Monday, February 24, 2020

Reflecting on C.S. Lewis—"The Pains of Animals"

When going through C.S. Lewis’ essay “The Pains of Animals,” I have to admit I was at a bit of a loss. Some of the concepts were hard to follow. I am not sure I fully understood all of the distinctions he was attempting to make. I’ll do my best to summarize them before discussing my main takeaway, though.

This essay was part of a debate that Lewis had with C.E.M Joad (did no one just use names in England back then?) over elements of Lewis’ The Problem of Pain. Joad wanted Lewis to offer a more complete explanation of how the existence of God could be squared with the fact of pain in animals. It is one thing for moral creatures (i.e., humans) to experience suffering. If we have free will, then we must face the consequences of our decisions. However, the animals are not moral creatures in the way that we are. Why should they be punished when they do not have the capacity to choose between good and evil?

Thinking about Feeling

In reviewing his thoughts on the matter, Lewis seemed to depend on the distinction between sentience and consciousness. Sentience is the mere ability to feel, while consciousness is the ability to think about what you feel. Since animals do not possess the latter, they cannot experience pain in the same way that humans do. Therefore, their pain is essentially a null value.

Lewis also related this to memory. Since animals do not have the minds that we do, they cannot formulate and organize memories in the same way we do. Our ability to analyze the past is vital to determining how to behave in the present. We learn the sources of old pains, which teaches us how to avoid them. Animals behave almost entirely on instinct, which makes their pains something for which they are not responsible and cannot avoid. They just happen to them as vagaries of life.


That’s it in a nutshell, and I have to say that I find it utterly unsatisfactory. To be fair, Lewis is very straightforward about this just being a theory, not even his actual firmly held opinion. But there are just so many problems with it (again, if I understood him correctly). First is his theory on memory and consciousness in animals. I have to assume he never owned a boxer. But I have had them all my life, and my personal experience of their intelligence leaves me with no illusions but that animals are capable of thought. I have taught those dogs too many things, and seen them learn too many things, to be in any doubt of that.

As I often do, let me spell out what I am not saying. I am not saying that dogs are moral creatures. They do not have our capacity for telling right from wrong. All I am saying is that you can look into their eyes and see their minds at work. Something of ourselves is reflected in them, even if to a self-evidently inferior respect. And their experience of pain is certainly not as innocuous as one tree falling on another. The only reason Lewis was even asked about this is because we can empathize with the pain of animals, and we do so because our pains have a noteworthy similarity.

One could argue, as Lewis does somewhat, that domesticated animals are a special case. Their close association with us makes them different than most other animals. But that falls short, too. That assumption does not provide a clear enough line between those animals in close contact with humans and those that are not. It does not explain whether or why they experience pain differently, and our observations of them would lead to the conclusion that they do not.

Unexamined Assumptions

I was forced to wonder, why did Lewis go to such great and, frankly, irrational lengths to explain away the suffering of animals? The answer came in the subtle assumptions he made about the nature of creation. Lewis was, in a strict sense, a creationist. He believed in God and believed that God had made the universe. But he was not what we would call a “young-earth creationist.” He took at face value many of the factual claims of modern science. If they said that the cosmos had existed for billions of years or that all life had evolved from a common ancestor, that made little difference to him. It did not disprove the existence of or eliminate the necessity of God, so he was willing to defer to the expertise of others in areas he did not understand.

We should be fair enough to see the humility in that. It is, however, the source of his difficulty in this discussion. One of the key assumptions in science is uniformitarianism, the belief that all natural processes are going on now as they have always gone. Light has always traveled at the same speed, radioactive isotopes have always decayed at the same rates, and sedimentary buildup and glacial carving have always advanced in mostly measured steps. It is basically (if not entirely) through uniformitarianism that science has come to the conclusions it has about the age of the universe.

There is no way around that. Science has to work on that assumption, or it cannot work at all. Experimentation is meaningless if you cannot count on the replication of results. The problem is that many people think the debate stops there. If science says something, it must be true. They make the mistake of not recognizing the limits of science. It can only tell us how things happen. It cannot say anything about why they happen, nor even if they have or will always happen in the same ways. Those questions belong to higher forms of study, to philosophy and theology.

Lewis struggled with the concept of pain in animals because he thought this particular scientific assumption was innocuous, a mistake he rarely made. Had he looked at it more closely, recognizing why it did not necessarily have to be true, he might have come to a different conclusion. And, speaking biblically, it is untrue.

The Biblical Understanding of Pain

It is taken for granted, by Lewis and many other Christians, that science is correct when it tells us that animals existed on this planet for eons before humans came around. But if that were true, then these creatures would have been living and dying, causing and experiencing pain, long before we introduced the consequences of morality into the equation. The closest Lewis comes to explaining this is to say that Satan perverted the animals by interfering in their evolution, making some of them into carnivores. He is not attached to the idea, but it seems to be the best he could do.

The Bible, however, says something very different. It says that, up until and through the creation of humanity, the world was “very good” (Gen. 1:31). Conversely, it tells us that death is the “last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26). If death is the great enemy that God intends to defeat (1 Cor. 15:54–57), then can we really be expected to believe that it was part of His original desire for the universe? But if it was not, then how could it have been happening before we were made? How could He have called it good?

The first mention of death in the Bible does not occur until Gen. 2:17, where God tells Adam that it will be the consequence if he eats the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Even if you do not take it literally (though I do), the point of this passage along with Gen. 3:17–19 is quite clear. We are meant to see that man’s fall from innocence introduced suffering and death into the world.

You might then ask why, if we are at fault, the animals were also punished to suffer, as well. I would say that “punished” is too strong a word, however. “Subjected” is better. Gen. 1:28 tells us that when God created us, He gave us dominion over creation. This was not to mean dominion in the sense of tyranny, but as that a steward has over a household. As the last element of creation and beings made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26–27), we were intended to be the crown jewel of the universe. Our fall changed everything because we were over everything.

This is what we find described in Rom. 8:19–22. God allowed everything else to be dragged down with us so that nothing will be glorified ahead of us. He made our redemption possible, and with us, the redemption of everything else. Think about it. If we alone had been cursed with death, then the world around us would have quickly overwhelmed us in its goodness. How would the ground be cursed for our sakes (Gen. 3:17) if corruption were not introduced to everything on and in it? Imperfect creatures could not have survived for any length of time on a perfect world, so God gave us an imperfect one suited to our newly broken natures.

Animals experience pain, then, not because of anything they have done, but because they are collateral damage to the decay humanity introduced. Their troubles are a reminder that we have hurt more than ourselves. They do suffer. We do not just imagine it to be so. It has nothing to do with their capacities, and everything to do with us.

Knowing How We Know

How can we know this, though? How can I be so sure that the foundational assumption of science is wrong past a certain point, and that things worked differently up until the time that Adam threw a wrench in the gears? Well, as I have spoken of many times before, the answer is in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is something that is known to have happened. The witness of His earliest disciples, coupled with the knowledge of their integrity, the accurate recording of their words going back to their own day, and the lack of any credible alternative, should leave us in no doubt that Jesus is alive.

If He lives, then we must ask why He died. And in His own words, He told us it was to be “a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). We can then find in Rom. 5:17 and 1 Cor. 15:21–22 that Jesus’ mission was to bring life where Adam had brought death. The Lord makes right what we have made wrong. If death were not a consequence for sin, but was instead part of the normal life of the universe before humanity even existed, then there was no point in Jesus dying and rising again. But, Jesus died and rose again. Therefore, death must have been a consequence for sin. And the price has been paid. We who have faith in Christ are merely waiting now for the final collection.

There is a certain comfort in the difficulty that Lewis had with this topic. It is somehow good to know that a brilliant mind can struggle with something that I can see has an easy answer. Well, not easy. Nothing is ever easy when we are talking about suffering, even if it is the suffering of animals. But it simple. We made it all go wrong. The Son of God will make it all go right. That is the obvious truth when we are willing to let go of the assumptions that cannot answer our questions. And what a glorious truth it ultimately is.

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