While atheists and theists often disagree on what constitutes evil, they can usually agree that unnecessary suffering is evil. If God brings about immense suffering without some greater good coming from it, it’s hard to see how he could still be good without the word ‘good’ losing all meaning. As I discussed in a previous post, it doesn’t work to just say that God has unknown purposes.
So animal suffering appears to pose a problem for an omnibenevolent God. If animals do not have eternal souls, what possible greater good could come from a deer dying in a forest fire? While this initially appears to be a tough question, philosopher Alexander Pruss explains, in a recent post at Prosblogion and his personal blog, why animal pain is not such a problem after all. But Pruss is far too modest in his conclusions. His argument can also explain why female pain is not a problem for the view that God is omnibenevolent.
The first argument Pruss addresses is that an omnibenevolent God could have created something that had the same effect as pain, but that did not hurt. When we touch something hot, instead of feeling pain and instinctively pulling away, God could give us the instinct to pull away without the pain. But, as Pruss points out, how do we know that God hasn’t done this? He writes that “if the pain-replacement, call it shpain, had the same motivational effects, we would observe the same kinds of aversive responses to shpain as to pain.” Animals would react to shpain exactly as they would to pain, but without the experience of pain.
Since the reactions to shpain and pain are the same, the fact that many animals act similar to us is no evidence that they actually feel pain. Of course I could argue that since my brain looks similar to a chimps brain when we get hurt, chimps probably feel pain. But Pruss does not think this would work. He argues that there are differences between human and non-human brains. If animals feel shpain instead of pain, we would expect lots of similarities, but some differences, which is exactly what we find.
Pruss’ argument can also address the problem of female pain. If females experience shpain rather than pain, we would expect them to have a similar response to things that would cause men pain. But just because they look like they’re in pain doesn’t mean they actually are. Just like a dog’s whimper is no evidence that a dog is experiencing pain rather than shpain, a woman’s tears are no evidence that she is experiencing pain rather than shpain. Shpain has the same motivational effects and would cause women to talk like they were in pain, even though they’re not. Someone could argue that the similarity in how our brains react could provide evidence that women actually feel pain. But that is not the case. A 2003 study showed that when men and women receive the same painful (or shpainful) stimuli, the parts of the female brain that get stimulated are different than the parts of the male brain that get stimulated. While there are many similarities in how our brains react, there are also some differences, which is exactly what we would expect if women only experience shpain.
The second argument Pruss addresses is that even if some cases of animal pain were beneficial, God could still miraculously prevent pain in cases where it wasn’t necessary, for example when an animal is about to die. Pruss again responds by saying that maybe God does do this. This intervention may be as minimal as possible, so it doesn't disrupt anything. He may intervene to prevent the pain, but keep everything else the same. He may make it so their brains react similarly to how they’d react to pain, so that they’d display the outward signs of pain, even though they are only experiencing shpain. Of course this also applies to women. Even though it may look like a woman that is being beaten to death is in extreme pain, she may actually be feeling no pain at all.
At first the evidence that animals experience pain appears to be strong, as Michael Murray explains:
We also have independent evidence that many animals are capable of experiencing pain, evidence that parallels the evidence we have for thinking our fellow humans are capable of feeling pain: We witness pain behavior, not just reflex actions to noxious stimuli (protective pain), but subsequent pain-induced behavioral modification caused by bodily damage (restorative pain); we observe significant anatomical and neurophysiological similarity between humans and many animals (including all mammals and most vertebrates); endogenous serotonergic and opioid pain-control mechanisms are present in all mammals[Why would organisms incapable of feeling pain have endogenous pain-control systems?]; efferent and afferent nerves run throughout their bodies; analgesics and anesthetics stop animals from exhibiting pain behavior, presumably because these substances prevent the pain itself in much the way they prevent pain in humans; and there is compelling experimental evidence that the capacity to feel pain enhances survival value in animals, based on the self-destructive tendencies displayed by animals that have been surgically deafferented.
But as Alexander Pruss’ article shows, this evidence is exactly what you would expect if animals felt shpain rather than pain. Similarly, even though it may initially seem obvious that women feel pain, there’s actually no reason to think their pain is real (at least if God exists).
However, since I do not believe in God, I think that female pain is real. It just seems incredibly unlikely that evolution would result in men experiencing pain and women experiencing shpain. But since the Christian God is supposed to be omnipotent, this seems perfectly reasonable if Christianity is true.
I think Pruss’ argument provides just as good of a solution to the problem of female pain as it does to the problem of animal pain. While this still leaves male pain unaccounted for, I think this is a very significant step in solving the problem of evil.