Pt 5. Response to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”

Guest post by theologian Dr Rob Knowles on The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis:

Part 5:   Chapter 9. Animal Pain.

Lewis’s chapter on animal pain is very interesting. Since Lewis acknowledges that he is just speculating when it comes to this matter, then we should be gracious in our responses to what he says. To begin with, Lewis argues that vegetables and non-sentient lower animals (e.g. earth-worms) do not feel pain. To me, this assertion seems reasonable since, as Lewis points out, such life-forms have no developed nervous systems.

I am less certain about Lewis’s argument that “merely-sentient” animals do not feel pain and that they react to stimuli a bit like sleeping humans do. That is, in Lewis’s view, in the case of merely-sentient animals, the body reacts to stimuli, but there is no conscious awareness of anything. Lewis defines consciousness as a selfhood or soulhood that recognizes itself as the same beneath the stream of sensations, a bit like a constant river bed beneath the river-water that passes by overhead. Given the distinction, in consciousness, between the river-bed and the river-water (to continue the analogy), consciousness is able to objectify – to an extent – sensory experiences as being “other” than itself, and so is able to “organise” them into a perception of succession, an “experience”, and not just into a succession of perceptions. Since, in Lewis’s view, merely-sentient animals can have a succession of perceptions, and not a perception of succession or “experience” (i.e. they have no consciousness), then they cannot consciously reflect that they are in pain, and so they don’t suffer pain.


I am not convinced by this argument since it seems to confuse the experience of existentially pre-reflectively living-through something with the comparative exercise of reflective objectification that stands at a distance from something. In hermeneutics, or the philosophy of understanding, experience is primarily related to the non-reflective, non-objectifying aspects of understanding, and not – against Lewis – to the reflective, objectifying aspects of understanding. Whilst I agree that merely-sentient animals do not consciously reflect on matters as though from a distance, their being without this ability has little to do with whether or not they experience anything. Indeed, such animals’ lack of ability to objectify pain experiences must make such pain experiences harder to endure, and not easier. It is when people cannot comprehend their suffering, when they cannot objectify it, that it is at its most terrifying. How much more must this be so with merely-sentient animals that can never objectify anything? What such animals live-through is experience without hope of objectification, not an absence of experience.

Lewis also confuses conscious awareness with consciousness understood as objectification. Merely-sentient animals may not have such consciousness, but they are conscious – otherwise they would be unconscious and asleep! If animal conscious awareness is like human sleep, then what is animal sleep like? – human coma? Clearly, merely-sentient animals do not have reflective conscious awareness; but they do have existential conscious awareness that is not like human sleep or unconsciousness. If it were like human sleep or unconsciousness, then they could not see predators coming.

So, to my mind, pain starts when sentience starts, not when consciousness understood as objectification starts. The Bible speaks of cruelty to animals of the livestock category, which are understood to be merely-sentient. But what could constitute “cruelty” if such animals could not also suffer by such “cruelty”?

Moving on, then Lewis speculates that some of the higher animals – apes, for example – might have rudimentary consciousnesses in the sense of selfhood or soulhood, as selfhood or soulhood are outlined above. Lewis allows that animals may in fact sometimes have corporate selfhood, and not individual selfhood, and speculates about corporate “lionhood” as an example. Broadly, though, Lewis prefers the individual selfhood notion when speaking of the higher animals.

Next, however, (but proceeding logically, rather than in the order Lewis proceeds), Lewis introduces the biblical distinction between humans and animals, arguing that it is dangerous to attribute selfhood to animals as it would seem to blur this distinction. Lewis gets around this difficulty by arguing that, just as fallen human persons only become fully themselves when redeemed by and in Christ, so fallen or wild higher animals only really come from mere-sentience into selfhood when tamed by and in humanity. We are redeemed “in Christ”, and animals are supposedly redeemed “in us”. Lewis equates wildness with fallenness even though he argues that animals do not sin.

To my mind, Lewis here confuses notions of ontological capacity with notions of ontological mode of being. A human person becomes more fully themselves in terms of acting in alignment with their humanity when they are redeemed, but this does not mean that they are not still a person before they are redeemed. Indeed, if redemption involves “better mode-alignment with prior created ontology”, or better alignment with prior personhood, then redeemed or tamed animal selfhood must mean “better alignment with prior created animal selfhood”.

So, I believe Lewis confuses redemption with creation here as well. That is, redemption doesn’t change our species, but rather restores our species to the processes of normal created development, against the fallen corrupting factors that interrupted the same. If some higher animals can have selves, then redemption does not create such “animals with selves” – it restores “created animals that already have selves”.

For Lewis, the problem with my position here would be that I now threaten to blur the distinction between humankind and the animals which, for Lewis, means that animals do not ordinarily have selves at all, except “in man”, through being “tamed by humanity”. Just as we only become Christ-like in Christ, so animals can only become human-like (in terms of having selves) by virtue of their relation to, and interaction with, humanity. Lewis just about allows that wild animals could be resurrected as tame, and as having selves, apart from any humanly wrought taming by human masters. But even then, such animals would only be resurrected to selfhood “in humanity”, or as an integral part of our resurrection, just as we are only resurrected in Christ’s resurrection, by virtue of our being included in Christ.

My reply to Lewis here is that humans are distinct from animals not because of our uniquely having “selves” that reflect God’s image ontologically, but because we have the office of being God’s imagers, ruling the earth on God’s behalf, representing God, under God’s Lordship. Regardless of whether or not any animals have rudimentary selfhood or personhood or soulhood, human beings have a distinct office that animals do not have. Therefore, the naturalists have not at all clobbered Christian doctrine if they finally prove that whales and dolphins are as bright as us, or that E.T. exists. The point is that angels and humans have forms of office that image God, and the animals (and possibly any E.T.’s that might exist) do not.

In other words, Lewis seems to begin to ground animal personhood in biological complexity, but then seems to change his mind and ground it in redemptive taming. To my mind, though, the latter cannot add by training what the former could never potentially be biologically; and if the biological capacity is there, then selfhood is not grounded in training alone. For Lewis, though, almost all wild higher animals are merely-sentient until they are tamed. But how does taming, or training, “add consciousness”? Lewis’s arguments seem flawed on these points, though I do accept that if animals are resurrected, then they will be resurrected into redeemed relationships with God and humans.

Lewis also argues, by virtue of his above views, that wild higher-animals, being merely-sentient, do not feel pain, but that tame higher-animals, being conscious, do feel pain. Here, our earlier rejoinders apply: merely-sentient animals do experience pain; and taming does not “add” consciousness to prior biological capacities.

On the matter of corporate selfhood, then since there is no basis for such a notion in divinity, but rather an emphasis on particular persons-in-relation, which is reflected in human beings, then I believe that – should higher animals have selves – then they have individual and particular selves, rather than a collective corporate kind of selfhood.

Moving on, then Lewis argues that atheism is wrong to see the “wild” animal as the “real” animal and the “tame” animal as something artificial. I have mixed views about this. Rightly, in my view, Lewis argues that the resurrected tame animal – or the animal in right relation to God and humanity – is the animal in its fullest expression, the animal that truly belongs in the heavenly extended Eden.

However, with Michael Heiser (an Old Testament specialist), and against what many evangelicals think, God’s original creation included a level of untamed wildness and an element of unpredictable chaos. Only in Eden – originally only a tiny plot of land – was that wildness and chaos fully restrained, due to the presence of God. Elsewhere, the chaotic, the unpredictable, the wild was the created norm. When fallen humans were cursed, the land produced thorns and thistles not because at that point the land suddenly became chaotic, unpredictable, and wild, but because Adam and Eve were now: (a) outside Eden; (b) in the much less constrained creation, reflecting a level of divine absence; and, (c), in a creation whereby, due to sin, even some of the levels of constraint normally applied outside Eden, are now of a lesser order, such that the land could still be said to be cursed.

Putting this more clearly, then there are four different levels of “wildness, chaos, and unpredictability” to consider according to Heiser: (a) completely unrestrained, primordial, but still part of the original creation, and not fallen; (b) completely constrained, Edenic, reflecting God’s dwelling place on earth – whether in a small area (the original Eden), or over the whole earth (at the consummation); (c) partially constrained, reflecting pre-Fall, non-Edenic earth; (d) levels of less-partially constrained, reflecting post-Fall, pre-consummation, non-Edenic earth under various levels of judgment.

That is, we do not agree with Lewis’s notion that wild animals are corrupted by virtue of their wildness per se. Rather, since the Fall, previously wild animals that were wild by creation, are now less restrained in their created wildness.

In other words, by post-Fall curses and in later judgments, God allows created wildness more of a free reign. So, wildness in and of itself, is not fallen, but created. Yet, at the same time, wildness is not Edenic either, since in Eden created wildness is fully restrained. Therefore, Lewis is correct to see resurrected animals as tame and “at their best or fullest expression of themselves”. And yet, Lewis is incorrect to view wildness as an aspect of fallenness per se.

Nevertheless, with Lewis, animals that can suffer do still suffer innocently, and so are resurrected as part of divine compensatory justice. Furthermore, with Lewis, animals are not only resurrected for reasons of compensating them, but are also resurrected as part and parcel of a new heaven and earth, and in relation to a redeemed humanity, all of which exist for God.

These points allow us to address Lewis’s point that since animals were “wild”, “corrupted” and the causes and loci of suffering (e.g. through carnivorousness) prior to human existence, then it must have been Satan who originally “corrupted” animals, and not humanity. Fallen human beings only cause suffering to animals after Satan and animals themselves have already brought suffering to animals.

Rejecting this argument, we must reiterate what we said above: the wildness of animals outside Eden, and then post-Eden, is due to partially-constrained created wildness and less-partially constrained created wildness respectively, and nothing to do with Satan. Satan must have fallen prior to Adam and Eve, but the view that Satan corrupted the earth in ancient times, at some point between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2, is not supported by the biblical text according to many Old Testament specialists.

We may thus question Lewis’s point that humanity was to be a kind of “Christ to the animals”, their redeemer. Rather, humanity’s task was to subdue the animals by creation, or rather as a part of the stewardship of creation. This was made more difficult by the fall, granted, but only because humans then had more created wildness to contend with, and because humans then treated the animals cruelly.

Lewis is quite right, however, to assert that a mythology of demons is far more believable than a mythology of hypostatised abstract nouns (e.g. “impersonal evil force”). I am less convinced, though, that Jesus would falsely teach the existence of Satan as an accommodation to New Testament times, or due to his finite lack of omniscience as the incarnate Son of God. To be sure, to grant Jesus omniscience may lead to the danger of Docetism. But that is not the point. Even in his finite humanness, Jesus would surely still be told the right message to give to us by the infinite, non-incarnate, Father! And besides, science is now beginning to provide us with real evidence of demonic hauntings – both ghostly and ufological. Of course, though, scientism, which clings religiously to dogmatic naturalism, refuses – irrationally – to consider such evidences.


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