What is death, anyway? And how do we tell?

Sometimes, I wonder about philosophers. I can sort of see that considering counterfactuals and even absurd premises is useful and can generate novel insights, but I wonder at how some can adopt the weirdest assumptions. As in this paper, How to Tell If Animals Can Understand Death, which begins like so:

It is generally assumed that humans are the only animals who can possess a concept of death.

Now that is just bad writing. Passive voice, broad statement as fact, no supporting evidence…but mostly, who assumes animals can’t have a concept of death? Not me. Not the general public. I doubt that most ethologists think that. There are far too many empirical observations of animals fearing death, or behaving as if grieving, or avoiding the dead. I think most mammals have an understanding of death; other groups, like birds and reptiles, probably do but are harder for people to read, and may have a very different concept of what death is.

The great mystery is whether spiders have a concept of death, or are simply content to be bringers of death to others.

Anyway, after that initial off-putting sentence, the rest of the paper is much better and more interesting, and is trying to bring some rigor to how we evaluate the conception in non-human animals. I can get into that.

It is generally assumed that humans are the only animals who can possess a concept of death. However, the ubiquity of death in nature and the evolutionary advantages that would come with an understanding of death provide two prima facie reasons for doubting this assumption. In this paper, my intention is not to defend that animals of this or that nonhuman species possess a concept of death, but rather to examine how we could go about empirically determining whether animals can have a concept of death. In order to answer this question, I begin by sketching an account of concept possession that favours intensional classification rather than mere extensional discrimination. Further, I argue that the concept of death should be construed as neither binary nor universal. I then present a proposal for a set of minimal conditions that must be met to have a concept of death. I argue that having a minimal understanding of death entails first expecting a dead individual to be alive, and then grasping its non-functionality and irreversibility. Lastly, I lay out the sort of observational and experimental evidence that we should look for to determine whether animals have the capacity for a minimal comprehension of death.

I appreciate that the concept of death is nonbinary. In particular, what comes to mind is that some religious people don’t have a grasp on it — they think the dead people are still alive in some other realm! — so if we demanded that the concept entails an absolute, definitive appreciation of non-existence, then we’d have to argue that some humans lack a concept of death. The author considers that in the paper, and I think it’s fair to say that a concept of an afterlife complicates the understanding of death, but doesn’t negate it.

Contrary to what is often assumed by animal ethicists, the concept of death should not be viewed in binary terms. Possessing a concept of death is not an all-or-nothing matter but rather something that is subject to gradation. This becomes clear once we consider the case of human children, who do not acquire a concept of death overnight. In fact, the scientific consensus is that it takes them an average of 10 years to fully master the concept of death (Kenyon 2001), but we credit them with some understanding of death before they reach this stage. If we accept a gradation in the case of human children, we should also accept it in the case of animals.

So let’s break down what a thorough understanding of what death is would entail. See, this is where philosophers shine, in organizing the ideas!

1. Non-functionality: death implies the cessation of all bodily and mental functions.

2. Irreversibility: dead individuals cannot come back to life.

3. Universality: all living things, and only living things, die.

4. Personal mortality: death will also apply to oneself.

5. Inevitability: eventually, all living things must die.

6. Causality: death occurs due to a breakdown in the bodily functions.

7. Unpredictability: it is impossible to know in advance the exact timing of death.

That’s where the nonbinariness is relevant. I would say that I personally accept all seven, probably most of you do too, but I know people who would reject many of those points, yet still understand the idea of death. They don’t reject them with good reason, of course, but because of some a priori commitment to supernatural beliefs. So the author distills this list down to a minimal collection of behaviors characters of individuals who understand death.

A creature can be credited with a minimal concept of death once she classifies some dead individuals as dead with some reliability, where ‘dead’ is understood as a property that pertains to beings who:

(a) are expected to have the cluster of functions characteristic of living beings, but

(b) lack the cluster of functions characteristic of living beings, and

(c) cannot recover the cluster of functions characteristic of living beings.

Not addressed: I wonder, then, if by these criteria someone in a vegetative state should be considered “dead”. I know, nonbinary again, but something that might be tested/applied in humans.

All right, now it’s time to apply these ideas to animals. What would we expect to see if an animal understands death? There is a long list of things to look for, but to keep it simple, I’ll just consider how they apply to spiders, as a test case.

1. Varied behaviour towards corpses

This one is a little unfair to spiders. The idea is that the subject should exhibit some confusion about how to respond to corpses, but to a spider, which is primarily a tactile animal, a dead animal more or less becomes invisible and ceases to exist. That they can still feed on immobilized prey suggests there is more complexity than that, though.

2. Unhygienic/maladaptive behaviour towards corpses

Interesting. Disposing of or burying corpses is indicative of a hard-wired response, while maladaptive diddling of dead bodies implies that their behavior is not hardwired, and suggest the possibility that they could acquire more complex ideas about death. Hmm. I’ve seen spiders drag corpses into their nests and festoon the place with the bodies of their prey, so maybe this is a positive for them.

3. Different treatment of corpses vs. asleep individuals

Recognizing the difference between asleep and dead (or comatose and dead?) sounds like an important concept. But what does a sleeping spider look like? I can’t tell. Can they?

4. Investigative behaviour towards corpses

Hey, you wanna see a dead body? When a spider finds a dead animal, and hoists it into her nest in the same way she would a bit of bark or a leaf, is that curiosity? I don’t know.

5. Aggressive behaviour towards corpses

Nope, I don’t see that in spiders. If they can’t eat it or mate with it, there’s no reason to fight it.

6. Caring behaviour towards beings with limited functionality

In spiders? Ha ha, no.

7. Mourning behaviour towards corpses

This one is tricky. The author cites returning repeatedly to corpses, or in the case of primates, carrying dead infants around. My spiders don’t exhibit parental care (other than the fact that they don’t eat newborns, which is a generous notion of “care” — I was a good daddy because I didn’t gnaw on my children, either), but sometimes their nests look like graveyards.

8. Eventual ignoring or abandoning of a corpse

No fair! It’s a sign of understanding when they haul a dead baby around, but also when they throw the dead baby aside? OK, spiders are very good at ignoring corpses.

9. Age or experience-relative difference in behaviour towards corpses

As animals mature and gain experience, their treatment of the dead may change, indicating that their behavior is learned. I haven’t seen that in spiders — the babies are ravenous little beasts, the adults are ravenous big beasts. They’re also so short-lived and usually solitary, so they don’t have the opportunity to learn.

While I appreciate the effort, I think one problem here is that the author is more familiar with domesticated mammals than more alien species. Can you compare, for instance, the concept of death between carnivores and herbivores? How does a vulture view death? How do you practically assess the concept of death in a solitary ambush predator that doesn’t engage in the kinds of social interactions we take for granted? Maybe spiders are acutely aware of the meaning of dead vs alive, in the sense that it is their business to make live things dead, but they don’t have the kind of behavioral repertoire that would allow us to assess that fact.

I guess I’m just going to have to ask them this morning.

Do animals feel pain?

I’ve been thinking about pain, a litte bit, lately. It’s an interesting question, whether humans are unique in their perception of pain compared to other animals, and I used to have to deal with it fairly frequently because, for a few years, I specifically studied sensory pathways in fish. Even larval fish are surrounded with a tight mesh of sensory processes, with a substantial spinal pathway that shuttles information up the fish’s brain, and so when some local fisherman asks if fish feel pain when they’re hooked, I’d answer “You betcha. Lots of sensory fibers in the face and jaws of fish.”

But then someone would come along and tell me no, they don’t. Pain needs a consciousness to be felt, so while we may rip and tear neurons that mediate the peripheral sensation of pain, they aren’t aware of a feeling of pain. They’re just meat robots.

I’d usually give up at this point, because my next argument would be, “But then, humans are just meat robots. Do you deny that humans feel true pain?” And then we’re off into philosophy and I’d rather talk about neurons.

Recently I learned that one (actually, several luminaries) have been arguing that other animals don’t feel pain. It’s a rather bizarre argument, made to justify inflicting pain on animals rather than a sincere attempt to argue from the evidence, and it’s from…William Lane Craig! People take him seriously? I guess so.

Anyway, Craig is troubled by a theological problem. Do animals feel pain? But why? Were they subject to problems cause by The Fall? But the bunnies and the fishies didn’t nibble on the apple, so why would a just god make them suffer for Eve’s mistake?

Craig proposes a few explanations. The first I’ll mention and dismiss because it is stupid.

…we must consider this question: “What is the supposed connection between Adam’s Fall and animal pain?” A number of answers have been proposed. But they all boil down to roughly one of two explanations: either (1) by sinning Adam and his ancestors surrendered their role as stewards of the animals and thereby surrendered them to the wiles of nature, or (2) the very act of Adam’s sin sent shock waves through creation that transformed animals, which formerly could not feel pain, into pain wracked predators and prey. In either case, however, it is hard to see why God would have made the integrity and well-being of nature, and of the innocent creatures in it, susceptible to the faithful obedience of humans (an obedience God knew they would not sustain). Why was nature made so very fragile in this way? Is not that fragility itself a defect (or evil) in creation?

Just so you know, Craig is an old earth creationist, although to be honest, I don’t think he thinks about the chronology very deeply. So according his reasoning here, until humans defied god and ate some fruit, an event that happened sometime in the last hundred thousand years, all animals lived in peaceful coexistence, and there was no pain in the world until that relatively recent sin turned them into “pain wracked predators and prey”. That implies that there were no predators and prey for the first four billion years plus of the Earth, and that everything was just snuggle-bunnies during the Cretaceous, but I’ll just punt on this argument because, like I said, Craig doesn’t think very deeply about his explanations, doesn’t understand biology or ecology (were there no food webs in the Garden of Eden?), and would probably happily ditch this entire line of argumentation as it got him deeper and deeper into trouble.

He’s also taking as his premise the idea that nature was purposefully created by a benevolent god, and that by golly, god wouldn’t be so mean as to intentionally inflict the ability to suffer on his creation. I don’t see any reason to accept that; why not instead assume a malevolent god who made sure Adam had creature-victims he could torment and make squeal and squirm? A lot of what his god does seems to be all about causing agony, they needed to be able to feel pain for him to have any fun.

The more interesting argument he makes is this one:

A second (though unpopular) response to this problem is to deny that animal pain and suffering is real or morally relevant. Most will react to this response with incredulity: “Isn’t it just obvious that some animals experience pain and suffering?” The answer to that question is yes and no. We do think it an item of common sense that animals experience pain and suffering. But the scientific evidence for this is not as strong as you might think. Of course, scientists all acknowledge that many animals display behaviors that make it look like they are in pain. But that is not good enough. To see why, consider the phenomenon of “blindsight.” Patients with blindsight claim to be blind, and yet are at the same time able to point to objects and, in some cases, catch balls–something they could only do if they could in fact see. So are they blind or not? Well, it depends on what you mean by “sight.” They can see in the sense that they can use visual information to regulate their behavior. But they are not consciously aware of the fact that they can do this.

When it comes to pain, then, the question is: might the behaviors that we associate with animals that look to be in pain constitute something like “blindpain”–showing all the behavioral symptoms of real pain, but without the conscious awareness? Amazingly, given what we know about the functioning of the brain, the answer might be yes. Those parts of the brain most closely associated with consciousness of pain, are also the parts that were the last to arrive among mammals: the pre-frontal cortex.

So animals exhibit the superficial symptoms of pain, but experience none of the deeper, crueler feelings of pain. It’s sensation without awareness. You can go ahead and kick a kitten, and while it might exhibit all the superficial behaviors of pain, like bleeding, or limping, or mewing, or just lying there in a lump of broken bones whimpering, deep down inside the kitty consciousness it’s not feeling a thing. He later argues that they express a simulacrum of pain sensation useful for avoiding danger in their environment, but that’s not the same thing as actually being aware of the phenomenon of pain.

Which had me thinking of Chinese rooms and Turing tests. Could William Lane Craig convince me that he truly feels pain? If he were strapped to a gurney and I was given leave to artfully apply a razor blade to his body, what would he do to prove he was really suffering, deep down? I’m sorry, the screaming sounds like an artifice to me, a ploy to get me to stop slicing, but hey, could he do better than a kitten to persuade me to stop torturing? I don’t think so. If I were a psychopath, I could make Craig’s same argument — the expression of pain is not the same as the perception of pain, allowing me to go on a bloody rampage with all the local pets, and work my way up to torturing human beings because, after all, they’re just meat machines with some reflexes and patterned behaviors they learned from watching horror movies. My victims aren’t really suffering, because they’re not truly aware. Unlike me.

Let me reassure you that I have no interest in torturing anyone or anything, because I reject Craig’s proposal. I think all animals, including us, can experience pain and also degrees of conscious awareness. I couldn’t torture a kitten or WLC without feeling their struggles are an expression of a deeper experience that I would share if I were in their position.

Craig is about to dive into an argument from brain anatomy, which I despise even more than his other arguments. It’s a bogus claim based on an ignorance of neuroanatomy and a failure to understand the flexibility and plasticity of brains — they’re not as dependent on the kind of extreme modularity he wants to propose. It’s a kind of neurological reductionism that I don’t find at all credible.

Unfortunately, I’ll have to explain all that later. My CPU is going all fuzzy because the drugs I’m taking to alleviate peripheral pain are mucking everything up — it took me hours to type out this short post and I think my eyeballs are roaming around looking for an escape route. Later? Tomorrow? Once my brain stops idling? I’ll type up some more. Until then, I’ll leave it to you commenters to take on WLC.

(I should add that I do find his idea of “blindpain” interesting, I just don’t think it can hold up.)