,” in which some pet owners are now feeding their unfortunate housecats “vegan pet food” in an attempt to be humane. To be clear, I have nothing against “vegan humans” (they sound delicious), but when forced on felines, the diet has an unintended consequence: the cats go blind and die.
Finally, a subtler form of Bambi-izing may be at work in the likes of Richard Dawkins. In the opening post (here), I ended with a famous quote from Dawkins’ River out of Eden:
The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation.
Dawkins then goes on to describe a veritable holocaust outside our doors:
During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease.
The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.
To be clear, Dawkins is not wrong about the rasping, running, and devouring. But he is certainly imbalanced when he presents the created order as (seemingly) ONLY one big bloodbath.
In fact, his work on “selfish genes” has now been roundly criticized by other biologists who point out the importance of cooperation, creaturely altruism, and even something approaching self-sacrifice within the animal realm (see esp. Martin A. Nowak).
The danger in only emphasizing the violent “Redness” of creation is that we invariably place ourselves in the “furry heads” of animals. We invariably–because of human empathy–“walk a mile in their ‘hooves’,” and in so doing we may exaggerate the full extent to which animal pain and suffering is like that experienced by humans.
The big idea is this: Both Cartesian callousness and sentimental Bambi-izing should be avoided.
Try as we might, we can’t know what it’s like to be an animal; thus we can’t know the full extent to which animals suffer. My hunch, however, is that “She” (that is, the truth) “lies somewhere between Bambi and René Descartes.”
Some animals do seem to experience life in such a way that the language of “suffering”—and perhaps “evil”—is appropriate, even while they do not suffer in the same way as humans.
If that is true, then the question of animal suffering and divine goodness is legitimate.
In the next post, I’ll come to a possible solution.
I’m considering this topic for a forthcoming book that is under contract with IVP Academic.
The work deals with the place of speculation in Christian theology.
Look for it (hopefully) in late 2020.